Thursday, November 29, 2018

Advent Reflection: Consider the Lilies of the Field

            The gospel lesson assigned for Thanksgiving Day was taken from the sixth chapter of Matthew. In his teaching, Jesus tells his followers not to worry. To illustrate his point, Jesus says, “Consider the lilies of the field...they neither toil nor spin.” As we head into the coldest and darkest season of the year, it is hard to imagine the lilies of the field! It seems more appropriate to consider the lilies during the spring and summer – closer to Easter season. 
However, a biologist will tell you that lilies need a cold and dark winter so they can bloom in the spring and summer. During the fall, lilies are blocked from blooming, but the darkness and coldness of winter are responsible for unblocking the flowering process in preparation for spring and summer. If it does not get cold enough during the winter, the lilies are not likely to bloom. 
As we turn toward winter, when the days are short and warmth is scarce, the Church invites her people to experience the season of Advent. Advent is an opportunity for our hearts to become unblocked so that we may be ready to grow in Christ. 
During this season, we are invited to take inventory of the things we have put over our hearts to block us from the storms of this life. A therapist might call these blocks defensive mechanisms. While these defensive mechanisms are sometimes necessary and help us survive, many of them will not help us thrive or grow. 
A priest or a theologian might call these blocks sin. They are things that we put between ourselves and God. While sin does not change God’s posture of love toward us, sin does prevent us from experiencing the fullness of God’s love and grace.
The beginning of this unblocking process is announced by John the Baptist in the wilderness. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” For most of us, the word “repentance” is cold and dark. However, like the lilies of the field, repentance is a necessary part of our spiritual growth. 
In order to grow into the full stature of Christ, we must recognize those things we have put between our hearts and God – the things that have hardened our hearts. Repentance calls us to turn away from our blocks and toward the God of mercy who is always ready to forgive. This process of repentance and forgiveness softens our hearts and helps us be available to grow through the warmth of Christ’s love and kindness.
As you consider the lilies of the field, consider your blocks, your defensive mechanisms, your sin – the things that harden your heart and prevent growth. While this might seem like a chilling thing to do, recognizing what is between you and God and neighbor is a part of your growth process as a spiritual human being. Even more, recognizing your sin is an opportunity to move closer to Christ, to move closer to the One who burns away your sin with a love that never runs cold.
In the end, God does not call us to repent because God wants to shame or punish us. God does not want us to experience an eternal winter. Rather, God calls us to repent because God wants to unblock our hearts so that we might grow and flourish in the kingdom of heaven. God wants us to bloom again and again to show forth the mystery and beauty of life.
Friends in Christ, I invite you to experience Advent so that your hearts are ready to grow in compassion and kindness when the love of Christ draws near.  

Monday, November 26, 2018

Is it the Truth?

            During my time in Selma, I had the privilege of being a part of the Rotary Club. Before each meeting, we would recite what is called the “Four-Way Test.” The test includes four questions which are meant to direct the things we think, say, and do. The questions are: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
             In my years of reciting the test, it occurred to me that one of these questions is not like the other. What I mean is: one of these questions has the potential to contradict the rest especially as we think theologically. Is it the truth?
As I think about the gospel of Jesus Christ, as I consider the nature of God’s kingdom, I can’t help but think that sometimes the truth isn’t fair to all concerned. Did the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son think it was fair that his ne’er do-well brother was the one who got the big party?  
Sometimes the truth does not build goodwill and better friendships. Jesus tells his disciples that the truth of the gospel will tear families apart. Sometimes the truth isn’t beneficial to all concerned. Jesus is crucified for telling the truth about God and God’s kingdom not to mention the countless martyrs over the centuries.
 I’m not here today to discredit the “Four-Way Test.” These are good questions to consider in our daily lives. Rather, I am here to name the gravity God’s truth and the implications of that truth as we strive to follow Jesus in our daily lives. Pursing and proclaiming the truth of God turns everything in this world upside down, the truth of God so often disrupts what we thought we knew to be true. 
Today’s lesson ends with Jesus saying to Pilate, “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” What we don’t hear today is the response of Pilate. In response to Jesus’ statement on his vocation to testify to the truth, Pilate asks, “What is truth?”
We live in a world with countless variations of the truth leaving us asking the very same question. What is truth? There is the liberal truth, the conservative truth, the moderate truth. There is the Catholic truth, the Protestant truth, the Anglican truth. There is the Jewish truth, the Hindu truth, the Islamic truth. There is Western medicine. There is Eastern medicine. There is the AP Poll, the Coaches Poll, and the College Football Playoff Committee. How do we know who to believe?
The problem with truth claims that come from the thoughts of mortals and earthly institutions is not that they are wrong but that they are incomplete. There is a nugget of truth in almost every religious or political or social or civic ideology. Contradictions begin to occur when our little nuggets turn into boulders and blind us from someone else’s nugget of truth and ultimately from the eternal truth of God.    
The early church faced the issue of competing truth claims after Christianity was first legalized by Constantine. For the first time in over three centuries, Christians could come out of hiding for there was no longer fear of persecution. Different Christian leaders started to compare notes and not surprisingly these leaders had varying opinions on doctrine.
The most contentious debate revolved around the nature of Jesus. Is Jesus God in the flesh? Or is he simply a creation of God? Is he a just a perfect human being? Or is he more like a spirit who seems to have flesh and bones? Is Jesus half God and half human? Finally, a decision was made. Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. We Anglicans would call this the “both/and” strategy to articulating truth or the “we don’t know how but we believe” strategy.
In fact, I used the Anglican strategy on my five-year old daughter the other day. We were watching The Star– a Christmas movie told through the eyes of animals. Her inquiring mind asked, “If Jesus is God and God was the first person and Jesus was just born, then how is Jesus God?” I replied, “It is hard to explain, but we believe that Jesus is God and that God was first and that Jesus was born like you and me to a real mommy and daddy.”
In my years of study and worship, I have come to the conclusion that the truth of the gospel is never adequately explained only adequately experienced through a relationship with God. Note, for example, the Nicene Creed. The Creed does not explain how God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Rather, the Creed articulates the experiences that have called humanity into relationship with the triune God. Even though we can’t explain it, we proclaim the Creed to be true because the Creed reflects the experience of the Church in relationship to God. We, too, are invited into that experience as we say it week after week.
In the end, our experiences with God call us deeper into truth than does intellectual and rational thought. We discover truth through a relationship with God instead of ideas about God. There is a difference between knowing about God and knowing God. 
And it is for this reason that God became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – to show us the way to the truth. Instead of counting on earthly leaders and institutions to point the way, we are called to follow the One who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” In other words, if you want to know truth, then follow Jesus, learn from him, even consume his life, his flesh and blood. 
In a world with competing truth claims, this is very good news indeed. Today is Christ the King Sunday. The designation as Christ the King Sunday is relatively new in church history. Following World War I, nationalism and secularism were on the rise around the world. Pope Pious XI noted that more attention was being paid to the nation’s flag and types of governments than to the way of the cross. Today, we are reminded that our ultimate allegiance belongs to Christ the King – even when that way contradicts the truth claims of earthly leaders and institutions (preachers and churches are not excluded from this list).
Sometimes our allegiance to Christ the King, the bearer of all truth, puts us at odds with our lesser allegiances. Sometimes our pursuit of truth puts us at odds with our social, political, civic, professional, and even religious life. Sometimes our pursuit of truth puts us at odds with friends and family members. Sometimes our pursuit of truth puts us at odds with ideas we ourselves always thought were true.
For us as Christians, there is only one big question to ask as we consider the things we think, say, and do. Is it the truth?And in my experience with God, the truth as revealed in Jesus looks like compassion and mercy and justice and peace. The truth as revealed in Jesus looks like a life of putting the needs of others before our own. 
The truth as revealed in Jesus looks like paying particular attention to the least, the last, and the lost. The truth as revealed in Jesus is a love that cannot be contained by social constructs, a love that not even sin and death can stop. In your prayers and reflections this week, I consider you to ask, “What is truth as I consider my own relationship with Jesus?” 
As you discover the truth revealed in Jesus, I pray you are further entrenched in the truth that the way of Jesus is meant to lead us all to a place where the peoples and nations of the world – with their varying nuggets of truth – find healing and dwell in unity and harmony with one another.
            And God knows this dwelling place of peace and harmony cannot be orchestrated by earthly leaders and institutions. I don’t say this because earthly leaders and institutions are all bad. Some are but most have a desire to do good. Archbishop Cranmer, the writer of the Book of Common Prayer, said there is nothing so well devised by the wit of man that isn’t corrupted in the continuance of time. 
We mortals only see the truth dimly. We only see a nugget of the truth. We too often resort to either/or instead of both/and. We let our intellectual pursuit of truth get in the way of our experience of truth. We become polarized. But as followers of Jesus, we proclaim not our own truth but the truth of Jesus and God’s kingdom. 
As we consider the enormity and gravity of God’s truth, I hope we are humbled to say, like Thomas, how can we know the way in this confusing and chaotic world? And like Thomas, I pray we find the courage to say, if this truth of God puts us at odds with the world and even gets us killed, then so be it – we are with Jesus. We are with the One whose truth is risen above the forces of evil and death. We belong to the only leader who can grant this true freedom and true peace – Christ the King. Amen. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

Investing in the Kingdom of God

           While I knew early in my college career that I wanted to go to seminary and study to be a priest, I needed a fall back career. Because my father had a successful career in the world of finance, I declared a major in Finance with a concentration in Investment Management.
Obviously, I didn’t follow up with that career path, but I like to tell people that I am concerned with a different type of investment management. Instead of helping people invest their money in an economy with finite resources, I am helping people invest their lives in God’s world of abundance. 
In this earthly world of limited resources, a good financial planner encourages their clients to diversify their portfolio – to spread their money out through different investments so they don’t lose it all in one place. However, a good priest and pastor is charged with encouraging their congregation to risk losing everything in one place – in the kingdom of God – for the sake of the gospel.
In today’s gospel lesson, we meet a widow who does just that. She gives her last two copper coins – the least of all currency – to the temple treasury. Jesus says she has given more than all the scribes because she gives out of her poverty while the scribes’ give out of their abundance. In other words, Jesus is not concerned with how much we give. Rather, he is with how much of ourselves we give.
In case you weren’t already aware, today officially kicks off the Annual Giving campaign at Ascension. If Stewardship Season were an Annual Wellness Exam, it would be the part where the doctor tells you to eat better and exercise. While we don’t really want to hear it, we know deep down inside that it is for our own spiritual health.
Jesus, after all, talks about the subject of money more than any other topic in the Bible. He does this because money is one of the most tangible spiritual diagnostic tools we have. Where we spend our money, tells us a lot about where we put our trust. How we spend our money, tells us a lot about what we value most in this world.
I am well aware that talking about money in the Episcopal Church is even worse than talking about evangelism. Talking about money is even more private than talking about our faith story. But as a wise person once told me, this means that the issue of faith and money are close to our hearts. And I would not be functioning as a faithful pastor if I did not help my congregation connect their money story with their faith story.
With that being said, I want to share with you this morning a little bit about how my faith story intersects with my money story. For most of my younger years, I grew up in a household where money was a constant source of anxiety. It wasn’t that we were poor. My father had a very successful career and did well.
However, that also meant he felt he had a lot to lose. There was always a sense that no matter how much he made it was never enough. Tragically, his worst fear came true. He developed Major Depression, lost his job, and ended up spending most of his savings. My dad never recovered.
Obviously, this made quite an impact on me as a young man. The silver lining in it all is that this life-event shifted my attention toward the church. I was set on a path where I started holding less and less trust in the things of this world and more and more trust in the truth that God will provide.
Don’t get me wrong. I still worry about not having enough, but it is like everyone said before we had kids. Don’t wait until you can afford kids or else you will never end up having any kids at all. From a worldly perspective, we will never have enough. No matter who you are there will always be something you can’t afford.
Somewhere along the way I learned that I will never be happy living for the things I can’t afford. There has got to be a better way, and I found that way in the church. It wasn’t that I heard a really good Stewardship sermon because there has never been one of those! Rather, I discovered that I had all that I really needed through a church community. 
The best experiences I have ever didn’t come after a fancy meal or vacation but have come through ordinary events with the church (it’s how I met Jamie!). These are the experiences that I will hold onto for the rest of my life.
I fully realize that not everyone has had this experience with the church (some quite the opposite), but I want this to be true for more people. And I imagine that you who can relate to my story desire the same for others. In theory, a church community is a place where people can be fully themselves and know they are fully loved for this is what God desires through Jesus Christ. While I have only been here for six-weeks, I believe Ascension is committed to this mission of God in Christ.
Sure, we aren’t perfect but no one and no church is. However, this Spirit of this place is about loving and embracing everyone who comes through those church doors. Ascension is about making a place in this part of the world where people feel loved and accepted for who they are. And this is why I feel good about talking about money and Stewardship because I believe in what we are doing; I believe many of you believe in what we are doing, and most importantly, I believe that God believes in what we are doing.
At the end of the day, we aren’t going to give ourselves – much less all of ourselves – to anything if we don’t believe in it. So, over the course of the next few weeks, we are going to do somethings to remind us why we believe in God, why we believe in the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to change lives, why we believe that Church of the Ascension is a place where God is making the love of Jesus known to all people. 
As you discern your monetary commitment to Ascension in 2019, I want you to know that God isn’t testing you with this decision. God will love you if you put $10,000 on that pledge card, and God will love you the same if you put $1 on that pledge card. The question for us though is how much do we know that God loves us. And I believe we learn more about God’s love and care for us when we are willing to invest more of ourselves in God, invest more of our lives in God’s mission in the world through the Church.
Unlike a financial planner, I can’t tell you what kind of return you can expect on your investment. I do, hope, however that as you invest more and more in the kingdom of God you grow to put less stock in finding happiness in the things of this world and more stock in the relationships born through the riches of God’s grace. Amen.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Heaven Descends

            “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I imagine many of you have said something like this following the death of a loved one. Where were you Lord, when my mother or father or spouse or child or friend was sick and in need of healing? If you had been there, then they would not have died. I know I asked this question often following the death of my father. Where were you Lord?
            In response to Mary’s pleading, scripture tells us that Jesus is greatly disturbed and deeply moved. Jesus does not give a theological explanation as to why he wasn’t there. Rather, Jesus gives the only appropriate response in such a situation and joins Mary and the community in their grief. He weeps with those who weep. 
I remember speaking with a funeral director who was a retired pastor. He commented on how much he appreciated the Episcopal burial office because it honored the dignity of human grief. He went on to say that he didn’t learn to honor human grief at a funeral until later in his career.
            He recalled speaking to a young man who had just lost his father to a sudden heart attack. In an attempt to console the teenager, the minister said, “Well, aren’t you glad your father is in heaven?” Dumbfounded, the boy looked at the pastor and said, “No! I wish my father was with me here on earth.”
            As our Lord Jesus does, before we can proclaim resurrection life, we must weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. Keeping that in mind, even though today is one of the Major Feast Days of the church – a day of celebration, it is also a somber day, a day to remember those whom we love but see no longer. But we can celebrate because we recognize that our loved ones are still present with us in the communion of saints. 
            During the Eucharistic Prayer, before singing the Sanctus, we proclaim this truth when we pray, “Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name:”
            I remember the first time these words took on greater meaning. I was worshiping in the old chapel at Camp McDowell during Spring Break Conference. It was Holy Week, and I was sitting next to a good friend of mine. We had both just lost our one of our parents. 
            The priest who was leading the service stopped to tell us the significance of the Sanctus. She told us that this image comes from Revelation and attests to all the company of heaven standing around the throne of God singing God’s praises night and day. So, in a very real way, I felt like I was proclaiming God’s praise with my dad.
            Today, as we celebrate the communion of saints, we celebrate that the living and the dead are bound together in Christ – the One who binds heaven to earth. In a few minutes, at the Eucharistic table, we will acknowledge by name those who have joined the company of heaven this past year and who now stand around the throne of God singing God’s praise. And, in a very real way, we will join them in that never-ending chorus of praise.
            At the Eucharistic feast, the memory of our loved ones turn into a present reality. They are very much alive in the living Christ – even more alive than we are. Even though we no longer see our loved ones who have passed on into glory, they are still here to encourage us in our life of faith, in our witness to the Risen Lord. As the Book of Hebrews says, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
            In particular, the saints in light are witnessing to a faith that knows that death does not have the final world. They know what we can barely believe – in Christ, life is not ended only changed. And this faith in everlasting life isn’t simply to make us feel better about dying. Rather, this faith is meant to encourage us to live more fully on our earthly pilgrimage, a faith that knows nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, a faith that proclaims, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
            As our lesson from Revelation says, God isn’t in the business of helping us escape to heaven from this sinful and broken world. Rather, God is in the business of renewing this world, a world that in the beginning, God called, “Very, Good.” And God does this, as one poet said, by cramming earth with heaven.
John, the writer of Revelation, says, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth…a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven…the home of God is among mortals…and the One seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”
Artist - Jo Pate - Selma, Alabama

            The late Eugene Peterson said, “Just as the actions of earth flow into heaven, so the actions of heaven descend to earth…We have access to heaven now: it is the invisibility in which we are immersed, and that is developing into visibility, and that one day will be thoroughly visible.”
            In other words, the heavenly realm is not a place of escape, the heavenly realm is not unaffected by what happens on earth. Rather, heaven descendsand takes part in the renewal of this earth. The saints in light are still with us fighting the good fight against the forces of evil and darkness.  
            The challenge for us, therefore, is not to try and imagine what heaven is like using earthly images and symbols. Rather, the challenge for us is to imagine what earth could be like using the image of the heavenly city. According to the Book of Revelation, this heavenly city is a place of healing for all the nations and at the center of that city is the throne of God and of the Lamb.
            How can the vision of that heavenly city transform and renew our earthly cities? What would this world look like if the God of love and compassion and mercy were at the center? What your world look like if the God love and compassion and mercy were at the center? What would this world, your world look like if instead of looking for more ways to condemn the other, we looked for more ways bring about healing and wholeness?
            Eugene Peterson sheds light on these questions saying, “Heaven is formed out of the dirty streets and murderous alleys, adulterous bedrooms and corrupt courts, hypocritical houses of worship and commercialized churches, thieving tax-collectors and traitorous disciples.” Heaven is meant not for escape but for renewal. Heaven is not a safe-haven for the virtuous but a place of healing for the broken.  
            As we consider the state of the country, the state of the world, we are in desperate need of heaven on earth, of healing and renewal for a broken and tired world. Remembering that our vocation is not about weathering the storm until we can finally escape, how can we, with the saints in light, witness to the truth that heaven is descending upon earth bringing about healing and renewal? 
            Just this past week the image of heaven descending to earth was made visible on Birmingham’s Southside in front of Temple Bethel where people from various creeds and races and nations gathered to stand with Pittsburg. This vigil was, of course, a response to the mass murder that took the lives of 11 Jewish people while they gathered to worship in a synagogue. With the martyrs who gather under the altar in heaven, those at the vigil joined in the martyrs’ prayer, “How long must your people suffer, O Lord?”
            I believe this prayer from the saints in light is not only directed to God but to us still on this earthly pilgrimage. How long will we continue to let evil pervade our streets and homes and schools and places of worship? How long will we be satisfied with keeping the status quo? When will we respond to Jesus’ command to roll away the stone and unbind this world from the bands of death?
            If you need a bit of encouragement and inspiration to respond, look to the lives of the saints. Maybe these saints are someone you knew personally – a friend or family member. Maybe these saints are found in the Episcopal publication entitled A Great Cloud of Witnesses– a Jonathan Daniels, a William Wilberforce, a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Constance Nun, or a Teresa of Avila. 
Look to someone who lived knowing that nothing – not even death – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, someone who risked everything – even life itself – to give witness to that heavenly city where all the peoples and nations and races of this earth gather to find healing and wholeness. Look to those who lived their earthly pilgrimage as if they were residents of that heavenly city.
And because even the saints are sinners, too, look to Jesus – the One who is present with us in our suffering and sorrow, the One who shares our death, the One who, through his resurrection, gives us a vision of that heavenly city, a place where sorrow and pain are no more, a place where healing makes all things new. Amen.