Sunday, October 23, 2016

A New Perspective

Proper 25 + Year C                                                                           
Fr. Robert R.M. Bagwell+
24, October 2016    + All Saints' Hampton                                                                                  
A New Perspective
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22                                                                                                                  
Psalm 84:1-6        
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-8                                                                                                                     
Luke 18:9-14

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command;… Do you notice anything odd in that collect.  It says faith, hope and charity or as we would call it today: love, are gifts.  Do we think of these as gifts?  In perhaps the favorite text used at weddings (perhaps inappropriately) we read this:And now these three remain: faith hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (I Cor.  13:13)  In an earlier text we read: God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:5) So what is this saying to us this morning? Let's explore it through the gospel reading appointed for today. 

It is all a matter of perspective.  In the 1997 movie Athe Devil=s Advocate@, the devil, played by Al Pacino, opposite his attorney, Keanu Reeves says, A"Vanity is my favorite sin."  A perspective that some might hold, but no one would dare to admit it in public! A retired Bishop friend of mine used to say to the effect that people are fond of condemning and confessing the sins of others, sins to which they are not tempted.  And yet I wonder.  If we are fond of confessing the sins of others, are we not putting ourselves in the Pharisee=s position?  What is the posture in the story that honors God and wins his salvation?  It is the words: AGod, have mercy on me, a sinner.@ 

This morning we read: Jesus said of the tax collector: Athis man went home justified rather
than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will
be exalted.@

What is justification?  Justification is the process by which one becomes a child of
God.  It is a change of standing before God but more, it is a covenant relationship with
God.  It puts us in a different place with Almighty God, it changes God’s perspective.
It is more than an act of work and more than an act of the will, ours and God’s .  It is an
act of grace not originating with us but originating with the Holy Spirit.  It from this
same spirit that come the gifts of faith, hope and love.   

Notice the words of the Luke describing the Pharisee in today=s lesson:The Pharisee stood
up and prayed about  himself (!) : `God, I thank you that I am not like other men‑‑robbers,
evildoers, adulterers‑‑or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I
get.'Do you believe it? He prayed about himself...?  His prayer was more a job report than
a prayer.  He sets himself apart from everyone else and he has contempt for them is
proportionate to all that he believes he has accomplished: I fast twice a week; I give
tenpercent of all that I get;  I read by Bible God and go to Church every Sunday.  (I=m
sure there was more to the list but the gospel writer didn’t want us to lose our
breakfasts!)  Face it though: he was a good, moral, upstanding guy.  Just the kind you
want on your church vestry and supporting the church with his what=s the

It=s all a matter of perspective: his own of courseIt was his attitude. Jesus was
addressing a problem that we probably have all wrestled with if we are seeking to
follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Remember, he told this story to the DISCIPLES,
not to the Pharisees!

What was the state of standing before God of that Pharisee: Aboy aren=t you lucky God
to have such a good servant!=  One commentator said: Athe great danger for people who
attain a personal discipline that enables them to live up to a high standard of behavior is
that they will feel contempt for all who do not observe their standard. So it is with the
Pharisee in this story.  He feels secure in his superiority to robbers, swindlers and
adulterersBand to the tax man he sees in the temple courtBalthough he has no
knowledge of any sin the man may have committed beyond his occupation.@(Synthesis)
He had the perspective of Religious Christianity.  The root of the first is religio.  Religio
speaks of a work we do.  Religious Christianity is the idea that your performance,
devotional practices or morals make you right with God. It premise is that
righteousness is achieved rather than received. (Tyler Speegle , Five Reasons Why I hate
Religious Christianity, Huffington Post, May 9, 2016.).

The Phaisee didn=t need God’s help.  He thought of himself as having accomplished all
That would make him acceptable to God.  All he had to do was , do, do, do, do !  It was
a delusional perspective.

Father Luther discovered in his neurotic pain and guilt, that no one can be justified on his or her own account.  Our efforts without the Holy Spirit living in us do not make us right with God.  It is necessary that God intervene.  We don=t understand the measureless of Divine Love, that grace is no longer grace when we try to earn it.  Yet we too often would rather fall back on the works righteousness model that seems to make more Asense@ to us.  

Three people die and go to heaven: a nurse who has worked with dying cancer patients for 30 years, a teacher who has spent his whole life working with educationally challenged youngsters and the CEO of an HMO. St. Peter meets each and reads the file: to the first he says, Acome on in@Bto the second he says Acome on in!@Bwhen he gets to the CEO he reads his file and says to him: AhmmmByou can come on inBbut only for three days.@  Is that salvation?   Do we want that perspective?  

It’s all a matter of perspective on the source of faith, hope and love. One of the distinguishing marks that Christianity holds differing from all world religions is the understanding of grace.  Paul said clearly, AFor it is by grace you have been saved, through faith‑‑and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God‑‑not by works, so that no one can boast.@
The grace is the receiving of a free gift and entering into a relationship with the Giver.  That is what baptism is about.  That is why at confirmation the question: do you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior?.. Do you promise to follow him as your Lord? are such important questions.

In this sacrament, it is not the parents= perspective, the priest=s perspective, or even your perspective that counts, it=s God=s. The prayer, AGod be merciful to me a sinner@ is the posture of the Christian or the one who would come to Christ.  

What about works?  Martin Luther was very famous for insisting that salvation is by faith alone.  He went so far as to state that he wished the book of James purged from the Bible because if its stress on works.  It is both.  God gives faith.  We enter into relationship with him but as James says: AWhat good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?@  (2:14)

The collect prays that God will increase in us the gifts of faith, hope and charity, and so that we may obtain what these spiritual gifts promise to our livesBwe pray that God will make us to love what He commands us to do and be.  This is the point of being a part of the Church.  This is the end of baptism.  This is the promise of confirmation.  AGod be merciful to me a sinner@, AI accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior@, AI promise to follow him as my Lord.@  So much guilt can be assuaged by this blood of forgivenessBso much strength and comfort received from the sacraments.  It=s all a matter of perspective: will we take God=s perspective or for some reason choose to follow our own or that of another person.  Our faith is a revealed religion from a personal Father who chose to adopt an unruly race of people, but that adoption requires our participation.  How do we participate?   We receive those gifts that God gives: faith, hope and love and apply those gifts to the world around us, for Jesus sake.  AMEN  

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Love Letter from the Father + God

Proper 24 + Year C                                                       
Fr. Robert R.M. Bagwell +
16, October AD 2016                                          
All Saints’ Church, Hampton, SC
Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

Mercy: what an extraordinary word.  What an extraordinary concept.  What a quality that rights so many wrongs, brings peace to so many lives, transforms so many states of being!  The collect states that: God has revealed his “glory among the nations.” and implores that God should “Preserve the works of (His) mercy”.  In his encyclical in 1981 John Paul II said that:  mercy is love’s secnd name and that mercy is the greatest attribute of God. So, contained within the concept of mercy is another powerful word “love.”  In Peter’s Epistle we read that “love covers a multitude of sins”. (I Peter 4:8)

Our collect and readings today bring us an image of the God we worship and tell us much about his character and heart. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote in his work Questions of Faith this declaration : over the generations Jewish scholars have read the Torah not a as a novel to see how it ends, but as a love letter.  For instance, why did he use this word instead of that word? Why is there a space here?  Why a comma here instead of a period? That’s the way you read a love letter and wonder >what did he or she mean by this word?  We Jews have seen the Torah as not just a book of stories or law codes, but as a love letter from God. (p. 64)

The Catechism on page 853 of the Prayer book asks: Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God?  The answer is: we call them the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and be use God still speaks to us through the Bible.  I haven’t preached a lot on inspiration or the belief that God is the author of Scripture, but today the reading from Timothy confronts us with that doctrine head on.  The interesting thing about it is the reality that the other readings don’t matter if the reading from Timothy is not true.  But we live in a culture of relativism and everyone from about age 35 and younger has been taught by the culture and the media that there is not such thing as Truth@ with a capital T.  No, there’s your truth and my truth.  Everyone has a valid truth and it is not to be disputed. But is your truth, TRUE?   When does another person’s truth become invalid?  When the 9-11 hijackers chose to act against our nation, they were acting on their truth.  It doesn’t matter to the relativist is that truth is right or wrong, it is true for them!  But is that how God looks at it.  We believe as the Church that the Bible is both Truth, that is, it reveals God who is ultimate reality, and it is True, it cannot and does not mislead intentionally. 

The Bible is different from any other book.  It portrays the scandalous about the great saints of the faith.  It airs all of the dirty laundry and yet it is about a God who relentlessly pursues the people he seeks out and loves with an inexhaustible love.  Yes, it has sometimes been misunderstood, but using the principles of consistency of interpretation that our protestant reformers taught us, we learn that scripture interprets scripture, that tradition is also a guide in interpretation and that as the Catechism says, we understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the church in the true interpretation of the scriptures. When these premises are followed and they are read through the love letter eyeglasses of Rabbi Kushner, the scripture truly applies its Truth to us and lives are changed and made new.

 What does scripture do for us?  It is profitable; it is of help to us in a profitable way: It is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. How is it useful?  It helps us to know what is good and what is not.  It helps us to have healthy and happy relationships with God and neighbor.  Its principles keep us walking in healthy paths of body, soul and spirit.  Paul encourages the young Timothy and the church to be aggressive in using it in these ways because the time is coming when people will shut their ears. Have you ever shut your ears to God?  That sort of "selective@ hearing that husbands are famous for, except we all use it with God at times. 
 We believe as much of the Bible as we live...and we wonder why Church doesn’t do anything for us or we don=t get anything out of the sermons or whatever we may say. “I know the Bible says love my neighbor but, I don’t want to.”  “I know it says forgive, but you don’t know what he or she did to me!”  I know it says don’t lie, but it’s just a small one! In a movie I saw once, Jack Lemmon playing a priest said something about “a harmless lie” and his seminarian deacon said “I didn’t know there was such a thing.” Last example: “I know it says don’t steal, but...well they’ll never miss it.” Yet when we need it: God bless me! or please answer my emergency prayers or I’ll never do it again, if you’ll just do this or that for me.

Does that mean that LIVING the Word of God is a cakewalk?  Not a chance!  The Bible gives examples in scripture of non-cakewalk belief..Jacob, the deceiver, the cheat, the dishonest salesperson, the betrayer of his own brother has finally enough rope to hang himself.  He doesn’t know whether the next day will bring him death for his past deeds or allow him to live and be forgiven by his brother who had sworn to kill him.  That night God comes to him, whether in a dream or a vision, the word is the same in Hebrew, and they have what we used to call down south a come to Jesus session.  He fought and fought with this messenger from heaven.  In some mysterious wrestling match that scripture does not explain, he messenger requests that Jacob release him.  Jacob says I will not let you go unless you bless me.  He was crying out to God and insisting that God answer his prayers. The messenger gave him a new name and a new purpose. That name is the name of his descendants today: Israel. The new name means “you have striven with God and prevailed.” 
That is what this same God wants to do for each of us.  That is why we are baptized and we or our parents invite this God to give us a new name and a new identity.  But we like Jacob must come to that point when we lay it all upon the grace of God and say: bless me.  Make me yours and use me.  The second example is one of a poor widow.  We are not told her name or what her grievance was. Without the support of a husband in that culture and no social security or Medicare, her husband=s property would have passed on to their sons or his brother but not to her.  She lived on the edge of Hebrew society.  Jesus told this parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. She goes to this could care less judge with a lot of nerve. Some of you are like that.  She goes and demands that her grievance be addressed.  Over and over, again and again she goes.  At last, because of her persistence, he vindicates her.  Now understand, Jesus is not telling us that God is like the judge. Rather Jesus goes on to say, “will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?   I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly."  This sorry version of Judge Judy finally helps this woman even though he cares less about her.  How much more will God who loves us with a love do deep that we cannot begin to fathom it, help his children who cry out to him...we just don’t always like his answers to us.  Sort of like children who don’t like the answers that parents give them, even if the parents’ words are in the child’s best interest.  We ought to pray and not to give up! 

In this last example, Jesus gives one more verse not included in our readings today, when the Son of man comes will he find faith on the earth.I am convinced that for much of the Church there is a crisis of faith.  People do not know how God operates.  They do not seek the Word of God or the counsel of people of deep faith and so they live essentially without belief.  I am reminded of a professor from General Theological Seminary who wrote to the effect that,  although our church does not teach or know all that inspiration means or how God inspired, we simply know that when the Bible is preached and taught as true, human beings are made whole, healed, set free, made new.  It isn’t just true for you and me , it is true for everyone.  When we act upon and live in this faith, we begin to see with new eyes that God is working all around us and through us, that we are loved and living in God’s love we will yet strive but like Jacob’s dream, we will prevail in our living, loving and ever prevailing Lord. Then we will discover the Truth of the Word of God. Then we will begin that process of healing that God wants to give to the souls, the minds and even sometimes the bodies of his people and those for whom they pray.  Will we have faith?  Not faith in some ambivalent force we call faith...what good is having faith in faith?  Have faith in the promises of God that he is faithful, that  Jesus the Son of God died for us, in a personal and real way, that God the Holy Spirit is waiting for you to say, Acome in, I surrender my life to you.@  Prayer is ultimately about healing.  The Word of God speaks to help us along the way.  This day God is speaking to us, let us not close the door on him, but open the door wide and let that One who loves us beyond all loving come in and heal what wounds our souls.