Monday, September 19, 2016

Earth vs Heaven

Proper 20 + Year C                                                  Fr. Robert R.M. Bagwell+
18, September 2016                                          Parish of All Saints’ Hampton

The Collect pleads with God to admonish us: Agrant us Lord not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; ...@  Have you ever even considered for a moment, how much we trust in earthly things?  We put on our dollars, Ain God we trust@, but do we really?  The events of the last two weeks have shown us a glaring short-sightedness in our national life: we are fragile. People have asked: Awhere was God when all of these things happened?@  My answer?  The same place he was before.  If he was a part of one=s life before that time, he was assuredly there at the time of the disaster.  When bad things happen to good people (as we say) we question and seemingly forget that God died on a cross for us. God in Christ did not come into the world to Areform@ it, he came into the world to save it from itself!  He came to make a new creation that begins in us, who claim to be his followers.  We are the first nation in world history to assert that Aall men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.@  You notice that even in our constituting documents, God is included.  Is he included now?   

Today we are confronted by a parable that not only is difficult, easily misunderstood and in some fashion for this wealthiest nation in the world rather shocking.  We have a gospel reading where Jesus tells a story hard to understand.  It might seem that Jesus was suggesting that being a corrupt businessman is somehow commendable!  But that is not the point of the parable.  Jesus says there are two classes of people on planet earth.  There are the worldly, and there are the other-worldly. The children of this age are bound in sin and darkness. Scripture says they are "condemned already."  Then there are the other-worldly, the children of the light.  They know the truth about sin and judgment and grace and redemption. They know the blessing of peace with God and the promise of heaven.  How do these two groups live together on this planet?

Jesus says there is frequently if not usually, a huge contradiction in the outward life of the children of God in this world. Jesus says the children of God don't live consistently with their beliefs. The world does. But the children of God don’t.
The children of this world live consistently with their goals and priorities. They live to work their system. It's the children of the other-world who don't. They say one thing and live something else.
This steward is somewhat like a stock broker or a financial planner only these guys could make real money by exploitation, by being loan sharks charging an exorbitant rate of interest and were shrewd in their dealings.
Eventually, the owner gets wind of what the steward is doing and he is caught with his hand in the cookie jar, badly using what was entrusted to him and he is fired. Now his time is limited so he is in a dilemma to put him in good stead after his firing is complete.  He comes up with a stroke of genius. He goes to the ones who owe his master money and cuts their debts.  This way the Master (for our purposes we may say God), looks like a good guy and the creditors are in the debt of the steward who now will be unemployed.  He cuts his own earnings in interest and it appears to the debtors that the Master is really a good and generous guy.
Now the Master looks great and the steward looks great, even if he has taken a hit financially. He will look good for his shrewd way of dealing with his dilemma and the master will look good to those who owe him. The Master finds out what has happened and commends the wasteful steward=s resourceful-ness.  The Master commends the steward’s shrewdness that is wisdom, insight and understanding.  He sees the steward as wise looking to provide for the steward’s own future.

God created His people in Christ to love people and use things.  The world has it backwards.  The world loves things and uses people.  Worldly resources promise much but so often can vanish in a moment.  Make friends means to care for neighbors in their needs and be willing to give up everything if need be for the kingdom. There is a principle here: we cannot show we love God unless we love and provide for others.  What may be a shock is that Jesus says that it impossible to serve God and money.  Jesus tells them to use worldly wealth to make friends and establish good will. Money itself is a spiritual power that moves to direct, control and possess human life. How is the steward a model for we Christians?  One commentator suggested it is this: he was adept at assessing a dire situation and acting accordingly to fix it. The Greek word is the same Jesus uses for the wise man who built his house upon the rock rather than our sand. The steward was thinking of the future not simply the here and now, as our credit card companies would like us to live.  Jesus is telling us to live with an eternal perspective.   It is not telling us not to be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.  It a practical Christian teaching. Earthly wealth is how we practice being faithful.  Even crooks know how to use it for benefit, how much more should the righteous be able to do

Let me return to the collect for a moment. We prayed: Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Anxiety!  How our present times are rife with it!  But it is not only a characteristic of our time, but in most of the history of human existence.   What makes you anxious?  I know for me it has been more often than not money!  But my sisters and brothers, There is nothing in this world that we can say is truly our own.  Wealth is an illusion.  Possessions are an illusion.  No my friend you really cannot have your cake and eat it too.

We practice with small things.  Jesus says being faithful in small things will teach us faithfulness in much.  Yet we live in a culture that is brainwashed to accumulate more and more and more.   How much is enough?  Just a little bit more they say. Worldly wealth has no eternal value, so let us use it for the good of others. We have a saying: “what goes around comes around.”  When we read the collect a moment ago, we know the truths of what we prayed.  Wealth is passing away No you can’t take it with you.  But what we do for neighbor, will endure. 

A new church opened a couple of years ago in Portland Oregon name Christ Church.  They have welcomed many of the outcasts that the Episcopal Church welcomes. The final straw that the Evant3lical Covenant denomination broke the camel’s back was the pastor’s support of same gender marriage.  I have always liked their operating mission statement: “For God’s Glory and Neighbor’s Good.  

Is that not what Jesus is teaching in this parable?  Is it not how we are called to live our lives?  Let’s think about it. Let’s pray on it.  Let’s do it.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Counting the Cost in Christ

Proper 18 + C                                                             The Reverend Robert R.M. Bagwell+
4, September AD 2016                                                            Counting the Cost in Christ

 On Sunday 8 April 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and a leader in the Confessing or Lutheran Church in Nazi Germany. He had just finished conducting a service of worship at Schoenberg Prison, when two soldiers came in, saying, "Prisoner Bonhoeffer, make ready and come with us," the standard summons to a condemned prisoner. As he left, he said to another prisoner, "This is the end -- but for me, the beginning -- of life." He was hanged the next day, less than a week before the Allies reached the camp.  He was only 39 years old.  His most famous work endures.  Its title? The Cost of Discipleship.  The Cost of Discipleship attacks what he calls "cheap grace," meaning grace used as an excuse for moral laxity.  In that book, he wrote these words: AWhen Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die@.  Oh, that will sell. AGood one Jesus@, yet Jesus said Awhoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.@
Few of us think when we approach the baptismal font that we are coming to be baptized into the death of Christ Jesus so that we may be raised with him in his resurrection!  For many years we have basked in a culture formed and shaped by the Christian world view.  Only now do we begin to experience a cultural attack on that worldview. Only now are we confronted by extremists who will kill others for only professing Christ.  Since 9/11 Islamic radicals have carried out more than 29000 attacks on persons claiming to be Christians.  No Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Have we counted the cost?  Have we?   What is the cost of following Jesus!  You see,  Jesus didn’t call us to a Achurch franchise@ to go and purchase bits and pieces of God and enjoy them at our leisure.  Jesus called us to a way: a following, a pattern of living, loving and believing that leads to life.  I believe that it was the Trappist Monk Thomas Merton who said: Athe glory of God is a person fully alive.@   I don=t know about you, but when I get around some Christians who are shall we say, Ajust a little bit too much >alive=,@ I=m tempted to say, Ahey, crank it down a notch@.  Would I ever say the same thing if they were watching a ball game or a road race?  Of course not!  They=re supposed to be Aexcited.@  But about Jesus?

Are we aware that this age is the only age in history where people have dared to claim that one can satisfy spiritual needs through material resources? It begins in the home, then the school room, television, advertizing. People think that the more Astuff@ they accumulate, the happier they will be. And if you don=t believe that, then why are people willing to give their very economic livelihood and risk everything in order to have the latest gadgets? Living on credit has become a way of life. We think if we just get more, the Aitch@ will go away, that’s certainly what advertisers hope we will think. Soon the new toy is old and like a five year old, the novelty has worn off.  So...we must get a new thing.  These are distractions.  That which endures has a cost, it is the way of the love of God in Christ Jesus.  He paid the cost we could not pay.  Grace is free, but grace is not cheap!

Bonhoeffer coined a phrase for a Christianity that costs us nothing.  He called it “cheap grace.”  We sing “Amazing Grace,” but then do we really think it is? I wonder sometimes what AJesus@ people have learned about.  Is it the one who died to pay a debt that we could not pay so that we might live?  Is He the heartbeat of love of the universe?  Or is he just one of many options in the cafeteria of life?  Because really following Jesus, really coming to know this one whom we call Lord and Savior, costs something.  It costs everything.  Do you remember the images of those Ethiopian Christians who were lined up by ISIS militants by the sea shore in their orange jump suits to be killed for being Coptic Christians? Do you know what those people now dead would only have had to do to still be alive and with us today?  Deny Jesus as Lord and Savior and embrace Islam...but they wouldn’t.  They wouldn’t! 

What causes a person to be willing to pay that kind of sacrifice:  a deeply carved love in the depths of the soul and heart.  That is a passionate love for Jesus. When those men and women of our day go out and defend this nation, they are those who have enlisted.  When they stand up so that every one of us might live in freedom, it is because they love this country; they indirectly love us and what we say we stand for.  It is the same to stand up for Jesus, to bear His standard, His colors.  How many times have we at a baptism heard, Awill you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?@  Did we respond lamely AI will with God=s help@ mouthing words like zombies or did we really mean it?  Who am I preaching to this morning?  Sure I’m preaching to you, but I’m also preaching to me as well.

We Christians are the ones who absolutely depend utterly and completely on Sovereign Grace.  We hear things like:  “God helps those who help themselves”?  Is this from the Bible or from somewhere else?  Although its root are said to be of Greek origin, we know it from Benjamin Franklin quoted from Poor Richard's Almanac in 1757. The first of the four spiritual laws used in witnessing in many protestant circles is this: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” And God does. God has a plan for your life!  He has a plan for mine!  We are not accidents!  God doesn’t wring His hands and say Aoops! I let another one be born!@  We were born by the sovereign will of Almighty God.  If we will let God lead us in his will for us, he will lead us.

I read once that you can make choices; however, you cannot choose the consequences of your choices.  Yet in our day: the whining, the complaining, the remonstration, the constant playing of the victim by those who made, as my now deceased little brother used to speak of making:  “the wrong choices.”   Unfortunately the choices he made in the throes of his addictions eventually caused his all too early death. Proverbs 14 says this: There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death. (14:12)

In our lives today God lays out the issue of choices, daily, moment by moment.  He clearly says to the children of Israel that he has good things in store, if they will but stay in loving relationship with Him.  However, if they abandon God, there will be consequences.  Why, because God hates them?  No!  It is because God loves them!  How many people have found that in the direst of circumstances, that they felt the closest to God?   The crowds, says Jesuit scholar, Joseph Fitzmyer, are “following Jesus because of the blessing and the wonderful things that he has associated with the kingdom.”1 The crowds, it seems, have counted the kingdom assets, perhaps, but what of the liabilities?  The way of the cross is the way of life, but it does not mean it will be a painless walk.  Yet it seems the peculiar condition of we humans that we don=t learn much in the easy times, it is in the tough times that we learn the most.  It begins with Jesus and comes down the pike to all who will follow him.  Yet as Moses said to the children of Israel in the first reading today, we are challenged to Achoose life@. 

Fr Brennan Manning one of my mentors in Christ once said: “The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that He lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make brand-new creation. Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian.” 
Brennan Manning, The Furious Longing of God

 That is what it really means to be a Christian.  But how hard it is to make that choice.  How hard it is to see the challenge as not depriving us of life but rather through a form of self-restraint, that is Adeath to self desire and self will, putting me first and getting what I think I want@ through that self restraint actually coming alive as God in Christ fills us up and makes us a New Creation. Why Jesus= extreme statements? Because any time we think that anything is more important that fellowship with Jesus in his kingdom, we cannot learn much from Jesus.  When we follow Jesus as the WAY, the TRUTH and the LIFE, we open undreamed of possibilities with God whom we call Our Father. In the collect this morning we prayed in acknowledgement that God: always resist(s) the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake(s) those who make their boast of your mercy;” and how we abide in that mercy!  How we need it every moment. So in the closing words of the Bible we read: The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.  (Rev. 22:17)