Saturday, July 29, 2017

At the end of the age Proper 12A

“So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  The furnace of fire, the destruction of evil, and the reward of the righteous is Scripture, Scripture we seek to understand, Scripture that reveals to us the will of God.

 So will it be at the end of the age.” The end is coming. In the end, we will face God's judgment on our lives. God's judgment is perfect and filled with love. We are assured of our eternal salvation. In the burial office we pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray thee to set thy passion, cross, and death, between thy judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death. Give mercy and grace to the living, pardon and rest to the dead, to thy holy Church peace and concord, and to us sinners everlasting life and glory ...” (Prayer Book page 489)

St. Paul reminds us we are saved by God's gracious gift received in faith and not by our works. God has chosen to save all humanity by the death of his son, our Lord Jesus, on the cross, and God has chosen to give us new life in Jesus' resurrection. He has chosen us, called us, justified us - made us right with him - and he glorifies us in his love and service.. In words familiar from their use in the burial office, today's Epistle proclaims that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

That said, and it needs to be said, we also cannot forget that the perfect justice of God requires that both good and evil be clearly identified, that good be rewarded and evil destroyed forever. In this life good and evil are so mixed together that we can easily be confused about particular thoughts and actions of life. In very few situations can good be easily or clearly distinguished from evil. But neither the difficulty of the task, nor the assurance of eternal salvation, removes from us the responsibility to exercise godly wisdom and good judgment.

Today's Gospel has 5 parables of Jesus, all about wisdom and judgment. The first two stories are told to the crowd. They are about the growth of the kingdom, growth that reminds us of the greatness of the love of God.  “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed . . . the smallest of all seeds.” Every part of God's creation, and every person God has made and loves, is worth our careful attention and respect.  “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast...” Yeast makes dough rise and double in size and double again. God gives us the Holy Spirit, his spirit of truth, his spirit of power, so that we may be like yeast in the world, turning flat dough into nourishing bread. 

Then in St. Matthew’s gospel follows the explanation to the disciples of the parable of the grain and the weeds that we heard last Sunday, and then three parables about the wisdom of single minded attention to God's will.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure . . . someone sells all that he has and buys the field.” The merchant found “one pearl of great value,. . . sold all that he had and bought it.” We can so easily be scattered in mind, conflicted in our various roles and responsibilities. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” When our priority is to do the will of God, the other responsibilities and pleasures take their proper place.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a net that caught fish of every kind. . . they put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.”  When I was a boy I’d go deep sea fishing with my father. We'd catch rockfish or sea bass or mackerel or flounder, and sometimes sea robins or blowfish or other inedible “trash fish.” We'd keep the good fish and throw the trash away. I was a kid, I didn't know the difference, but better fishermen knew, and knew what to do.  They had good judgment, judgment based on knowledge and experience.

We are all called to exercise good judgment, judgment based on our knowledge and experience of the will of God. Good judgment is not easy. Our capacity for self-deception is as wide and deep as the ocean. There are no easy answers, no quick algorithms that allow us to plug in the data and generate an answer that is always correct.  But we can rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit of truth and power, and when we fail, we trust in the never failing love of God in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God!

 “So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Sower and Hope

Proper 10A July 16, 2017
        We live in hope.  Today we pray that we “may know and understand” what we “ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish” God’s will in our own lives.  The prophet Isaiah tells us that God’s word “shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” St. Paul  tells us “here is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” And we hear both Jesus’ Parable of the Sower and the explanation of that parable. 

        The Parable of the Sower is explained as a parable of soils – the hard-packed road, rocky ground, thorns, and finally good soil that bears much fruit.  A friend has a compost pile; we put in garbage and she gets out good black dirt for her garden. 

Our lives include all the kinds of soil. Parts of our lives are as spiritually hard as a well trodden dirt path in a drought; parts of us are full of rocks; much of us is prickly with thorns. But in every one of us there is the potential of good soil bearing fruit.  None of us are naturally good soil, but by God’s grace working in us we can become so. Our spiritual task is to increase the good soil in our lives, digging out the rocks and thorns, breaking up the clods, softening the ground with the water of tears of repentance, digging in the compost and digging out the weeds with the hoe of faith and good works.

When we are honest with ourselves all of us know from personal experience that we “have all sinned and come short of the glory of God.”  Despair is always an option. We can look at our own lives and see our missed opportunities, see how our misbehavior has influenced our present situation. We can look around us to what appears to be increasing political conflict and nasty behavior. It is sometimes hard to hold on to the conviction that those with whom we disagree are simply wrong, but they are not evil. The temptation of pride is strong - to think that we are moral and they are immoral degenerates. That temptation is a false one. We are all sinners saved by grace. 

The good news that by his death and resurrection Jesus has set us free from the need to sin and given us a new life. And St. Paul rejoices, “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” He ends, “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

        An alternative to despair in our personal and political lives is hope. Isaiah wrote that God’s word “shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” We know from St. John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.And the light shined in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” The darkness of despair does not understand light, does not understand hope, and the darkness cannot cover the light, can never put out the light.

        Jesus did not return empty to the father. He returned with the only man made things in heaven, the marks of the nails in his hands and feet, the wound of the spear in his side, but the hands and the feet and the wound were healed wounds. And at Pentecost Jesus sent his Holy Spirit to all who have faith in him. He is the spirit of truth and the spirit of power.   

        This morning we pray that we “may know and understand” what we “ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish” God’s will in our own lives.  We have the assurance of guidance and power in the Holy Spirit. We can live in hope.

        So what do we do?  We pray, opening all our lives to God and asking the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. And we listen. We listen to God the Spirit working in our minds and in others who know and love us. We read the Bible and seek to learn God’s will there revealed. We confess our sins to God and we receive the spiritual strength of the sacraments. And having done all, we stand. We stand up straight in faith, in trust, and in hope. 

        A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds . . . fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” 

Wheat and Tares

Proper 11 July 23, 2017 

The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest;  so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers . .”

We are again blessed with both Jesus’ parable to the crowd on the beach and with the explanation to the disciples. Jesus discourages hasty judgment and too quick action against evil. And St. Paul encouraged the church in Rome to “wait … with patience . . . while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” 

Church leaders and leaders in all areas tend to get in trouble over misuse of power, and sex, and money. When wrong is done we need to act. But today’s gospel reminds to act with care.  Today’s collect reminds us that we are too often unworthy and blind – or at least short-sighted. Church history has many examples of action taken without due care for all concerned.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation had many causes, but the precipitating event was a protest against misuse of spiritual power, a misuse related to money,  Martin Luther’s 95 Theses begins, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ``Repent'' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther goes on to attack the whole penitential system of the late medieval western church.

That system was based on the two ideas of Purgatory and “the Treasury of Merit.”  Purgatory comes from the truth that none of us is worthy by our own behavior to stand before the God to whom “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” From that experiential appreciation of our natural unworthiness came the idea of an intermediate state between death and the fullness of the glory of heaven in which the souls of the departed were purified until they were ready for heaven. But the idea of purgatory is hard to reconcile with the New Testament, particularly with the radical teaching of St. Paul in Romans, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

The “treasury of merit” is the idea that the saints have done “acts of supererogation,” good works beyond their duty to God, and that these acts somehow add to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for our redemption, and that the church can draw on these acts for the benefit of souls in purgatory.

We all draw on the merits of Christ Jesus for our salvation, but Paul’s teaching that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” denies that anyone but Christ Jesus can add to the “treasury of merit.”

That said, in the late 1400’s the popes centralized the authority to draw on the “Treasury of Merit” and issued documents of indulgences remitting the penalties of purgatory. In the early 1500’s financial contributions or payments in thanksgiving for these indulgences helped rebuild St. Peter’s church in Rome. Archbishop Albert in Germany promoted this project heavily, and Luther wrote in response to Albert’s efforts. From our perspective this was another misuse of spiritual power for money.

Other conflicts used the Reformation to stir up the people, but a result was 130 years of war that devastated much of central Europe and bitter division in the Christian church that we are only slowly beginning to heal.

That’s one historical example. There are lots of others. Today’s gospel reminds us to act with care.  Today’s collect reminds us that we are too often unworthy and blind – or at least short-sighted. We need to be very careful when we act to be sure we act with due care for all concerned.

 Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Free Gift of God

Proper8 A July 2, 2017

In today’s reading from the Epistle to the Church at Rome St. Paul tells us, “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

I grew up outside Baltimore, was ordained for the diocese of Maryland and served there eight years. We moved to Asheboro in 1974. Asheboro is a hosiery mill town. The mills closed the week of the 4th of July and everyone who could left town. I served there six years, and I came to appreciate the hard work and the generous spirit of the mill working people.

St. Paul tells us of two ways to live. One way is the way of wages. That way of wages focuses on what we get. The other way is the way of free gift. The way of free gift focuses on what we give.  Most of us most of the time live in the way of wages, the way of barter, the way of exchange. As the seven dwarfs marched off to work in Disney’s 1937 musical Snow White they sang what many of us hear as, “I owe, I owe, so it’s off to work I go.” We work to get what we need to live.

That can become a mindset. “You get what you pay for.” “There’s no free lunch.” And it’s not just on the job. What wife has not said to her husband, “We need to have the Smiths over. We own them.” 

A way of wages mind set influences our understanding of God. Many of us at some time in our lives come to understand God as a God of rules. In adolescence those are frequently rules of behavior we don’t want to follow. As in the Christmas song about Frosty the Snowman, God “knows when we’ve been bad or good” and he punishes when we’re bad. 

We have to spend much of our lives in the way of wages. We do need to work; we need to eat, we need to maintain ourselves and our families, and we also need to be able to help where there is need.  St. Paul says to the church at Thessalonica (3:10) “if any would not work, neither should he eat.”  

But the way of wages can be too easily twisted into a way of getting and keeping all we can, for ourselves alone. It can become greed, which is a sin. We can seek to charge what the market will bear and then try to manipulate the market. There is a place for human law and there will always be a place for law as long as we have human sin. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

St. Paul shows us an alternative to the way of wages – the way of free gift and eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Our very life is a gift, a free gift of God. You don’t have to have difficulty having children to know well that children are a gift from God. The love we have for one another in families and in friendships is a free gift from God.

As we grow we change our understanding of God. We give up the notion of a judgmental and punitive God and to begin to accept the reality that God is love.  

We learn that God is love in the First Epistle of St. John (4:7-11)   Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loves is born of God, and knows God. He that loves not knows not God; for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. 10 Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.”

That is Bible truth, a Bible truth that calls us to a new understanding and to new action. If God loves us unconditionally, who are we to refuse to love ourselves with God’s love and to love others with God’s love. We all misbehave. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but in Jesus Christ, by Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are forgiven sinners. We no longer have to do the same old thing again and again looking for a different result. We can do some new things; we can take some risks, risks to love, to share, to give.

One place to begin is in our families. In our families we benefit from natural love. So I invite you to think and to pray to see new ways you can show God’s life-giving love in your family relationships, And then when the loving God shows you the way, act on the knowledge the loving God gives you.  Jesus tells us to love our neighbors and love our enemies because frequently they are the same people. Think and pray how you can grow peace and love among the people you know, and then act to grow peace and love.  Our situation requires us to live much of our lives in the way of wages. But when the opportunity to live in God’s way of love and life opens for you, take it. 

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Amen.