Saturday, January 28, 2017

Year A, Epiphany 4, Micah 6:1-8, “Justice, Love, and Humility”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen

Imagine a Church where people weren't very "religious", didn't spend a lot of time worrying about heaven, but instead devoted themselves to just three things:
-- Doing Justice
-- Loving Kindness
-- And walking humbly with God

I want to be part of that Church.
Do You?

A while back, during one of my visits, I was asked a question.
“Pastor, what is your vision for Peace Lutheran?”
I hesitated to give an answer, for at the time I didn’t yet have a well formulated answer to give.
And besides, I’m still new here, and for a vision to have a real impact on our life it has to be a shared vision.  Perhaps that’s the challenge for us during this first year of my ministry.  Can we cultivate a common vision for the life of Peace Lutheran that will shape our life together in the years ahead?
And then, l preparing for this week, I read again these words from the prophet Micah: 
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice,
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

I love that verse.
I have a carving of it hanging in my office.

Micah’s vision for the people of Israel is that this is how they would respond to the saving acts of the Lord. 
They would give up all their “religious acts”, their sacrifices and offerings.
They would abandon all their attempts to justify themselves before God.
And instead, they would strive for these three things:
·         Doing justice
·         Practicing loving kindness
·         And walking humbly with God.
I want to be part of a Church like that.
I really do.
And so I’m asking myself, and I’m asking you, is this vision that God has for his people, a vision that can shape our future as a congregation?
Can we, as a congregation, commit ourselves to those things that really matter?
And not worry about the things that don’t matter?

One of the funniest moments for me in worship came during a children’s sermon that my youth director was giving.
She asked during the sermon, “What do you have to do to get to heaven?”
The response from one young boy was priceless:

Out of the mouths of babes.
The thing is that he was right and she was wrong.  There is not a whole list of things that we must do to get to heaven.  God has taken care of that.  That’s what Jesus did for us.
We die.  We go to heaven.  Simple. 
She couldn’t grasp that.
But when all we think about is how we are going to get that ‘final reward’, there is a lot we forget.
We are so consumed with ourselves, that we forget that we are called to love one another.
To do Justice.
And simply to be in a relationship with our God.

Another story:
While I was in seminary, we took the confirmation class on a tour of the state capital in St. Paul, and then right down the road, to the St. Paul Cathedral.  It was a rainy day, and I was wearing a hat.
As we walked about the cathedral, looking at the statuary, I noticed a little old lady come walking slowly across the sanctuary.  She eventually passed by me, and without stopping or even looking at me, she said:
“Hat on in Church, not much sense.”
It’s a curious thing, our religious inclinations, our pious actions.
Men are not supposed to wear hats in Church.
Women, on the other hand, are required to cover their heads.  Apparently, you women out there didn’t get the notice.  Seriously, when we went to Russia Karla was required to have a scarf to cover her head.  And if women didn’t have one, the Churches provided one.
Religious acts.
The truth is that these things don’t matter.
They simply don’t matter.
Adiaphora is what Luther called them. 
Truth is there are a lot of things that we do that simply do not matter.  Religiousity, piety, behaving in certain ways in Church, and other ways at home.
God doesn’t care about your hats, or how you fold your hands in prayer, or whether you bow before the altar, or even what you have to offer.
Do Justice.
Love one another.
And have Jesus as your constant companion along the way.
That matters.

The difficulty is that doing justice, loving our neighbor, and walking with Jesus, gets messy.
There is a refugee crisis in our world.
People are fleeing war torn countries.
Whether it’s from Syria, or Africa, or Central America, people are fleeing for their lives.
The Pope has repeatedly advocated on behalf of the refugees, saying in the strongest of terms that caring for them is a Christian moral mandate.
Most recently, the Lutheran Immigrations and Refugee Service has come out against the new policies of our government.  I quote:

“At a time when so many people are fleeing unspeakable violence and persecution to seek refuge in the U.S., today’s decision is a drastic contradiction of what it means to be an American. As the world has its eyes on us, it is imperative that President Trump uphold the values that America has always lived by: compassion, empathy, family, human rights, and protection for those seeking a safe haven from danger and persecution,”

I shared this information on Facebook this last week and one of my friends responded:

“I am rapidly getting tired of the blatant bias coming from the leftist church organizations.”

“I guess I am just tired of the politicalization of the church period”.

This is the thing, though.

Our faith OUGHT to shape our politics.

Our politics, however, ought NEVER, shape our faith, for to allow that is to worship another god.

(An aside. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services has long been an unsung hero of our Church. Many of you may recall that during the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the US government turned to us for help resettling the refugees of that war, and congregations across the nation accepted Vietnamese families into their communities and helped them adapt to life in a new country.)

Loving Kindness.
A Biblical Mandate.
Things that really matter.

And what does it mean “to walk humbly with our God?”
First of all, humility is the recognition that it is not all about us.
It is, however, about God.
It is, however, about Jesus.
It is about what God is doing to save this troubled world.
One of the hardest lessons I learned was offered to me by my Bishop early on in my ministry.
“Dave,” Bishop Ramseth said, “this is not about you.”
This is not about you.
It is about Jesus.
We say that our congregation’s purpose is to welcome, love and serve all in our local and global community. 
Humility recognizes that we affirm that, not because WE are so good at welcoming, loving, and serving, but because Jesus is.
To walk with Jesus,
·         Is to welcome as Jesus welcomes
·         To serve as Jesus serves
·         And to love as Jesus first loved us.
We are to do justice, not because we are just, but because God is just.
We are to show love and mercy, not because we by nature are so loving and merciful, but because Jesus is.
We are to be gracious, not because we are so compassionate, but because God is.

Imagine a Church where people weren't very "religious", didn't spend a lot of time worrying about heaven, but instead devoted themselves to just three things:
-- Doing Justice
-- Loving Kindness
-- And walking humbly with God

That is the type of Church we are called to be.
And not just us.
But every Church.
To be the Body of Christ, is to embody Christ.
And so we are just, and loving, because Christ is just and loving.
It’s that simple. 


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Why I am a Liberal Christian: An Apology for Liberalism and Jesus.

Why I am a Liberal Christian: An  Apology for Liberalism and Jesus.

Though many mainstream Christians are indeed liberals, in recent years Christians have most often been represented in the media as being aligned with the far right of the Conservative movement.  The recent election has presented us with the Christian Right, for historical reasons and associations perhaps, backing a candidate who cannot be said in any meaningful way to have manifest traditional conservative and Christian values in his life, but who represented a change in the status quo—against a lifelong Methodist with well established liberal credentials, but who represented a continuation of the status quo.  There is a disconnect here.  Conservativism by definition is the party of the status quo, and one of the fundamental tenants of liberalism is to move beyond the status quo in a progressive direction, just the opposite of how this election was marketed.  It left me soul searching.  And so I write this apology.  And I’m using the word apology in the sense of a philosophical defense of my position, not an expression of regret for holding my position. 
  1. The Kingdom of God is a liberal ideal.  Jesus came to us proclaiming one thing more than any other and that was that the Kingdom of God was at hand.  This Kingdom represented a fundamental change in the status quo, e.g. the first shall be last, the last first, a lifting up of the poor and downtrodden, the outcast, the foreigner in our midst.  Any full blown study of the Biblical witness to the Kingdom of God as Jesus and the prophets presented it will align any talk about the Kingdom as being liberal to the core.  To reach any other conclusion is to redefine the very essence of the meaning of liberal and conservative.  Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom was a call to abandon the status quo in favor of progressing toward the future  God envisioned for us.
  2. Democracy itself, is a liberal form of governance.  Regarding the “Kingdom of God” it is good to remember that it is a monarchy, not a democracy.  There is one Lord, and no elections.  That said, my Lutheran bias is that under the reign of Christ democratic principles are the best assurance we have of submitting to the reign of Christ.  Hierarchical governance, I believe, is much more prone to corruption.  I am more comfortable believing in the Spirit being discerned by the Body of Christ as a whole, than I am by one individual or group of individuals making that determination.  Of course, all earthly forms of governance, including within the Church, are subject to human sinfulness and corruption.  But having said that, I would reaffirm my belief that the Body of Christ as a whole is less subject to sinful inclinations, with all the checks and balances, than an individual is.
  3. With respect to national governance, I believe in democracy.  Anybody that believes in democracy as a preferred type of governance is embracing a liberal ideal, not a conservative ideal.  I love to chide my “conservative” friends about this.  If they believe in democracy, they are actually liberals, which is hard for them to stomach.  On the other extreme is the conservative principle of oligarchy, or the rule by a governing class, or monarchy, the rule by a single ruler.  The Electoral College is a conservative intrusion into our democratic process.  So also is a system that affords a control of the government by the wealthy, which is to cede the government to a ruling class.  And to an extent, election laws, lack of term limits, and gerrymandering all contribute toward the establishment of a ruling class that undermines pure democracy.  The more defensible conservative principle is that of a Republic, not a Democracy.   That is, the people have some power, but it is mediated by a ruling class.
  4. Governance is part of the solution to the problem, not the problem.  Ronald Reagan was wrong.  Because of human sinfulness God established the law as a custodian.  Not only do individual freedoms need to be curbed by just laws, but also corporate endeavors need to be regulated to prevent a systematic exploitation of the world and its people, something that corporations have proven to be a major tendency throughout history.  There is a balancing act here, though, for the public good is often, though not always, served best by those most affected by a decision having the most say in a decision.  The struggle is that there are often conflicts of interest between parties regarding specific decisions.  Should corporations be allowed the freedom to exploit labor and the environment?  Or should labor laws and environmental regulations be utilized to curb corporate greed, and insure the greater good for the greater amount of people?  The latter is a liberal ideal.
  5. Equality and social justice are fundamental biblical principles.  They held all things in common and provided each according to their need.  The year of Jubilee.  The concern for the poor and outcast.  The predisposition against the rich and the powerful.  These are all Biblical concerns raised by the prophets and Jesus.  The commitment to justice for all is a fundamental tenant of liberalism.
  6. Life itself is sacred.  And because life is sacred there is a moral mandate that all people have access to that which is necessary for life.  Universal health care, however it is achieved, is a moral mandate for anyone who believes in the sanctity of life.  A fair and just distribution of food is a moral mandate for anyone who believes in the sanctity of life.  Clothing and housing are also necessities of life for which there is a moral mandate.  In our economic system, in order to provide for those essentials, a livable wage is a necessity of life.  When was the last time conservatives advocated for an increase in the minimum wage that would give people the means, within our system, to provide for the essentials of life?  These causes have been fought for by liberals, not conservatives.
  7. There are moral dilemma's in Life.  But what about abortion, some conservatives will respond.  I personally would only support my wife’s having an abortion in the most difficult of circumstances.  Some situations, like an ectopic pregnancy would be a no brainer.  Other situations, such as when there are severe birth defects which would preclude a viable life after birth, are more difficult.  I personally oppose abortion as a routine birth control method.  There are better and more morally defensible methods of birth control.  Access to these birth control measures has been shown to greatly reduce unwanted pregnancies, and hence abortions.  I believe that a social commitment to women’s health issues and universal access to health care are the best means of curbing abortions.  I acknowledge at one and the same time that the moral questions surrounding abortion are a) a primary responsibility for the woman considering abortion, and b) a social issue that should be regulated by just laws.  And at times, the sanctity of life will involve balancing the sanctity of the mother’s life over and against the sanctity of the life of the child.
  8. I believe that all people are created equal, are created in the image of God, and that discrimination is a fundamental aspect of human sinfulness.  Given the freedom to do so, humans will discriminate on the basis of all sorts of criteria.  Discrimination is the dominant sin of the majority against minorities, of the powerful against the weak, of the rich against the poor.  Systematic discrimination pervades our society and goes hand and hand with exploitation. Equal rights, compensation, and opportunity are liberal ideals.  I do not see Conservatives advocating for any anti-discrimination laws.  If they do, they are more liberal than they let on.
  9. I believe that the prophet’s mandate to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God”, is a defining statement of liberalism.
  10. And finally, though individual liberty is a liberal ideal, liberty can never be achieved for one at the expense of another.  The liberty of all is more important than the unrestrained liberty of a few.  The “Right to Bear Arms” for example, serves the cause of liberty only when it does not impinge on the liberty of others.  Reasonable restrictions on the liberty of others are a necessity of a free society for all.  Liberty and responsibility go hand in hand. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Year A, Epiphany 3, Matthew 2:12.23 Just Say Yes.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen

Many aspire to greatness, but rarely succeed.
True greatness is more often thrust upon someone by circumstances quite out of their control.
Greatness is not the result of ambition, but of a calling to do the right thing at the right time, and in doing so to serve the cause of the greater good of all.
This calling is often accepted reluctantly.

Throughout the scriptures, from Moses to Mary, people have been called into the service of God and God’s people.  Most often their initial response was to say “No”.
Moses raised his objections in numerous ways:
·         First, by asking who God was.
·         Then, by questioning whether Israel would believe him.
·         The by pointing out to God that he wasn’t a good public speaker.
·         And finally, by begging that God simply send someone else.
Mary’s response to the announcement that she would give birth to the Christ Child was simple:
"How can this be, since I am a virgin?"
In contrast to this, when Jesus approached Simon and Andrew, and James and John, their initial response was to leave what they were doing and follow him.
Well, sort of.
They may have left their boats and nets on the shore that day, but we hear later in the Gospel that they would return to their boats on numerous occasions.  And following Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter declares “I am going fishing.”
They too, like most of us, were most comfortable with life as they knew it, and were not thrilled with the prospect of change. 
Eventually, and with a healthy degree of reluctance, they answered Jesus call and lived out their lives as witnesses to the Gospel.
Just say “Yes”.
A member of our congregation in Gig Harbor, when we were first married, preached a sermon on this that I remember to this day.  Dennis Goin was his name.  What he said that day was that he had learned to “Just say Yes,” and trust that God would show him how to make it possible later.
And this God has done with countless people throughout the ages. 
God calls us and gives us the gifts that we will need to fulfill that calling.
And then great things can happen.

In Jesus’ case, circumstances beyond his control thrust him into the spotlight.
He had been living in obscurity in Nazareth, presumably working in his father’s carpenter shop.  We actually know nothing of his life from the time he visited the Temple in Jerusalem as a young boy, till his baptism by John.
But then what happens is that John, who had been creating quite a following with his fiery preaching and message of repentance, his thrown into prison.
It was the news that John had been imprisoned that caused Jesus to leave his life in Nazareth behind, move to Galilee, and there begin his ministry.
The first thing he did was to assemble a band of followers, his disciples, to accompany him throughout his ministry.
Initially, just four men.  Fishermen.
And then later, he calls Matthew, a tax collector.
Finally, there are twelve.
Just twelve.
And an unlikely bunch at that.
But from that group, the message of the Gospel was spread throughout the world. 

Just twelve.
I think of that when I think about our congregation of Peace.  There are so few of us.  Yet we have a purpose statement for our congregation that says:  “God’s purpose for our congregation is to welcome, love and serve all in our local and global community.”
That’s a tall order for the few of us gathered here.
We have so few that just keeping the church cleaned sometimes seems like a tremendous burden.
“To welcome, love and serve all in our local and global community?”
But there are only a few of us.
How can this happen?

Here I have a confession of sorts to make.
I am bipolar.
What that means, is that when I am not on medication (which for the record I now take religiously), I cycle between periods of depression and mania.
When I’m depressed, my inclination is to look out at small group of people that we have gathered here this morning and say, “There are only, what twenty, twenty five of us.  What can we do?”
But when I have been in my manic phase, that’s when life gets interesting.
The sky is the limit.
In Sandpoint, this played out in a rather remarkable way.
It began with an opportunity to support one of my former parishioners who was serving as a missionary in Russia.
This led to a couple of visits to Russia, and on the second visit, and opportunity to visit with the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in  Russia and Other States, as well as the Bishop of European Russia.
During the course of that visit they shared that all of the salaries of the pastors in Russia were being supported by a 2 million dollar endowment that the German Church had donated, but that the funds were running out.
“2 million dollars, is that all?”
What struck me was that our congregation owned four acres of undeveloped commercial land, which at the time, was worth 2 million dollars.
If we sold that land, our congregation could support all the pastors in Russia.
One offer on the land was received, but it was too little.
Then a woman on our council said, “Lets build senior housing.” And my mind raced.
We could build senior housing, and use the profits to support the Church in Russia.
And so we did.  Build the senior housing, that is.  87 units of senior housing at a cost of 15 million dollars.
But that wasn’t enough.
My inspiration was to do even more.  I led the synod in an effort to develop a large project in Boise.  The economy collapsed before it was could be done, though.
And my manic phase gave way to a debilitating depression.
Looking back at it two things stand out.
On the one hand I recognize that I was in a manic state, and a bit out of control due to my mental illness.
But the second, and more important thing, is that God was able to use me, at that time, to do some real good.
We never did support all the pastors in Russia.  But we supported the missionary, and then the pastor of our sister congregation in Novgorod.
And we did build the senior housing, and many have benefited from that.
And I will confess that when I think about our congregation, and what we might be able to do, there is part of me that longs for the unbridled optimism that comes with a manic episode.
But that is not what is required.
All that is required is a willingness, even a reluctant willingness, to say “Yes” when God calls.

What is God calling us to do as a congregation?
And can the few of us here, like the twelve disciples, actually make a difference in the world?

One of the things that a healthy dose of medication has resulted in for me is a much more realistic sense of what our calling is.
I think that when we as a congregation think about our purpose, we shouldn’t think in terms of welcoming, loving, and serving all in our local and global community.  That’s kind of a manic goal.  “All” is a lot.  Our local and global community is a lot.
Instead, what I believe God is calling us to do is simply this:
To welcome, love, and serve that one person that we have the opportunity to care for, today.
That’s the way the Gospel works.  One by one. 
The challenge for us today is simply this:  Will we dare to say yes when we have the opportunity to share our faith with that one person that God has put in our life, who needs to hear?
Will we dare to say “Yes.”
If we are willing to do that, simply say “Yes”, then there is no telling what might happen.
With God, all things are possible.
A Final Note:
When Jesus walked up to Peter that day on the lakeshore, what do you think Peter imagined when Jesus said “Follow me.”?
He probably followed more out of curiosity than conviction.
I seriously doubt that Simon Peter had any idea what would happen, and certainly did not anticipate that Christians throughout the world would still be talking about him and his witness to this day.
But whatever he imagined, he did that one thing, on that particular day.
He said Yes.

Will we?

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Year A, Epiphany 2, John 1:29-42, Sacrificial Love

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
With these words John introduces Jesus to the world.
“Behold the Lamb of God!”
At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus is crucified on the day of preparation for the Passover, at the very time that the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the temple.
Behold the Lamb of God!
John also makes a special note that the legs of the two who were crucified with Jesus were broken to hasten their deaths, however, Jesus had already died at that point and so his legs were not broken.  This was important to John, as it was forbidden to break any bone of the Passover Lamb.
Behold the Lamb of God!
The Passover.
Israel languishing in slavery in Egypt.
Pharaoh was not inclined to grant Moses’ request to “Let my people go!”
And so what followed was a series of 10 plagues, each designed to frighten Pharaoh into releasing the Israelites.
·         The Nile turned to blood
·         Frogs overran the land
·         Then came gnats
·         And flies
·         A deadly pestilence killing Egyptian livestock
·         Boils on their skin
·         Thunder and hail
·         And then locusts
·         And next to the last, darkness covered the land.  So dark, that it could be felt.
All these plagues, and still the heart of Pharaoh remained hardened.
And then came the final and most horrific plague.
God would strike down the firstborn sons throughout all of Egypt.  But as for the Israelites, their sons would be spared if they did as God commanded.
They were to sacrifice a lamb, a perfect lamb, with no blemishes, and the blood of the lamb was to be wiped across the lintel of their doors, and seeing this, the angel of death would “Passover” their homes, and their sons would be spared.
Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.  The Passover Lamb. 

There is another story that the words “Behold the Lamb of God” calls to mind.  We read in Genesis 22 the story of the sacrifice of Isaac:
1 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 2 He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you." 6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." He said, "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" 8 Abraham said, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together.
9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 12 He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." 13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place "The Lord will provide"; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided."

Behold the Lamb of God.
This story of Abraham and Isaac will always be a special one for me.  My dad was a pastor, and was serving in Worland, WY at the time. 
During Lent one year, he put on theatrical presentations of numerous biblical stories.  I participated in two of the dramas.  For the story of Jonah and the whale, dad made a whale and inside of it, I was the one who moved the whale about to swallow my dad and then spit him out again. 
And then we did Abraham and Isaac.  Dad bound me up and laid me on the altar.  He stood before the altar and lifted up his hunting knife high above his head.  And then, a carefully timed recording sounded from backstage instructing him to not harm me.  And then,  he turned to retrieve a lamb, caught in the bushes, to sacrifice instead.  This I don’t remember.  I suppose he used a stuffed animal for the lamb.  I don’t know.  I can’t remember that part.
What is seared into my memory, though, is the image of my Father with his hunting knife raised high above his head, ready to plunge it into me. 
And it left me with a question.
“What kind of Father would sacrifice his own Son?”
“And why would they do it?”

The Bible tells us that God instructed Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, as a test of Abraham’s faith.
“.  .  .  now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."
Perhaps it would make more sense if instead of using the word “fear”, we used the word “love”.
Now I know that you love the Lord your God, above all else, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.
Through it all, Abraham’s faith is evident in his statement to Isaac.
"God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son."
What kind of Father would sacrifice his own Son?
And why would he do it?

The answer is that it was God who made that sacrifice, not Abraham, as Jesus was offered on the cross.
And he did so, to take away the sin of the world, and to cause the angel of death to Passover us, that we might live with him forever.
John provides us with the answer early in the Gospel:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
"For God so loved the world that he sacrificed his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

We are not comfortable with sacrificial language.
It is foreign to us.
And yet, for each of us, there is something, someone, who we love enough to make real and substantial sacrifices for. 
In Romans 5, Paul writes:
“God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
Offered in Love. 
God love you so much, that he was willing to sacrifice his own son. 
That much.
One of the youth of my congregation in Baker, MT preached a sermon at the Montana Synod youth gathering.  One of Jana’s points was what she called “speciality”.  You are so special, so precious to God, he loves you so much, that even if you were the only person in the world he would have still offered his Son as a sacrifice to save you.  Speciality.
As uncomfortable as we are with language about sacrifice, there is a truth about it that is absolute.
Love that is unwilling to sacrifice for the sake of the other is not love at all.
Love that is unwilling to sacrifice is nothing.
Behold the Lamb of God, the one God himself sacrificed for you. 
At the end of John’s Gospel we hear the rest of the story. 
"Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." 16 A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep." 17 He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go."

“Do you love me?”  Jesus asks.
Feed my sheep.
“Do you love me?”  Jesus asks.
Are you willing to make the sacrifice that love demands?
Love is costly.  This is true.
To truly love someone with all your heart, soul, and mind is to be willing to give yourself up for them. 
As Jesus says in John 15:
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.
This is the type of love with which Christ lived and died.
And God asks nothing less from us.


Sunday, January 8, 2017

Year A, The Baptism of our Lord, "You, my Child"

And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In the Beginning, as God created us, there were two words that described how he felt.

"Tov Meod."

These are the Hebrew words for "Good, exceedingly Good."  God looked at all that he had made and saw that it was Good.  Really, really, Good.  Not just 'alright', or 'sort of good', or 'good, but.  .  .'  God saw all that he made and yes, indeed, it was exceedingly Good.  Tov Meod.

And that, remains God's opinion of you, his child.  It is part of your identity.

Oh, there are times when our own personal failures threaten that essential part of our identity.  Its been over four years now since I first had to speak the words "I am an alcoholic."  That identity I'd been denying for some time.  I was deeply ashamed of what I'd become.  

Yet confessing that identity led me down the path of recovery.  Now there is an addendum to that confession.  "I am an alcoholic-- who has recovered."  "Alcoholism, in remission" is my official medical diagnosis.  I have been set free.  And that is "Tov Meod."

As Jesus was coming up out of the water following his baptism by John, the heavens opened and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove and God said “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  These words that God spoke to Jesus at his baptism, are the words he speaks to us as well.  "You are my son, my daughter, I love you, and with you, my child, I am well pleased.

These words and this identity take us to two places.

First they take us back to our creation, and the words "Tov Meod".  Good, exceedingly Good.  God delights in us.  God loves us.  God is well pleased with us, his children.  Wow!

And secondly, they take us to the foot of the cross where by the grace of God we have been forgiven and born again.    

For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,

so far he removes our transgressions from us.
(Psalm 103:11 & 12)




And God says "With you I am well pleased!"  and "Tov Meod!"

Nothing more needs to be said, for this is who we now are.  

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Year A, Epiphany, "Where are the Wise Men?"

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen

This morning I’d like to begin by sharing with you an article written by Father Matthew Attia of the Eastern Orthodox Church:

“Who are the Magi? A Christian Orthodox Concept

A response to the comments made by the Archbishop of Canterbury

Father Matthew Attia

“Those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to adore thee.”

The comments made by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on the Magi and Star of Bethlehem warrant a careful response as they challenge the authenticity of the Christian Scriptures.

In the nativity account according to the Gospel of Matthew we read that when Christ was born there appeared an overwhelmingly bright star in the east. While off in the distance, wise men from the East, of Magi, notice the star and begin to follow it towards Jerusalem.

The visit of the Magi is the subject of many legends, many emanating from the Western world. What then is the true account of this visitation?

The Biblical account of the Magi appears only in the Gospel of Matthew: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is He who was born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East, and have come to worship him.’” (Matthew 2:1-2).

The word Magi comes from the Greek word magoi, meaning ‘astrologer’ or ‘magician’. By the time of the birth of Christ, the Magi were an already well-established and ancient upper class of people from the Persian Empire in today’s northern Iran. The Magi were pagan priests, specializing in astrology and the interpretation of dreams. Skilled in philosophy, medicine and natural science, they became the scholars of Persian society. The Holy Fathers held the tradition that the Magi, although pagans, were deeply religious priest-philosophers who collected wisdom from wherever they could get it.

Because the Magi had direct contact with those Hebrews who remained in the East following the Babylonian captivity, they would have surely been familiar with their prophecies of a Saviour King, and especially the words of the Mesopotamian prophet Balaam which we read in Numbers 24:17: “You have filled the stargazers with joy, O Lord. They knew the hidden meaning of the Prophet Balaam’s words: “You have made the star of Jacob to rise.”

Although they were not ‘kings’ as perceived by western legends, the Magi were regarded as men of aristocratic rank even in Jerusalem, which is made apparent by their easy access to King Herod’s court. As we read in the Gospel of Matthew, Herod the Great, known for his cruelty, summoned the Magi because their inquiries into the birth aroused his jealousy, and Herod wanted to use them to locate Christ in order that he may have Him killed. After leaving Herod, the star once again appears to the Magi, as we read: “…the star, which they had seen in the East, went before them, until it came to rest over the place where the child was.” (Matthew 2:9).

Following the star again, the Magi arrive in Bethlehem bearing gifts for the newborn King. Matthew writes in his gospel: “…and going into the house they saw the child with Mary His mother and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11). St. Matthew does not mention the names of the Magi, but through the Holy Tradition of the Church we know them as Saints Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. They were baptized into the Christian faith many years later by the Apostle Thomas, who was on his way to preach the Gospel in India. Their relics were brought from Persia to Constantinople in the fourth century by St. Helen (the mother of Emperor Constantine), then were transferred in the fifth century to Milan and then, finally in 1146 to Cologne Cathedral in Germany where they remain today.

The number and types of gifts bought to Christ by the Magi are not coincidental. Perhaps the three were a type of the Holy Trinity; or symbolize the triune nature of Christ’s ministry; prophetic, royal and priestly; or perhaps it is an expression of the three parts of the nature of man; spirit, soul and body. The significance of the gifts themselves bears mentioning, as gold is fit to offer a king, and Christ’s natures are revealed in the offering of frankincense fit to offer God, and myrrh, for God who is to suffer and die.

The Star of Bethlehem

What of the star itself? Many attempts have been made by scholars to give some sort of scientific explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. Indeed, there is substantial historic and scientific evidence of an unusual celestial event at the approximate time of the birth of Christ, yet even this would not explain the behaviour of the star as described by the Holy Scriptures. Of course, to the Church there is a more mystical approach.

The Holy Fathers tell us that this star can be compared to the miraculous pillar of fire, which stood in the camp by night during Israel’s exodus, or the light from heaven, which overwhelmed Saul on his way to Damascus. St. John Chrysostom, in his homily on the second chapter of Matthew, says God called the wise men by the things that are familiar to them, for being astrologers they were naturally astonished at such a large star. He says that God, for the salvation of those in error, allowed Himself to be served by astrologers, normally used to serve the devil, so that He might gently draw the Magi away from their customs and lead them toward a higher wisdom.

St. Maximos the Confessor says that when the intellect is illumined by the infinite Light of God it becomes insensible to everything made by Him, just as the eye becomes insensitive to the stars when the sun rises. The Magi did not just drop off their gifts and leave, for they left from the presence of Christ as men forever changed by their experience. Their superior intellect and knowledge was confounded by the presence of a little child born under the humblest circumstances.

In keeping this great Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, we must receive this Light with joy, not putting it away at the end of the season, but rather let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16).”

There are two parts of the Tradition regarding the Wise Men that were new to me:

1. First, that tradition records that they were eventually baptized by the apostle Thomas as he traveled East to India; and

2. That the remains of the Wise Men have been interred, according to the tradition, in the Cologne Cathedral in Germany.

Similar Traditions in the Orthodox Church identify The Shepherd’s Field in Beit Sahour, a location just outside of Bethlehem, as the place where the Shepherds were watching their sheep on the night of Jesus’ birth.

I quote from the website of the Church in Beit Sahour:

“This is where tradition indicates the spot where the "Shepherds kept watch" (Luke 2: 8). On the night that Christ was born, Archangel Gabriel spoke to them and they heard the angelic proclamation "Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth and good will toward men" (Luke 2: 14). The site is also well known for its ancient Olive Trees that date back to the time before Jesus’s birth; tradition holds that two of these trees mark the location where Kind David wrote many of his Psalms.”

On the property there is a Church, Constructed by the Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena, out of the cave where the shepherds heard the angel’s message. Again I quote:

“Tradition states that three of the shepherds to whom the angel announced the birth of Christ were buried in the west side of the Cave Church and their tomb and bones are still visible to this day. Today, only the crypt of the church remains.”

What do we make of these “holy Traditions” of the Church?

Did you realize that not only do we hear about the shepherds and the wise men in the nativity stories in the Gospel, but that the Church has claimed, through the holy Traditions, that it knows where these individuals were buried?

I have to admit, that for much of my life I’ve viewed such traditions with a healthy amount of skepticism.

I tended to believe that the attribution of certain places in the Holy Land as THE SPOT where certain events took place, was the result of a pious and well intended determination of people such as Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, but without any assurance of historical accuracy.

Do we actually know where the events of Jesus’ life took place?

Or did the Church simply designate a place to remember those events?

Part of this skepticism comes into Biblical Scholarship, where it is not uncommon to focus on the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth as stories told to make a theological point about the nature of Jesus, not to record the actual history surrounding Jesus’ birth.

One of the reasons for this is that of the four Gospels:

· Mark makes no mention of the Nativity of Jesus;

· Luke talks about Mary and the Shepherds, but not the wise men;

· Matthew talks about the Wise Men but not Mary and the Shepherds;

· And John talks about the “Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us” but doesn’t mention any of the specifics, no shepherds, no wise men, in fact no mention of either Mary or Joseph.

If these were actual historical events wouldn’t the Evangelists have shared a much more common story regarding them?

Jesus’ death and resurrection are recorded by all four evangelists in a very similar fashion, though there are differences there as well. But at least all four evangelists saw fit to include the death and resurrection of Jesus in their accounts.


The older I get, though, the less skeptical I have become.

First, regarding tradition:

I have had two experiences that have changed my view about how people can preserve and pass on traditions to subsequent generations.

First, I met a man from Nigeria, and listened to him telling the oral tradition of his family, going back thousands of years. Oral cultures are different from our own.

Secondly, when I’ve visited Russia, I was again amazed at how everyone there was able to recall their history and tell the story of their people.

Having had those experiences, I’ve come to appreciate the integrity of the “holy Traditions” of the Church much more. These are not just mythological tales.

What is the point of all this?

That the incarnation of Jesus, his birth, and all the events surrounding it, were as real and tangible as you and I sitting here today. Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem, where the child was born. Shepherds welcomed Jesus’ birth, and they were known to the early church, their graves noted and remembered. Wise men came from the East and became part of the Church.

That God became flesh and dwelt among us is not just a theological statement, which people of faith believe.

It was a historical fact.

And there were witnesses. Mary. Joseph. Some lowly Shepherds. And Wise Men from the East.

But even more tangible, and historical, than all of that, is the love of God that made it all possible.

Love is not a theory, or theological concept.

Love is a tangible historical reality that we experience.

And it was because God so loved us, that he sent his Son into our World, full of grace and truth.

Jesus. Born. Lived. Died. And rose again. Historical events that point to one thing.

God’s love for you.