Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Doorways to Greater Grace

Proper 21+A        28 September, 2014       The Reverend Robert R.M. Bagwell+

                       Ezekiel 18: 1-4, 25-32                                                          Psalm 25:1-8
                    Philippians 2:1-13                                                                  Matthew 21:23-32

The man began his prayer that morning:

"Dear God, so far today, I've done all right. I have not gossiped, and I have not lost my temper. I haven't been grumpy, nasty or selfish, and I'm really glad of that! But in a few minutes, God, I'm going to get out of bed, and from then on, I'm probably going to need a lot of help. Thank you! Amen."

I'm probably going to need a lot of help…The readings today have many themes but what I felt led to preach on are the themes of repentance and humility.  These are simple words but not simple in their application.

Look with me at the Collect this morning if you would:

O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure…

How strange if is. Don't we usually think of God's power in terms of Moses at the red sea or Elijah calling down fire from heaven or some other manifestation of might?  Yet this prayer this morning challenges us to look in a differing direction.

What are mercy and pity according to God's standards and definition?  I think the clues may be in the words repentance and humility.

What is repentance?  The Greek word is a simple one "metanoia". What were John the Baptist and Jesus calling the people to?  What is some great display of sorrow?  Some dramatic gesture of grief? It was neither of these things, rather it was this according to Merriam Webster from two Greek words "meta" and "nouein" meaning to change one's mind or literally "mind-change".  God speaks of a transformative change of heart, a spiritual conversion.  Why this?  Because when we change our minds we begin to change our behaviors and that begins a change of our lives.  Life change!  Isn't that what we are all about in the church?  We are not after some rigid legal conformity to a set of rules like some form of spiritual bondage, scripture says: "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free!" (Galatians 5:1)

This is demonstrated in the first reading when God laments over his people.  They apparently have had a very negative and accusatory attitude with God.  They say "unfair".  You remember "unfair" on the playground as a child, maybe with your own children.    Yet we have a very skewed perspective of "fair."  Former Roman Catholic priest and psychologist, Dr Dale Olen once said he had learned that the definition of "fair" is "the means by which I got my way." That's fair!  Sins, transgressions, iniquities: all have a similar meaning and result: destruction.  All lead to some form of spiritual, moral or physical death. That is why God laments it when his people sin and it separates them from God and the experience of God's love in Christ. That breaks the heart of God who is certainly as sensitive a being, a person and any one of us are.  He says to them: "get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?"

As many of you may know in 12 step programs, the issue is "wrong choices".  The walk with God is about choices. In the 1950's, a book was written by psychiatrist "Eric Berne." It was titled "I'm OK, you're OK." It was about how we regard others and ourselves and how that shapes our lives and perspectives. Mind change is not all that repentance is about but also change of heart.  My behavior reflects an inner change of attitude and emotion.

The gospel presents us with a different scenario.  Jesus is teaching in the temple and is verbally attacked by the religious authorities.  they "said, 'By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority'?"

There is an accusatory tone, a presumption of guilt and a judgmental tone in their address.  "How dare he?  After all, we're the teachers.  Who is that vagabond Galilean?"

Throughout Jesus' life, for the most part, the scribes and priests, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the religious power-brokers are a thorn in Jesus' side. They were offended by Jesus' popularity and felt their power threatened.  Were they really about God's honor?  They lacked humility. In order to show humility, we must have a radically honest view of ourselves before God.  God never says for us to compare ourselves with our neighbor.  That never turns out well.  We compare ourselves to Christ.   James, the Lord's brother, writing to a troubled congregation wrote: "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up." (James 4:10)  St Augustine of Hippo wrote: " Should you ask me what is the first thing in religion, I should reply that the first, second, and third thing therein is humility."  We must have a realistic, an authentic view of self in the eyes of God.  Martin Luther once penned: " God created the world out of nothing, and so long as we are nothing, He can make something out of us." Our self-esteem if you will is in God.  Why do we care so much about what others think of us rather than what God thinks of us?

After Jesus answers a question with a question and in a masterful way traps his enemies, Jesus tells a parable that is designed to hold up a mirror if you will to the religious authorities that they may see themselves as they really are.  He speaks of two sons: their father says to the first: "`Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' He answered, `I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, `I go, sir'; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?"  Begrudgingly no doubt they replied: "the first". The parable was about them!  The temple authorities were often reproved by Jesus for their attitudes of : "do as I say and not as I do." That is called hypocrisy and is constantly condemned by scripture. Face it:  none of us like hypocrisy either!  Then Jesus says in essence, "it isn't that you don't know what is right and embrace it, it's that you see it and deny it because it changes the way you have to see yourselves!"  Change of mind: repentance: mercy.  Change of attitude: humility, pity. Our journey is Christ is indeed about change for the better.  As we learn repentance, mercy, humility and pity, we become more like Jesus, who humbled himself that he might raise us up with Him.  

The Rev. John Ortberg, Jr said this: "Low self-esteem causes me to believe that I have so little worth that my response does not matter. With repentance, however, I understand that being worth so much to God is why my response is so important. Repentance is remedial work to mend our minds and hearts, which get bent by sin.” Mercy and pity, humility and repentance are the doorways to greater grace.   AMEN

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Power of the Cross of Christ

Proper 19 + A        14, September, 2014       The Reverend Robert R.M. Bagwell+
Solemnity of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross           St Bartholomew, Burroughs
Exodus 15:1b-11,20-21                                                                                  Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Romans 14:1-12                                                                                                   Matthew 18:21-35

After the Emperor Constantine, legalized the Christian religion and made it the religion of the Empire,, he sent his mother "Helena" (for whom I believe that the Episcopal Parish in Beaufort, South Carolina is named) , to find and protect the Holy Sites in Judaea. On the hill of Calvary,, originally outside the city of Jerusalem, He ordered the erection of several buildings to "set forth as an object of attraction and veneration, the blessed place of our Saviors death and resurrection."  It is on this hill, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands today.  During the excavations for the building's foundation, a relic believed to be that of the true Cross upon Jesus died was discovered.   Constantine's church, which consisted of two buildings, one of which was circular in construction, was known as "The Resurrection".  It was built on the site of what was believed the place of Jesus' tomb.  That building was used for the Holy Communion and the singing of the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer.  It was completed on the 14th of September AD 335, I the seventh month of the Roman Calendar, a date which also suggested the completion of Salomon's Temple in the seventh month of the Jewish Kalendar, hundreds of years previously. That is the event celebrated on the Western Church Kalendar today.

The cross: the cross is a strange object to venerate, yet venerate it we do.  In the liturgy for Good Friday,  in the Tradition of the Western Church, at a point after which we have prostrated ourselves, and prayed, we bring a cross into the church. At my last parish we brought in a large almost life-sized cross into the church, to emphasize what the stark and ugly reality of what crucifixion was really about, to emphasize what it might be like to be hanging from such a cruel instrument of horror.  Perhaps it is too vivid for our imaginations to see such a cruel and horrid death.  Yet still every Good Friday, as the procession stops three times from the back of the church we sing: "behold the wood of the cross on which has hung the world's salvation,:" and the congregation responds,  "O come let us adore!":  We put crosses on our buildings, we put crosses on our altars, we hang crosses around our necks, we even cross ourselves before prayer!  When we baptize a child we make a small cross on the child's head and say: "you are sealed with the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ's own forever."  Don't we realize that the cross is a mark of death? Don't we realize that the cross is a mark of shame? a sign of rejection? something to be embarrassed about?  

But it is more: according to the Scriptures and the oldest liturgies of the church, it is the tree of life.  Much like the first tree of life in the book of Genesis, those who eat of it's fruit will live forever!  How can both of these polar opposites, death and life be true?  Why do accord the cross such honor? when that One who was from the beginning, the best of all that humanity could ever conceive of being, from the beginning of creation was placed on a device so cruel that eventually the Romans themselves ceased to use it?  Why do we persist in remembering it?  Don't we want to forget the cross?

Well it would seem that the writers of the Newer Testament with one resounding voice say "NO".  What is the message of the Cross? so central to our understanding of Jesus and Jesus' mission to this world?  Paul wrote to the church at Corinth: "the message of the cross is foolishness to them who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God."   What is the message of the Cross?  It is a message of radical forgiveness, radical forgiveness and redemption.  Does anyone know the meaning of the word "radical" is from its original language?  It means "from the root,"  down to our very core we experience forgiveness.

In today's gospel, Peter comes to Jesus and Peter says: "If another person sins against me, how often should I forgive? As often as seven times"  Jesus responds to him: "not seven times, but seventy-seven times… seventy-seven times."  From the rabbinic teaching, Peter knows that forgiving is a good thing to do, but one must do it wisely.  It would be considered generous to forgive the same person twice. It would be considered exemplary to forgive the same person three times. To forgive again?  That would be extreme, but Peter knew Jesus was prone to be excessive in his teaching, so Peter chooses a bigger number, a very special number in Jewish numerology, the number seven. It represents completion, wholeness, perfection.  After all the world was created in seven days in the book of Genesis.  When Jesus said this he was not suggesting that Peter go around with a note pad and say "well that was seventy, you've got sixty nine to go!  Jesus is saying "we are not to limit our forgiveness."  We are called to be ready and eager to forgive people who have sinned against us.  That is where the pinch comes: the difficult walk for you and me as Christians.

Radical forgiveness is something we struggle with, in our human condition.  We tend to think in terms of others forgiving us rather than how we are to forgive others.  We expect, we hope, we depend upon, we count on others forging us, but asking for forgiveness is much more difficult I our human condition much less in our Christian walk.  How many here have ever had to ask for forgiveness?  All of this becomes central to the message we receive from the Newer Testament.  Paul speaks of having a realistic perspective of ourselves.  That's what Jesus' parable is about in today's gospel. We speak of "not being able to see the forest for the trees?"  But when we experience hurt, anyone ever been hurt?   When we have been hurt, when someone has done us wrong, when someone offends us how do we follow the words of Jesus?  He speaks rather ominous words.  At the end of the gospel he says: " So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

We may say: "ok Lord, I get the point, how do I get there?"  Any of you ever struggle to forgive, ever?  I want to refer to a quote from Desmond Tutu, who you may know has experienced a bit of suffering in his life time.  The Archbishop writes:  "in forgiving, people are not being asked to forget, on the contrary, it is important to remember so that we should not let such atrocities occur again.  Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done.  It means taking what happened seriously and drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens our entire existence."

That is a man who speaks from experience.  I think that most of us here want to do as Jesus admonishes us this morning: to forgive from the heart, but at times some misconceptions about forgiveness keep us bound up, chained if you will to those painful memories.  Forgiveness does not require the offender to realize what they have done to the offended.  Jesus forgave from the cross.  Now I ask you:  were  Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas the High Priest or Herod the King, sorry for what they had done to Jesus?  If so the New Testament leaves that detail out.  Yet Jesus said from the cross:  "Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing."  "Forgiveness" from the Greek word means: "to set free, to let go", and that's the trick isn't it? to let the hurt go.  Forgiveness from the Newer Testament is unconditional and not dependent upon the tact that they hurt us or not. 

Second:  some of us think, "I'm a Christian, it should be easy for me to forgive."  I would suggest that this is not necessarily so.  For some it is easier to forgive than for others.  One witer spoke of a spirit of 'denial'.  "Oh it was nothing".  Have you ever said that?  "I appreciate you drawing it to my attention, but it was nothing."  Some think you can gloss over the pain. Have you ever done that?  That pain which in a heated moment will come through the softened gloss and suddenly everything comes out. "They did this, and then this, and later this! and now they've done THIS?"  It is not a glossing over that we need.  It is an intermittent process, of pain and emotion but with a determined decision of our wills to continue to forgive.   It is a process over time to forgive. 

Thirdly: forgiving seventy times seven does not mean being a door mat. It doesn't means staying in an abusive relationship forever.  Rather it means "wising up to a healthy sense of self care.  Some times that act of "wising up" will cause the offender to see how they have hurt another person. Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal writer wrote: "when you allow your enemy to stop being your enemy, all the rules change.  No one knows how to act anymore because forgiveness is an act of transformation."  What will they do if we don't hold it over their heads anymore?  If they don't feel your hate or hurt anymore?  Forgiveness is the bedrock of the Christian faith and the Christian Life.  The cross of Jesus Christ is only the tree of Life if we receive Jesus' forgiveness for ourselves and we then forgive others as we have been forgiven. That becomes our life agenda.  Not a joke, not good advice: but our marching orders from the One we are trusting to save our souls. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer from a Nazi prison wrote: "When  Christ calls a person he call them to come and die."  What is it about the cross that has transformed our reality and indeed has transformed the world? It is forgiveness.  Dr Robert Sculler, has a rather wonderful way of re-framing the cross illustrating what it accomplishes in us. He says:  "the cross turns a minus, into a plus."  Are we minuses? or pluses? Jesus turns negatives into positives.  Many today,  are clinging to that every promise, that sacred hope while our sister and brother Christians are being slaughtered, hunted down like animals by the rabid and driven godless, in places where people cling to life against all hope with no food or medical care or water, where disease ravages their homeland, will we not as they do, cling to the one who has brought us such great salvation? All Christians are supposed to be followers of Christ.  Is that not why we begin our services with that symbolic procession in to remind of that it is all about following Him? The choice is ours, Jesus has already chosen.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Proper 14 + A + 2014 "Love is not an 'Option'."

Proper XVII+A     31 August, 2014      Father  Robert R.M. Bagwell+
Jeremiah 15:15-21                                                                                         Psalm 105:1-6, 23-2645c Romans 12:9-21                                                                                                        Matthew 16:21-28

An atheist was taking a walk through the woods, admiring all that the "accident of evolution" had created. What majestic trees! What powerful rivers! What beautiful animals!" he said to himself. As he was walking alongside the river he heard a rustling in the bushes behind him. He turned to look. He saw a 7-foot grizzly charge towards him. He ran as fast as he could up the path. He looked over his shoulder and saw that the bear was closing in. He ran even faster, so scared that tears were coming to his eyes His heart was pumping frantically. He tripped and fell on the ground. He rolled over to pick himself up but saw the bear right on top of him reaching for him with his left paw and raising his right paw to strike him. At that instant the atheist cried out "Oh my God!". Time stopped. The bear froze. The forest was silent. Even the river stopped moving. As a bright light shone upon the man, a voice came out of the sky, "You deny my existence for all of these years; teach others I don't exist; and even credit creation to a cosmic accident. Do you expect me to help you out of this predicament? Am I to count you as a believer?" The atheist looked directly into the light. "It would be hypocritical of me to suddenly ask you to treat me as a Christian now, but perhapsY. could you make the bear a Christian?" Very well," said the voice. The light went out. The river ran again. The sounds of the forest resumed. And then the bear dropped his right paw. Brought both paws together, bowed his head and spoke: "Lord, for this food which I am about to receive, I am truly thankful."
Would you look carefully at the collect this morning: "Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; "
You may or may not know that Anglican theology is very much wedded to the collects.   The Lutherans have a Confession of Faith, even the Baptists have a Confession of faith.  We do not have a confession of faith. Our faith is found in the 39 Articles, the Creeds, the ancient counsels and the  and we have the collects.  This collect sets up an interesting question.  "How do love God's Name", what is to increase "true religion" to be nourished with goodness" and bring forth "good works."  This sort of encompasses the whole of our Christian faith and life.  Jesus' final charge to us on the Mt of the Ascension was this: He said to tHis disciple and therefore tro us.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18b-20)

There can be no more pertinent reading to our current day.  For though you may still think of American situation as a Christian nation., I want you to know that the Enemy has made great gains in "stuffing" the ears of people lest they hear and should believe..

The first thing I want to draw to your attention is that we, "we" go forth in the authority of Jesus.  This is not our endeavor, but God's endeavor. Do you not remember that we are "ambassadors for Christ.  We represent Him, We re-present Him.  I am not suggesting that you get up on a soapbox in downtown Savannah.  I am suggesting that you begin to take seriously the fact that you are God's Emissary.  Whoever's lives you touch it may be very well that God is touching them through you!  We are so often distracted by the Deceiver.  We don't want to offend anyone.  Isn't God a "personal matter."  Did you read the same Bible I did? Faith is personal but it is not private!  
I know that this is not so called "politically correct" but it is "religiously correct".  If the early church were as cowed in fear as the contemporary Church.  The message would never have made it out of the upper room on Pentecost! And before you think it's someone else's job, like a priest or preacher or even a missionary for example, you would be terribly wrong. And before you think  that this is the job of the clergy and those who wear vestments, I want to ask you "have you read the baptismal covenant lately?"Before I get off my soapbox let me give you a startling statistic. A majority of unchurched people say they attended a church for the first time because someone asked them.  "Oh my! So intimidating!"You can understand that!  If you ask someone who already knows and trusts you, they are less intimidated at the thought.. So I want to ask you, have you invited anyone to church? EVER? Pray on it!  But let me return to my initial question.

 "How do love God's Name", what is to increase "true religion" to be nourished with goodness" and bring forth "good works."   Our Bible speaks a lot about God's love. That differentiates Christianity from every other faith tradition except to some extent Judaism.For instance we read in first John: "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." (I Jn 4}

This is unique to us!  You do not hear a Moslem saying "Allah is love".  Now an Arabic Christian would but not an adherent of Islam! How do we love God? Why love God?   We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.  Love is a matter of the will.  What we see portrayed in Hollywood is not the love of which Paul or Jesus speaks.  I have gone over this dozens of times in pre-marital counseling.  Love is a matter of the will!

How many of you know that our spouses are not always that loveable? So let me differentiate for a moment.  There is love and there is like.  How many of you know that you can love a person even if you do not like what they are doing?  Love values the integrity of the person. Remember the covenant?  "Respect the dignity of every human being?"  Love is unconditional if you are a Christian.  That is difficult, but that is God's love and God's Spirit in our hearts will love others through us if we will let him. How many of you know that we offend God every day with our thoughts and words and deeds? Or did you think that was just in the Prayerbook so you read it?

God's love is unconditional.  I am quite sure that God does not like some of us some of the time, but he still loves us. Much as a parent will make excuses for a child, but still love them even if they do not love the behavior.  In Peter's Epistle we read:  "Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins." I Peter 4:8 How do I know this?  Because the Bible says: " But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Romans 5:8  Not after he cleaned us up, but while we were yet sinners.
Jesus brought a revolutionary idea into the world. That God is love, lover, and loved.  Love begins in the blessed Trinity as that love is given and received, then shared that love with us.  Jesus has grafted us into the Family of God.  That family which begins with the mutual love in the Trinity and through Jesus is now shared with us! Which brings us to Paul's writing from the letter to the Romans.  

:Paul writes: "Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is God; love one another with mutual affection;"  Earlier in this chapter in verse one Paul writes: " Love must be sincere." (12:1)  You may say:  "why of course it must be! After all what is insincere love?  I don't know but it sure isn't love and I believe it will eventually show itself not to be so.  That is why we must love our neighbors as ourselves.  Don't let your love be some pretense of veneer of Christianity, a shallow fa├žade. Seek to treat everyone as you would treat the Lord Jesus Christ.  

Let me share with you something I've learned from the original language, and we'll let it inform the text." The word “sincere” comes from the Latin words sine cera, which means “without wax”.  The phrase comes from a practice where people would hide the cracks in cheap pottery with wax in order to pass the pottery off as being worth more than it actually was.  Quality products were often stamped with the words sine cera to show it had not be doctored. It would be similar to those products today that are stamped, “all natural” or “100% pure”.  Paul is telling us to love in a way that is pure and genuine." In a day when they would cook in pottery, when they would heat up the ceramic, the wax would melt out.  Then you would know you had been had.

Interestingly enough, that word sincere and genuine are the same word and it is the translation of the Greek word: "Anu-pokritos" which literally sounds like the word we use today: "hypocrisy." As for the other questions that the collect begs, I would like to suggest that they are answered in the rest of Paul's writing for today.  "How do love God's Name", what is to increase "true religion" to be nourished with goodness" and bring forth "good works."   

We love God's Name by reflecting God's love towards others. That is the only way we show God that we love him.  How do we show others that we love him?  By what we do towards them.  It is the same.  When others see us and if they know we ae Christians, then we have to behave!  We must because if we do not, we bring dishonor on the name of the Lord Jesus and the glory of God.  Have you heard the expression "and they call themselves a Christian?"  I know if you live in the South, you have heard that expression!  

We show ourselves to be "hypocrites!"  When we call ourselves "Christians" that means "little Christ". We show God's love to others and that is how we show God we love Him!

What is true religio, true religion?  In the writings of a fourth century Christian Lactantius, opted for the word religare, a verb meaning “to fasten or bind.”  He said that this signifies we are “tied to God and bound to him by the bond of loving kindness." 

Goodness comes from "god-ness", God-likeness from the Old English, following God doing and good works are the only way we can show God, we love him or show others that we love God!  We do not do good works so God will "like" us.   We do good works because God dwells in our hearts and we cannot help ourselves.

So we are left with a question as God always seems to leave us.  Will we?  Jesus says: "I will". Jesus said: "I will go to the cross", and let me assure you that was not a pleasant experience!  We believe Him.  Will we say "I will" in return.  God is asking.  Now we are back to that matter of the "will". Only you can answer.  We may not "feel" like loving God today or "being a good example", but where we go, Jesus Christ goes.  I pray that you will say AMEN, that is "let it be so."  to God's question this morning. AMEN