Friday, September 28, 2012

The President's speech at CGI.

For those that tune into this space wishing there was more Human Trafficking news, I have great news:  in the coming week or two, there should be a more dedicated space.  Thanks for your patience and requests!  I do, however, chose to post significant events here from time to time.  This week, for the first time since Abraham Lincoln, we had a sitting President speak on the question of Human Trafficking.  Of particular note, the President thanked people of faith for leading the world in this effort.  He specifically called out those in Atlanta, but he acknowledged that this is an effort being led by many churches in many different communities.  If you are so inclined, take a listen . . . .

Those in orbit of this effort have remarked on the accompanying "buzz" about human trafficking in the press.  For that we are grateful.  And while we are grateful that the President has finally called upon Congress to pass the Trafficked Victims Protection Re-Authorization Act, we also note that the law has been lapsed for nearly a year.  By the government's own estimates, another 17,000 victims have been smuggled into this country to live a life in slavery, thanks in part to our politicians' lack of will and action.  Another 1,600,000 - 2,800,000 American runaways potentially have been targeted by slavers, thanks in part to our politicians' unwillingness to deal with problems of substance.  As a result, the land of the free has shirked its responsibilities described in the Declaration of Independence and spelled out in our Constitution.  No politician deserves accolades for having politicized this moral evil, and neither party is without blame in this particular mess.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

No message this week

For those that follow this space and enjoy the stories (thanks for your kind suggestions and thank you's), there is no message this week.  The people of St. Alban's were given an incredible insight into God's plan of salvation that touched both on individuals and corporate evil.  For very considered reasons, there was no reflection or summary about the sermon.  Thank you for your understanding and your prayers!


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Who He is defines us . . .

     But who do you say that I am?  It is a question which still causes much consternation and discussion even to this day.  Like the people of Jesus’ day, people today have varying opinions of who He was.  In those days, some rightly associated Him with John the Baptist because He also preached a message of repentance.  Of course, He also preached a message of forgiveness with authority that His herald in the wilderness could not.  Some rightly associated Jesus with Elijah.  This, too, is not surprising when one considers some of the similarities of their miracles and some of the expectations surrounding Elijah.  Remember, Elijah did not die.  He was carried up into heaven by the fiery chariots.  Some thought he would return, not unlike, say, the King Arthur myths.  Unlike Arthur, though, Elijah had fed people with very little, had raised the dead, and even cleansed the kingdom of some 400 of those meddlesome priests of Ba’al who were misleading God’s people.  Jesus’ miracles were no less significant, and His authority was even more astounding than Elijah.  Others just consider Jesus one of the prophets.  Remember, prior to John the Baptist’s ministry, God had been silent for generations, since the time of Micah.  Now, Israel was blessed to have two prophets among them!  So don’t read disappointment into their statement.  They really are not sure who He is, and so speculation abounds.

     But who do you say that I am?  Jesus, naturally, will not let the question drop.  Too much depends upon a proper understanding on the part of His disciples.  These men and women are the ones who have seen the amazing miracles, they have seen Him walking on water and calming the storm, they have seen Him cast out demons, they have witnessed His handling of the Temple leadership’s assaults on His power and the authority that He claims, and they are about to hear Peter’s confession in the very heart of idol-worshipping Philippi Caesarea.  Simply put, it is not enough for them to think He is merely another like John the Baptist.  It is not enough to think He is merely Elijah.  It is not enough for them to think He is one of the prophets.  His ministry is as unique as His person.  Peter’s testimony is correct, but do they understand what it means to be God’s Anointed?

     Mark relates that Jesus had to teach the disciples that the Anointed was not what they had been taught to expect.  They had been taught that God’s Anointed, the messiah, would come as a conquering hero.  He was destined to be a hero who rode at the front of an army that would be used to cast off the Roman oppressors and to restore Israel to its glory under Solomon.  Jesus teaches them openly that their understanding was wrong.  He explains that the Anointed must suffer, must be rejected by the very people who should know best of all His identity, must die, and would be raised from the dead after three days.  Peter takes His Master aside and encourages Jesus to reconsider.  Jesus responds that Peter has His sight set upon worldly things and not on God.  Though Peter means well, he does not want His Master to suffer or to be humiliated in any way, Jesus rebukes him for focusing on what he thinks is best rather than trusting God.  We can hear Peter’s complaint.  The splash gets a lot more attention than the scenario Jesus has described.  Jesus, why suffer at all?  Just ride in with us and angels at Your back.  Work a couple miracles and everyone will come to our side.  Peter has no idea what he is asking.  He is simply unaware of how he is tempting our Lord.  No doubt Peter was stung by our Lord’s rebuke.  It was an honest mistake, but a mistake all the same.

     Who do you say that I am?  It is a question which resonates throughout time.  Who do you say that He is?  It is a question that is put to us not only by Him but by many of those whom we encounter during the course of our lives.  Not insignificantly, the word used to describe is psyche.  It appears four times in these verses.  In Greek, it means life, but today we use it to mean mindset or outlook.  Put another way, how we think determines how we live.  Nowhere is that question more important than in one’s consideration of the Lord Jesus.  Who we think He is informs our decision making processes, calms our fears and nerves about the uncertainties and vicissitudes of life, and testifies to the world the joy and hope we have.  Quite simply, it determines the shape and future of our lives.  Our answer to His question defines us.  I was reminded of that this week in two different areas of our congregational life.

     Last week I was asked to visit someone in the ICU.  He was not doing well, and there was a sincere worry that he might pass away.  I asked him while I was there if he wanted or needed permission to die through Last Rites, or did he want to be healed.  He responded that he wanted to get better and get out of the hospital.  So I prayed for healing.  As I was ending the prayer, I found myself praying the last collect before Anointing during the Healing Service.  You all know the prayer: The Almighty Lord, who is a strong tower to all who put their trust in him, to whom all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth bow and obey: Be now and evermore your defense, and make you know and feel that the only Name under heaven given for health and salvation is the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.  For whatever reason, I found myself ending with that prayer.

     It was at this point that I was interrupted.  “You pray that like you really believe it.”  What followed was a conversation regarding some of the healing miracles that I had witnessed.  One that we discussed may or may not have been a healing.  It is talked about in that hospital as it is one of the “good outcomes.”  I suppose it depends upon one’s perspective.  Was it good medicine and skill, or was it God’s sovereign hand? Why couldn’t God it be both?  Who had conspired to have those hands and knowledge present during her ordeal?  We had quite the conversation about healing.  It was then that we were interrupted.

     Then why did He not heal this guy, if He is so powerful and so good?  Both the ICU nurse and I turned to find a stranger poking his head into our conversation.  I asked him to repeat his question, and he went on to explain that he did not mean to eavesdrop but that he had heard our talk following my prayer.  If God is so good and so powerful, why didn’t he heal the member of your church?  He has.  No He hasn’t.  He’s laying there unconscious.  Ah, you missed the beginning of our conversation.  I beg your pardon.  She had asked me why God didn’t seem to be active and doing miraculous things like He did in times past.  Her pastor’s answer had left her wanting more.  What was his answer?  She told him that it was basically the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be His name and that we were not to question His ways.  You think that’s the right answer?  What followed, of course, was a more lengthy discussion of trusting God and knowing that He weeps when we die.  But why didn’t God heal your church guy to glorify His name in front of me and to satisfy her?  I replied that I wasn’t absolutely sure, but I was pretty convinced it was for both of their benefits.  When they both asked what I meant by that, I asked if they would have ever asked these questions and engaged in a 20 minute conversation about important questions such as these if Pat would have gotten out of bed and headed for the exit.  To my new nurse friend I pointed out that the work of God was all around her, in this place of healing, yet the scales had gotten in her eyes over the years.  Maybe Pat’s continued state was not the healing I had prayed for; maybe it was hers.  Maybe God was allowing His disciple to suffer to reach her.  Knowing Pat and his love for God, I was quite certain that Pat would grumble about it, but grumble with awe in his voice.  And with respect to the gentleman, it was clear he was in a desperate situation regarding a loved one.  Maybe the healing that God was giving them was this “one on one time” with Him.  And again, were Pat to be in front of God about this, he would gripe a bit that the pain hurt, but he would thank God for using him to reach another who is struggling or lacking in faith.  What about this guy’s family?  Won’t they be said if he’s not healed?  And how can you be so sure how he feels or would feel?  Of course, but they also know Pat has already been healed.  As we say in our funeral service, whether we die or whether we live, we are the Lord’s.  Do you think God would allow Himself to be dishonored by leaving Pat to the grave?  No.  Neither does his family.  They will mourn his death, but they will celebrate that He will live forever, healed of sin and death, and be with His Savior forever.  That is His promise, and that is their hope.  As for Pat, he once explored a call to ordained life.  He, better than many to whom I am called to minister, knows how God works.  He understands what is meant by self-denial and cross-bearing.  Were he conscious right now, he might well complain and whine on the outside, but on the inside he would be leaping like Mt. Hebron.

     The nurse thanked me for speaking with her and not being condescending about her questions.  I reminded her we learn a lot less when we don’t ask questions.  She laughed that a nursing teacher had said similar words.  I joked that her teacher had obviously learned that from God.  The man, though, lingered in the room.  Do you think he will live or die?  In this body, I’ve no idea.  But not to sound crass, I really don’t care.  Howso?  I told him a bit about Pat and his life.  I shared some of his sufferings now that the body was getting older.  I told him that while I would miss teasing and being teased by Pat, I could relax and celebrate because I was certain He would live for ever and that, God willing, I would see him again even if he died this very second.

     We experienced one of those long silent pauses that some people dread.  Truthfully, I used feel like much needed to be said in those silences, but I have learned slowly that it is in those silences when God speaks the clearest.  The man grabbed my hand and shook it and thanked me for letting him interrupt.  I asked if he wanted prayers over his loved one.  Not right now.  But you’ve given me a lot to think about.  Besides, I get the sense that I might see you fairly often in here.  As long as he is here you will.  Feel free to grab me for prayer or conversation.  Thank you.  I will.  And now one in our life and work is left to answer Jesus’ question.  Who He is to this man is no longer an academic question, it is a matter of eternal life or death, a matter of resignation or promise, a matter of despair or of unimaginable joy!  Who do you say that He is?  If, like Pat, you believe Him to be God’s anointed, then we have every reason to hope.  If he is anyone or anything else, then we should be pitied.

     Another illustration provided this week was the confluence of a couple of our ministries.  I will not mention their real names, but you have met them if you have served Community Meal, at Angel Food, or in Human Trafficking.  We will call them Bill and Fred.  One of those whom society ignores found out I knew some other homeless people in the community.  He asked me the names of some of those I knew.  As I was sharing the names of those for whom I often pray, I came upon a name that caused him to interrupt.  What do you think of that a-hole?  Shocked that someone would describe Fred in that way, I asked Bill why he would say that.  Bill went on to recount how Fred had stolen a couple things from him a few months back.  They were not particularly valuable, but there was sentimental value attached.  I asked if he had said anything to Fred, and he had not knowing it would do no good.

     Flash forward a couple weeks.  We are serving Community Meal.  Fred is eating and his normal thankful self.  I ask him if I can ask him a question.  Fred is excited.  It is a big switch; he usually has questions for me.  And so I ask if he knows Bill.  The head drops, he turns to the plate, and refuses to make eye contact.  How do you know Bill, Father?  Let’s just assume if someone is homeless or marginalized in this community that I have met them and served them.  I heard a story that you may have accidentally removed some items from his stash.  That couldn’t be true, could it?  Grumble.  Grumble.  Why would you take those items?  They couldn’t be sold.  More grumbling, like my kids when they are in trouble.  You want me to leave?  Why would I want you to leave?  Because I was bad.  Were you?  He nodded and finally made eye contact.  What I would like for you to do is to return the items.  And if you no longer have them, an apology would be great.  What good will an apology do?  It will remind you that he, too, was created in God’s image, just like you.  Begging forgiveness from him will, hopefully, remind you of what God has done for you and for him.  Better still, it might set right your relationship if he forgives you.  Why do you care?  Because both of you, for better or for worse, have been given to my charge.  I would be doing you and him a disservice if I did not remind you both of your sins and of your need to forgive, just as I would fail any of my parishioners in the same situation.  We’ll see.  He doesn’t want me near him any more.  Who would?  What?  Who would want you around?  You were willing to steal from someone who has nothing.  Who would want you around?  The world shits on you and forgets you.  Would you want someone like you around adding to your misery?  No.  Do you think he will forgive me?  It depends on whether he wants to be forgiven himself.

     Fred popped into church this week, beaming.  I ran into Bill this week!  Really?  How did it go?  He apologized to me!  I am so sorry he no longer had the items.  No, no!  He apologized to me.  I heard you.  I had hoped he could return the items.   Na.  But this was even better.  Howso?  Bill came up to me and I wasn’t trusting him.  He said he was kinda friends with you and that you had suggested that he owed me the items or an apology, that you hated the idea that he was stabbing me in the back when the world was shitting on both of us.  I knew then he really knew you.  Great.  Anyway, he said he had thought about it and needed to apologize.  He was really sorry he had taken my stuff, even sorrier that he no longer had it, sorry it had taken so long, and basically . . . well, he was just sorry.  So, are you guys good?  I’m not gonna leave any money laying around with him or anything like that, but yeah, we’re good.  Can I ask you a question?  Yes, Fred.  Why did you do that?  Apparently, you and God have decided that you are part of my flock.  My vocation is to bring people into right relationship with God.  You two could not be in right relationship with Him were you unwilling to forgive and he unwilling to repent.  And by repentance and forgiveness, both of you are restored to right relationship with Him and a better relationship with each other.  How did you know he would apologize or that I would forgive?  I know you both.  I was betting that there was no way you two could not repent and forgive, knowing what God had done for you in Christ.  Thanks.  Don’t thank me.  Thank God who forgives our sins and teaches us how to love Him and others.  You know, you will probably never know what this meant to me.  People spit on me, insult me, make fun of me, steal from me, harass me, just fuck with me to make my life miserable.  And out of the blue, Bill apologized.  I can’t remember the last time someone said they were sorry to me.  It’s kinda like the other side with God.  Other side?  Yeah, we all go to Him to complain and whine, but we almost always forget to say thanks.  It’s the same way with people like me.  Too few people are willing to say they are sorry when they hurt us.  It beats you down or weighs on you, ya know?  It sort of makes you feel worthless.  But an apology . . . It’s like, like someone saying “you matter.”  Fred, you understand that you do matter, don’t you?  Right now I do.  And thanks for reminding us both that we do and that even on the streets we do.

     Who do you say that I am?  If He is anybody but God’s Anointed, if He is anybody but the messiah, these kinds of ministries and these kinds of work make no sense.  The poverty that is out there is overwhelming.  The lack of perceived value in other human life is utterly depressing.  The evil that one human being perpetrates against another human being is unconquerable.  And death, death is the world’s final answer.  If He is anybody but the Christ, as Peter asserts, then all these evils, and all the ones we have left unmentioned, can only be thwarted by our own efforts.  And if you have ever tried to eliminate hunger, eliminate violence, eliminate poverty, eliminate any of these evils, you know just how powerless you are to make any significant impact against those evils.   Even if you or I win the lottery, make an incredible invention, come up with a great idea to solve a particular problem, what lasting impact can we truly make?  And behind all those evils that are left to tackle in the world stands the problem of death.  What can we do to hold off its icy grip?  Freeze ourselves?  Copy our brainwaves somehow into a computer?  That’s the best fight we have against death?

     But what if Peter is right?  What if Jesus is the Christ?  What cannot be conquered in His name?  What can we not do to glorify Him?  What?  And let’s not forget the Good News part of all our efforts.  If He has called us into a ministry, if He has called us forth to do battle with powers and principalities, if He has chosen to reach others through us and our witness, there is no chance of failure.  Even if we seem to fail to eliminate hunger, even if we seem to fail to eliminate slavery, even if we seem to fail to draw another into His loving embrace, even if the efforts to which He calls us costs us our lives, still He is glorified!  Better still, you and I are promised that we will be raised into glory with Him!  If He was and is the Christ, if He was raised from the dead, the there is no chance of failure, so long as we are faithfully obedient.  Sure, to the outside world it make look like a failure.  We might be poked fun at.  We might suffer.  We might even seem to be naive or gullible.  But that is part of the cross-bearing of which He speaks today!  His disciples carry crosses.  In their dying to self, He begins a remarkable transformation; the result of which is an amazing glorification of Him!

     And that glorification can occur in spite of ourselves and our efforts.  When I pray over each of you for healing, I confess that I always pray for that miraculous bestowal of health.  I want Bob’s vessels and nerves healed.  I want the effects of Fred’s stroke washed away.  I want Pauline not to need to become the bionic woman.  I want diabetes to be cured, backs to be fixed, mental and emotional states to be restored to equilibrium, colds to be lifted, and death to be put off.  Heck, as I stood over Pat, I was praying that he would be healed and get out of bed.  Yet, as the Lord has gently and not not gently taught me and you at times, we should always pray His will be done.  Sometimes, His will is that we bear a cross.  Pat continued to suffer that a nurse and the loved one of another patient might hear that God still acts through deeds of power and still loves every single one of us.  And though we served Community Meal with an eye towards using the meeting of material needs to earn the right to testify to the Risen Lord, who among us truly expected one homeless man to seek the forgiveness of another homeless man?  Who among us would have ever expected one to forgive another?

     Yet this day you and I gather to do the work, the liturgy, of the people.  You and I gather to give thanks to God for the amazing things He has done in our lives.  We gather together to give thanks that He has chosen people like you and me to be His ambassadors of His mercy and grace.  We gather together this day to give thanks that for a brief moment, for a day or two in our lives, He has given us an encouraging glimpse into His sovereign plan of salvation.  You and I have been blessed this week with a couple examples of how our efforts bear fruit to His glory.  Most importantly, we gather together to remind ourselves and one another that He is who He says He is, that He has the words of eternal life, and that we, like Peter, have nowhere else to turn.  So, brothers and sisters, who do you say that He is?  You answer, for better or for worse, will guide you in this life and identify you for all eternity.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Campaign promises are not His promise . . .

     Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.  When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish--I had to laugh when Bishop Scarfe noted in his sermon this week that the readings for the past few weeks and upcoming few weeks seem to be perfectly suited for a divided nation in the midst of an election cycle.  Some of my friends who live in an uncontested state think it pretty cool that we live in a contested state.  I usually grumble something along the lines “that’s because your television is not inundated with those damn commercials.”  But the bishop is correct.  We have had lessons the past weeks about bridling our tongues, about remembering who really is in charge, about living a life reflective of the faith and Lord we profess.  And we will be readings in the coming weeks that remind us we are required to choose.  Do we trust in God?  Or do we place our trust elsewhere?

     The other reason I loathe being in a battleground state is the sheer number of questions surrounding “the Godly candidate.”  It does not seem to matter which candidate people are talking about, supporters want to put the mantle of God on their favorite and horns on the candidate they are not supporting.  In one sense, I dread this week.  Having seen far too many times the booing of God during the Democratic National Convention, thanks to some of your e-mails, I know the anxiety and “aha”s that are out there.  Can I be a Democrat and still be a faithful Christian?  We Republicans would never boo God, so clearly He must favor us, right?  You have all probably heard and seen and maybe even said statements like those.  I know a few people have grumbled that I don’t seem to like any politicians.  Let me make this clear: “I don’t like career politicians.”  I like and pray for Christians who are engaged in the political arena, whatever their party affiliation, but I am not a fan of the man or woman who is looking to take the next step, who is isolated away from those who elected him or her, who is beholden to the next election cycle.

     Some might say I have become cynical, that this is the way things are done in this country.  I am sorry, but I do not accept the claim that our Founding Fathers envisioned this kind of mess and division.  I cannot accept that our Founding Fathers wanted corporations and the very wealthy deciding the course of this country with money being the undue influence.  I know they did not envision a year-round, full time legislature that was not subject to the laws that it passed.  I am certain that they expected a certain statesmanship from those engaged in the process.  I am even fairly sure that they never envisioned the money being raised and spent (seemingly all in our state) in an election cycle like we now find ourselves immersed.  I am certain they expected us to passionately disagree, but I am fairly certain they expected us to remember that we are all entitled to the same Creator-bestowed rights.  We can disagree, but there is no need to vilify.

     From a Judeo-Christian perspective, I think I have even more reason not to get too invested in any political candidate.  Chiefly, I think back to the lessons of Scripture and the warnings about men being placed in power over us.  Although there are many lessons buried in the history of the monarchy, I think we would all agree that one of the overarching themes of those histories is the difference between God and the difference between mortal rulers.  Think back specifically to Samuel and God’s warning to Israel.  “You want a king.  I’ll let you have your king.  Remember, though, your king will be a taker.  He will take your young men, your young women, your servants, your grain, your seed, your animals and use it for his purposes.”  Contrast that with God who is a giver of grace and blessings.  Men in power take.  God in power gives (good things).  Can this distinction be any clearer in our current election?  Both candidates are fighting over what they will take and from whom.  Our election seems to be boiling down to a question of whether the government should take more from the rich or take some support from those in need among us.  It’s an ideological fight, to be sure, but we Christians have a better questions.  We questions have a better story.  We have the Gospel story of a God who wants to provide for us, who wants to care for us as a loving Father, who wants us to walk in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives on earth and to spend all eternity with Him.

     And, yet, the challenge for us as Christians is to recognize that God can and does work His will through human initiative and sometimes even through the way we govern ourselves.  You and I live the first part of that statement.  I think all of us here, after some 45 years of continual feeding ministry, have figured out that God was correct when He said that we would always have the poor and hungry among us.  We feed and feed and feed, and we offer the bread of eternal life, and still there are people who hunger.  Similarly, we might like to think, as a culture, that we have moved beyond violence against women.  Yet, day after day, we are reminded that boyfriends and husbands physically assault women, in some cases the mother of their child, and that those same women have forgotten who they are in their Father’s eyes.  How many children do we know are abandoned, if not physically, emotionally by their parents?  How many people have we served that, while working, are unable to make enough money to get by but make too much for most programs of assistance?  And are you familiar with modern slavery?  Yes.  Human initiative, particularly in response to a prodding or calling by the Holy Spirit, can often make a difference in the lives of those suffering around us.  So, how do we meet this challenge?  How do we, as a group of Christians called together in the community, in this battleground state, stay counter-cultural and yet live as productive members of a society that is a beacon to much of the world?

     A great beginning place is this week’s Psalm.  Psalm 146 serves as the beginning psalm of the Hallel, the last five psalms of praise in the Psaltery.  I know, the Jews consider Psalms 113-118, which are read during Passover to be the true Hallel, but you and I, like them, are looking forward to that day when He calls us all to Him and remakes the earth.  Some Christian commentators want to call these five psalms a grand or great doxology or other such appropriate name, but I think the lessons of 113-118 are repeated here and remind us in all times and in all places to praise our Lord.  It is the root of the word which we love to say around here, even during Lent I’ve noticed, hallelujah!  We should at all times and in all places praise the Lord -- especially during an election year!  How we face elections, even those as divisive as ours, testify to how we view God’s promises to us.  Do our tongues speak in anger, as James warned us last week, when we differ?  Or do they speak in passion, cognizant that the other is also created in the image of God?  Do we make this sanctuary a place of campaigning?  Or do we remember its true function, a consecrated space to praise God, and participate wholeheartedly and thankfully?  And as we look at this psalm and its lesson for those of us who have two more months of campaigning to face, remember it is God’s Anointed who penned these words.  We don’t think it was David, who wrote so may of the psalms, but it well could have been Ezra or Nehemiah, who lived to see the Temple restored by human (kingly) initiative and civic governance.  But someone in the line of humanity, a mortal, penned these words for our study, our exhortation, and our admonishment.

     Our psalmist begins with a proclamation of praise.  As long as the psalmist lives, he will praise the Lord.  This author has figured out his primary purpose, the purpose that we all share, the purpose for which you and I gather in church--to praise the Lord!  Halleluia!  Almost immediately, the Lord is contrasted with human leaders.  There is a temptation for us to trust those in authority over us.  Sometimes, I think there is a temptation to trust and a temptation to distrust our leaders.  But the psalmist reminds us that our leaders are not to be trusted as we trust the Lord.  You see, the problem for our leaders is that they, unlike God, are mortal.  Even good leaders die.  And whether the leader is good, bad or indifferent their plans die with them.  Think of what’s happening in North Korea.  Whether the sweeping changes in power will result in any significant changes is anyone’s guess, but I bet none of those “retired” expected to fall out of favor so quickly.  The problem with mortal leaders is that they die.  There is a finiteness to their power and to their lives.  In a democracy such as ours, losing an election is nearly equivalent to a death, in so far as plans are concerned.  Does anyone doubt candidate Romney’s sincerity when he promises to repeal the President’s health care initiative?  Anyone remember the Presidents promises, when he was candidate Obama, to close Guantanimo?  Yes, death or failed re-election end our leaders’ plans.  Contrast that with God.  He is the same today and yesterday and tomorrow.  We may rail and scream and fight against him with every fiber of our being, but a day comes when we can no longer wage that battle.  A day comes when our life in this world ends, and still He continues.

     For that reason, those who claim the God of Jacob as their Lord are happy.  The psalmist is not claiming that the Lord’s people do not go through hard times.  We do. We face the same travails and misfortune as others.  What separates us in the end, though, is that peace that passes all understanding.  We know that we serve Him.  We know that He will redeem us.  We may not understand all the nuts and bolts of our service; we may never really understand the point of what it is we are doing.  But we can trust that He will redeem whatever befalls us, even death itself.  If you or I die this very moment, are we extinguished forever?  No, we are promised like the thief on the cross that we will be with Him in paradise if we claim Him as Lord.  As Paul teaches us, whether live or die, we live and die in the Lord.  We are always His and nothing can separate us from Him!  If you understand that, if you truly accept and believe it, how can you not have an incomprehensible joy in your life?  That joy does not diminish the struggle, but it does remind us that the struggle is not without purpose.  How we face life and how we face death testifies to the world around us what we believe about God and Christ.  Put a different way, as we will read in an upcoming Gospel lesson, how you live your life tells others who you think He is!

     And, in case you have forgotten who He is, the psalmist quickly reminds us.  He is the Creator of all things.  He made the heavens and the earth and all that is therein.  And, in case you have forgotten His character, this magnificent awesome God who created all things, loves and tenderly cares for widows and orphans.  He restores the sight of those blind and the hearing of those deaf.  He even sets free those imprisoned!  The Lord loves the righteous and will destroy the wicked.  

     Who are the righteous and who are the wicked?  We know, now that the hopes of the psalmist have been fulfilled, that the righteous are those who cling to our Lord Christ.  The righteous are those who die to themselves and are raised to new life in and through Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross.  The righteous are those to whom He has bound Himself and those upon whom He has sealed His promise to care for and to exact vengeance on their behalf.  The righteous are those who love the Lord their God and who try to execute His call on their lives to His honor and glory.  The wicked are all those who trust in themselves, their plans, their ways.  The wicked are all those who reject His claim as Lord of all, who are scandalized by His cross, and who disbelieve His Resurrection.

     So, how do we as Christians face this election in a way that glorifies God?  First, we quit trying to wrap the mantle of God around our mortal prince, whoever that candidate may be.  There was only one Savior and none of them are Him!  As sober Christians we realize that neither candidate is God’s candidate.  To be sure, we can say such things while expecting God to work through their governance and their initiatives, but we understand that none of them are His Anointed.  Whoever we vote for as sojourners in this land will have faults.  One candidate professes a faith which rejects the Nicene Creed and is nominated by a party that rejects some of the righteous living revealed in Scripture; the other professes a faith but seems to have difficulty finding time to do the work of His disciples, namely worship Him, and who represents a party that rejects some of the righteous living revealed in Scripture.  In the end, whichever candidate we choose to support matters very little.

     Secondly, we keep living a life as described by those whom He has raised up to train us.  Whether we are forgiving others 7 times 70 times, bridling our tongues, going into the world as heralds of His peace, or simply disagreeing civilly with each other in our politics, you and I are always by our actions testifying who we think He is.  If we show the same anxiety as those around us, if we engage in the same name-calling as those around us, if we engage in the same poor stewardship as those around us, how are we testifying that we are the Lord’s possession?  How are we testifying that we have His peace?

     Lastly, and most importantly, we continue His work.  We care for widows.  We care for orphans.  We feed the hungry.  We clothe the poor.  We care for the battered woman.  We nurture her children.  We proclaim freedom and dignity to those enslaved in our midst.  And we remind all whom we encounter that our Lord loves them, died for them, and wants them to return home for all eternity.  Put another way, we keep our focus on His calling, on His will, less concerned with the consequences of a vote and more concerned with the acceptance/rejection of His love and grace.

     You see, while we sojourn in this land and participate in its governance, we are not really citizens of this land.  True, most of us were born here and are considered citizens by those placed in authority over us.  But, in the end, our citizenship is of another place.  We are, in the end, His possession.  He has sent us all here as ambassadors of His grace and His good will toward men.  Yes, we should support the candidate whom we think will best enable us to accomplish our purpose, but we should do so confident that even if the other candidate or even a third or fourth candidate wins, His purpose cannot be thwarted!  The task for which He has purposed you and me cannot be stopped!  Nothing, no election, no press, no power of evil, not even death can keep us from accomplishing His will.  And in the end, that’s the only promise this campaign season that can be trusted!


Monday, September 3, 2012

Looking beyond the pool with our reflection . . .

     The Epistle of James is an often overlooked letter in the preaching cycle.  A few of my clergy friends were talking this week about how few sermons we had heard and given on the letter.  I suppose the rarity is due to the opinions of some of the prominent figures in our church history who questioned whether the letter belonged in the canon of Scripture.  Beginning with Eusebius and working its way through Martin Luther, some luminaries in the Church have wondered if the letter belonged.  I expect James is ok with the slight.  When speaking of James, it probably serves us well to consider his mindset.  How many of us ever heard from our parents how they wished we were as smart as or as hard a worker as or as respectful as or as diligent or as clean or as whatever as our brother or sister?  How many of us as parents have uttered those words?  Now, imagine that you are the half brother of the son of God . . . 

     Part of the reason some in the Church were less than thrilled with the letter’s inclusion is its simplicity.  All of us here know a bit about soteriology, christology, theology of other specialized areas of learning mostly because of Paul, John, and Peter.  Both Paul and John especially spend significant ink and parchment teaching us about their understanding of God and His ways.  James, on the other hand, spends very little time discussing such matters.  His letter is easily broken down into a discourse of true religion, true faith, and true wisdom.  There are other ways to break down the letter, to be sure, but all who study the letter tend to notice its total unremarkableness.  James is less concerned about explaining the faith and engaging detractors than he is in making sure those to whom he writes live a life worthy of the call upon them.  Put simply, James want Christ’s disciples to live a life worthy of His Lord and half-brother.  It is not that James does not want us to be able to explain the whys and whats of our faith.  He recognizes that our best witness to those outside the faith will come from how we live our lives.

     If we are going to being to speak of good witness and amended behavior, we would do well to start, as does James, with the result of our faith.  Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.  How many times do we come into contact with people who claim to be Christian but are uninvolved serving others or in any kind of Christian community.  Oh, to be sure, there are some walking wounded out there.  There are people out there who have harmed by the Church.  Some have been hurt terribly by “people of faith” and have every reason to want to keep their relationship with God more private.  But far too many people use the Church’s mistreatment of others as an excuse to stay away.  I don’t go to Church because they are a bunch of hypocrites.  I worship God in my own way.  I don’t need church to pray, to worship, to be saved, to be whatever purpose they think church serves.  I don’t need to serve others because God says I need to take care of myself first.

     Notice that James says that those who are not doers deceive themselves.  He goes on to compare their behavior to narcissists.  You and I have probably forgotten the story of Narcissus.  Narcissus was a hunter in Greek mythology who was renowned for two things:  his stunning good looks and his utter disdain for those he felt were unworthy of his looks.  As with all those who became too proud, Narcissus attracted the attention the gods.  In particular, he attracted the attention of Nemesis.  So put off by Narcissus’ vanity was Nemesis that she caused him to stumble upon a still pool of water.  In that pool of water he saw his handsome reflection and was smitten.  So enamored of is reflection was Narcissus, that he languished by the pool gazing upon his striking reflection until he died of starvation.  Talk about the ultimate self-deception!  A hunter starved himself to death gazing at his own reflection.

     James, of course, intentionally lumps hearers of the word (but not doers) with those who practice self-deception like Narcissus.  For, like those who stare at their own reflection ever five minutes, hearers of the word are concerned with their own needs, their own comforts, their own lives.  Such a mentality is reflected in their sentence structure.  When’s the last time a hearer of the word started a sentence in your presence with “God does not want me in church” or “God does not want me serving others”?  More than likely, their sentence focused on themselves.  “I don’t want to worship with hypocrites.”  “I don’t have the time to serve others.”  “I’m too busy working on me to worry about others right now.”  Their excuses are plausible, but they result in self deception and, following James selection of the myth of Narcissus, their own death.

     James exhorts us to action.  Those who follow a God who served us cannot help but implant a joy and thankfulness in our hearts and a desire to share that Good News.  How do we best share that Good News with those whom we encounter?  By serving them as He served us.  By encouraging them when they are down, by tempering their enthusiasm when things are going well, and by teaching them more of the saving works He has done.  In short, we are called to be doers.  We are called to be a people who serve, who encourage, who exhort, who support, who mourn, and who do whatever is necessary to help others in their search for Christ who loved and served them.

     It is certainly a weighty responsibility being called to worship and serve others that they might find themselves embraced by their loving Father in heaven.  Notice, though, James goes on to remind us that we are not graded on our effectiveness.  No.  You and I are judged on our faithfulness and perseverance.  Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act--they will be blessed in their doing.  We are blessed for doing, for acting.  No matter how badly we might mess things up from our perspective, no matter how insignificant our work may seem by comparison to the problem we face, no matter how ill-equipped we might think we are for the work, James reminds us that our Lord cares only about our doing and our perseverance.

     You see, and this is really important for us to remember, He has already accomplished the victory.  You and I can add nothing to His work; better still, we cannot take anything away from His work.  Ultimately, we cannot fail so long as we do.  All we can really do is testify to His work.  What better way to testify than by worshipping the Author of our salvation and by serving others in His name.  How will people know we believe?  By how we love each other, others, and Him.    By our perseverance, even unto death, certain in the knowledge that He has redeemed all things and that we will live for ever with Him when He finally restores all things.

     So, are you a hearer or a doer?  What call is He placing upon your life right now that you are trying hard to ignore?  What is He demanding of you that His name might be glorified?  Are you being called to serve St. Alban’s in a new, unexpected way?  Are you being called to become more active in the service of those imprisoned in slavery?  Are you being called to serve in the jails?  A shelter?  To witness better in your family?  Your workplace?  Brothers and sisters, quit making excuses.  Quit seeking to deceive yourselves.  Follow where He calls you.  He promises, promises, you will be blessed in the doing. . .