Sunday, February 28, 2016

Perfect Freedom

Lent 3+C+2016             The Reverend Robert RM Bagwell
Exodus 3:1-15                                                        Psalm 63:1-8
Corinthians 10:10:1-13                                         Luke 13:1-9
In his very challenging and enlightening book, the Road Less Traveled, first published in 1978,  Dr Scott Peck begins the first chapter with these words: "Life is difficult".  He then begins to explain how the acceptance of that truth frees us and the denial of that leads to all sorts of neuroses and thereby neurotic behaviors.  We say things like 'That's not fair!" as if there were moral imperative in this world that requires "fairness"  We say this often from an erroneous reasoning that may be selfish at the core. One catholic psychologist defined "fair" as "the means by which I got my way." The liberation from the erroneous construct that life must somehow be fair is simply to accept it, says  the good doctor..  The adverse, to reject this, ignoring all evidence to the contrary,  produces anger, hatred, malice, resentment and other destructive attitudes and behaviors.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)  From all of this bondage, God with Israel and later, Jesus with the whole world, came to set us free.

In this "self-help" culture of the 21st century, our collect, our petition to God declares a mighty truth of self awareness which humanity for millennia has striven to deny: . "Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul."

Humans are at least tri-partite beings. We call this: body, soul and spirit in the Western world. We live in a cause and effect world.  We live in a world of conditionals  We contract:  you do this and I will do that.  We live by science, hypothesis, experiment conclusion.  We expect this orderliness to somehow continue in God's dealings with us.  However, the Israelite people, given incredible signs and wonders, did not live us to the demands of the law. No one could live up to the demands of the law until God sent His Son and we KILLED HIM!  The idea that anyone could keep the law required and element of the divine.  What a threat to the religious authorities of Jesus' day.  The writer to the Hebrews put it this way:  Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)
Why in the midst of all of the brokenness of the human condition did God show up in the person of Jesus?  I think the 103rd Psalm has some enlightenment on the subject. We read: he does not treat us as our sins deserve  or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him;  as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.
Even in the Older Testament, we see His great love for us!  The oddness of God is that he loves the broken and the sinful!  Many Christians, have put ourselves somehow out of the moral paradigm into a different category of sinner so that we  see others as greater sinners than ourselves, may have or do look down upon them.  This is just what Jesus reproved the Pharisees and the religious leaders for.  When criticized he replied: I did not come to call the 'righteous' but sinners.  (Luke 5:32) At times since the inception of the Church of Jesus  Christ, you might be persuaded to believe just the opposite!  It is a stark reality that those seeking to follow God, must continually come to God for grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:6) The only thing that stands between or differentiates between us and the most vile human being that ever lived is the blood of Jesus Christ.  It is in His matchless GRACE that we stand because without it we cannot stand at all before God.
Look at the Israelites in their Exodus!  They had seen God's mighty works and eaten the manna in the wilderness. They had gotten water miraculously from a rock in the wilderness that saved them from death! You would have thought that they would have been the best little God-worshippers in the world, but were they?  Over and over again they rebelled against God their Savior!   In our reading from Corinthians, Paul writes:  Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.
Jesus speaks in this same vein of thought in today's lesson: Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? (Luke 13)  We assume that if something bad happens, God was punishing someone for bad actions.  We look at the cause and effect we have grown to expect out of life, but God is not a cause and effect God.   Nevertheless, God continues to blow our understanding throughout the Bible.  He chose GREAT SINNERS to accomplish His will and purpose: Moses who killed and Egyptian, Jacob who sold his brother's birthright, Samson who presumed upon God in his pride, David who committed adultery and ordered a second degree murder of a woman he had had relations with to cover his sin and Paul who actively participated in the killing of Christians before his conversion.
What then can we DO to please God?  Outside of Jesus Christ the answer is NOTHING!  Inside of Christ, God has already done everything!

The good news of the gospel is: what we could not do or would not do, Jesus did.  No human being ever born, save one, did not sin. It's our nature.  We were great sinners, but Jesus is a greater Savior!  This is the RADICAL nature of grace. We don't understand it.  We almost never practice it, but without it, cannot be saved.

During this Lenten season, I am challenged to get back to the roots of my relationship with God.  Even in Christ, I find that I need His grace and help to accomplish anything.

Paul writes of this human dilemma that all of us experience. I read it from the Message version of the Scriptures of even Christians trying to walk in the way of Jesus:

It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.
24 I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?25 The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different (Romans 7:23-25)
 That is why we need God's grace, every moment of every day.  Without it, we can accomplish nothing and be nothing.  But in God's grace we can accomplish whatever God wills in our lives and we are the daughters and sons of God.

The hymn writer, Philip Bliss wrote:
Free from the law, O happy condition, Jesus hath bled, and there is remission; Cursed by the law and bruised by the fall, Grace hath redeemed us once for all.
Now are we free— there's no condemnation; Jesus provides a perfect salvation;
"Come unto Me," O hear His sweet call, Come, and He saves us once for all.

Once for all, O sinner, receive it, Once for all, O brother believe it; Cling to the cross, the burden will fall, Christ has redeemed us once for all.

This is the good news we proclaim to the world.  This is the good news we need to remember every day.  It is not license, for the person in whom the Spirit of God dwells, my new nature in the new birth, desires to please God and to follow him out of gratefulness and love. God will help those who come to him and set them free from the bondage of sin. God does not threaten or punish us into repentance, he reaches out in perfect, accepting and healing love.

Once for all, O sinner, receive it, Once for all, O brother believe it; Cling to the cross, the burden will fall, Christ has redeemed us once for all.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Restorration of Humanity in Christ

Ash Wednesday + C    2016      The Reverend Robert R.M. Bagwell+

February 10th

Joel 2:1-2,12-17                                                   Psalm 103    

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10                                     Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Life is fragile…life is fragile.  Oh we pretend we're so tough, invulnerable (especially the younger you are)  But over the ages the scriptures speak through Solomon "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; (Proverbs 31)  The media will tell you, ignore it"

 Life is short…life is short. We try to deny it in healthcare, in beauty enhancement, in proper dieting, eating and running from "fix it" products and practitioners.. No longer do our aging and deteriorating population draw  a possible future to our attention.  They are carefully tucked away in nursing homes.  People die on TV, not in real life! While for millennia, family members died at home cared for by family and friends.  Now death is systematized, organized and sanitized.  I think now, the reason so many fear death is because it is so far divorced from life.

Life is difficult, although we do all we can to deny it as if it shouldn't be so, but we live in a universe of sin.  We may deny it: "oh that's not nice, so unpleasant",  You may have  noticed ISIS has no such scruples.  No, ISIS reveals to us what the world was for thousands of years, before Jesus came' We Christians, although we may hate to acknowledge  it, more than anyone else should joyfully proclaim that we are great sinners, but even more, that Jesus is a profoundly great Savior!  In our second reading the dilemma is laid out.  Our relationship with God is broken, it will always be broken.  But God was not satisfied with this horrible predicament that humanity found to be the core of its orientation and faltering future.

So at our human roots, if we think about it and do not buy into the cult of distraction that refuses to acknowledge anything uncomfortable or makes us afraid.  We are mortal and there is nothing WE can do about it.

 So God did….God did:  " For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." what we could not do:  God did! The collect says: Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent:".  As we move into the loving arms of reconciliation with God, let us dispel this idea that God hates sinners!  Scripture says that God hates sin.  You see God has this amazing ability that many of the human race lack: to separate sin from the sinner. That is why Jesus was able to love the woman taken in adultery, Zaccheus the cheat, Matthew the thief and on and on and on till that is how  Jesus can love us, not sinless, but IN our sins.  In John chapter 9, the man who received his sight was verbally attacked by the Pharisees who said to him:., You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us! Hello???  I guess they didn't get the memo, they and all of us were steeped in sin at birth.  You don't get a get out free ticket for going to your place of worship.  Jesus is a sinners' savior.  Oh yes, Jesus is an odd duck: He loves SINNERS!  Most of the Christians I know don't particularly LOVE sinners. 

There is no day like Ash Wednesday.  Here we are all for the moment on the same level, acknowledging things we had rather not think about much less speak of, and yet here we are! Ashes, ashes: what good are they?  Are they of any use?  What are they, some substance whose integrity has been violated. Worthless, useless.  Ashes are what remains of something that was once alive.  ARemember you are dust, and to dust you shall return?@  I don=t know about you, but that=s not very uplifting or complimentary and is true.  Today, the powerful and the weak, the meek, the arrogant and the humbleBthe rich and the poor, all must ultimately acknowledge the pretense that many spend their whole lives protecting: "we ..are dust and to dust we will return.@ In the face of our culture that makes this life the ONLY LIFE,        and thus despairs when it is over, we proclaim good news!

 In his bestselling book, First Things First, writer Stephen Covey wrote this as the purpose of life.  It is both profound and yet simple: To live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy. From the beginning, God so planned for humanity that he made, a way to overcome. So much did he plan, that he entered into our dustiness in the person of Jesus Christ.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

If we look at these reading they have a sense of urgency.  This urgency is to significance that the bride and groom are called from their wedding, something never done,  to voice their own repentance.

 As far back as the fifth book of the Bible, we read: " This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live! (Deuteronomy 30:19)   But this isn't something buried in antiquity. It applies to every dilemma of the human condition up till this evening.  Remember you are dust.  People every day choose death for a myriad of reasons, but death is the only outcome after life. To choose greater life or eternal death is the mission of life on this fragile earth..  Ashes: this is a tradition, not commanded by Jesus, but with the force of "do this in remembrance of me."  This is humbling. debasing, not building up self esteem, but the true self esteem is only from God.

 Into this chaos, God comes, and we read " the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.  (Genesis 2)   We are dust!  but not just any dust, but the dust that God formed into a vessel to bear his Divine image and he who alone could, breathed into us the breath of life.  The old protestant hymn says: "this world is not my home, I'm just a passin' through. My treasures' all laid up somewhere beyond the blue…."

 I would like to suggest that Lent is an opportunity to re-connect to life. Yes, some think that it is 'painful'  but to quote William Willimon, Bishop of the Methodist Church as he worked with Christian students at Duke University: when he said "the question is not what can we 'do', the problem is, if I could get anyone to say 'no' to anything'…"  We have been taught to deny ourselves no pleasure whatsoever.  Yet we followed Jesus who did not deny his life for our sakes.  For dust we are, and to dust we shall return, except, to quote religious spiritual writer, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:  we are not human beings on a spiritual journey, we are spiritual beings on a human journey.

 Lent can deepen our relationships with God and his people on these Lenten days, not merely use these days to serve as dates on a Church Kalendar.  This is where we learn to imitate Christ.  Researchers say, if you can do (and also not do) a certain number of things to change our behaviors for forty days, it can become a habit and thus change our lives.  Largely, the spiritual battle for growth is inner, not outer.  The journey is not to be reconciled to God in some technical and geographic way,  it is the way of the heart.  We are not biding time, we are 'abiding' until the day we are called home.

 Do you have plans for Lent?  Mine may be overly ambitious.  At worst, you will not fulfill but you can always, fall down and get up.  At best, something positive will make life better.  It is certainly not what is outside of us, but what is within us. What we need is the courage to change, the courage to enlist repentance into our mortal sphere and partake of the life God desperately wants to give and us to have: forty days of renewal in Him.

After he made sacrifice for our sins, Jesus embraced "dust" forever. what a Savior!

If we walk the way of Jesus these forty days, we will most certainly and purposefully:  " live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy".  Not to try means nothing. What can you and I do not only to engage our fellow human beings for Jesus?  Along with me, ask God to open doors and eyes.  Listen to some of our Presiding Bishop Curry's sermons on YouTube.  You will be challenged to experience the abounding grace of God in all of its fullness and dust will lose its threat and it's somber character  The greater Truth we wrestle here is mortality and the holy hope that Jesus promised. The word Lent literally means, spring.  Spring brings life out of death. 'Lord, let the dust of our lives, be molded and shaped to the image that most resembles the grace, the love and the peace of God that you have given us in Jesus Christ.  To Him be glory forever!