Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Sermon

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

As we gather to celebrate the nativity of our Lord, many of us will have in mind that familiar Christmas story. There are traditionally two different texts from the Gospel used on Christmas; the first is our passage from John 1 and the other is from the Luke 2. It is from Luke that we have all those well-known details: the journey to Bethlehem, the inn in which there is no room; the stable in which Jesus is born and the manger in which Mary places the swaddled new born, the shepherds and the angels and their song of praise and the visitation to the Holy Family. All of these come from that passage from Luke. While Luke tells us what happened on the day that Jesus was born, our passage from John helps us to understand the meaning of this birth, why it happened.

John's Gospel opens with these deceptively simple words, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Though the words are simple, what they convey can be elusive. God's Word, like our words, is the Father's self-communication. The Word is God's perfect self-expression. For John, if you want to know who God is, then you look at Jesus, the Word incarnate. That Word was present with the Father in all eternity. It was there at the beginning of time in the word of Creation. In the opening verses of Genesis, we are told, God said, let there be light and there was light. The Word created and gave order to the world. The crown of creation was the man and the woman of whom God said, Let us make man in our image. The Father through the Word, created humans to be in fellowship and communion with him and with one another. Man is invited share in the communion of love that existed for all eternity between the Word and the Father.
Of course the remainder of the Old Testament is about how the man and woman turn away from God, believing in the lie of self-sufficiency and life apart from God. This is quickly succeeded by the lie that we can live apart from one another, so that by Genesis chapter four, we hear the muderous Cain say to the Lord, am I my brother's keeper? In the succeeding history, God again and again gave his Word to the prophets who called the people back into fellowship with him. The Word, spoken through the prophets, told the people to love God with all their heart, soul and strength and to love their neighbors. This was not anything new. It was the way God had created the world to be through the Word.

The shocking affirmation of John is that this Word, the Word that created, the Word spoken through the prophets, became flesh. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. The Word would no longer need to come to man through the medium of creation or through the words of the prophets, but there is a kind of immediacy. We can see and touch the Word of God in the man Jesus. In the life of the Word made flesh we see an outpouring of love. Jesus persisted and persevered in love for the Father and for man, even when that love led him to Calvary. There is an exercise I do with our children and ask them how much God loves us. Not this much (hands close together). Nor even this much (a little further apart), but this much (with hands extended). It is the position of crucifixion but also of embrace. He persisted in love so that we could be restored to communion with God and one another.

To put it quite simply, the truth of Christmas is that, as John says, the light shineth in darkness. And in his first epistle, John states, the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth. All of this is represented in the church by all the candles that are burning tonight. In that simple stable over 2000 years ago, a light of love was placed before us and before all humanity. There is no extinguishing this light because this light is a persevering love. Even the worst of human darkness cannot overcome it. Now that we are on this side of that birth in Bethlehem, we are called to put all our lives in that light. We have to let go of those lies that have been around since the beginning of creation, namely that we can live apart from God and apart from one another. The God who made us is our soul's food; we need him and he is our true happiness. The same God has declared, it is not good that man should be alone. We need one another, in all particularities and diversities. This Christmas, let us turn again to this light of love and embrace the greatest gift we will ever receive, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

3rd Sunday in Advent

And he confessed and denied not, but confessed, I am not the Christ.

This third Sunday in Advent is traditionally given to reflecting on and praying for the ordained ministry of the church. The collect for this Sunday in the traditional prayer book highlights the similarity between the ministry of John the Baptist which prepared the way for Christ's first coming and the ministry of the Christian church today which prepares the way for his second coming. In short, the life, witness and ministry of John the Baptist are a model for Christian priests and ministers to follow, and help to give all a sense of what a priest is and what he is not. This morning I want to examine the Gospel lesson to see what we can glean about Christian ministry from the example and words of John.

In the opening verses of our passage, we are told that the Jewish leaders sent an embassy  to John to find out what kind of credentials he has. It is clear that John does not fit the established religious institutions and conventions of his time. He is in the fray, and they want to know exactly who he is and what he is doing. John is not hesitant to say, I am not the Christ, I am not Elijah or one of the prophets. You see a foundation of John's ministry was to point away from himself. Later on in John's Gospel, he will say, I must decrease, but he, that is Jesus, must increase. Christian ministry in the same way is always about pointing away from self. The most important things a Christian priest can do are not about the priest as an individual but about being a vessel for God's grace and a witness to new life in Jesus Christ. It is all too easy for priests, and for the people they serve, to fall into the trap of the cult of personality. The priest can begin to tout what a great person he is. He can begin to worship on the altar of popularity, forgetting that a priest has to have the courage to speak truth which must sometimes make him unpopular. In all of this, the priest has to say, I am not the Christ, I am not your messiah. God's grace was with you long before I came along, and your relationship with him will still be there even after I am gone. This is why I shy away from lots of personal anecdotes in my preaching. Personal anecdotes might help you feel connected to me as a person, but they probably won't make you feel connected to God. In the final estimation, when you step out of this church, I don't want you to remember some personal anecdote about me, but the message of God's grace and love. There is a time and place for getting to know each other on a personal level, as fellow Christians, but I don't believe that time and place is in the pulpit.

But I digress, in the Gospel lessons, those sent to question John persist in their inquiries. You're not the Christ; you're not Elijah; you're not that prophet, but you have to be something, they say, and indeed, John says that he is the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. John is alluding to a passage in the book of Isaiah in which the prophet announces a word of hope and redemption for those who had gone into exile. One of the most important events in the Old Testament was the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews to Babylon. The trip was a long one; nearly a thousand miles, and there was no direct route. You had to go  far north of Jerusalem, and then loop towards the southwest toward present day Baghdad. The route as the crow flies from Jerusalem to Babylon is an expansive desert, largely uninhabited both in ancient and modern times. Isaiah describes a homecoming for the exiled Jews through this wilderness. The familiar words from Isaiah read, “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.” Of course, this never literally happened. There was no highway running through the Arabian desert for the Jewish exiles to come home to Jerusalem. What was Isaiah's meaning and John's meaning by quoting this passage? The idea is that in God, there is a straight path back to fellowship with him, not because in our human disorder we have finally sorted things out, but because God has made a way for us in Jesus Christ. Every obstacle that could separate us from the love and mercy of our Creator has been taken away. The great mountain of human hostility and rebellion against God has been laid low. The great valley of human despair in living apart from God has been raised up. John was preparing the way for Jesus Christ, and that in him, we have our highway to God. The Christian minister is called to this same proclamation. It is all too-tempting for Christian ministers to set up false obstacles between God's love and his people. A minister can preach endlessly that people are not worthy, and they aren't, but that isn't the point, my friends. We're not worthy, but the Gospel isn't about us; it is about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The Gospel is not dependent, thank God, on our worthiness, but on God's decision to love us and restore us in Jesus. Ministers can also set up obstacles in the way they act towards outsiders: the subtext often is maybe if you work really hard and become exactly like us, you could become a part of this church. God has flung open the doors; he has made the path straight to his redeeming grace. God doesn't need his ministers to be the gate-keeper. He needs them to be stewards of this good news for all people.

So, to sum up, John's ministry shows that Christian ministers have to point away from themselves to Jesus Christ, and their central proclamation is to be about the highway to God, established in Jesus Christ. But it should also be said, that every Christian has a ministry as well, whether it is in your home or place of work or in community work or even in politics. We all have our vocations to which God has called us, and none is any better or less than other, just different. The same applications that we've made from John's ministry about priests and ministers apply to each of us. Each of our lives have been created, preserved, and redeemed by God's grace. There really is no boasting in our own strength because everything we have and are is from the Lord. All of us are to point away from ourselves, like John, to a greater one. In addition, in our interactions with others, we should not divide humanity into two classes: the redeemed or potentially redeemed and the unredeemable. In God, there is a highway. We have to treat others as if at any moment the invitation to come home to God down this highway will strike them like a clap of thunder. Are we setting up man-made hills and digging trenches to the love and grace of God, or are we witnesses of God's highway, God's great redeeming love in Jesus Christ?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

2nd Sunday of Advent

Prepare ye the way of the Lord

Today is the Sunday of Advent when we think about St. John the Baptist. The purpose of John the Baptist's ministry was to prepare the way for Jesus. Luke the Evangelist tells us that John and Jesus were cousins, but it is apparent that John began to preach and minister some time before his cousin. John went down into the area near where the Jordan River meets the Dead Sea. He told people to repent, which is a twofold action: to turn away from sin and turn to God. When they repented, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. The purpose of all those prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, David, Moses--was to point forward to the coming messiah Jesus, and for this reason, we do not have prophets any more in this Old Testament sense because the messiah has come. When Jesus did finally enter the scene as a grown man, his preaching largely consisted of the message of the kingdom of God. What is the kingdom of God, you might ask? The kingdom of God is God's rule and reign over every human disorder, chaos and sin, and even over death. Jesus showed that he was the ambassador of this kingdom by giving freedom to the burdened and oppressed, healing those who were sick and afflicted, and telling people that their sins were forgiven. We too can have our share in this invisible kingdom, with a king who has ascended in tothe heavenly places. As we are redeemed, we have new life in this kingdom. Burdens are lifted, afflictions of soul and body are healed; assurance of forgiveness is given in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion and in the proclamation of the truth that Jesus has made the one true and eternal sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.

John's message was that of repentance: he said, repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. What we need to be reminded of today is that John's message was not just for his time and place. It is easy for us to talk about God's love and grace and how he invites us into his kingdom, but we forget that he also calls us to repentance and new life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer used to talk about cheap grace by which he meant when we sooth the conscience by pious but ineffectual platitudes or when we tell ourselves that it is acceptable to God if we continue in our self-destructive, sinful behavior. You see, the message of John about repentance and the message of Jesus about the kingdom and new life go together.

The way I like to think of this is that grace and judgment are two sides of the same coin. God gives us new life, but he also tells us that the way we are living now needs to change. That is the best type of love because it seeks for our good. Put another way, the Gospel is truly good news for us and for all, but if the Gospel is rightly to be proclaimed, it also comes with the bad news that we have to change, we need to repent. Even this, with a bit of perspective, is good news because sin and selfishness enslaves us. The Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt, you recall, were told that God was going to be their God and they would be his people. They did have to leave Egypt, however, and that meant leaving the supposed comforts of slavery. This was the bad news of the Gospel and why some of the Hebrews complained that they wanted to go back to Egypt.

We know that sin is self-destructive to us and harmful to others. We need to be told that. God calls us away from these things in repentance, and at the same time, he invites us to new life in him. You see, there will always be the need for the proclamation of John the Baptist to turn away from sin and the serving of self so that we can find new life and abiding love in God's everlasting kingdom.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

1st Sunday in Advent

Thou hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities.

With the first Sunday of Advent we come to the beginning of a new church year. Just as with the beginning of the secular year, we are called at the beginning of the church year to make resolutions in good faith and to rekindle our minds and affections for the things of God. The church year begins on the sober note of Advent, one of two penitential seasons of the church year. In Advent, we recall the three comings or Advents of our Lord Jesus, his first coming in the flesh in the stable in Bethlehem; his second coming in glory which we await with hope; finally his coming into our souls. The traditional Gospel for this Sunday is the account of Jesus cleansing the temple which is a perfect image for how he comes into our souls. We are to be the temple of the Holy Ghost, and every thing in our lives that is not godly he demands we surrender. He casts out that which is not of him. It is not simply enough that we do the right things externally, he tells us that we need new hearts. In the book of Ezekiel, the Lord says that he will remove the stoney hearts of his people and give to them hearts of flesh. He wants, in other words, to take every thought captive for Christ and to direct our love and affections to that which is good and noble and beautiful.

The truth is that so often, instead of choosing that which is good and noble and beautiful, we chase that which is bad and harmful and destructive. When it comes to sin, you see, most are not that different than from the alcoholic: we just cannot help ourselves. The addict will almost always say that he wants to quit; he is not proud of his behavior; yet he finds himself powerless to resist his hunger for alcohol. So too, rarely are we proud of our sin; we know it is destructive, and yet we keep returning to it. One of the axioms of theology is that sin is its own punishment. Sometimes we witness this firsthand with our children. They make a poor choice and the result of that poor choice is something painful or uncomfortable. The prophet states the truth of this axiom when, in speaking to the Lord, he says, “Thou hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities.”

Many of us are likely to excuse ourselves for our sins. One definition for sin is simple transgression of God's law. When we speak of God's law, we usually mean the Ten Commandments, but how do our lives actually measure up if we take serious inventory of the ways we have broken these commandments. The first two commandments are about giving God his due and not committing idolatry. Now the common conception of idolatry is that it has to do with bowing down and worshiping images and statues. That is of course idolatry, but it is not the full extent of idolatry nor even the grossest kind of idolatry. Idolatry is anytime one gives to something or someone that is not god that which is due to God. When our greatest hope is for material goods or a perfect family or worldly success we are giving to what is not god what is due to God. When we think that some creature can make us truly happy, we are falling into the same trap. Idolatry then is far more common that we might be apt to think. In fact, John Calvin wrote that the human heart is an idol factory. The third commandment prohibits taking the name of the Lord in vain. This fairly well covers both cursing and hypocrisy, hypocrisy being when we pretend to be something that we know we are not. The fourth commandment is about keeping holy the sabbath day. We might ask ourselves is Sunday set aside as a day dedicated to the Lord, a kind of first fruits of our time? The fifth is about honoring our parents, which I think can be extended to all the authorities to which we are rightfully subject. The sixth is about not committing murder. O good, you might say, finally one I am not guilty of, but Jesus says that if we bear anger toward a brother or say 'you fool' to a fellow human being, we are guilty of breaking this law also. I don't think I need go any further; we are all guilty, and we are probably feeling like the Jews who wept at the reading of the law by Ezra because they realized how far astray they had gone. The bad news is that the verdict has come in and we are all guilty before the Judge.

In Advent, we should think about what are known as the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, hell. We know that when our Lord Jesus returns, he will not find us perfect or without sin. The one thing he does ask us to do is to surrender to him our sins. You see, a lot of people want to cling to their sins. They are not ready to give them up. They are like St. Augustine who in his Confessions wrote, Lord, give me chastity, but not yet. The worst imaginable thing is that the Lord would hand us over to these sins, to give us into the hands of our iniquities. In the collect for Advent, we ask God to “give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness.” It is time to open our hands, time to let go of our sin and rebellion against God and to open the doors of our hearts to let the master come in and cleanse his temple.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

Cast ye out the unprofitable servant into outer darkness.  

One of the most comforting messages of the Bible is that no injustice will escape the judgment of God. All of the lessons this morning highlight this affirmation of Scripture, as well as emphasizing the immediacy of this judgment. Zephaniah, like many of the Old Testament prophets, speaks of “the day of the Lord,” a day of reckoning in which the Lord will give to each according to his desserts. In the Epistle, Paul speaks of the day of the Lord as coming like a thief in the night; the Lord's return will be swift and unexpected. Finally, in the Gospel lesson, our Lord describes in a parable the final judgment; the parable describes an accounting for entrusted goods at the return of the rightful owner of those goods

The first thing that needs to be said about this parable is that the talents referred to are a measure of weight that was used in the ancient world for precious metals. Basically the owner entrusts his money to his servants; in modern terms they might be thought of as day traders. So the parable is representing the shrewdness of the servants with their master's money. It would be a mistake to conclude that the parable is basically about financial stewardship.

Let me explain. We all know that we come into this world entirely dependent on others for our care and nurture. In fact, we don't even have a choice about being born, and for many years, we are dependent on the love and care of others to provide for all of our needs, from the basic needs for food and shelter to the more subtle but no less necessary things like human interaction and conversation which allow for the development of speech. From a theological perspective, we would say that our entire lives are dependent for their origin and continuation on God. Everything we have and are is dependent on others and in the final estimation all is dependent on God alone.

What is interesting about the servants in the parable is that they have no property of their own. They are not told to go out and build a fortune out of nothing. The parable would have had a very different message had it been about many of our forbears who came to this country with nothing and by hard work and discipline achieved great success. Such a story would be inspiring, but it would not be good news. The servants do not have anything of their own. They trade what they have received. This is an honest assessment of the human condition. We have our origin in God. We owe our birth to our parents. We owe our eduction to our parents and teachers. Should we have it, we owe our good health to doctors and the Lord's care. Our response to all this really should be an immense sense of gratitude. There is a beautiful prayer of thanksgiving in the prayer book that probably many of you know. It states this truth in a beautifully poetic way: we bless thee for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life. But as Christians we have even more than these things: we have the knowledge of God's abundance grace and the power of faith to hold us through all of life's trials. The prayer goes on to say, but above all, [we bless thee] for the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. 

Occasionally, people will ask questions like, if Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, the only way to the Father, what will be the eternal fate of the native, half a world away, who has never had occasion to hear the Gospel? My friends, I have much greater concern for the bishops and ministers of our church who have been entrusted with so much; some of whom cannot state with sincerity or faith the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have no desire to be a controversialist, but I am very dismayed at how our Gospel witness is undermined when Christian leaders speak of Jesus as a way, or my way to God, as if our faith were a decision of expediency or convenience rather than the life-preserver thrown by God to us in the midst of a life-and-death struggle.

We have been given much; our life and being, our health and continuance, access to immeasurable grace and love. The parable and the other lessons remind us that we have to give account for what all this, and the judgment of God is imminent. We know cognitively, even if we don't apply it practically, that we can die at any time. What God demands of us is not that we magically produce quarters out of ears or dollars out of empty hats, but that we open our hands in surrender. You see, the two servants did not pretend that the talents were theirs. We hear no report that they were particularly anxious to guarantee the return of the investments. We know that investments by nature have a measure of uncertainty. Those two servants opened their hands to put into trade that which was not theirs anyways. It was the third who thought he needed to cling to it, in a futile attempt at self-preservation. It is the third servant who represents the solitary way, the fallen instinct to go-it-alone, apart from God and others. When we tell God and others, I don't need you, we are essentially like this third servant, clinging to our talent. The first two servants represent the way of surrender; giving away what isn't yours anyways. It is the way of love and self-sacrifice, but paradoxically the way to fruitfulness and abundant life. Love is the only thing that does not diminish when given away; in fact, it grows. My friends, how will the master find us: clinging to that sole talent, or surrendering what he has put into our hands for his purposes?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

All Saints

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.  

Most people are very confused about Christian holiness. They think that to be holy is to be perfect and to be uber religious. Of course, in the world, the people that think they are perfect and are uber religious are normally some of the most hypocritical and toxic individuals. For this reason, some are actually driven away from Christianity because the mental picture they have of it is of people who are pretending to be saints. True Christian holiness is something quite different. If you examine the lives of those individuals whom everyone agrees lived like saints, like Mother Theresa, it is interesting to notice that they never talk about how much better than are becoming. In fact, with genuine saints, there is an increasing consciousness of sin and unworthiness. The road of Christian holiness is  on the one hand to plumb the depths of the darkness of the human heart and our capacity for despair apart from God and each other, while on the other hand, growing in the knowledge that we belong to the Lord Jesus, we have been redeemed by his blood and by being a new Adam he has claimed us as his offspring. You see, the Gospel proclamation is that we are God's children by virtue of our trust and faith in Jesus Christ. In the opening of John's Gospel, we are told, “To as many as believed in him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God.” As adopted children of God, the Lord Jesus is our elder brother. He gives to us his holiness and righteousness. Holiness is not something we can manufacture by our efforts, but something we receive as we acknowledge our sins and surrender to him as Lord.

This is precisely why we can have a feast of All Saints. It isn't simply laziness on our part because we don't want to honor each one with a separate feast day Rather, we are acknowledging that the saints belong together. The saints belong together because of whom they belong to and whose holiness they exhibited in their lives. It was his holiness that they showed forth in humility; it was his strength that they showed forth in their weakness; it was his grace that they showed forth in their insufficiency.
And inasmuch as we, my brothers and sisters, are humble; inasmuch as we are weak; inasmuch as we are insufficient, we have the grace to acknowledge that we belong to this Lord. There is nothing in us that can make us holy, but if we are marked as his then we are holy. And we are marked as his, when we are baptized, when we receive Holy Communion. These outward signs indicate the spiritual grace that we have to belong to him. He is one Christ, and all saints belong to him, whether in heaven or in earth. And every time we gather at this table, we believe that are joined to him and ask that “he may dwell in us, and we in him.” All those saints that have gone before us, the ones who are known and admired, as well as the many more who are remembered only by a few with cherished memories and stricken hearts, and even those saints who have been forgotten, they too are joined with us in Christ in our worship of God Almighty. As one of the classic hymns of our tradition states, we are separated from the saints at rest, only by the narrow stream of death. In this banquet of life, we are in put in mind that our communion with all the saints who have gone before us is established in God and in his Christ.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

20th Sunday after Pentecost

This is the first and great commandment and the second is like unto it.

All of the lessons this morning relate to love for God. I suspect to many that love for God seems like a vague subject. How can one love a being that is not visible? Furthermore, how can one love a being that does not seem to need love, being wholly self-sufficient? Our society does us no favors in the way it conceptualizes love: love is thought of as an emotion, a magnetic force impelling two people together, the chemistry of two souls. Such love can strike like lightening in the first flame and dissipate like fog in the morning sun of adversity. With so many divorces today, the cause is often said to be I just don't love him or her anymore. In most of these cases, by all evidence, they seem to mean that they do not have that jittery, butterflies in the stomach, romantic feeling.

One of the pieces of good news in our faith is that God, as the 39 Articles state, is without body, part, or passions. That God is without passions means that his love is a decision of his will while his anger is an act of his justice. God does not ever loose his temper nor is the basis of his love fleeting emotion. It would be foreign to his character to say to one of us, his children, I just don't love you anymore. Why? Again, because his love is a decision of his will. Before we were born, before we had done anything good or bad, before we had any desire for the things of God, he loved and chose us to be in his image. He sent his son to be our representative and head that we might be his ambassadors in the world. God's love, therefore, is unshakable and unchanging. It is based on a decision not on emotion.

In a similar way, when we speak of love for God, and the command to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, we are talking about a decision, a reasoned commitment, that should not be based on how we are feeling at any given time—because we know that to be human is to have emotions that fluctuate and change.  In other words, loving God is about actions not about feelings. One way to describe this active love for God is to think about the Ten Commandments. Traditionally the commandments have been divided into our duty to God—the first four—and our duty to our neighbor—the last six. Commandments one and two tell us to honor and worship God. We have to acknowledge his unity, while at the same time disavowing all other gods. While this might seem like a merely formal statement, to reject other gods has profound practical implications. It means that everything in the world that would claim absolute authority, or to which we would give undivided allegiance, has to be set aside. There are so many things in the world that try to convince us that things will make us happy: whether it is material goods, a good reputation, or simply money and financial security. Anytime we think these alone can make us happy, we are treating them as gods, giving to them the loyalty and worship that the one true God alone deserves. So the first thing that we do to love God is to forsake the myriad idols of the heart that seem to promise so much but give so little.

The third commandment prohibits taking the name of the Lord in vain. While this prohibition includes not swearing, it also prohibits empty and idle religious talk.  It is easy for religious people, you see, to do a lot of talk about God and not really to be converted. Remember our Lord quotes the prophet Isaiah, these people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. So, secondly, a way to love God is to speak sincerely and reverently about him. This is precisely what Paul is describing in the Epistle lesson. He did not come to the Thessalonians with flattering words or with elegant words that were in fact a cloak for greed. Rather, he came to preach the Gospel, something that was more than just a set of beliefs, but a proclamation of God's power to save and transform. Paul writes, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves. In a sense, we see Paul's love for God in this honesty and sincerity with the Thessalonians.

It is my intention and pledge to speak to you from Sunday to Sunday with such sincerity. In good faith, I want to point you to God. I will not offer you empty religious talk in the form of devout platitudes. Nor will I stand here and give you my insights on the issues of the day, missing the point that what we all need to hear is not my opinions about politics or society but the word of God.

But, I digress, the fourth commandment is to honor the Sabbath. This commandment  speaks to our duty to God in regular religious observance, including corporate worship on Sundays, but also private devotions throughout the week. Sunday worship should not be about our being entertained or even about “getting something out of the service.” It is about recognizing that God has given us life and all things, and offering back to him our devotion and prayers. This is yet a third aspect of love for God by setting aside time consistently and regularly to honor and worship him.

A final aspect for the love of God is, in fact, to love our neighbor. You see, the love of God and the love of our neighbor are connected. In his first epistle, the Apostle John asks the question, if you do not love your brother whom you have seen, how can you love God whom you have not seen? You see, to love God is to do good to our neighbor. Jesus tells the Pharisees the great commandment is to love God, but then he goes on to say that the love of neighbor is like unto it. The reading from Leviticus gives us some ideas on what love for neighbor looks like: it means not favoring people based on their outward circumstances like for example that they have a lot of money. It means not slandering our brothers or sisters or being the vehicle for malicious gossip. It means not hating our brother in our heart. When we do such things, we are showing our love for God.
It is worth asking yourself today, do I love God? Of course, we often must fail, if this love for God is principally about our actions. There is grace on hand, of course, for us when we fail in this great commandment, but we are called to renew our commitment to love him. In eternity, we are promised the enjoyment of a communion of love in the Trinity. Now is our time to train in this activity and fellowship of love for which we have been created.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

St. Luke the Evangelist

Heal the sick. . . and say unto them, the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.

Today we commemorate the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist. The word evangelist is derived from a Greek word that simply means proclaimer of the Gospel. To Luke is attributed the Gospel that bears his name, as well as the continuation of that Gospel, the book the Acts of the Apostles. We do not know a great deal about Luke. According to tradition he was a physician and a disciple of Paul. The argument is often made that Luke's training as a physician gave him special skills in attention to detail that characterize the books attributed to him. Another noteworthy quality of the Luke's Gospel and the book of Acts is his ability to depict a remarkable range of different types of people. Luke has a special concern for women, Gentiles, the poor, and non-practicing Jews—called in the idiom of the time sinners. Today we might speak of him as being humane. It is not surprising then to learn that some of the most moving parables are only found in his Gospel: the parables of the prodigal son, the Rich man and Lazarus, and the good Samaritan. So too are only found in Luke's Gospel the account of Mary's humble obedience to the angel's announcement that she will bear God's son, the encounter of our Lord Jesus with the tax collector Zacchaeus, and the realistic portrait of the two sisters Martha and Mary, the one who works tirelessly to host Jesus and the other who simply wants to sit and enjoy his presence.

One significant application that can be gleaned from the profession that St. Luke is said to have had is that Christianity and secular learning are not at odds. There is a significant streak in some Christian sects to put a wedge between the spiritual healing offered in faith and modern medicine. The traditional understanding is that God works through both supernatural and natural means: he can miraculously heal someone who is sick, or he can use doctors and modern medicine to effect the same end. Sometimes he appears to do neither, but more on that in a moment. Christians should not be afraid of secular learning, as if secular learning could undermine the claims of the Christian faith. Rather, Christianity has always welcomed learning, harkening back to Augustine's assertion that all truth is God's truth. In fact, the home of the liberal arts is really the Christian university. A strictly capitalistic view of learning would minimize the liberal arts because the utility and economic benefit of the liberal arts is so minimal, but we worship the God who of his own free will, not for any utility or monetary gain, created all things bright and beautiful.

The question, however, remains why God heals some while others who seem faithfully to ask never receive their miracle? Some have even lost faith altogether because they felt that God failed them in their darkest hour in not giving the physical healing for which they pleaded. The collect does not make any false promises that God will always heal. Rather, we ask God that we may delivered from all the diseases of our souls by the wholesome doctrines delivered by St. Luke. Luke, the physician of medicine became the physician of the soul by relating the story of Jesus the healer. All of our Lord's miracles have a spiritual dimension. They are never simply just a physical healing but also a spiritual release. This is why our Lord says to many of those healed, your sins are forgiven. But notice what our Lord does not do: we never once hear him tell a supplicant that he is unwilling to heal and restore. Are the Evangelists simply trying to paint him in the best possible light? And if Jesus is still Lord, even the risen Lord who triumphed over death, is he unable or unwilling to heal now?

One of my favorite hymns speaks to this very question. The hymn is “O what their joy and glory must be”; the text was written by the medieval theologian Peter Abelard. In the hymn, the joys of heavenly life are described: in that greater life there is a ceasing of sorrow and an eternal rest in God, our greatest happiness and contentment. The second verse contains the profound lines, Wish and fulfilment can severed be ne'er, Nor the thing prayed for come short of the prayer.  You see, my friends, in heaven every noble desire, every virtuous longing will find its object. Those who long for peace will find a greater peace than heart can understand. Those who long for love will be in God, whom we confess to be a Trinity of persons, a communion of love. In short, even if the prayer goes unanswered or appears to have been answered with a no, in that Jerusalem above the thing prayed for cannot come short of the prayer. Every good desire of the human heart can and will receive fulfillment there because wish and fulfillment can severed be ne'er.

The members of the church here on earth always will have the prayers of its ministers and people for healing, and yet, we know that death inevitably comes. In the Bible's account, death is a judgment for human sin. No man can reach the end of his life and say that he has not sinned nor in some way contributed to the unhappiness of this world. And yet as Christians, we die with hope for that greater life, a life given to us not because we are perfect, but because of what Jesus has done on our behalf and for all humanity. It is very important to realize that God's grace and judgement are not two separate actions, but two aspects of his unchanging will. Death is a judgment for human sin because God cannot have fellowship with our darkness, but there is a grace hidden in death. Death is a mercy in that our earthly lives are not prolonged beyond measure because life here is subject to many evils: here unfulfilled desires abound, the separation between brother and brother caused by anger and unforgiveness is normal. There is even the wall of death which separates those who love one another and seems to put an end to that mutual love. We are told in the book of Genesis that God guarded the way to the tree of life with a flaming sword and cherubim so that humanity was not given eternal life in this fallen and unhappy world; the exile outside the garden would not last forever. The way to new life has been opened now that we are forgiven and redeemed in the new Adam, our Lord Jesus. Those prayers for healing may or may not be answered in this life, but in God's eternal kingdom, we will have the fullness of his healing and benediction. We will, in the words of the prophets, abide by streams of living water. The leaves of the trees which line its banks will be for the healing of nations.

     Now, in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high,
     We for that country must yearn and must sigh,
     Seeking Jersusalem, dear native land,
     Through out long exile on Babylon's strand.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

17th Sunday after Pentecost

Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. 

In the Gospel lesson this morning there is a whole range of dispositions demonstrated in the various characters in the parable. Each reaction to the king's invitation to the marriage represents an attitude toward the message of the Gospel, God's invitation to fellowship with him. In this sense, it is similar to the parable of the sower which describes the various levels of receptivity to the word of God; however, that parable, I believe, is meant to be descriptive: that is, it is not telling us that we just need to try harder to be good soil. Rather, the parable explains the way the world is. It does not answer why some are receptive to the Gospel and others not,  but it does remind us that we should not be surprised to encounter all these dispositions in the world: we will encounter hostility towards the Gospel, openness to the Gospel that is hampered by being superficial, openness that is marred by worldliness, and finally sincere receptivity to the word of God. The parable this morning I believe shows us these various kinds of attitudes towards the word of God in the Gospel, but it is also telling us to do something about it. We are in the end to identify with the highwaymen who know they are entirely dependent on the hospitality of the king.

The parable begins with a king and the announcement of his son's impending marriage. The Bible ends with the announcement of a marriage. In the book of Revelation, we are told about the coming marriage supper of the Lamb. The Lord Jesus, the Son of God, will be joined with his bride, the church, the body of God's faithful people throughout the world and throughout history. All have been invited to this marriage feast of love, which will be the everlasting communion of love between God and his people and one another. But, of course, there are different reactions to this invitation, and we see this represented symbolically in the parable. The first of those who are invited to the king's marriage are consumed with their own affairs. The parable says that they went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise. In the one we see a collective symbol for manual labor, in the other a symbol for the industries of finance and trade. Both are never-ending occupations with no definitive destination. Nobody ever says, I have reaped enough corn; I have traded enough goods and made enough money. It is easy to become consumed by the revolutions of both and forget that neither is an end in itself. If we become consumed by these cyclical pursuits we will neglect the call of God, forgetting that the true riches, and the true bread cannot be seen or touched, but are in God the source of all goodness, love, beauty and peace. The disposition of those who decline the gracious invitation could be summed up in one word: worldiness. They are consumed with the cares and occupations of this world, as if our happiness and contentment rested in worldly things.

There is, of course, another type of reaction to the invitation of the king. These are hostile to the invitation, and in the parable we are told, they took the king's servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them. To understand their hostility towards the king and what it might mean spiritually, it is helpful to recall last week's Gospel lesson which included the parable of the vineyard and the husbandmen. In that parable, a vineyard owner rents out a vineyard to some tenants. When he tries to send servants to collect his dues, the tenants abuse the servants and eventually kill his son whom he had sent as a last resort. The application of that parable is that there are those who believe that the faith belongs to them as a possession. True Christians are not those who think they have chosen a religion and are practicing it to the best of their ability. No, my friends, true Christians are those who know that they have been called and claimed by God; God has chosen them in Jesus. The faith is not our possession; rather, we have come to realize that we are God's possession. The vineyard is not ours but the Lord's. In a similar way, there are those in today's parable who are hostile to the king and his gracious invitation. It is always baffling but true that there are those who respond to love and kindness with malice and malevolence. We will never in this world understand why some are open to the things of God and others defiantly closed.

But there is a third disposition, that of the highwaymen. The king tells his servants, go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. Highwaymen, of course, are not the prominent citizens of a community. They are not the kin and relations that must, out of obligation, be invited. But they are those who are passing through. They have no natural belonging to the king and his community of subjects, friends, and relations. We are, I believe, to identify with these highwaymen. We are those who do not belong, who do not find their home in this world, but are on the road, on a pilgrimage of growth and learning and journeying towards that greater life. Have you ever felt like an outsider or as if you did not belong? Have you ever felt handicapped by your past wounds, emotional or psychological? Then you are a highwaymen. You have been invited to the king's feast not because you deserve it, but because of the open invitation of the king who has gone out into the highways and byways of human life to call all to a feast of communion and fellowship with him.

This fact is highlighted by the puzzling detail that one of the guests did not have on a wedding garment and so was cast out. In fact, it was the host's responsibility to supply a wedding garment not the guests, and particularly to highwaymen who naturally would not be properly prepared to come to a wedding feast while on the road. This reminds us that it is not our righteousness that gains our entrance to the feast, but God's gracious invitation. At this feast he clothes us with a righteousness not our own but the righteousness of the Lord Jesus.

My friends, if you find yourself burdened by the cares and occupations of this life, like those who would not come to the king's feast; If you find yourself resistant to change and new life, like those who attacked the king's servants; then perhaps it is time to get in touch with your inner highwaymen, the person that realizes he does not have his act all together, who cannot claim to have a right of invitation to God's feast or even to be worthy of one. We are called to a feast today. A feast that is a picture of that future wedding feast with the bride and the lamb. We are gathered together as highwaymen, who do not presume to come to this table trusting in our righteousness, but in the king's never-failing property always to have mercy.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

16th Sunday after Pentecost

Verily I say unto, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. 

In the account of the fall of the human race in Genesis, Adam is asked by the LORD, Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat? God is of course asking the question not because he does not know the answer. The point is that God is giving Adam an opportunity to admit his fault before him. Not surprisingly Adam does not acknowledge his disobedience, but contrives a subterfuge for his disobedience. He tells the LORD, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. The audacity of sin is on full display in the sentence. Adam implies that his disobedience is somehow God's fault because he gave him the woman.

Like so many passages in the book of Genesis, the narrative is succinct but full of meaning and deep insight into the human condition. It is part of fallen human nature to seek to justify ourselves. Often even when people know that they have erred they will contrive excuses to try to deflect their guilt. Adam blames the woman. He blames the LORD for giving him the woman. He does not take responsibility for his fault. He does not own his sin.

Christianity is often the victim of popular caricatures of our faith. One such caricature is that Christians are those who pretend or imagine they are perfect. I do not even think that the goal of Christianity is moral perfection. No, genuine Christians know that perfection is not within our grasp as fallen human beings. A changed life can only be the gift of God. If you want to be a Christian, the principal characteristic will not be perfection which cannot be achieved in this life and in the life to come only as the gift of God. Rather, the characteristic of Christians in this world is that of repentance. But, in order to repent, there has to be an acceptance of real fault and guilt. The endless evasions, the stitching of fig leaves together and hiding amongst the trees, the blaming of God and others for our sins and faults, has to be cast off. This attitude is paralleled in steps four and five of the twelve steps which are to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and to admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Addicts—just like all human beings—tend to blame others. The whole point is to take responsibility and ownership. In biblical terms this is called repentance, and it means owning our past lives, not just the parts that we are proud of, and placing all of our lives in the light of the Lord.

Repentance is a motif that runs throughout the readings this morning. The book of Ezekiel was originally addressed to the exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar had removed from Jerusalem to Babylon. The prevalent attitude was that the exile was a judgment of God not for the exiles' faults but for the sins of their parents and ancestors. The exiles were angry at God because they thought they had done nothing wrong.  Hence, they quote the proverb, the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge. Ezekiel points out that they slipping back into Adam's subterfuge of blaming others rather than being honest about their real culpability. The exiles strive to justify themselves, but in so doing, they warp true justice. The Lord speaks through the prophet, the house of Israel says, the way of the Lord is not just. O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? God could have put these rhetorical questions to Adam: have I not been just in giving you the woman? Is it not, in fact, you who have unfaithful and unjust? Ezekiel's message to the exiles is one of repentance and new life. He tells them, cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. In other words, own your past, and God—not you—can make all things new.

Now, ask yourself a question, if repentance is the touchstone of the Christian life, is it easier to repent for those who know they have a checkered history or for those who fancy that they have achieved a measure of religious and moral refinement? The answer is obviously the former, and such an understanding illuminates the Gospel lesson this morning ,as well as all the Gospels in general. You see, the Pharisees, the outstanding religious people of Jesus' day, were not prepared to live into this repentance that all the prophets, including Jesus, preached. They could not admit and own their faults. In the final evaluation, however, they were like the son who told his father that he would do his errand but then failed to do it. They did all the right religious things, but missed the true heart of religion: compassion, love, care for the poor. On the other hand, publicans and harlots knew that they were poor before God, and so they were open to our Lord's message of repentance and new life. It was not a great leap for them to own their history before God and others, and in so surrendering to receive a new life. As the religious people of our own day, we need to hear in this lesson an admonition to forsake the self-justifying Pharisee inside us and to get in touch with the true publican and harlot within. We need to become the person who realizes that he is poor before God. Such a person is equipped for the true Christian life.

Despite the orthodox claim of Jesus' perfection, in him we see an example of what it is to be poor before God and not to justify one's self. In the Epistle lesson this morning, Paul exhorts the Philippians to humility, not thinking higher of one's self that he ought. In other words, having a sober estimation of who you really are not who you imagine yourself to be. He sets before them Jesus as the prime example of humility, in words that some scholars believe was an early Christian hymn: though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God something to be grasped but emptied himself. The part I wish to draw your attention to this morning is the statement, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. You see, though Jesus was innocent and free of every crime and offense, he did not attempt to justify himself before men. He did not argue with Judas that he was a good man and he should not betray him. He did not tell Pontius Pilate that he should acquit him. He did not tell the soldiers they were making a mistake. Rather, you see in him a total surrender to the Father and a self-offering for us his brethren. Though he could not personally repent of sin, he takes the sins of the world to himself on the cross. He does not turn away from the jeering crowds or the cruel soldiers, but says, father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Again, here is the call of God, to let go of the endless cycle of self-justification and surrender to God, offering ourselves in love to one another. It is the road of repentance, lined with honesty and transparency whose end is new life and communion with God and all the saints who are poor in spirit.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

12th Sunday after Pentecost

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. 

This morning's Gospel lesson can really only be adequately appreciated in the wider context in which it is placed in Matthew's Gospel. By the very ordering of the passages in this chapter, there are important but subtle points being made. It might be easy to think of passages in the Bible like a long train on which various cars are coupled at random with no real relation to one another. Jesus goes here, and then he says that, and then gets in that confrontation. However, the Gospels are thoughtfully arranged, and a careful consideration of surrounding passages shows how they are like interlocking pieces in a great structure. Consider for a moment the parable of the prodigal son. It's not found in any other Gospel but Luke's. There it is preceded by two parables: one about a man who loses a sheep and leaves his flock to find him, and who rejoices when he does find him. A similar parable tells of a woman who loses a coin and searches diligently for it and then rejoices in finding it. All three parables are about finding that which is lost and the ensuing joy. The introduction to all three parables is a note that publicans and sinners drew near to hear him, but the scribes and Pharisees murmured against him. With these parables Jesus was trying to tell the Pharisees and his disciples that God greatly values those who have been spiritually lost but are now found, like the publicans and the sinners for whom Jesus searched. Jesus did not come to found a church whose membership would consist solely of moral supermen or perfect saints. His church is a society of prodigals; it is a gathering of those who have squandered the manifold gifts of God and who know they are not worthy to be called God's children, and yet have been received home by their heavenly Father.

Such a careful reading of Scripture in concert with itself is the basis for a sound reading of the whole Bible. When we say that we are Catholic Christians, part of what we mean by this is that we do not take isolated verses and rip them out of their context in order to support esoteric doctrine. That is a hallmark of Christian sects and schisms that always seem to have a scriptural proof for their perplexing doctrines. The Catholic and Reformed way of reading the Bible is to read it in harmony with itself and further, to read it in partnership with those who have read it throughout the church's history, like the church father's.

Keeping all this in mind, it would be impossible fully to appreciate today's Gospel without recalling last week's Gospel in which Peter makes his great confession. Briefly summarized, Jesus asks his disciples whom they say he was. Peter replies, thou art the Christ, the son of the living God. In response, Jesus tells Peter that he will build his church upon his leadership and authority. In the lesson today Peter is found rebuking Jesus. There is a kind dissonance between the climax of Peter's confession and his confusion in our passage about the true mission of the messiah. When Peter hears our Lord's disclosure that he must be handed over to sinners and crucified and rise again the third day, he rebukes Jesus. Peter cannot believe that such a thing could befall the messiah, the christ. He was the king to redeem all Israel and draw in the nations. How could he possibly do this if he were dead? Peter of course misses the point, and our Lord's addressing him as Satan is in sharp contrast to the statement a few verses earlier that he would build his church on this rock. Our Lord would restore Israel. He would draw in the nations into the fear and worship of the one true God. However, he would bring this renewal not by the gradual conquering of nations, like a religious Alexander the Great. Rather, this renewal would come about through death and resurrection. His universal invitation would not be, come, be happy, do what pleases yourself. Rather, his invitation was and will always be a call to come and die, to come and die to sin and self and to be born again for love and service. If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. He is a king, but his power is not exercised in control and in might. He is a king born to serve and save. He is a messiah, but he is not anointed to conquer the nations with a sword; rather, he is anointed for a death and a burial. It now becomes evident why the church cannot be akin to the state in power or authority because her Lord is not a tyrant but a king who exercises a power of service; nor can the kingdom of God be built on earth because the reign of God cannot be compared with earthly states and thrones.

All this suggests that Peter got the words right in his confession: Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God, but he did not really understand the true meaning of what he said. It is easy today for both those inside the church and those outside to do the same. It is easy to think that Christianity consists of a set of moral precepts, perhaps among the world's best and most abiding. It is easy to think that Christianity consists of a set of doctrinal propositions to which you must give your intellectual assent. When we think of Christianity is these simplistic ways, we are like Peter making a great confession, but not really understanding the true meaning and mission of the messiah. Christianity consists at root in a call to complete spiritual transformation through trust and surrender. It is, as I said before, a call to come and die. This is an uncomfortable message for the settled, and that is why in the history of the church, its preachers and teachers and ministers have often lapsed into preaching morality or self-help or social issues. Deitrich Bonhoeffer wrote in the Cost of Discipleship, when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. Have you received this call? Have you decided to hand your life over to God in surrender and trust? It is and always will be difficult and scary to hand over control of our lives to God, but ask yourself the simple question, without God where has your life gone while you were in control? For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

9th Sunday after Pentecost

         Romans 10:5-15

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

When we look at the world it is easy to look at it through the narrow lens of good people and bad people. Particularly if you become passionate about a political, social, or religious cause, you will often lapse into thinking in terms of friends and foes. All of this is a way of either approving or disapproving individuals. In the words of the Bible, this is called justification. In a similar way, we can be justified , accepted before God.

But what makes a person acceptable to God? Now a common answer to this question is that we gain God's acceptance by what we do. If we do enough good things, God will finally be pleased with us. Such a view pictures the moral life as a long road stretching ahead, perhaps up a mountain. Only by tremendous exertion could one ever arrive at the destination of being loved and accepted by God. The phrase that Paul uses to describe this view of religion is the righteousness of the law. The righteousness of the law teaches that by the right things we do we are accepted by God. Paul, however, contends that there is a new type of righteousness that has been revealed in our Lord Jesus. It is actually not new—Abraham had this type of righteousness—but it is new in the sense that it has been made evident to all people. The righteousness of faith states that we could never be justified by works of the law because we can never do enough good things to make up for the gravity and seriousness of our sins. Imagine if a parent decided to love his children only after they were entirely perfect. God too does not wait to love us until we are perfect or even good. He knows that we are weak, both physically and morally. The Bible says that God remembers that we but dust. God also knows our wandering, our rebellion against his leading. Recall the scene in the garden with Adam and Eve. Up to that point in the narrative of Genesis, God has been calling things good: “And God said let there be light, and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.” The serpent tempts Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In other words, now Adam and Eve are going to be deciding what is good and what is evil. And this is the path of sin. When we decide to usurp God's power and authority—in the case of Adam and Eve the power to say what is good and what is evil—we fall into the destructive ways of sin, and there is no amount of good-doing that can dig us out this hole that we have dug for ourselves.

God however does not just cancel or ignore the weight of our sin. He does not just say, oh that, don't worry about that. No, sin hurts ourselves and it hurts others. Think of the record of human history: tyranny, murder, genocide, slavery, oppression. The awful weight of these sins and of the sins of the whole world, God places on the willing Lord Jesus. He, in the words of our liturgy, is the propitiation for our sins. Propitiation is a technical term to describe how his sacrifice pays the debt of our sins. And now we have acceptance with God, not based on what we have done, but by what Jesus has done on our behalf. This the righteousness of faith, and Paul describes it with these words, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. You will be saved, my friends, from sin and death, and raised up to new life with the risen Lord Jesus.

You can now see how to receive this righteousness—indeed it is not something that we can earn or achieve—we just have to open our hands to receive it as a gift. No long journeys are required. You don't have to do arduous and dramatic feats of penitence, like certain well-intentioned but misguided Roman Catholics in Mexico who walk up hills on their knees and practice self-flagellation. In fact, this righteousness of faith is on hand for you and for me today. This is, I believe, what Paul means when he writes rather cryptically in our Lesson, what does the righteousness of faith say? The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart. Another way of saying this is, in the words of Jesus, the kingdom of God is within you. You don't, in other words, have to go looking for it, like some secret, esoteric knowledge. The righteousness of faith, justification with God, being accepted by him is on hand right here and right now. No matter where your life has taken you in the past, wherever you have been, whatever you have done, God has shown his good will towards all in the Lord Jesus. He has shown that he wants to live in fellowship with humans redeemed by the Lord Jesus.

Even though we do not need to go anywhere to find this acceptance in God, nevertheless, there is a need to go on a journey. It is not the journey to find God, but it is the journey to share this good news of God's loving acceptance of sinners in our Lord Jesus. The latter part of the Epistle lesson describes this work, this journey. Paul asks the question how are people going to hear this message of love and forgiveness if they have never heard of Jesus and his great love for all. And how will they ever hear if no one goes to tell them? This is precisely the basis of Christian outreach. As a Christian community, we go outside the walls of this church, to show people the love and generosity of God. It is what our young people did in Portland a few weeks ago. It is what our fledgling outreach committee is attempting to do. This morning you will find in the bulletin an insert about their work.  St. Francis famously said, preach the Gospel always and if necessary, use words. Much of the work proposed by the committee is preaching the Gospel without explicit words, but we pray that the Lord will give us opportunities thoughtfully to share our faith in the context of relationships outside these walls. We reach out to others because we know we have been fully loved and accepted in our Lord Jesus not based on an accounting of our merits. Now we can, we must reach out to others with this message of hope and new life. If we have no desire to share this news, to see lives saved and transformed, it probably means that we have only been superficially touched by this message of grace. If you have discovered the abounding grace and love of God, the key to all human existence, then why would you keep this a secret? It worth sharing lovingly with others in the context of a relationship. May the Lord give his blessing to all the outreach which we undertake in his name, and may each of us as Christians have a sense of reaching out to others in the love of our Lord Jesus.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

When he. . . found one pearl of great price, [the merchant] went and sold all that he had, and bought it. 
                                                                - Matthew 13

In last week’s sermon, I spoke about the difference between our current existence and the hope that we have of that greater life promised in our Lord Jesus. As Christians, we have to move toward both acceptance of the fleeting nature of this world as well as surrendering to the hope which is God’s alone to give. The lessons this morning build on the themes of last week’s lessons with the motif of desire being found in all of them. This morning I want to say something about desire and hope and what it means to desire as a Christian.

The ancients spoke of four emotions: pleasure and pain, fear and desire. Pleasure and pain relate to what one experiences in the present moment: something feels good or it feels bad. Fear and desire are the anticipation of what is coming in the future, either pleasure or pain. We fear pain and desire pleasure. According to the ancients, into these four emotions we can fit all other emotions. Take anger as an example; anger is classified as a desire, namely, a desire for retribution and justice for wrongs inflicted.

A passing observation will show how much human decisions and actions are based on emotions. When we desire something we work towards the anticipated pleasure of attaining our object. It is axiomatic to say that sometimes the thrill is in the hunt. We know that sometimes, depending on what it is that we want, the attainment of our object leaves us unsatisfied and searching for something additional or better. Similarly, with fear, we try to avoid some future pain. Take somebody who finally gives up smoking because his doctor has told him that he is in eminent danger of lung cancer. The present pleasure of smoking is outweighed by the fear of future illness.
Now the ancients took a variety of attitudes towards these four emotions. One group—the Stoics—maintained that the goal of philosophy is to help train someone to ignore all emotion. Emotions are all bad, so the goal is to eliminate emotions or at least to render them impotent. Another group—the Epicureans—said that true happiness is found is seeking pleasures and avoiding pain. This is the “do what makes you happy” philosophy, and you can see how in many ways this attitude is exceedingly prevalent in our society today. You can also see that if the best thing we can do is enjoy ourselves, seeking as much pleasure as possible, then there is very little room for love, because true love will sometimes mean the experience of pain. In love one seeks the good of another, even if it is painful. Our Lord’s death is the consummate picture of this principle of love.

Saint Augustine of Hippo the great Christian theologian of the ancient world adopted the traditional four-fold conception of human emotions. However, he adapted it to a Christian perspective: for Christians the goal is not necessarily to stop feeling or responding to emotions, and it certainly is not just to seek out pleasures. Rather, St. Augustine proposes, there are good and bad emotions. A bad fear would be a fear for the loss of property because material goods are fleeting and will not give lasting happiness. We will eventually lose them when we are separated from them either by their decay, their theft or our death. A good fear would be for the loss of communion with God because in him is lasting joy and peace. Many of us realize how easy it is die alone and unhappy because life has lost ultimate meaning and purpose apart from abiding love and joy, apart, that is, from God. If you not sure what I am talking about, go watch Orson Welles’ classic film Citizen Kane.

What St. Augustine would indicate, what a Christian conception of emotions would show, is that our emotional lives are mixed. The problem with this world is that human beings are fallen. God gave us a desire for the good life, but now in our fallen and sinful condition we desire all kinds of things that are wicked and destructive. In our fallen state, we desire that which will hurt us and others. Think of the alcoholic who knows that drinking is killing him, and yet he still wants a drink. The modern conception of alcoholism would think of this as a condition of an illness, and while I don't believe that Christianity is in conflict with this idea, it does offer the explanation that we live in world where such an illness is possible because it is a fallen world, broken by sin and anarchy against God’s rule.

If we are honest, we are often a mass of different and occasionally conflicting desires. We want that which we know will hurt us or hurt others. We want two things that cannot be had together like abundant material wealth and freedom from anxiety: it is clear that the more stuff you have the more you worry about that stuff breaking or being lost or stolen. Sometimes it is as if we are groping in the dark for that which will give us lasting happiness, only to be frustrated by the handfuls of dust that we find. The Christian answer to all of this futility and confusion is the new life promised in our Lord Jesus. In him, we have the hope that our desires can be reordered; we can begin to desire that which won’t hurt or kill. One of the collects from the prayer book powerfully captures this hope. The prayer opens with these words, O ALMIGHTY God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men. It is God alone who can restore us to sanity in the words of the 12 steps. He is our only hope of reordering our desires, our affections as the prayer puts it.

The lessons this morning show what it is that we should really desire. Whereas in our confusion we desire many things, the lessons indicate that there is one thing that we should desire. In the first lesson, Solomon wants this one thing: wisdom, specifically the wisdom of God to be a good and just king. Similarly, the merchant in our Lord’s parable wants one thing, the pearl of great price. Our attitude towards the kingdom of God should be that we are willing to sacrifice and surrender everything for it. If all of this sounds abstract and remote from our everyday lives, our everyday desires, consider what Paul writes in the Epistle lesson: “we do know how to pray as we ought.” To pray, of course, is simply an older word for ask. In a way, we don’t know what we want or why we want it. God has given us his Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit, Paul writes, who intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. We’re yearning for that good life even when we seek it in all the wrong places. The Spirit prays on our behalf to lead us to that the true good life which is in God. All this requires trust and surrender to the Spirit within us. You can stay on the wheel of empty human desires, or you can give yourself to him who can give you better things than we deserve or can even desire. I want to end with the entirety of the collect I quoted from earlier. May it be the prayer of all of our hearts:

O ALMIGHTY God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men; Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Reclaimed child's rocker

I bought this rocker recently at a local garage sale for a few dollars. The lady asked me if I could repair the chair as is. I suspect this would have been impossible without completely redoing the rush.

There are few things that give me more pleasure than taking something that is old and useless and apparently ready for the trash heap, and reconditioning it and giving it new life. I'm told I come by this honestly, since my grandmother was much the same way, taking furniture off the side of the road and fixing it up to make it usable.

This project involved making an entire new seat, which I did out of lumber used in this project as well (bookcase). I used all hand tools to cut the shape and then hallow out a shallow center which makes all the difference between a comfortable and an uncomfortable chair. The rest of the work involved cleaning the wood and applying a little lemon oil. Looks good now for years to come (or as long as we have a child small enough to sit in it!)

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither. . . so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth.

The Gospel appointed for this Sunday is the familiar parable of the sower. There will probably be many sermons preached on this text today that take the parable as an exhortation or command to be like that good soil. Don't be bad soil, be good soil. Such an interpretation misses the wider context of the Gospel. In the passages that precede and follow our text, Jesus is confronted with the unbelief of the Pharisees. Despite our Lord's works of mercy and miraculous healings, they do not believe that he is sent from God. Theirs is a stubborn refusal to believe, despite the visual evidence. On the other hand, there are wealthy individuals, like the rich young ruler, who do not want to hear the message of Jesus either, because he demands the sacrifice of all to God. I would suggest that the parable of the sower illustrates the reality of different people's reactions to the work and word of God. Jesus is not saying be good soil, but rather illustrating the facts of existence. Probably many of us have wondered how people make it through life without a belief in God. This parable helps us to understand that this the way the world is. Some receive the message; some reject it; others receive it but only superficially. Another way of summarizing our Lord's message in this parable would be: do not be surprised if people reject or stray from the Gospel message. Even in his own time—even eye-witnesses of his works—did not necessarily become disciples.

A secondary aspect of this parable is that it affirms the truth that God's word is fruitful. It is no fault of the seed that it fails to germinate and take root. The sower could be said to have some culpability for scattering seed in unfruitful places, but if the sower is really a picture of God, it shows the liberality with which God spreads the seed of his word. The Scriptures say that God has not been without a witness in every generation. Evidence of his eternity and goodness is all around us in the ordered and beautiful creation, in the power of human love and in the diversity of human creativity. Each in its own way points to God. Furthermore, once we have been awakened to matters of faith, we can look back on our own lives and see the marks of God's working even when we did not believe. The book of God's word is now and always open.

In the fifty-fifth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah, the Lord brings a message of hope to the people. He says that, as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose. The prophet was writing to a people who had gone into exile in Babylon. Having seen their homeland destroyed, their city, their temple razed, they were taken captive into Babylon, a thousand miles from everything they had known as home. The prophets said that 70 years would pass before the possibility of return to Jerusalem. No doubt their situation seemed pretty hopeless and bleak. Isaiah reminds these exiles that the Lord's word cannot be undone. He has spoken a word of new life and hope that they will return, and whatever their outward circumstances look like, God's purposes will prevail in the life of his people.
We too are a people who need to hear a word of hope and new life. If you are living and breathing, you are going through trial and difficulty. This is the nature of human existence. Your problems may feel like a wall that surrounds you, from which there is no escape. But like those Israelites, a word has been spoken over you. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10, We are [God's] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. In the Gospel of John 10:10 Jesus says, I am come that [ye] might have life, and that [ye] might have it more abundantly. Again Paul writes in Romans 8:32, He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? The Lord has spoken a word over you. It cannot be undone. We might summarize the content of this word by the statement you are a child of God. There is a homeless man and chronic alcoholic who calls on me periodically at the church, usually asking for things for which I find it impossible to refuse: some socks, a pair of shoes, a sandwich. I long ago renounced the idea that people are simply problems to fix, so I do not think any of this will solve his many problems, but I do encourage him to go to meetings and invariably I look him in the eye and tell him that he is a child of God.

This word of hope and new life is spoken over my friend and over us not because we deserve or merit it. In point of fact, these words were spoken long before we were born, before we had done anything good or bad, before we were facing any of the trials and difficulties of life. The Lord will accomplish his purposes in your life if you will surrender to him. The reason we know this is because our Lord Jesus is the Word of God. He has come to show God's goodwill towards us, to give us new and abundant life. If there is truth in the Gospel, if Jesus is who he says he is, then God's Word has been spoken once for all over us and all God's people. You have been claimed. His word will not return to him empty but will accomplish that for which he sent it.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sunday after the Ascension

“This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”

There is a very human temptation to think that the sufferings and afflictions of life are an exception or interruption of our true existence. If true life is found where there is no pain or sorrow, where does that leave the rest of us? What possibly could be said to the chronically ill, the poor or the bereaved? There are moments of joy and happiness in life—and these are unquestionably a gift of God—but there are also many more times of trial and difficulty; these too are in a way the gift of God as well. In my observation, the happy times of years-gone-by is often just a trick of our memory: we remember the good and forgot the bad, like a whitewashed wall or an over-exposed photo. In the present moment, it is all too easy to wallow in unhappiness as long as discomfort persists. But of course life is full of trials and difficulties. If you are going to wait to be joyful until life is free from complication and difficulty, you may have a very long wait. We can predict some of the trials we will face in this life; many of them we cannot. After one has lived for a while, it is easy to slip into the attitude that life is a prison. In this prison of life some will maintain the idle hope of escape; others will be more realistic as they endeavor to make prison life more comfortable by distraction and vain pursuits.

The lessons this morning remind us that life is decidedly not a prison. Suffering and trial are not accidents that have no purpose or meaning. There is a sober honesty in the opening words of the Epistle Lesson, Do not be surprised, writes St. Peter, at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you. . . as though something strange were happening to you. My friends, there is a reason why those times of calm and peace never come in life; it is not the nature of human existence to be without trial and difficulty. If you are expecting the chicken to lay golden eggs, you will be disappointed every time the hen lays another egg of yoke and white. Life does not lay golden eggs. Peter then proceeds to explain the Christian's attitude towards the trials of this life. He writes, “Humble yourselves. . . under the mighty hand of God. . . Cast your anxieties on him.” In other words, once we accepted that this is the nature of life, then we are exhorted to trust in God and surrender to him. Consider the temporal suffering of Mary, the embarrassment and shame that would accompany pregnancy out of wed-lock in a traditional society. Mary does not ask God to be hidden away for the duration of her pregnancy or to escape her present existence. Rather, her response to the angel is humble submission and surrender: be it unto me according to thy word. This attitude is also wonderfully exemplified in the so-called serenity prayer, penned by Reinhold Neibuhr over 80 years ago, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.” In such an acceptance there is no room for self-pity or wallowing in misery, principally because when have surrendered to God, we become open to love, love for God and compassion for others.

But for Peter and for the Evangelist John, the most important aspect of the Christian attitude towards life is exemplified in the life of Jesus. His is a life as it should be. Jesus shows us the way God intended us to live. It is a life of total consecration and connectedness to God. On the night of his arrest and trial, Jesus concludes his farewell discourse to his disciples with the prayer found in chapter seventeen of John's Gospel. Our Lord says something astounding, “I have glorified thee on earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.” He is definitely the only man who could ever honestly speak these words to God. So many die with some vital work let unfinished. As human beings, we feel this loss for the unfinished. God, however, perceives all the love and compassion that we failed to give as well. He sees just how unfinished all of work truly is. It is in the perfection of his human nature that Jesus can say, “I have finished the work.” Now it is time for him to go to the cross. It is there even in suffering, even in death, that his consecration and connectedness to God remains unbroken. He was not just consecrated to God on the shores of the sea of Galilee, in the innocent gaiety of the marriage-feast at Cana, or in his peaceful entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He will offer his life in love to the Father, even to the point of death. This complete and unbroken self-offering is our model.

The problem of course is that we so rarely practice this self-offering. Rather, we almost invariably think of my time, my day. What will I do with my day? Anything that threatens to make claims on my time easily becomes the object of aggressive either explicitly or passively. Let me be the first to say, your time is not your own. You are a creature. This sense of clinging to time as a possession is a mark of our fallen and sinful condition, and God uses every means at his disposal to wrest this notion from us. First there are the responsibilities of a vocation and work. Then there are the duties of marriage and, Lord-willing, children, all of which call for our self-offering, to lose the notion that our time is our own. Finally, there is the end of life. There is either the slow steady decline of physical and mental capabilities or the precipitous and sudden slide to death. The suffering pulls us away from the delusion that our time is our own. Death is the final sentence that our time and our existence is not our own. But there is another path that we can walk in this present life. We do not have to wait for death to realize that our life and our time is not our own. We can walk now the way of eternity. We can be citizens of heaven on earth. Through self-offering, through surrender, the temple of our bodies can become vessels for the love and compassion of God. In this way, we can become open to eternity, the eternity of God. Our temporal existence with all its anxieties and sorrows is met in the man Jesus Christ, who goes before us to prepare a place for us, a habitation in God for all eternity.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Rogation Sunday

        St. John 14:15-21

And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever.”

In this morning's Gospel lesson, we have a continuation of the Gospel from last week. The text is part of the farewell discourse, the final teaching of Jesus to his disciples before his arrest, trial and execution, contained in chapters 13 to 17 of St. John's Gospel. In this particular section of it, Jesus consoles the disciples that though they will lose his physical presence yet he will send them another comforter. The disciples are distraught. They are sorrowful. They are in anguish. Their attachment to Jesus is more than just an attachment to an idea like a person who is rabidly attached to a particular social or political cause. No, they are attached to a real man; they love this human being, not least because he has opened their eyes to the truth regarding God and the truth concerning their human situation. In an earlier passage in John's Gospel, Jesus—not surprisingly—makes some controversial remarks. The Evangelist reports that he lost some disciples on account of those remarks. Jesus then questions the twelve, will you also leave? Peter's response is quite wonderful. It speaks to what the disciples felt about their teacher and master. Peter says to Jesus: “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.” Undoubtedly that question was rolling through their heads—to whom shall we go?--on the night of last supper. It goes without saying that the disciples’ encounter with Jesus changed every aspect of their lives. They gave up their professions; they gave up a settled lifestyle to follow a traveling preacher; mostly importantly, they experienced a spiritual transformation as a result of their encounter with Jesus. I suspect the mere thought of his departure from them would provoke a sense of dismay and revulsion. Deep in them a shudder would rise up at the mere hint of his being taken from them. They did not want their time of earthly fellowship to come to an end.

The man Jesus however was bound by time, and like everything in time, there is a finite end to life and human relationships. This is part of the pain and sorrow and frustration of human existence. But of course, our Lord is more than a mere man. We believe he is the eternal Son of God. In his person, then, both eternity and time are united together. This is part of the mystery of the incarnation. We live in a world of change and decay, a world of time. God does not just perceive this from afar. The Christian story is not that God is only touched remotely by a feeling of sympathy for our time-bound existence. Rather, God takes that existence into himself in the man Jesus. He knows directly the cycles of time: the circle of hunger and satiation; the annual cycle of seasons and harvests; the reality that in the days given to a man to live, he will be preceded by many in death; he will witness some born; and finally he himself will leave others behind at his death. Our Lord, the Son of God, takes all this to himself. He doesn't turn away from the frustration and anguish that time can wreck on us. His embracing of our finite existence reaches a climax in his crucifixion and death. The Apostles' Creed states that our Lord “descended into hell.” In the original Latin of the Creed, the word for “hell” is infernos, literally the place of the dead. In other words, Jesus did not just appear to die. Upon death, he didn't have the after-death equivalent of the presidential suite to ride out his stay. He plunged into the uncertainty of death, about which on this side of the grave we know so little.

Our Lord's resurrection is a triumph over the ravages of time. He, in the words of the Orthodox hymn, tramples down death by death. In these events, he takes away from us the burden of sin; in the words of St. Paul, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The disciples can and will know a degree of this resurrected life in this world, but it will only be a taste of the full transformation that is yet to come. They are still in this world. We are still in this world. Jesus tells his disciples that are living in time, “I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you.” Jesus comes to the twelve and us not in the physical reality of his resurrected body. Rather, he sends the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. Now we tend to think of comforting as that which assuages pain, sorrow or disappointment. However, the older meaning of comfort is to strengthen. The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, is sent by our Lord to strengthen us. He comes to give us strength to live in this world as witnesses to the light and love of God. It is the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who today communicates to us the reality of our Lord Jesus and leads us into the fellowship of the Father and Son. If the Holy Spirit has come, there is a source of joy that is not overcome by the vicissitudes of life. If the Holy Spirit has come, there is the power to love in the way that our Lord loved us, a self-less, self-offering love. If the Holy Spirit has come, there is a peace and faith that knows our Lord is aboard the ship with us, and we need not fear the tempest of even the fiercest storms: he will see us safely to shore. This is the Comforter from the Father, he that will abide with us forever. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Eulogy for my mother

On Christmas Day this past year when my mother asked me to compose a eulogy for her funeral, I was naturally reticent. She had been perilously close to death in the preceding days, but had miraculously rebounded very early Christmas morning. I tried to talk her out of her decision--explaining that I did not think I could get through it without breaking down. She was immovable however. My mother possessed an iron resolve once she had made a decision. Furthermore, in general I would say she asked very little of me and at the same time she gave herself so freely and completely to her family that I had finally to accept that she was not to be refused and I had little power or right to refuse her in this request.

It is true that I have been called into the priesthood and serve an Episcopal congregation in New Jersey. Today, however, I stand before you as Judy's youngest son, the last of five children born to her and my father. I cannot of course set aside my faith--nor would mom want me to do so--but my primary aim is to speak well and truly of her, and in this, I hope my remarks will represent the feeling of all of our family.

My mother was born in 1947 in Columbus, Ohio in a decidedly middle class family. One of the great loves of her life was her father, Robert Swan, who died tragically when she was only 12. Though this was a great sadness in her life, his memory was kept alive in our family by her warm recollections of him. Though he died more than 20 years before I was born, we always had a sense of him and that he was our grandfather. She gave his name to my brother, and I, in turn, have given it to my son.

Though my grandparents were not terribly religious, especially during the early part of their marriage, they had both grown up in devout households. My mother used to tell the story that while in Elementary School, she came home one day, and asked her parents what Sunday School was. After that, the story continued, her parents took her regularly to church, principally St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Park Ridge outside of Chicago. Here she was eventually confirmed and married and where her eldest daughter was baptized. Mom was always a daughter of the church, and served in a whole host of ways as a layreader, chalice bearer, member of vestry, member of altar guild. She volunteered at the gift shop of the cathedral here in Albuquerque for many years, and taught a Bible study out of her home during the last decade of her life.

Though she was very active in the life of the church, she would have been the first to say that all of that activity is no substitute for a lively and heart-felt faith. Although she was baptized, confirmed, and attended weekly service through almost all of her life, it was clear that she was awakened to matters of faith in a more substantial and thorough way after a retreat she went on with my father in the early nineties. It was during and after this time that she became a real student of the Bible, reading it through numerous times and becoming involved with many Bible studies. In her life, it has to be said, she was a woman of strong and abiding Christian conviction.

If my mother were asked what her greatest accomplishment was, there would be no disputing about her answer. It was as a mother. The trajectory of her life was clear from the beginning. Her life's work would not be the type of thing found in newspapers or books. It was not the type of work to gain her honors and awards outside of the love and devotion of her family. No, she always knew that she wanted to be a mother. As a little girl, she had her Jenny doll and picked out the name Beth from Little Women. She was naturally inclined to care in a maternal way for her younger sister Debbie who was seven years her junior. By the time she started dating my father in the mid-1960s, it was clear that she wanted to be a full-time mother. She loved to tell the story about how in the summer of 1966, three years before they were married, she and my father picked four names, Jenny, Beth, Robert and John. Of course, my mother had other occupations in her life--she worked as a special education teacher out of college and was a secretary for a non-profit in my teens--yet even these employments seemed to be drawn in and tied to her work as a mother. She always spoke of how her training and experience in education was an asset to her as a mother, and I believe part of her motivation in going back to work as a secretary was to help fund her children's education. In some notes that I took after she asked me to give this eulogy, I wrote down the following quote. Concerning her children, she said, "I could not be more blessed." She was not invariably proud of decisions I or my siblings made, but there was never any question of the constancy of her love as a mother.

Dad, it was clear that she loved you in part because you gave her what she always wanted: a family; she also loved you because you supported her in the work that she most wanted to do: being a stay-at-home mother. But in addition, it was evident to all that you were the love of her life. My mother was not quick to judge those who remarried after being widowed. She said that often times people remarry because marriage had been good to them. In a sense, remarrying could be a tribute to a happy marriage. She also said that for others, one marriage could give the fullness of matrimony; for these, remarriage would never be an alluring option. Dad, I believe she hoped the former for you, but I know that she felt the latter way about her marriage to you. You were it.

Last November my mother came to visit me and my family in New Jersey. A few weeks earlier she had noticed a small bruise on her breast. While visiting, she learned that she had breast cancer. The news went from bad to worse in the weeks following: first her cancer was determined to be a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer; then we learned it had metastasized into several other parts of her body. It would be misleading to say that she was not sad at these developments--I will never forget when she told me her diagnosis--but there was a devout acceptance and a holy resignation to whatever the future would bring. To those who observed her, she put in practice the words of what she called her life verse, Proverbs 3:5-6; "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths."

I suspect for her the hardest part of dying was leaving her family: her husband, her children and grandchildren. But she also spoke of the hope and expectation of being reunited with her family that had gone before her: her father and her mother; her beloved grandparents, Guy and Gladys, her firstborn son who died shortly after birth and for whom she never stopped grieving. When my father called early Wednesday morning to tell me the news of mom's death, it was the words of an Easter Hymn that came to me: "The strife is ov'r, the battle done, the victory of life is won." The hymn is of course speaking of the triumph of Jesus over sin and death in his resurrection, but it applies in a measure to my mother as a Christian. It is to this hope of the resurrection that she witnessed, and it is to this hope that I commend her. Her strife is over; may she now and evermore know the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ.