Monday, August 16, 2010

Tempis fugit – As with many Latin phrases which have worked there way into our language as idioms, classicists cringe when we use them in English. “Time flees” has become “Time flies,” and much of the nuance of the idiom is lost. There is no sense of us, as human beings, chasing after, trying to capture, time. Time simply progresses at its fast rate, not flittering before us just out of our reach. It might seem like picking nits, but certainly the distinction was not lost on Jesus as He spoke about time and decisions in our Gospel lesson this week.

Time figures prominently in the larger section which begins with our reading this week and continues all the way to 14:24. Jesus will point out to His audience, and us, that the time is at hand that God is making divisions among the people, between believers and non believers. Jesus will also remind His audience that His ministry is important and signifies that God’s plan of salvation is nearing a time of fulfillment. Finally, Jesus will remind His audience that Israel, as a society, is nearing the time of judgment against it. In other words, it is time for a decision, a decision which will have lasting consequences both for those who decided to follow Him and for those who reject Him.

Naturally, our section this week is more concerned with the time of individual decision. Jesus knows that His very presence, His ministry, and His work point to a coming division. Families will be divided against each other because of Him. For those who like to think of Jesus as an itinerant hippie who liked a good party, such an observation might be confusing or out of place. Similarly, for those among us who buy into the idea of religious pluralism (the idea that all religions lead to God or that everybody's faith is as truthful as everyone else's, Jesus' statement might seem somewhat out of place. Why force anyone to decide? Why not let everyone get along?

But part of Jesus’ ministry is to force people to make a decision either for or against God. Israel has, to put it mildly, floundered in its calling to be a nation of priests to Yahweh. Whenever the opportunity presented itself for them to go astray, Israel seems to have been uncanny in its ability to forget the teachings of God. Modern human beings have fared little better. We have tried hard to ignore the accountability we have to God for our sin. We have tried even to lessen the importance of sin in our lives by declaring ourselves “basically good.” Yet "basically good" would never have required Him to die on the cross. "Basically good" would never have left us seemingly without hope. And so, as with countless generations, we have overlooked the grace of God in our lives, in the lives of others, and in the world.

But the cross, from Jesus’ perspective this week, is right around the corner. Soon, He will die, and people must make a decision. You and I, living on this side of the empty tomb, know the horror and love of the cross and power and joy of the Resurrection. Do we accept His offer of salvation and live a life of servant ministry? Or do we ignore His offer and, instead, embrace death? That decision is ever before us and all those whom we encounter in our daily life and work. Sometimes we might like to think we have all the time in the world to make that decision. We might be procrastinators, we might hate to make decisions, we might be like St. Augustine (Lord, save me, just not today, please); we just might not like the choice we have to make. There are consequences to our decision. If we reject Him, we can live as we see fit. But if we embrace Him, we accept a life of servant ministry. Decisions, decisions. . .

The truth is, with so many consequences, it is no small wonder that we think we have forever to make our decision. No doubt many of us hope to be able to have time to make the correct decisions on our deathbeds, but such an opportunity is never guaranteed. Far too often, lives are snuffed out far too quickly and far before their time. We persist in our unwillingness to decide, and we delight in that seeming refusal to decide. We hope we still have time. Yet, like Israel which could forecast the weather, we can forecast the end times. We live in an age of wars and rumors of wars, of droughts and hunger, of disease and pestilence, and of earthquakes and floods all around us. Like Israel, we can see clouds or feel the wind and accurately forecast the weather. Why then do we continue to ignore the signs He gave us regard His return? Is it the nearly 2000 years since He walked the earth, died, was raised, and ascended to heaven? Is it the divisions that are caused by choosing to follow Him? Why do we continue to act graciously without urgency? Why do we continue to act and witness that there is no hurry, that we all have lots of time? Why do we fail to act like the gardener in the parable, who tends his tree urgently, certain that it will be cut down if the tree bears no fruit when next the master returns? Yes, God is patient; all of Scripture reminds us of that. But interspersed among many of those stories is an urgency conveyed to His people, and urgency which impels them and us to share His story, share His love, with as many people as possible, knowing that His patience and our time to reach them is running out.



Tuesday, August 10, 2010

50th Anniversary Message

I always give thanks to God when He gets ahead of my work. I know my proofreaders at church don’t always share the same enthusiasm, as they know I tend to get long-winded. Whenever they see a title in the sermon line, there’s a bit of an “uh, oh.” But I promised Michelle and George I would be quick this week, knowing that most of you present would rather talk and reminisce with one another than listen to me ramble on.

As the current members know, I play an on-line game. Several around here even play it themselves. Over the course of the last few years, though, current members have heard stories of players dying in real life, of players experiencing marital or relationship problems, teens seeking a way out of destructive situations, and people who simply have questions about God. In a real sense, the game has become a virtual church. What started out as a way for me to blow off some steam (let me tell you, I wish I had the power of Holy Fire in real life), God began using as a way to reach others. And for some time, several parishioners have been asking if there was a way that the church could better support this “virtual church” in which I find myself serving. This last month, I finally caved. I allowed them to help us go verbal. You see, up until last month, everyone had to type everything to me. I learned quickly that typing often shielded me from a lot of distractions, as now everyone can ask what is on their minds. It had to be important to get people to type me.

To honor St. Alban’s and those who had been persistent in their efforts to support this ministry, I named the channel where we gather after St. Alban’s. Little did I know that such an act would, in itself, cause lots of questions and even feed us today.

One day, after I had logged on, several people were on-line. “Father,” one of them asked, “who was St. Alban’s?” And so I told them his story. For those of you who have been away and forgotten, Alban was a Roman soldier, a commander of some sort, who lived in the town of Verulamium (outside London) some 1800 years ago. One day, an itinerant monk happened upon Alban, and Alban invited the monk into his tent. There, the monk was given an opportunity to teach the Roman soldier about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Alban was so moved by the monk’s teaching that he converted on the spot.

Unfortunately, as was so often the case in those days, there was an organized Persecution of Christians happening. Rome was trying to destroy Christianity. Apparently, some of the governor’s soldiers learned that the monk was in the area and were doing a thorough search. Alban quickly traded clothes with the monk and sent him on his way. Eventually, the soldiers entered Alban’s tent, found him in the priest’s garb, arrested him, and dragged him before the governor.

Incensed that Alban would not tell where the priest went nor what family he belonged to (they could be tortured to make Alban recant and give up any information), the governor had Alban tortured. Eventually, the governor decided that Alban could not be forced to give over any useful information and ordered him to be executed.

Now, remember the power of Rome in these days. You can imagine how the locals responded. . . Why would he protect a priest? Why not recant and confess and keep serving the emperor? Word spread and the crowds grew. B y the time the governor ordered Alban executed, the crowd was simply too big. The streets of the town and even the bridge over the river was packed with on-lookers, all wondering why Alban would act thusly. Seeing the bridge packed, Alban prayed to God to stop the river Ver in its courses, as He did the Jordan, so that they could cross over on dry land. To everyone’s astonishment, the river ceased flowing for a few minutes. Upon reach the hill overlooking the town where he was to be beheaded, Alban asked for a moment, prayed to God for water in which to wash himself to make himself more presentable to his Lord. Sure enough, a spring started flowing that very moment!

Well, the first executioner had seen enough. He told the governor that God was with Alban and he would not be the instrument of the man’s execution. The governor reminded him that he was signing his own death warrant. The executioner replied that it was better to face the governor’s wrath than the wrath of Alban’s God. So another executioner was found. Alban knelt at the block. The axe fell. Christianity had its first martyr in Britain. The story, unfortunately, does not end there. Locals who watched the killing claimed that the second executioner was dead before Alban’s head hit the ground (though some said only his eyes hit the ground first). To make matters worse, the itinerant monk with whom Alban had traded places, had heard of the torture and impending death of his recent convert. He scrambled to get to the governor to turn himself in and thus save his sheep. Though he reportedly made it to the governor before Alban’s execution, Alban was still killed. Worse, the governor had the monk put to death and even the first executioner!

By now, those on the other end of my teaching had had enough. “What kind of a fairy tale is this, Father!?” “Who makes up these terrible stories?” “What do you mean,” I asked. “Nobody in their right mind should ever be drawn to Christianity by stories like this. There is no happy ending. Alban should have been spared. The first executioner should have been spared. The monk should have been spared. The governor should have been killed. If you want a good story, that’s how it should have ended.” And I was reminded immediately of an off-hand comment made by Richard Hays at Wheaton a couple months ago. “Saint’s lives,” he instructed, “remind us that common sense is not a good rule for life.”

When I parroted that answer, those in the channel asked what I meant, just as maybe you are wondering now as well. The lives of the saints and the deaths of the martyrs serve to teach us that common sense cannot, in the end, instruct us in the way to live in right relationship with God. Each one of those objections raised by those listening to me that day were understandable. Heroes should not die. Those who aid them should not die. And when one tries to protect others, it might be unfortunate that he or she dies, but the protected ones should be allowed to live. Besides, if God was already at work, stopping the river, raising a spring, converting Alban’s heart, converting the first executioner, why not stop the deaths entirely? Why not convert the governor? We rail a bit at God and say “Why not keep on working Your powerful miracles?”
And yet, through the story of Alban, as with most other saints and martyrs, you and I are reminded that God’s purposes are sometimes at odds with our own. You and I are sometimes taught that He has a plan, and that He is really in control, often when things seem like He is not but even when we think that we are in control. You and I are taught that we are asked only to be faithful to Him, and He will take care of us for all eternity. And He will do this no matter the odds, no matter the forces arrayed against Him and us, no matter what we think the likelihood of His success will be!

How does the story of Alban remind us of this truth? How does this poorly crafted, by human standards, story teach us of God’s mercy and power? Today, you and I sit in a church some few thousand miles away nearly 18 centuries after its occurrence, reminding ourselves of the story of our patron saint. We do not know the governor’s name. The executioner’s name is lost to history. Heck, we do not know the monk’s name nor the first executioner’s name. Common sense tells us the story should have been lost to history. But we do know Alban’s name, and we celebrate his witness and testimony to those in his midst. We know even that the whole town was taken apart brick by brick to build a shrine to Alban. You see, because of his willingness to lay down his life for a priest of God, because of his willingness to be tormented in this world to protect others, because of his willingness to show hospitality to the wandering stranger, because of his willingness to throw away the trappings of this life and exchange them for God’s promise, countless seeds were sown! The story became so engrained into the British society that a Roman soldier, who may or may not have been baptized by a nameless priest, became The martyr and The saint for a culture and country that would have rather rejected him. When Augustine arrived on the shores some two or three centuries later, he found a culture ready to embrace the Gospel, for it knew the story of Alban and knew the cross and knew that God had been and was at work in their midst!

What better example can you and I have of one who did not trust in common sense? What more do we need to understand? The choice of Alban 50 years ago was prophetic for our lives together. St. Alban’s ministry has been far beyond its means. 43 years ago three ladies noticed the hungry in our community. Two of them went to church here. Common sense told them that women could not lead ministries like that, this was the 60’s after all. Common sense told them that the need was too great for us to be able to provide. Common sense taught them that ladies would never be able to fight City Hall and the “Good Ole Boys” network. But, trusting in God, those ladies founded the feeding at the Worker House, which became the Community Meal, which has nearly 160 churches in our community working it each year. One church might not have been much. But it was enough. God rewarded their faithfulness with provision. And how many hungry in our midst have been reminded that God truly loves them? How many Christians have been taught about true need and true servant ministry?

Common sense wanted to teach us that no men beat their wives and girlfriends in this day and age, at least here in the Midwest. That was a problem up until twenty years ago, we like to tell ourselves. Rednecks might still do it, but we are more civilized and know better. And yet, thanks again to the leadership of some women and Kathleen, St. Alban’s chipped in where it could as another lady was inspired to try and make a home of safety for those abused. What conventional wisdom said would take 18-24 months before it was filled to capacity, we saw filled in a few short months. And all those needs, which we thought would be down the road, were needed far sooner. How much food have we given? How many clothes? TV’s? Bus Passes? Toys? Counseling? How many women have been reminded that they were created in His image and reminded that their men were called to love them just as Christ did His Church? We even dare to hope that we have had a small hand in breaking the cycle of violence that plagues so many families.

Now, we have begun together in the last year this ministry attacking human slavery in our midst. This little, rinky dink church, by human standards, is daring once again to live into its calling. We might not have much money, but He can provide all that we will ever need. We might not have clout and power by worldly standards, but we are adopted sons and daughters of the Living God who has promised that we will accomplish any number of wondrous things in His name! We might not even know all the resources that we will need, but we trust that He will give us eyes and ears to see the need. Why? Because we are called to live a life as He calls us, not as we think makes the most sense. In fact, we plunge boldly into those callings which sometimes make the least sense, trusting that He will redeem us and keep His promises.

Brothers and sisters, I could go on and on about the various ministries over the years at St. Alban’s. Underwear and pants for youngster’s at school, scholarships for African orphans, underwear washing for the homeless, AFM, WoW, malaria shots, water purificators – the list goes on and on and on. I encourage you to talk about your favorites as we get ready to eat. At times, many of us here present have likely wondered whether St. Alban’s Davenport would be able to continue. Our budget has always forced us to our knees to ask for His guidance. Yet here we stand, fully wrapped in His promises, celebrating an anniversary that the world would doubt could be achieved. And I stand before you this day reminding you of His promises, reminding you of His calling in each one of your lives, and the absolute certainty with which we can face life, we can face death, and live into our eternal futures. Brothers and sisters, we do not live in a fairy tale, we do not even live a life guided by common sense—you and I live in a dark world seeking answers to its various problems, cognizant that God has acted to save all humanity through the death and resurrection of His Son. And armed with that knowledge, and empowered through His Spirit, you and I are sent to the edges of our community, our state, our country and the world to remind others of that love! In short, we are called like Alban to live lives reflective of His promise and certain of our inheritance, no matter what the world thinks!