Sunday, August 23, 2015

Chosen in Christ, Armed For the battle, Fed for the Journey.

Proper 16+B          23 August 2015          The Reverend Robert R.M. Bagwell+
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18                                                                                               Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20                                                                                                         John 6:56-69
 Chosen in Christ, Armed For the battle, Fed for the Journey.

 I read a story a few years ago, of a missionary that recently returned to the U.S. after an extended tenure of service abroad who was asked—“What is the most difficult thing about readjusting to being back home?”  His reply was—“the potato chip aisle”.  “What do you mean?” he was asked.  “Well, when I left, there were such limited choices: regular, ridges, or barbeque.  There was a potato chip section—not an aisle.  Now there are so many more choices: sour cream and onion, vinegar, old fashioned, low sodium, lite, cheese—I could not make a decision!”  Our readings today confront us with serious choices we must make or live with the consequences of not choosing for not to choose is to choose!

 Biblical religion is about choices.  From Adam and Eve, every person studied with any depth in the Biblical record learns by choices, alters destiny by choices and even lives or dies by choices.  Welcome to the human race.  As it was is the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end AMEN!   And still again, what do we clamor for?  More…CHOICES!

But Jesus gives us just that: an abundance of choices but the venues are two:  follow the Lord or follow the world, the flesh and the Devil.  Today, Joshua gathers God's people together by their representative heads and asks them to choose.  He says: "choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."

We live in a culture that challenges us each year, month, day--hour and minute to choose. Yes, many people, jobs and politicians challenge us to choose, but so does God!  Jesus had a choice:  he chose for us, to suffer, die and rise again for us.  Choices for others best are rarely a negative thing, too many choices are for our wants and not as Joshua challenged, for the Lord!.

We may say to ourselves, "but that's so hard sometimes and there's so much pressure."  Yes there is.  Martin Luther said: we are at the same time, justified in Jesus Christ and sinners!  Yes, I sin, you sin, we all sin.  Most of the battles in life will engage both the old human selfish nature and the reborn Divine nature of the Spirit of God that dwells in us.  But we are NOT ALONE!

The passage from Paul's letter to the Christians in Ephesus and the gospel of John give us strong helps toward winning the battle of choices. God helps, not those who help themselves as some heretic once said but God helps those who call upon his Name.  God always answers prayer, just not how we always want him to answer.

Choices must be informed!!  We are eternal beings our actions have eternal consequences!  Our choices even now have very temporal consequences!  We can choose our actions but we cannot choose the consequences of our actions.   Let me repeat that. can choose our actions but we cannot choose the consequences of our actions. If there is one blind spot of our age—it seems to be this fact. People live as if there is no tomorrow to worry about.“I’ll deal with my soul later.  I don’t have time for God now.”People live as though human beings are invulnerable—all mini supermen and superwomen no kryptonite around to bother.  Since we seldom think of the consequences of our actions—we  are all too often unwilling to accept them.  We begin in childhood and graduate to the professional school of excuses. We too easily excuse and litigate our consequences/

I once heard someone say:  “an excuse is a reason with a lie in the middle of it.!”  Just from one sinner to another this morning, that's rather hard to beat as a definition.  We are ambassadors for Christ, Paul wrote; you are the salt of the earth, Jesus said.  Now we need every bit of God's armor of which Paul wrote.  We are at a deepening crisis in this world for which Christ died.  We are called to the challenge for which God called us in Christ.  Look at Paul's words: " Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm." 

We are engaged in a spiritual war like none I have seen in my lifetime.  The evening news is a horror show at times and people seem to be coming unglued.  We need the Church to arise, we need one another, we need Christ and the Holy Spirit to help us, to increase our faith. Each day we must put on Spiritual armor and then move to the spiritual offense.  What did Paul say?  Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.  Prayer is our offense.  We must pray seeking God's help in our prayers. 
In the Message version of the Bible:  the author translated Romans 8:26-28 like this: " Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good."   Prayer is the weapon our enemy hates the most.  That is why Paul wrote: "pray without ceasing." Choose to pray without ceasing.  We have been called in Jesus Christ for such a time as this.

James Russell Lowell, a New England clergyman, opposing the war against Mexico, wrote these words that appeared in the 1940 Episcopal Hymnal:
Once to every man and nation, Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with false-hood, For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, 'Twixt that darkness and that light.
Jesus gives us the energy, the food for this journey for His Kingdom.   In John we read: "“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever." But we must choose again and again to eat.  When we abide in Jesus and he abides in us, then thing happen, change comes to us and to others. 

However, I think we must renew our baptismal vows every day.  Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept Him as your Savior? I do. Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? I do. Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?  I do. Why every day?  I think we need to be reminded.  Terry Fullam used to say we have amnesia when it comes to God. We forget who and whose we are.  That is why God gave us one another: the Church; Spiritual armor: God's Truth and His Body and Blood: His food for the battle.  Remember: we do not merely go to a church building that reminds us of who we are, we are the very church itself!  This building reminds us of who we are!  Like a family portrait gallery that many of us have, it reminds us of where we come from and whose we are!

 One last thing I want to discuss:  the collect.  At the beginning of this Eucharist we prayed:  "Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name;"

On the one hand in the last fifty or so years, I believe that God is trying to bring us together.  On the other hand, we clearly have groups that are trying to pull us apart. It reminds me of the story of the two old New England Puritans, one who reputedly said to the other: "there is none so righteous as me and thee, and sometimes, I wonder about thee!"

 I don't want to impugn motives or challenge sincerity, I merely ask that we continue to pray for the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ.  I love to torment protestants by saying: "you know you are Catholic."  They protest.  No!  What do you mean!  I'm not a Catholic!"  Then I explain that all you are born again in Christ are part of the church Catholic. Rome has not exclusive patent on the term. As the baptismal covenant reminds us in the words of Paul:  "There is but One Body and One Spirit."  We need our daily choices--to choose, our armor, to equip and our Holy Communion, to feed,  to help us to fight the battle for love.  It is now a time for the people of God to join for whatever we may yet encounter, in our culture, our nation and the world.  Not an easy gospel.  But the battle is the Lord's.  He has already won it. We are part of the cleanup operation.  The day of God's reign has already begun.  Let us go forth in the Name of Christ to wage the war of LOVE!  Alleluia!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Bread of Life

 The Reverend Robert R.M. Bagwell+
13,  August 2015

Proper XIV+B                   
1 Kings 19: 4-8               
 Psalm 34: 1-8                                                                                                                  
Ephesians 4: 25- 5:2                                                                      
John 6: 35, 41-51
I read this in the latest edition of the Spirit Newspaper.

A man was being tailgated by a stressed-out woman on a busy boulevard. Suddenly, the light turned yellow, just in front of him. He did the right thing, stopping at the crosswalk, even though he could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection. The tailgating woman immediately hit her horn, screaming in frustration as she missed her chance to get through the intersection with him.

As she was still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the face of a very serious police officer. The officer ordered her to exit her car with her hands up. He took her to the police station where she was searched, fingerprinted, photographed, and placed in a cell.
After a couple of hours, a policeman approached the cell and opened the door. She was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her personal effects.
He said, "I’m very sorry for this mistake. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, waving your fist at the guy off in front of you, and swearing at him. I noticed the ‘Choose Life’ license plate holder, the ‘What Would Jesus Do” bumper sticker, the ‘Follow Me to Sunday School’ bumper sticker and the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk. Naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car.”

The Apostle Paul wrote in the letter that we read from this morning, Atherefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children and live in love, as Christ loved you and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.@  Long ago, Thomas a Kempis wrote a book that some of you may be familiar with, it was called Athe Imitation of Christ@ in which he set forth how every task we do can be consecrated, set apart and therefore be given and give, glory to God.  Paul=s whole letter to the Ephesian Church this morning is about just that, doing what Christ did.  Another fiction book from which we get the question: "What would Jesus do:" is Called "In His Steps" by Charles Sheldon.  In this account, several powerful business men decide to make no significant decisions for one year without first asking: "What would Jesus do?" "What would JESUS do?" "What WOULD Jesus do?"

If we read down the pastoral commandments Paul gives  here we see a paradigm, a life plan to strive for, goals to seek, not as Aoptions@ if we feel like it, but what we should be working for if we dare to call ourselves Christians or Athe children of God.@ But how do we get to this place?  How do we get the graces to see all of these things passing from our lives?  We get them  from Jesus.

First consider "bread".Bread is the staple of civilization. It is used symbolically for food-nourishment-body fuel.   Bread gives human beings LIFE!Is it any wonder that Jesus used 'bread' to signify his place in the Divine Plan for humanity? Imagine a bread that would not only fill your hunger but would cause you never to hunger again. We're  not speaking here about health food that helps the digestive processes, or holds out the promise of long life, or simply "is good for you".  We're  speaking about a bread that promises eternal life. Eat this bread and will live forever.  That Bread is Christ Himself.

Just think of  the lines of people that would form just to get  this bread. Think of how everyone would be rushing off to tell all their friends and family and neighbors. Then again, ...maybe not.  When I arrived here at the church this morning, I didn't have to fight my way through a crowd of cameras. No lines of people eagerly encamped on the front lawn making sure there would be a place for them.. Yet amazingly, here in this church, such a Bread of Life is being given out.  Here Jesus  fills the hungry with good things: the Bread of Life that is Himself, This is Bread greater than the bread of heaven that God rained down on Israel for forty years, greater than the angel's bread that took Elijah across the desert wilderness for forty days and nights.

Has it ever bothered you, sort of embarrassed you the way God chose to save us? Jesus comes to us in the scandalously plain and ordinary way of bread as he came in the scandalously ordinary birth of a baby.. Can you imagine??? Bread is what the waiter tosses on the table to keep you busy while you study the menu. Bread is the excuse to eat more  butter than we should have.  Bread is what you use to soak up the last of the pasta sauce and salad dressing. In Jesus' culture, where everyone ate with their hands, bread was even your knife, fork, spoon and possibly napkin! When people go on a diet these days, they tend to leave out the bread. Similarly when life gets hectic, many Christians choose to leave the Bread of Life out of their diet. "We've been so busy lately, and Sunday is our only time to relax."

The Jews didn't=t like what Jesus' said  about bread. Frankly, some Christians don=t!  Everything was fine until Jesus said it with the full blast, the I AM of God's name. I AM the bread of life which came down from heaven. How can he speak as if He were God? How can this Jesus call himself bread come down from heaven? They were scandalized.  Listen carefully for unbelief is our inherited eating disorder, a refusal to eat food of life and our preference for the delicacies of death. We read in the scriptures that Adam and Eve were given to eat of any tree in the Garden, including the tree in the middle of the Garden, the Tree of Life.   To eat of that tree meant to eat of life and live forever. Well, not exactly. They were given to eat of the other trees in the middle of the Garden, with just one itty bitty exception, the tree of knowing good and evil. You know now how like a child is told not to touch the object and the child does all they can to get away with touching it?  Satan lied.

To eat of the tree of knowing good and evil was to partake of death and to die forever. Imagine, eating death! So of course, they ate that which was forbidden and  God shut them, and us, away from the tree of life.  Later,  there would be another food, a food that man might eat and live forever,  living Bread.  Jesus Christ is the food that undoes our eating disorder, a Bread that takes our death and through His death works life. Don=t you  feel the hunger pangs of our death, that gnawing emptiness that  cannot be filled by the various breads of this life, that no drug, can numb. The diseases that wear down and eventually destroy our bodies. The brokenness  that destroys  our families; Death  all around us that robs us of loved ones and  our own death that inevitably looms  over us; 

All the things St. Paul told us to Astop doing@ and to "do" this morning. Guilt over the things we have said and done, and the things we have left unsaid and undone. Harm we have caused others, and the harm others have caused us. Sin ‑‑ the thoughts, words, and actions that betray who we really are  as sinners. This empty, nagging hunger that nothing in this world can fill.  

Paul writes: Speak truth to one another, b) don't sin when you are angry, c) don't steal, d) share with the needy, e) don't gossip and slander others, f) don't grieve God with our actions  g)  don't be bitter and malicious, but forgive others and Christ forgave you, and lastly  h) imitate God in Christ However, as empty vessels, so often try to fill it with something else, something easier, or so we think. We fill it with work, hoping achievement and success will take away the hunger . But the harder we work, the hungrier we get. We fill it with play, seeking fulfillment in fun and hobbies, travel  recreation and sports. We try relationships, hoping to find in the other what we are missing in ourselves.  We try religion, in the hopes that if we struggle and strain and strive hard enough to achieve some type of "spirituality" the hunger pangs will go away. But nothing seems to work.

Our hunger is not for anything we can touch, but God has not left us to starve in the wilderness of sin. He has sent living Bread from heaven in the form His Son: Jesus.  The tragedy is that too often we wait until we are desperate, weak, and exhausted to receive  this food, as if Christ were the "Bread of Despair" with a sign stamped on him that says, "for emergency use only." One of my great mentors Brennan Manning wrote: "God is enough. That is the root of peace. When we start seeking something besides Him, we lose it."

The Bread of Life comes with an unconditional guarantee and promise to the eater: "I will raise him up on the Last Day.". Four times he promises what no other Bread in this world can deliver ‑‑ resurrection from the dead. Every other food we eat goes with us to the grave and dies. This food goes with us to the grave and raises us to life.  He promises no quick and easy solutions to the pains and problems attendant to this life. This is no magic Wonder Bread but God's living Bread that will see you through life and death to the Resurrection of the Last Day. This Bread will give you strength to live your life boldly and confidently, even when you are hard pressed on every side and things seem to be closing in. And it may very well take until the Last Day for us to realize how well fed we have been all along.

Don't come to church to be entertained or emotionally manipulated. Come with the expectation of bigger and greater things than that drivel from the Bread of Life. Expect the forgiveness of your sins. Expect the gift of eternal life. Expect to be raised up to life on the Last Day.  The best is yet to come!  You have His Word on that and that is one word that can be trusted.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Glorious Name of Grace

Proper 13+B         
2 August AD 2015           
The Rev Robert R.M. Bagwell+
Exodus 16: 2-4, 9-15                                                                                            Psalm 78: 23-29
Ephesians 4: 1-16                                                                                            Gospel  John 6: 24-35

A lady in Nebraska named Theresa, , decided to mail the old family Holy Bible to her brother in Maine. The postal worker asked if  there was anything breakable in the parcel.
'Only the Ten Commandments,'  she responded with a smile. Hmmmf.
The Bible, a word that means, "book" is replete with honest stories about the strengths and weaknesses of human nature.  No other faith on earth is so starkly honest about its heroes' triumphs and weaknesses, personal tragic character flaws displayed when they are least heroic as does the Bible.  Note the recent extreme responses to even a drawn likeness representing the "prophet" of Islam.  The fatalistic attitudes toward life and eternity of others, paint a picture of near despair about the meaning of life pale when cast against the positive and hopeful view as revealed by the Older Testament writers and those of the Newer Testament as revealed by the Gospel and Epistle writers in the  Renewed Covenant of Jesus Christ. This radical honesty about the characters of the Bible is perceived by many as a testimony to its genuine character.  No more shocking of such a portrayal is the story of one of God's chosen ones, who clearly loved God and was used in mighty ways to accomplish his ends is David.  Another is Moses. The Older Testament largely makes the argument for why ultimately God in Jesus Christ had to come and had to do for us what we would not and could not do. 

God's remedy to our human, sinful and broken dilemma is a word that has for us such familiarity that it may have lost the full impact of its profound meaning.  That word is GRACE! I have heard grace defined in differing ways.  One acronym was God's Righteousness At Christ's Expense.  I have usually defined it as God unmerited favor.  Grace cannot be earned, it's free!  Pastor Tullian Tchividjian said: "The gospel is not for good people to become better, if anything, the gospel is good news for bad people coping with their failure to be good." Yet we have centuries of guilt-laden, exhausted baptized Christians who still try to earn God's favor by doing good works.  But as our first reading amply demonstrates, even God's heroes are still plagued by human failure and sin.  Remarkably as we read the Book, we see human moral failure after human moral failure. Adam and Eve fell, Cain fell, the builders of Babel fell, the people of Noah's day and even Noah fell.  What about other Bible heroes?  Abraham fell, Isaac fell, Jacob fell, Moses was a murderer, David was an adulterer and on and on we read until we encounter Jesus--who lived a sinless life of perfect favor with God--whom we killed. But God, in his infinite, inexhaustible grace and love, still loved us and in Christ Jesus and our murder of His Son, purchased our pardon.  That is the Christian Good News.  That is the gospel.  This my brothers and sisters living under the blood of Jesus is why grace is so AMAZING!  Though you may not have considered it before, this Bible, is the book of Grace and if we are nothing else, we are the people of Grace!

In our reading from Ephesians, Paul continues to share his heart with the community of believers in Ephesus.  Paul wrote the book of Ephesians, from the city of Ephesus.  He wasn't vacationing there or even on a preaching mission.  No this letter was written from prison!  In our reading from last we read these words:: "being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge…."  Is he for real?  He's behind bars and he is writing to them about God's love? But even as we turn to the text from this week,  we are reading the words of a man of a singular focus and purpose:  to build up that Body of Christ for which Jesus shed his blood and whom Jesus loves with an infinite love.  How do we experience the grace of God, by living in God's love. 

Back to the Ephesian Church; in John's book of Revelation, he records the words of Jesus saying to them: 

 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.  Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. (Revelation 2)

I once heard a story of a man in marriage counseling who had difficulty talking about his feelings.  The doctor had heard the complaint from his wife that: "he never tells me that he loves me!"  He asked the man, why he never told his wife he loved her.  His reply:"I told her when we got married, I'll let her know if I change my mind." 

God gives us love constantly and continuously.  Do we return it?  How many churches are on fire with God's love?  When love leaves, the church dies.  We love one another because God first loved us I John 4:19 tells us.  But then John writes these words:  " If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.…"

 I was so overjoyed at the way our diocese has responded to the division in this diocese.  All I have seen has been loving from Bishop Charlie and even those who have left congregations to continue with the Episcopal Church.  Paul experienced grace from God in such a profound way, that he who had personally seen to the imprisonment and death of followers of Jesus, should encounter such forgiveness and Divine love on the road to Damascus.  But to keep our love for God alive, we must exercise it, partake of it, and share it with others.  A deeper truth is that God has put his love into our hearts.  If God is within, I do not know how we can possibly keep it to ourselves!  Love is action--thought, word and deed.  We are here to love the unbeliever and the believer for Jesus' sake.  That is why the Holy Spirit lives in us, to continue the work that Jesus began.  

If God could use as many sinful and broken heroes as we read of in the stories of our sacred texts, then he can surely use each one of us.  This is a corporate mission not a private one. This is not a spectator sport and ever team member is essential in the game of life that God has given us.  So may I encourage you, each day remember that you are part of a Divine family and are sent out on a Divine mission. 

We began this Eucharist with the collect: "Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness;…"  God governs us by his grace and love.  Be of good cheer my family in God, we are loved in mercy, cleansed in mercy and filled with the goodness of God.  Now let us share that in the assurance that we are loved and share that love with the world for whom Christ died.  As we feed at God's table, let us remember Jesus is the bread of life.  Let this Divine encounter spur us on to share Jesus Christ, His love and grace, while we have time until he comes.

Jesus + nothing = EVERYTHING