Wednesday, March 27, 2013

In memory of Jason . . .

O God, who knows all our lights and all our shadows, look with compassion on this Your child who has taken His life with his own hand and receive him as Your own.  Deal graciously, we pray, with those who love him, and grant that in all their troubles they may now Your healing and redeeming love, made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

O blessed Lord, You ministered to all who came to You:  Look with compassion upon all those who through addiction have lost their health and freedom.  Restore to them the assurance of Your unfailing mercy; remove from them the fears that beset them; strengthen them in the work of their recovery; and to those who care for them, give patient understanding and persevering love.  Amen.

Good afternoon.  I would imagine that those of you who knew Jason pretty well might be shocked to find a guy in a collar at his funeral, especially given the circumstances of his untimely death.  At times, Jason lived a life that was anything but holy and righteous.  At times, Jason was in open rebellion against God.  Maybe, you are thinking, he might speak with a guy in a suit, but a collar?!  Truthfully, I must say to Terri & Robert and the rest of the family, I truly did mean it when I offered to Rhonda to do the service.  I do thank you for the difficult privilege of trying to speak God’s redeeming Word and promise into a situation such as Jason’s death.  For those of you not particularly liturgical in your religious DNA, don’t freak out too much.  Jason did not make it to Rome.  I am actually an Episcopal (or Anglican, if that helps) priest.  Had Jason been sick and dying, you can bet that this service would have included a Eucharist at Jason’s insistence.  I would have had that talk with him.  When he made it to church, he was what we referred to as a “Rite 1er.”  Our music in the church is a bit tame for his taste, but he seemed to love the language of the Rite 1 service without any music, so convincing him of the need for a Eucharist at death would have been easy.  

My connection to Jason, however, is a little deeper.  I happen also to be the gentleman who was blessed to baptize Jason, during one of his efforts at sobriety, into Christ’s holy Church.  Given that Jason took his own life by his own hand, you might  be thinking that God withheld the courage to will and to persevere and the gift of joy and wonder in all His works for which we pray in our tradition when one is baptized into God’s family.  you might think that the “it” of baptism, whatever we say it is, did not “take.”  I have heard this afternoon in a couple discussion already that such has been the response of the “good Christians,” be they pastors or laity in your lives.  For those responses, I am sorry, but it is also part of the reason that I am probably here.

Jason, as all of you gathered here know, was a complicated figure.  Personally, I had a hard time reconciling in my own mind some of his quirks.  For example, if you ever listened to some of his music with him, you would never think he could possibly like the poetry of the King James English.  Given his absolute commitment to his addictions, and his willingness to do anything and ignore everyone, some of us might have a hard time understanding why Jason would choose, choose in a moment of sobriety, to ask God to save him.  For someone who seemed to be so enslaved by his passions, at times Jason could ask or answer deep questions, questions or answers whose depths might have surprised those of us gathered here in memory of his life.  Jason was, to put it euphemistically, a complicated figure.  In truth, Jason was like most of us gathered here, full of contradictions.  So, perhaps it is fitting in some sense that his death arouse some contradictions as we begin to deal with his passing.  If he was that difficult in life, it seems fitting that he should somehow complicate how we pigeonhole death.

While I share with Terri & Robert, Lynn, Elizabeth, Kevin, Sharae and Taylor, and Rhonda’s grief at his passing, I cannot help but note the time in our liturgical calendar.  In the liturgical church community, we are in the beginning of Holy Week.  Hard as it is for non-Christians to accept, this is the week that those of us who claim Jesus as Lord remind ourselves of, not only our need for Him to save us, but of our willing participation of His condemnation.  As Episcopalians each year at this time, we remind ourselves that is was us, the supposed holy, gathered faithful people who stood in the crowd and yelled “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!”  We may not have been present at Pilate’s judgment when it happened, but our sins in life make us every bit the participant in that scene.  It is this week in particular when we as Christians are reminded that they could not save themselves, that they were all in desperation of God’s grace.

It is a truth that Jason learned prior to and after his baptism, and it is a truth that some of you have learned since his passing.  Prior to his baptism, Jason and spent some time in discussions.  He wanted desperately for that water, when poured over his head in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to be a magical wand of sorts.  He wanted desperately to believe that all of one’s problems go away when one is baptized into the family.  I remember well his sense of disappointment when I told them that it often did not work that way.  If anything, I warned him, the attacks and pressures get even worse, as His enemy delights in our failures.  So many people represent that adoption equals no more financial worries, no more disease worries, no more relationship problems, no more addictions, no more sins.  When such proves not to be the case, one can easily lose heart and, more importantly, faith.  Baptism, I reminded Jason, was simply God’s promise that He would redeem everything in his life.  Everything.  All the bad choices, all the sins, all the hurts, all the anguish--Christ would redeem.  It would not happen as quickly as Jason would want.  It would likely not happen the way the he or I would want or expect.  But I assured him that it would happen.

No doubt some of you gathered here have heard versions of that lie that Jason believed before he came into my office that day.  How many of you have heard “If he really believed, he would have never fallen back into the addictions.”  “If he really called Jesus Lord, he would never have killed himself and earned himself a spot in hell.”  Some of you gathered here may even be telling yourself that “if only you would have’s” he would still be alive.  Make no mistake, nobody here was responsible for his death.  Jason would be the last to stand among us and condemn us.  Jason would acknowledge that some of you had every right to be angry with him for his failures or poor choices.  Jason would acknowledge that many of you invested far more in him than you ever got out of him.  He readily acknowledged the hurt he caused his daughter, his mother, and Rhonda.  He wanted nothing more than to cast off these demons and make each of you proud of him.  And today, were he clean and sober, he would likely recognize that what he thought was a good solution was horribly unfair to all of you.  So many of us gathered here still a journey with him to which we could look forward.  So many of us had hopes and prayers that Jason would grow into the potential man that we saw in those moments of sobriety and clarity.

It is for that reason that I am here, brothers and sisters.  It was in one of those moments, full of clarity and sobriety and determination, that Jason asked me to baptize him.  He asked that the effect of God’s grace would be instantaneous and miraculous, but he knew that there might still be miles more to bear his crosses.  And so He asked God to save him.

That we are here might causes scoffers to believe that God lost, but none of us can say that with any certainty.  Terri, Elizabeth, Rhonda, Sharae, Taylor, his friends from NarcAnon, those not present with us such as Kevin -- You bear no guilt in his death.  He loved you all or admired you all deeply.  If anything, Jason blamed himself for not proving worthy of you, of your love, of your friendship, or of your support.  Hear me again, you bear no guilt in his death.

For those who worry about his eternity, don’t.  Truthfully, it is none of your business.  But none of us, not a single one of us gathered here or anywhere else in this world is able with certainty to tell you Jason’s fate.  I mentioned that Holy Week is that time in the liturgical church year when we remind ourselves that every one of us stood before the throne of God deserving of His wrath, undeserving beneficiaries of His grace.  Christ’s promise is that He will not lose any given to Him by the Father.  And so Jason’s eternal fate depends upon those arms that stretched out themselves in love on the hard wood of the cross to redeem men, women, and children like me, like you, and like Jason.  Jason claimed that offer of salvation in a moment of sobriety, and so his eternal future, like all of ours, is dependent upon that fully divine fully human Son whom God sent in fulfillment of His promise to redeem all His people.  Jason’s eternal resting place, like ours, is dependent upon Christ who died for him.  From a human perspective, we can note that Jason took part in tons of support meetings, he availed himself of mental health expertise, I can’t recall the number of times he went through medical detox in the 6+ years I have known him, and he even tried the faith-based cure.  From our perspective, he struggled.  From our perspective, he strained agonizingly to get those demons out of his life.  The mercy and love of our Lord and the effort that Jason put forth will have to do for now.  Our Lord knew Jason’s heart.  I am content to leave that decision in His loving, saving hands.

Those struggling sincerely with all this might well ask, “Where is the redemption?  How can God redeem Jason if he is already dead?”  The simply answer I have for you is, of course, wrapped tightly in the Empty Tomb we celebrate Sunday.  Our Lord, Jason’s Lord, has power even over death.  If in His grace and mercy He acknowledges Jason as a sinner of His own redeeming, then Jason stands before Him free of the hurt and pain and addictions of this life already!  And those of us who share Christ as Lord know that we will one day also stand face to face with our Lord and can hope to see a resurrected Jason there to welcome us into that new life.  But the redemption may go even further than that.  Perhaps someone here or in his support group struggles with the same demons and the same temptations.  Maybe Jason’s end will cause them to fight all the harder for life.  Perhaps some of us here have struggled with the temptation to kill ourselves to eliminate the pain and disappointment.  Seeing the hurt and pain that is left in its wake may well be the memory that causes those that struggle to choose life and help, no matter the darkness.  And maybe, just maybe if I have lived into the authority given me by our Lord and Savior to be a herald of God’s mercy and God’s grace in Christ Jesus, if I have been given the grace to comfort His people in the midst of terrible suffering, those of you who have been wounded by Christians who forget all to often that He came not to condemn but to save, not to pat the backs of the righteous but to heal the sick, that the same offer made to Jason is made to you.  Perhaps you have turned a deaf ear and blind eye to that offer of love.  But now, when faced with the death of a loved one, you are considering your own mortality.  Why not, this week when all Christians are called to remind themselves of their need for God’s grace, find your way to a gathering of His people, and hear again or for the very first time the promises that He offers?  Trust me, this is a week for a number of new faces in churches, so you will not stand out.  Like many others there this week, you may even be unsure what it is you are seeking when you first enter those doors.

Terri, Lynn, Elizabeth, Kevin, Sharae, Taylor, Rhonda, and all those in mourning today:  Know our Lord shares your grief as surely as He did when Lazarus died.  This, all this hurt, this pain, this senseless death was not part of His plan.  God did not need another angel.  Our Lord wants only good things for all His children, so please, please try and tune out those idiots who will tell you such things.  I pray that God’s grace surrounds you and causes you not to hear, or better still for them not to say, such injuring words that misrepresent our Lord.  And I pray, in the days, weeks, and months ahead, that you will experience the consolation of His love and see with your own eyes and hear with your own ears and understand in your own heart the redemption that He promises to all His children.


The law will not be mocked . . .

As most in my congregation know, I am not a huge fan of sermonizing on High Feast Days.  Sometimes, I think we serve a good purpose trying to open up the Scriptures for those given into our care.  Sometimes, though, our words are simply a distraction.  Palm Sunday, when we at St. Alban’s randomly assign parts in the Gospel narrative, is a wonderful example of when I think a pastor should keep his or her mouth shut!  Of course, with schedules and health issues what they are, I realize that not everyone was able to make it to church Sunday.  So, not everyone has entered Holy Week with that personal reminder that He came to accomplish what we could not--our salvation!  So, what to do?  With the recent release of Les Miserables, Karen and I have been introducing our older kids to the movie and its various themes, just as a number of parishioners have been watching it just to see what the hullaboo was about.  There is a scene near the end of Les Miserables where Javert sings “I am the law and the law is not mocked . . . It is either Valjean or Javert.”  Obviously, the celebration of Palm Sunday and our entrance into the  liturgies of Holy Week cannot help but remind us that Jalvert’s observations are absolutely correct.

As I have been reflecting, we as a congregation these past couple months, we have certainly dealt firsthand with the hardness of the law, and as Christians we are always reminded by His Cross that the law given by God is never mocked.  Some of us know the stories better than others.  Since Christmas, we have had a woman, who finally escaped an abusive relationship thanks to the love and support of her family, face the horrid reality of cancer and death.  Now, just when things were looking better for her children, their mother is dead and the law will be placing them back with the father.  We have had a young man seek help for mental illness.  Because his “levels were normal,” there was nothing our VA could do for him.  When cops found him on the streets walking with a weapon, all they could do was commit him to a civilian hospital for 72 hours.  The law let him go after that, even though he had begged for help and new he was “not right.”  Now, he, too, is dead, and a family is grieving.  We have had another man struggling with the demons of addiction and all its consequences under the law, which spent far more time on punishment rather than treatment, finally give up his fight.  And those are just the lowest of the lowlights in our life together.  When I begin to bring in some of the horror stories about the lack of job security or actual job loss, the fear caused by newly diagnosed diseases, and the hurt that each one of us have felt in our daily life, we know the truth of Javert’s statement.  The musical might be fiction, but some of its truths are eternal.  The law will not be mocked!

As Christians celebrating Palm Sunday, we know the absolute truth of Javert’s words.  God’s is holy, righteous and just.  Throughout the beginning of Scripture, human beings could not approach the Lord and see Him face to face.  To see Him as sinners was to welcome death.  Once Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree, they were forced from the Garden of Eden.  Our ultimate spiritual ancestors, who once communed with God face to face, were cast out lest they be destroyed.  Such was His radiance that Moses was forced to encounter Him first as a burning bush and then as a cloud.  And still, the radiance of the Lord as a cloud was reflected in Moses’ face and terrified the Israelites.  To face the holiness of God as a sinner was to face death.  Other prophets, when they asked to see Him face to face, were reminded that they could not.  Even the high priest of ISrael was limited as to when he could enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple.  And the high priest had to wear a rope and tinkling bells because God takes sin that seriously (and maybe some high priests did not!).

All of that, of course, begins to change this week.  God still takes sin every bit as seriously as He did in Genesis.  Several times this week, we will read of the humiliation that Jesus faced, of the physical beatings that He took, of the blood that He shed, and of His death.  You and I will enter into those events of Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago and remind ourselves of the cost of our sin and of the love that Jesus, the Christ, bore for us.  It is truly Good News.  God loved sinners like you and me enough that He was willing to enter history, keep His promises to our ancestors, and enable us to be imputed true righteousness.

To some outside us, Javert’s next words probably ring truest.  “And my thoughts fly apart.  Can this man be believed?”  Can our sins truly be forgiven?  Can our crimes be reprieved?  Who has that authority?  Who claims that power?

Thankfully, and mercifully, we know who claims the authority and we have witnesses to its truth.  Though this week is often tough, as we spend a significant amount of liturgical time reminding ourselves of the cost of our sins (we are the crowd shouting “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!), it does not end in darkness.  In the end, God, who gave us the law and will not be mocked, ultimately paid the price for our sins just as He promised Abraham He would.  And we know the truth of that promise because even the dark day of Good Friday was brightened by that brilliant light of Easter Sunday when God raised Christ from the dead and gave all authority to Him!  Thousands saw Him before He ascended to make intercession on our behalf, and their stories encouraged others who, later, encouraged us.

Were that the entirety of the story, brothers and sisters, we would have reason enough to celebrate.  But God is a God of abundance.  Not only does He appear in the lives of those who came long before, but He comes even now to us.  In each generation He raises up witnesses to His Gospel and sends them forth into the world to testify to the Truth.  Our sins can be forgiven!  Our crimes can be reprieved!  I have met the Savior, and He has died for me!

To be sure, His death and Resurrection is not a magic wand.  His death and Resurrection is not a silver bullet that eliminates all our woes.  We have only to think of our individual and collective lives these past few months to recognize that truth.  But, just as we know that God redeemed the death of His Son, Jesus our Lord, so, too, will He redeem our darkest nights.  He will redeem whatever evil that raises its hand against us, if we claim Him as Lord.  Even if death itself stretches out its arms to embrace us, He will cause the sun to rise on us again and let us see Him face to face.  As the crowd reminds us at the end of that well-honored musical, “We will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord.  We will walk behind the plowshare.  We will put away the sword.  The chain will be broken and all will have their reward!”  That is His promise, and next week's empty tomb is the testimony of His power to accomplish His promise!

But, brothers and sisters, it is hard to accept such grace.  As the musical reminds us, the cornerstone can cause us to stumble and fall or it can fall and crush us.  At the risk of spoiling the movie for those unaware, what separates Javert from Valjean?  One accepts the offer and claims its promise of new life.  The other freely admits his heart is of stone, even though he is shown the exact same gift.  The ends of their respective struggles could not be more different.

This week, this Holy Week, as you journey to Jerusalem to participate again in the Last Supper, to be reminded that your Lord washed your feet, and to see the Crucifixion and finish up this Lenten Season of self-reflection, ask yourself if you are truly accepting His gift of love.  Are you embracing the life in the Light which He has now made possible, or are you struggling still in the shadows?  If the former, give thanks for the gift of grace and your acceptance.  If the latter, why not choose this week to surrender to His call?  Why not join His Body and commit yourself to His service?  In the end, only He has proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to be able to redeem all things in your life.  As people called to witness these events and hear the stories of redemption again and again, you and I are uniquely commissioned with every other person who is called to that Cross and the promise of the empty tomb, that one day, one glorious day in the future, He will act with certainty and power and restore all things.  This week, this Holy Week, reminds us of the cost of our salvation and of the promise and of the hope that we, the wretched of the earth, have in such a magnificent, loving, and powerful God, the one we rightly call Lord and Savior.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Behold! He has done, is doing, and will do a new thing!

     Our reading from the prophet Isaiah is certainly timely as we begin to wrap up our observance of Lent with the events of Holy Week and the celebration of Easter.  Our passage today reminds us that the Lord is getting ready to do a new thing.  Certainly part of that promise has already been fulfilled, just as He delivered Israel from the bondage of slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Dead Sea.  It is a great reminder but an even better promise.  Israel should not be able to hear the references to the water and not think of all that Yahweh has done for them in their past.  From the Passover event to the wandering in the wilderness and the manna and quail  to the theophany and the torah at Mt. Sinai to taking possession of the land across the Jordan in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, God’s deliverance of Israel was remarkable.    It should have been embedded, as it were, in their DNA.  No doubt faithful Jews might even be reminded of other acts of God in salvation history.  Certainly you and I should.

     All of that, of course, pointed to the Incarnation of His Son our Lord and the Cross and Resurrection.  You and I live on this side of the Ultimate fulfillment of that promise to do a new thing.  Christ died for our sins; Christ was raised for our justification; He ascended to heaven to make intercession for us and to empower us to do God’s will through the empowering Holy Spirit.  The events in two weeks are the focal point of all of God’s actions of mercy and love.

     And yet, you and I still live in a wilderness of sort.  You and I live in a culture which few of us could have predicted in our youth.  Nearly a third of Millennials now claim to be some variant of atheist or agnostic, the highest number ever seen in our country since its founding (if we read and believe the dire headlines, though I must confess I wonder who was taking surveys of youngsters for the first two centuries of our country’s existence).  Is it the scientific advancement or progress which has caused the dip in faith among our young?  The abrogation of parental responsibilities?  The failure of churches to live out their call faithfully and so inspire the youth?  Maybe a simple failure of the church to disciple our youth?  Bad preaching?  Too many soccer games on Sundays?  Liturgy too hip?  Not hip enough?  My guess is that for each youth, there is a specific failure.  It is hard to generalize what is essentially a personal relationship with the Redeeming God we celebrate each time we gather in worship.  By virtue of His willingness to adopt us into His family, we have tons of brothers and sisters, but that initial adoption comes after a personal response to His offer of grace.

     Ultimately, that reminder about the Exodus event to Israel is a reminder that it has experienced God’s grace in its past.  Better still, God is promising that He is going to act in a new way, that His grace will be experienced in a new way.  The same is, of course, said to us, the new Israel.  We are called to remember the expressions and lessons of what has taken place in history, but we are also reminded that God delights in doing things in unexpected ways.  It is those new ways of doing things in our wildernesses which gives us new experiences of God’s grace to share with others.  Those experiences become our testimony, a loaded word which probably makes some cringe, but which should simply remind us that we all have stories to share about God’s grace, God’s work, in our lives.  Each of us gathered here shares the realization of the promise of the Cross and Empty Tomb.  But each of us gathered here also have particular wildernesses experiences in which God has acted in surprising new ways.

     What do I mean by that?  Take our wilderness experiences of provision.  How many of us have genuinely been concerned about finances?  How many of us have been laid off?  How many of us have had difficulty finding a job?  How many of us have been forced to stretch our finances to cover others experiencing such difficulties?  Has God met our needs in the same way?  Of course not.  Sometimes we have that unexpected windfall.  Maybe it is a check from the company for which we work, maybe it is the state or IRS finding an owed refund, or maybe it was that ultimate sign of God’s provision--a bank error in our favor!  I am still waiting for our Lord to get around to using that winning lottery ticket in my life as a new thing.  Each of us has a story of how God met our need for daily bread.  That’s part of the reason we have served wonderful meals to the hungry and homeless at the Community Meal for nearly 47 years!  It is part of the reason we gather each week and pray the Lord’s Prayer rather than read or recite it.

     How about the wilderness experience of bad health?  Again, God has met our needs individually.  Many of us can point to good treatment on the part of physicians and nurses, though I must admit there have been a few times as I have observed the care of some of you when I have thought that good doctors are as rare as springs in the wilderness and, therefore, just as miraculous.  Some of us can point to “lucky” diagnoses.  We have gone into the doctor’s office for one reason only to be diagnosed with something serious, but early.  A few of us have been blessed to experience miraculous healing that stumps even our doctors.  But, each one of us alive and gathered here can ultimately look to the Healer for preserving us thus far in our lives.

     How about the wilderness experiences of relationships?  Some of us have been in abusive relationships.  Some of us have been in relationships that for various reasons were not good for us.  Some of us have experienced what it is like to be used by someone rather than loved, as our Lord first loved us.  But, somewhere along the way, we have met Him.  We have met the One who truly loves us, the One who knows us and all our secret faults and still loves us.  And once we became aware of His love for us, we were able to love others as He loved us or, in some cases, ourselves.  We still sin against others, but for most of us gathered here there is a genuine effort to love others as He loved us and to expect others to love us as He loved us.  And, once we understand that our sins against others are really sins against the Lord who made them and us, we rightfully go to them and repent when we sin against them and our Lord.  It is those wilderness experiences and His provision which serve as part of our testimony as to why others should join us.  Of course, for all this, there is yet a sense in which Isaiah’s prophesy still has not been fulfilled completely.

     In Lent, we rightly focus on our relationship with God and our need for a Savior.  We try, as a community of faith, to eliminate those temptations which lead us from God and to encourage those behaviors which help us walk closer with Him--that should be the purpose of all your Lenten fasts and disciplines.  And yes, these individual stories of provision in our personal wildernesses serve as wonderful stories about His faithfulness.  But ultimately, His promise is that the wildernesses will become a place where even the jackals and ostriches proclaim His grace.  One day, these experiences will no longer be part of our reality.  Behold, yet again, He is doing something new and it is about to burst forth!

     The same Lord who engineered the Exodus event, who sent His Son that all might be freed from sin, who redeemed your particular wilderness experiences has also promised that one day, in the future, He will do another new thing.  He will recreate that which has been marred by human sin and restore it as it was in the garden.  Then, then there will be no weeping, only joy.  Then, there will be no pain, no sadness.  Then, all our wildernesses will be verdant pastures.  And we, we will finally share in the glory He purchased for us in Jerusalem 2000 years ago and promised before He ascended to His Father.  For now, it is our task to wonder the wildernesses of our lives, as did our spiritual ancestors, knowing that He will provide springs of life and grace, as He leads us to that inheritance promised to all His children.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Our disgrace has been rolled away, too!

Our reading in Joshua today takes place at an interesting time in salvation history.  To place it in context for you, Israel has just crossed the Jordan River and about to take possession of the Land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Much has happened.  God has freed the slaves from Pharaoh, He has protected Israel from Egypt’s armies, He has provided manna and quail when Israel hungered, He has provided water in the desert when Israel thirsted, He has given the torah to Israel, He has punished Israel at various times for its unfaithfulness, He has even caused the first generation to die off as punishment for the unbelief in the face of those who possessed the Land the first time they got here, and He has provided a successor to Moses.  I have skipped a few events in their history, but you should get the idea.  So should have Israel.  God is in the business of keeping His promises.  He may not keep them in the way we want or expect; He may not even keep them in the time frame that we prefer; but God keeps all His promises.

In response to God’s faithfulness, Israel has tried to respond faithfully.  Immediately prior to our reading, all the men in the camp have been circumcised.  If the book of Numbers is to be believed, nearly 600,000 men have been snipped right before today’s reading.  That is why the hill in that location was called in Hebrew the “Mount of Foreskins.”  Although the torah has taught them to circumcise every male child on the eighth day, that part of the torah has been ignored.  Funny how we men do that, isn’t it ladies?  And they have also gathered to celebrate the Passover, the reminder to them as a nation that God passed over them when He slew the firstborn of Egypt, right before Pharaoh freed them.  

On this fourth Sunday of Lent, it is good for us to reflect how our lives are mirrored in the story of Israel.  Each of us gathered here, at least those of us who are not visiting, has a story or some stories of God’s miraculous provision in their lives.  I have heard story after story of healing, of monetary blessings, of the clear presence of angels, of words heard, and other miracles in your lives during the course of my six years here.  Most of you can point to His supernatural hand at work in your lives, and rightly so.  We serve a God who does sometimes choose to act in a way which leaves no doubt that it is Him providing.  Think of the manna.  Remember the quail.  Ponder the water from the rock.

Of course, God does not always work supernaturally.  As Israel learns, God often uses what is happening in the world around His people to meet their needs.  The difficulty comes from trying to figure out which events are happy coincidences and which ones are His handiwork.  Clearly, Israel knows that both the manna and quail and the produce of the Land are from God.  The manna had no other possible source and so was easier to discern, but the Land is a bit different.  How did they know He provided?  He told Abraham and all their ancestors that they would possess the Land in the future.  Now that it was coming true despite the odds, they knew it was God fulfilling His promises to their ancestors.

You and I face the same dilemma, yet how often do we decide it was not God who provided.  How many times have you or someone you known attributed a “cure” to a misdiagnosis?  By that I mean how many of us here gathered were diagnosed with a particular health issue only later to discover the issue is no longer there?  More often than not, we buy into the doctors insistence that something was wrong with the original diagnosis rather than believe that God hears and acts on our prayers for healing.  Better still, how many of us here gathered have failed to discern that found or delivered funds were really God giving us our daily bread?  It is far easier to think that the IRS just figured out its mistake, that a loved one just happened to be thinking of us and our need and dropped an envelope with a check or cash into the mail, than to accept that God cares for us and our problems in the here and now.  I could go on and on, but in this we are no different than Israel.  Do you not think people were insisting that it was blind luck that they had been freed?  That it was “a conspiracy” formulated by Moses to keep power among his friends and cohorts?

One of the promises of this passage, brothers and sisters, is that God is aware of our needs and that He is not only aware but will act to meet them.  He is our loving Father in heaven.  He is not some cosmic force, some handcuffed god, some figment of our imagination.  He loves us dearly.  And He will meet our need.  Sometimes He does so in the exercise of extraordinary works of power.  At other times He does in the mundane.

That, of course, leads us to another promise.  You may have cancer and need a cure.  I may be poor and need a winning lottery ticket.  Each one of us gathered here today has a perceived lack or need and its “solution” already formed in our own minds.  The problem is that what we perceive as needs, He might not agree.  And fortunately for us, He is always right.  When He chooses not to meet a “need” we have identified, there is a reason.  Either we have misidentified the need or we have not asked in accordance with His will.  How do we know?

Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.--God spoke these words to Joshua to remind him of what was accomplished that day in salvation history.  The shame of slavery has been removed by God.  They are from that point on a free people.  With that freedom comes responsibilities such as the right worship of Him, the right love and service of one another, and those other bits of the torah from which we began the service today.  That rolled away should speak to us even today.  To what were we enslaved?  Sin.  What was its consequence?  Death.  What was rolled away to signify to us that God had acted in salvation history to remove our disgrace?  The stone on the tomb.

Brothers and sisters, each one of us gathered has already been freed.  Those of us who claim Jesus as Lord and Savior have had the disgrace of sin and death rolled away from us.  He has paid in full the consequence of our sin.  He died that we might live, and live abundantly.  And, lest we forget, it is the same Lord who promises you that your disgrace that your sin has been rolled away who promised the same to Israel.  And it is the same Lord who promises that abundant life, even if death rears its head in our lives, who promised the Land flowing in milk and honey to Israel.  And it is that loving, all-powerful God who promises to meet your real need.

Brothers and sisters, we are now winding down this season of Lent.  In two week’s time we will immerse ourselves in the Passion Narrative.  In three week’s time we will celebrate intentionally His victory over sin and the grave.  But today, this day, we are called to reflect.  This day we are to remember that He has rolled away our shame once and for all.  This day, we are called to remember that we are a freed people, a freed people called to worship the One who freed us and to lead others to His freeing cross and saving embrace.  Brothers and sisters, this season of Lent I have tried to be intentional in calling us to worship God and to seek a closer, deeper relationship with Him.  Have you been intentional?  Where in the ordinary has He met your needs?  Where in the ho-hum humdrum of your every day existence has He met those important needs and you failed to see His provision?  I ask it not as one not among you, but as one seeking the same answers.  In a few moments, those few of us gathered will celebrate the saving work He has done for us in the remembrance of the Eucharist.  Why are we not bursting with people joining us?  Why is it others do not know His saving work in our own lives?  Have we, like the elder brother in the Gospel parable, come to take our Father’s love and provision for granted?  Have we forgotten the deserts in which others in our lives dwell?  Have we forgotten that this meal signifies, in only the barest, shadowiest form, the feast that is to come when we cross the Jordan and from glory to glory?  Do we not believe that we have been delivered and had our shame rolled away?  Hard questions, to be sure, but then walking with our Lord in faith was never meant to be easy.  And, remember, it is Lent.  If we cannot reflect on such questions during this season, then when can we?

And never forget this: if in the course of your discernment to the answers to such questions you realize that you have been blind to His provision or deaf to His call, there is no need for you to live in disgrace.  He has born the consequence of all our failings and rolled away all our disgrace.  All we need to do is repent, turn back to Him, and prayer eyes to see and ears to hear.  The rest, as it has always been since the days of creation, up to Him.


Monday, March 4, 2013

Do you know The Gardener?

     I had one of those weeks where I started to get a bit worried about my sermon for today.  It started off great.  Robin brought me the orders of worship on Monday for today, and I knew right what I thought the message we needed to hear this week was.  But as the week went along, I began to doubt that sermon was the correct one.  I lacked the important illustration or practical application.  Those are important as they are often the difference in preaching to you (and to me) and preaching at you.  I had quite a number of conversations with people this week, and then late last night, after I had imposed far too much on the grace of St. Paul’s Durant, I caught the Hail Mary.

     I will have to skip some details of the conversation.  My hope, ultimately, is that the family in question will find their way back to a church, and I hope it is our church that they try.  So, in the interest of keeping you and them on the same relational level, you will have to learn some details from them, if they ever show up, and if they ever feel close enough to you to share.

     Anyway, as I was unloading my stuff last night before heading home, he asked for a moment of my time.  This Lent has been like that, and I knew him from AA.  He wanted privacy, so we headed into my office.  He proceeded to tell me he had experienced the worst week in his life.  Earlier in the week, he thought he was losing his daughter.  The thought rightly terrified him.  She needed help and there was nothing he could do.  He was utterly powerless to care for the daughter he loved.  Never, he said, had he felt so impotent.  Now, as I said, I do not want to share every detail, and our conversation lasted some 35 minutes., so in the words of Inigo Montoya, “There is too much.  Let me sum up!”

     The nub of our conversation centered around the fact that here it was a few days later, and he could still feel his heart beating in his chest powerless to do anything for his daughter.  What made no sense to him is the fact that she seems to be doing just fine.  Doctors were really unable to diagnose her problem, and they seemed a little too unconcerned to make him happy.  It’s my daughter.  I don’t want to lose her.  In that brief statement, of course, he revealed his real impotence.  Against death, no matter how much he loved and cared for his daughter, he was ultimately powerless.  There was nothing he could do, nothing at all that he could do, if she would have died earlier this week or, alternative, was revisited by the symptoms and were to die suddenly last night.  With this reading weighing on my mind all week, I was well prepared for this conversation.

     The difficulty with such a conversation is that he is only “in orbit” of us.  He’s not a member of our church.  The blunt conversations that you and I can have, I have to work at gently and pastorally with those not formally part of the Body.  Where to one of you I might say “Why is it you are so afraid of death?” and cause you to re-examine your relationship with God, such an approach would probably fail miserably with him.  Mind you, I would expect every one of you to be worried if one of your sons or daughters were sick unto the point of death.  What I am talking about with this gentleman was that sense of hopelessness in the face of death that every non-believer and every believer must confront eventually.  It took a while, but eventually, he realized that the pounding of the heart that he was not sure what would happen to his daughter were she to die.  I don’t even know if she knows “Jesus loves me,” --that’s how uninvolved in church we have been.  Sadly, but not uncommonly, he equated being around church with knowing and loving God.  Like many in AA, a relationship with Christ had been replaced by the help of a “higher power.”  Meetings had become his view of church, even though they did nothing to further his relationship with God.  Worse, because he perceived himself as “in,” he assumed he could presume on God’s grace, that there was no accountability on the part of his adult daughter.  I’m a failure as a father, aren’t I?  If my daughter died not knowing God loves her, I was to blame because I never took her to learn or taught her that myself.  It was a terrible self-evaluation, but it was accurate.  To this point in the raising of his daughter, he had failed in the most important task he has as a dad.  Put in starker terms, if we as parents do not teach our children about God and His saving love of us or take them to people who will for us, to what kind of future are we likely condemning them?  The Holy Spirit can reach anybody at any time, but it is our chief responsibility as Christians to tell the generations that follow us of the saving works He has done and of our need for His saving grace in our lives.

     Our reading in Luke this week has Jesus teaching us to focus on the importance of our relationship with Him and the consequence of our sins, our mortality, our ever present dance with death.  Our reading this week skips back a few chapters in Luke from last week.  Jesus has been teaching about the settling of accounts.  The upshot of the teaching is that we can never repay our debts to our Father in heaven for all our sins.  Someone in the audience, who wishes to compare himself to others and look good by comparison, asks the question about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with the sacrifices in the temple.  To put this in modern terms, imagine the conversations about us were somebody to bust in here right after I had blessed the wine and the bread, killed us all and then thrown the chalice and patten, scattering and mingling Christ’s flesh and blood with our own broken bodies.  That would be a horrible scene, wouldn’t it?  Can you imagine the conversations about us?  They only pretended to be fighting slavery.  They must have been doing some nasty things for God to let that happen.

     It would only be natural for people to think that, right?  If God is all-powerful and all-good, He would never allow His people and HIs offering to be so defiled and Himself to be blasphemed, right?  Jesus’ answer, though, changes the focus of the crowd and of us.  Sin is sin.  It’s consequence is death.  There are no degrees of sin in God’s economy.  There no sense that He died more for some than for others.  There is only righteousness and sin.  Period.  And because there is sin, there is death.  Death is the ultimate curse of all our sins.  We were not supposed to experience death when He created us.  And Jesus reminds His audience and us that our focus should not be on the manner of death but rather on death itself.  In seeking to assign meaning to particular deaths, we and they forget that the real punishment is the fact that we die.  And every single one of us, barring His return, will one day face it.

     Just to make sure there is no misunderstanding, Jesus includes natural disasters in this discussion.  Jesus asks if the audience thinks that the 18 people who were killed when the tower fell on them were the only sinners in Jerusalem.  Of course not, all were sinners.  In modern times we might express this when we wonder why a tornado skips this house and hammers that house or why the earth opens up and swallows a man alive or why a country such as Haiti gets nailed by earthquakes.  But how often do we do that?  How often do we wonder about whether those afflicted by natural disasters deserved it?  How often do we preach karma and lose our focus on the real curse?  Part of Jesus’ point is that we miss the fact that we have to deal with death in the first place when we spend time wondering about the manner of death.  

     I say part because Jesus also wants us to focus on the fact that life is very fragile.  None of us knows when we are going to meet our Maker.  One of the dangers that confronts us is that we can take God’s patience for granted.  Jesus expresses that danger through the use of the parable of the fig tree.  For three years the owner has waited for the tree to bear fruit.  He is done.  The gardener intervenes and begs another year.  He promises to till and fertilize the tree.  If it bears fruit, great.  If not, the owner of the land can cut it down.  Too many of us approach our relationship with God in that way.  We are not alone.  St. Augustine in one of his famous works claims that his prayer was often “Please save me, Lord, just not today.”  Augustine liked his life of parties and hanging out with women of ill repute.  He knew God loved him.  He knew God wanted to save him.  Augustine just wanted to wait until he had finished “having fun.”  Not coincidentally, he knew all that because of the faithful prayers of his mother; still, he wanted to live life as he measured “fun” and not how God intended.

     How many of us are like him?  How many of us promise year after year that “next year, I’ll get serious about my faith,” or “next year, I’ll get serious on my relationship with God”?  Worse, how many of our friends, families, co-workers, neighbors, and others in our lives take our “not yet” attitude and apply it to themselves?  How many our like the father from last night who promise “next Easter / next Christmas, I’ll think about hitting church”?  We take for granted that attitude because God does not seem to be quick to punish.  We seem to think that we have all the time in the world to repent of our sins and get serious about our faith in God.  Would that it were so!

     The tragic reminder of His stories is the reality of our lives and of the human condition.  Each of us can face death at any time.  We have idiots who race through the four way stop sign out in front of church.  One of them can take out one of us in an instant.  A seminarian friend dealt with the death of a toddler this week from a gun accident.  Annette is sitting with her sister Barbara who, just when she seemed to be getting much in her life in order, found out she had cancer and would likely not live to see her children grow into teenagers, is close to leaving this world for the next.  There is absolutely no guarantee that you or I or anyone else will have the opportunity for that “deathbed confession” upon which so many count.  Tragically, our lives can be snuffed out by an accident, a disease, a natural disaster, or a military action in the blink of an eye.

     The real question, of course, is where we stand with God knowing that death stalks us unwaveringly.  Knowing that death is the punishment for all our transgressions, what have you to offer by way of repayment for your sins?

     Were the story and this sermon to end now, there would be no Good News.  Were it up to you and to me to make restitution for our sins, there would be no way for us to “get out of debt.”  All of us, when confronted with the truth of our lives, are sinners.  Each one of us has fallen far short of the glory He intended for each one of us when He created us.  We have marred and distorted His image within us.  We are all bad fathers, bad mothers, bad sons, bad daughters, bad neighbors, bad employees when measured against the righteousness He demands.  Were restitution up to us, we would be utterly without hope, indeed.

     Yet, notice Jesus’ instruction.  What can save us?  Twice in our reading today He reminds us that unless we repent, we will perish as well.  The cost of our redemption will be paid in full by our Lord, but we must grasp that offering.  We must turn from our selfish ways, our ways that lead away from the saving, loving embrace of our Father, and turn to embrace His will.  Notice, repentance is far more than an “I’m sorry.”  Repentance is a commitment to re-orient ourselves to our God.  No longer do we determine our own reality, no longer do we allow our perceptions to lead us from His will in our lives.  Instead, we ask Him for the grace to begin a new creation in us.  We ask for the grace to perceive what He sees, to see events for what they really are, to see people how He sees them, to love others as He first loved us.

     It sounds simple, brothers and sisters.  And the truth is that the hard work of our redemption was born that Friday.  But our work is humbling, our work is tough, our work is described by our Lord as our cross.  You and I, in humble thanksgiving and unbounded joy, must embrace a new mindset.  As servants of the Risen Christ, you and I are called to live as a redeemed people, a people fully cognizant of our shortcomings, our failings, and our own impotence and still to do those things He has given us to do fully expectant that His grace will empower us to accomplish His will in spite of ourselves, in spite, even, of our own mortality.  And to begin to do all of that, we must first acknowledge our status before God.  We must, in prayerful discernment, agree with Him that we are going astray in thought, word, and deed, and then commit to follow Him.

     Brothers and sisters, it has been three weeks since I called us all to a Holy Lent.  Three weeks ago I challenged each one of us to give up one of those behaviors which tempted us to fall away from our Lord and to embrace a discipline which would help us walk closer to our Lord.  If we have treated that call to a Holy Lent like we do our New Year’s resolutions, chances are we have forgotten the new disciplines and reverted back to the old habits.  Our reading and teaching today, however, will not allow us to remain the “same old selves.”  The tragedies described by our Lord and, hopefully, by me, should remind us that we are, far too often, easily distracted.  We confuse long life with a sign that we are favored by God just as we confuse our willingness to repent “one day” with a sign that we are judged as good by God.  Brothers and sisters, where do you stand?  Do you stand as one who has been washed in the body and blood of our Lord, as one whose debts have been paid in full, as one of the redeemed?  Or do you, instead, try to sand on the sandy foundation of your own making?  Are you one who produces good fruit, worthy of the redemption that has been purchased for you?  Or are you more like the barren fig described in this morning’s parables?  I ask these questions not as one who would condemn you, but as one who would remind you of His calling on your life.  The truth is only you, deep in discerning prayer, can answer that question accurately.  Only you know whom you serve.  

     What if you have been walking apart?  What if you have been living your life apart from that offer of grace that He extends?  What if you have treated Lenten disciplines as New Year resolutions?  What then?  Then it is my job to remind you that it still is not too late.  So long as you draw breath, so long as the Gardener is at work tending your patch of earth, it is not too late.  All that He requires, all that He asks, is that you repent and embrace Him and His offer of grace, the grace which brings light into darkness, which turns bad fathers and bad mothers into outstanding moms and dads, which conquers death and leads to eternal life.