A Little Good News

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Sermon for Advent II, December 10th, 2017

Readings:

 

 

In 1983 Canadian singer Anne Murray recorded a song called “A Little Good News.” You may remember the song, it topped the charts for several weeks and it even won a Grammy. I have to admit that I have a hard time listening to this song without getting a bit tearful. The song begins with the following verse:

 

I rolled out this morning…kids had the morning news show on
Bryant Gumbel was talking about the fighting in Lebanon
Some senator was squawking about the bad economy
It’s gonna get worse you see we need a change in policy

There’s a local paper rolled up in a rubber band
One more sad story’s one more than I can stand
Just once, how I’d like to see the headline say
Not much to print today can’t find nothing bad to say

 

Because…

Nobody robbed a liquor store on the lower part of town
Nobody OD’d, nobody burned a single building down
Nobody fired a shot in anger…nobody had to die in vain
We sure could use a little good news today

 

That song tugs on my heart so much, because even though it is well over 30 years since it was written, it is just as relevant now as it was then, maybe even more so. I’m not sure what Bryant Gumble is doing these days, but otherwise the song could have been written yesterday. We live in a world of constant news. Every minute of the day we have this constant onslaught of people telling us what is wrong with the world. Fighting, wars, scandals, abusive men, politicians lying, murders, natural disasters…it never stops. It is overwhelming, and if you feel that you have just heard one more sad story than you can stand, then know that you are not alone. People have been feeling that way for a long time.

 

When we find the news overwhelming, I think it is worthwhile to take a step back, look at history and recognize how little of the news we are hearing is actually new. Democrats and Republicans are blaming each other for what is wrong with the country. That’s not news. A politician got caught having an affair or telling a lie. That’s not news. There is racism in this world. Not news. A bunch of influential men are being called out for abusing their power to make sexual advances…call it sinful, call it shameful, and by all means call for an end to it, but don’t call it news. It’s not news. There is nothing new about sin. There is nothing new about hatred, or murder or war or corruption. These things are old, old news. The brokenness of our world is old news and we are not the first people to find it overwhelming.

 

Anne Murray was singing 30 years ago, but she just as easily could have been singing 100, 200 or even 2000 years ago. Read some of the Psalms sometime and you will see that people have been singing about the brokenness of the world for a very long time. And like Anne, people have been hoping for something different. Despite the fact that bad news sells, deep in our hearts we long for good news.

 

When people hear the word “Gospel” they are usually inclined to think of one of two things: a type of church music, or a book about the life of Jesus. When we think about “the gospels” we think of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the stories about Jesus and the collections of his teachings that we read with great ceremony in church every week. They are the beginning of the New Testament in our bibles and they are the bedrock of our lives as Christians. But the word “Gospel” doesn’t mean “book” or “writings,” the word “gospel” means “good news.”

 

Our gospel reading this morning is Mark 1, verse 1: “The beginning of the Good News, of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” This isn’t just a story, this is news. Good news. This isn’t a chronicle of everything bad that is happening in the world, that is old news. The presence of evil in the world isn’t really news at all, but this story that Mark wants to tell you is news, and it is good news.

 

But unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark’s story doesn’t begin in a manger. Mark’s story begins in a river, the Jordan river. The gospels of Matthew and Luke begin with the birth of Jesus, but the gospel of Mark, which we think was the first gospel written, begins with John the Baptist standing in the Jordan river preaching about repentance and forgiveness. Why were all those people thronging to hear what this man John had to say? Mark tells us that people from all the countryside and all Jerusalem went out to hear him. Why were they so eager to jump in the water? Was it because John told them that they were sinners or was it because they already knew they were sinners and John was offering them hope of something new?

 

I wasn’t there, but I think those people gathered on the shores of the Jordan listening to John preach were just as overwhelmed by their world as we are with ours. Maybe they didn’t have 24 hour news, but they had plenty of oppression, murder, violence, corruption and well…sin. Sin was old news to them, just as it is to us. John’s primary message was not that humans are sinful, they already knew that. John’s real message was that God is coming, coming into the world to save us from our sin. That is what makes him so compelling. That is what makes his preaching good news. God has heard our cries. God has recognized that we are weak, inconstant like the grass and that we have not the power to save ourselves. God knows that we are broken and have made a mess out of this world. God knows and he is going to do something about it. God is about to do something new and we are invited to be a part of it. That is good news.

 

In Peter’s letter this morning he says that “we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” What I love about that Anne Murray song is that she asks you to imagine what it would be like if you turned on the news and were overwhelmed by how much people loved each other and how beautiful life can be. Can you imagine what that would be like? Living in a world where righteousness was at home? That is what I think those people at the Jordan river were longing for and dreaming about. They wanted a little good news and that is what John was offering them. He was proclaiming that God was coming to do something new in the world and they could choose to be a part of it.

 

We may not be able to save ourselves, but we can prepare ourselves for the savior. We can admit that the world is this way because we have made it so. We may complain about all the negative news, but we sure spend a lot of time buying it and watching it, so at some point we have to face the fact that our desires and our actions are frequently in conflict. But of course, that is old news. I’m willing to bet that you already know deep down that you have done things in your life that have hurt others, hurt yourself or damaged the world we live in. You may not want to talk about it or admit it openly, but you probably know it. That’s not news.

 

What is news is that God is doing something about it. God’s son is offering us forgiveness of sins. He is alive and at work in the world; his grace is performing miracles and helping us to accomplish things we could never do on our own and most importantly, he is inviting us to live in a new world where righteousness is at home and where we are overwhelmed by love, not by evil. It will happen in his time, not our time, but it will happen. What a glorious hope we have.

 

Listening to the news can be overwhelming. It can be a painful reminder of just how much the world needs a savior; but we are Christians. We are a people that have been entrusted with the gospel, with the good news and the good news is this: we have a savior. Now let us share that news with a world that desperately needs to hear it.

 

When the miracle occurs, the reward is heavenly…

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Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, December 3rd, 2017

Readings:

Caramel Cake. It is a taste of heaven, but if you have ever tried to make one then you probably know what a test of patience they are. The cake is basic enough, but let’s be honest, it’s just a vehicle for the icing, and the icing is tricky. If you want to go home and try this, good luck to you, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

Here is what happens with caramel icing: you mix your sugar, and butter and evaporated milk together in a saucepan, get it all dissolved and melted, put it on the heat and then you wait. But this isn’t the type of waiting where you can set your timer and walk away, take a nap or catch up on a few television shows. Caramel icing will not be treated so casually. You have to stay there with it, watching it intently. You have to look for the gradual signs of browning, evidence that the miracle of caramelization is taking place. You give it a regular stir, you smell it, you look for changes in color and consistency, but mostly you wait attentively, because you don’t know the precise moment when the caramel will appear.

 

To walk away or get distracted is to risk absolute ruin. To rely solely upon the approximate time given you in the recipe is folly, because the miracle of caramelization is bound to no man’s schedule. It could take an hour, it could take an hour and a half, maybe more. If you think that you can beat the process by turning the heat up, think again. You’ll be testing your smoke detector before you know it. No, with caramel icing, one must actively watch and wait, keeping your eyes open to the miracle that is about to occur, knowing that the effort will eventually produce a heavenly reward.

 

It’s not just caramel cake of course, any type of caramel requires similar vigilance. It’s not just sweets either; if you have ever tried to make a dark roux for a gumbo, it’s the same process. It’s the same miracle. Timers are of little use. Shortcuts are usually a waste of time. Even the virtue of patience is not enough. A pot roast takes patience, but then you can more or less forget about it until it is done. You throw the right ingredients into your crock pot and then go on about your life. Caramel requires more than patience, it requires attention. It isn’t just a matter of waiting; it is waiting with your eyes open, knowing that at any moment you may be called to act or respond.

 

Attention is a valuable thing. There is probably a reason that we use the expression “to pay attention” because attention, on some level is costly. Like time, there is only so much of it that we have to give, so we would be wise to be careful about where we spend it, or what we give our attention too. You may not think that a caramel cake is worth your time and attention. You’d be wrong, but that’s your business. Maybe a sticky, delicious cake isn’t your thing, but you should at least ask yourself: “what is worthy of my attention?”

 

Here we are at the First Sunday of Advent when the church turns its eyes, its attention, not yet toward our Lord’s birth in Bethlehem, but first to that future day when our Lord will return in glory. We are looking to “the last day when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead” as our collect this morning invites us to pray.

 

C.S. Lewis once pointed out in an essay that when Jesus spoke about his return he made three things clear: 1. That he certainly would return. 2. That no one would know the day or time and 3. That therefore one has to be always prepared and ready. And Lewis pointed out that it’s the third point, the “therefore” part that is really important. God wants our attention. He wants us to live our lives with our eyes opened to what he is doing in the world and with hearts that are ready to respond to him at any moment. God isn’t just trying to catch us unaware…if he wanted to do that he just wouldn’t have told us he was coming at all. What God wants is for us to pay attention. He isn’t going to let us know the date and time of his arrival, because God wants to be a part of all of our days, not just the last few.

 

Advent is such an important season, there to remind us that Christ is our future as well as our past. Now I’m not one of those Advent purists that refuses to acknowledge Christmas, let anyone have fun in December or even decorate before Christmas Eve, but if I want to truly appreciate Christ coming into the world on December the 25th, then I need to pay attention to the ways in which he may be breaking into my world every other day of the year. In other words, I need to be able to live in a perpetual Advent, always keeping a watchful eye out for what God is doing, always prepared to respond to him. Having a real relationship with God, means paying attention to him all the time. You can’t just say “wake me when he gets here.”

 

It would be great if our spiritual life was like a pot roast: just throw in the right ingredients in the beginning, go on with your life and come home to a delicious feast at some point in the future. I know that that is how many people see religion. But from our Lord’s words in the gospel though, I am led to believe that it is probably more like that caramel cake: something that requires vigilance and attention, with eyes that are open to signs of change and hands that are ready to respond. Yes, it does require more work, it requires more attention, which is costly, but when the miracle occurs, the reward is heavenly.

 

For your edification and viewing pleasure you may listen to the above mentioned C.S. Lewis essay here:

Salvation is found in the small things

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Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King 2017

Readings:

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

If we take Jesus’s words seriously, and we certainly must, then it would seem from today’s gospel that there are going to be a lot of surprised people come the Judgement Day. In this morning’s gospel, when our Lord separates the sheep from the goats, there are people on both sides of the throne that don’t understand how they got there.

 

The people on the right hand certainly didn’t expect to find themselves to be inheritors of the kingdom. They probably didn’t think that their lives were anything special. These are humble people. They probably didn’t think of themselves as all that brilliant; they probably didn’t think of themselves as all that religious. Heaven wasn’t something they felt entitled to. These people were not listed among the famous saints of the church: they hadn’t left everything behind to worship God in poverty like Saint Francis or minister to the sick like Saint Damien or Saint Teresa. These were average, everyday folks living lives that were not all that remarkable.

 

And when the Lord proclaims that they are blessed, and invites them into his eternal kingdom, in their surprise and wonder they ask: “why Lord?” What have I done that was so great that I deserve this honor? Why should I be rewarded in this way? When was it that I served you? You are so glorious and beyond my grasp that I can’t even contemplate you, much less imagine how in my little life I could serve you. When Lord, when did I serve you?

 

And the Lord responds to his sheep: it was in the little things. It was in the small acts of charity and kindness that you did without thinking of what was in it for you. It was in the food that you offered to the hungry, the water you gave to the thirsty, the clothing you gave to the naked. It isn’t the big, grand and heroic gestures that you might have done once or twice, it is in the small, simple acts of love, kindness and compassion that you did all the time. That is how I know your character, that is how I know that you are one of my sheep: not what you did when you thought I was watching, but in how you acted when you didn’t realize that I was there.

 

And then the Lord looks to his left, to people that are equally surprised at where they have found themselves. They always thought of themselves as sheep, as part of the flock, but alas now they are being weeded out with the goats. What do you mean accursed? How can you lump me together with these people? They always just assumed that heaven was their destiny. After all, they had studied religion enough to have the right answers, they thought of themselves as clever and well informed, they could even point to some grand accomplishments of theirs, why should they be gathered with the goats? And they learn, like the sheep before them, that salvation is to be found in the small things in life.

 

In their case it was the little things that they didn’t do that led to their downfall. It was in the lives that they overlooked, the hands they didn’t hold, the mouths they didn’t feed, the stranger they didn’t help, the kindness they didn’t show, the time they didn’t take and the love they didn’t share. Maybe the goats had done some lovely things when they thought the Lord, or at least someone else, was watching, but their true character was revealed in how they treated others that had nothing to offer them in return. They were focused on the big things, but in the end they discover that it is the little things that really matter.

 

Last night we celebrated two baptisms here. Through an ancient ritual of water and prayer, we invited two souls into Christ’s eternal kingdom. Next Sunday at our Children’s prayer breakfast, I am going to talk to the kids about the font, and how it stands at the door as a reminder that it is through baptism that we are able to enter the church. At baptism, the Lord Jesus becomes our ultimate king and sovereign and we voluntarily pledge our allegiance to him and become subjects of his kingdom. This is a kingdom, the Church, but a kingdom unlike any other. It has no geographical boundaries, no official language, it isn’t represented by any one state or political party. It exists in the world, but isn’t of it. Our values will at times be necessarily at odds with the values of the world. There are times when our allegiance will call us to do things differently than our neighbors. Like any kingdom, we have our heroes: individuals that have done amazing things for God. But kingdoms are not populated by knights alone; there is always need of the loyal subject.

 

That is our primary call as Christians, as individuals who have proclaimed Christ as our King. We are called, first and foremost to be obedient in the small, mundane things in life. We are called to be Christians when no one is looking. We are called to show compassion and kindness to people who can never repay us. We are called to give of ourselves without expecting anything in return.

 

Yes, baptism is a big decision and a big moment in our life of faith. If you were baptized as a child, then your confirmation will be your moment of personal decision to follow Christ. Affirming that you believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, recognizing that we are sinners in need of redemption, and committing yourself to be a loyal subject of his is a big decision. It is an important decision, and yes, I believe it is the right decision.

 

But, your character as a Christian, that I think is determined more by the small decisions you make than the big ones. It is the small habits of your daily life that will demonstrate your loyalty to Christ, more than the great moments of public witness. Many of you are here because you recognize that we have a strong Christian Formation program. The religious lives of our children is a priority for this church, which is why we are starting next week with a children’s prayer breakfast. But parents you need to know that your child’s faith is going to be shaped more by what they see you doing at home, than by what they see you doing here.

 

Do you pray regularly, even when you don’t seem to have the right words? Do you seek to consistently show love and kindness to people that don’t deserve it and cannot repay you? Are you able to acknowledge your own sins and repent of them? Do you seek to have a closer walk with God and a deeper knowledge of him even in the midst of doubt and uncertainty?

 

Nothing you do for God is insignificant. In fact, what we learn in the Gospel today, is that it is the small things, done with consistency, that have the greatest power to determine what kind of subject we are and what side of the throne we end up on when Christ returns to sort us out.

We need to remember

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Sermon for Remembrance Sunday

November 12th, 2017

Readings:

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

 

This past March, Dame Vera Lynn celebrated her 100th birthday. If you don’ know who Vera Lynn is, you should. She was known as “the forces’ sweetheart” and her songs were largely the soundtrack of the Second World War.

 

For her birthday, they projected her picture and a birthday greeting onto the white cliffs of Dover in England, a nod to one of her most popular songs: “there’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover.” Her first hit though, and my favorite by far, is “we’ll meet again.”

 

We’ll meet again

Don’t know where

Don’t know when

But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day

Keep smiling through

Just like you always do

‘Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away

In one song, I think she perfectly voiced both the hope of those going off to fight in the war…and the uncertainty. Hope that someday they would be victorious. Hope that someday they would be reunited with those loved ones they were leaving behind, but uncertainty as to what that would look like, and how it would happen.

 

I challenge you to listen to that song and not feel both the sadness of goodbye and the optimism and hope of a better tomorrow. Listen to any number of Vera Lynn’s songs and you will find the same thing: a recognition of the pain of living in dark times, but an undying hope for a brighter future. I find that I have to stop myself when I am listening to her and remind myself that when she was singing these songs, she didn’t know how the war would end. It’s easy to get cozy and sentimental about “when the lights go on again all over the world” when you know they did, when you know we won, but that was not a certainty when Vera was singing. It was a hope.

 

I love listening to the music of that era. Just like I love to watch old movies from the 40s or watch old newsreels. When I was little I spent countless hours listening to my grandfather tell stories about his service in Germany. Occasionally my grandmother would chime in about her experience building ships for the war, reminding me that wars aren’t just fought by those on the front lines alone. She used to keep a shoebox under her bed full of the letters that she and my grandfather had sent to each other when he was in the army. I remember reading them with her, and at the time I don’t think I fully appreciated how difficult living in that period must have been. Not knowing when, or if, you would see someone again. Not knowing when or how the war would end. And yet, instead of pessimism and despair and hatred and division, more often than not what I find when I look at the attitude of that period and those that lived through it, what I find is determination and hope. People were eagerly looking to the bright day that was to come and they were going to do everything in their power to make sure that they didn’t miss it, they were going to do their part to bring about and welcome the victory.

 

I find that attitude to be incredibly inspiring.

 

Today is our Remembrance Sunday, a day when we remember and give thanks for our veterans and honor their sacrifice and a day when we pay particular attention to those who sacrificed all. In World War I and World War II and in every combat since then, brave and noble individuals have given their all for a greater good, and have dedicated their lives to something other than their own self interests. That is something that is worthy of honoring and remembering; it is something that Dame Vera has dedicated much of her life to remembering as well.

 

But I am convinced that there is more to Remembrance Day than just saying ‘thank you’. Yes, we absolutely need to honor and say thank you to those who fought and died for what we currently have, but we also need to learn from their example of how to struggle and fight with evil in the world, because the fight isn’t over as we are all well aware. That’s not to say that our ancestors didn’t make mistakes, of course they did, and we can learn from those too, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that there is something special or unique about the times we are living in or that past generations have nothing to teach us, because they do. They have much to teach us, if we will only take the time to remember what they lived through.

 

We need to remember.

 

We need to remember, whenever we are worried about random acts of terrorism,

We need to remember that during the blitz, civilians huddled and slept in subway stations to protect themselves from the random bombs that could at any moment bring death and destruction.

 

Whenever we are worried about getting shot at a public event, we need to remember the men and women in the trenches and on the front lines that had bullets flying by their heads daily or that suffered through grenade attacks or mustard gas.

 

Whenever we are worried about someone vandalizing or damaging our church building, we need to remember those individuals that spent night after night on church grounds and on cathedral ceilings trying to protect their faith and their heritage from Hitler’s incendiary bombs.

 

Whenever we get frustrated when we can’t find exactly what we want in the store, we need to remember those that fought the war on the home front, living with rations, saving every scrap of food, and making do with shortages we could never imagine.

 

Whenever we are hungry, which lets be honest, is pretty rare, we need to remember those soldiers content to eat cold rations from tin cans.

 

Whenever we are upset that the internet or wifi is patchy or that someone hasn’t replied to our text within 30 minutes, we need to remember all those people that had to go months without hearing from their loved ones, and then only a letter.

 

Whenever we feel inclined to complain about our taxes, we need to remember the people that willingly bought war bonds, actually freely gave the government their money, so that our troops could have what they needed to fight a war for us.

 

Whenever we start to feel sorry for ourselves or our circumstances, we need to remember what those that came before us had to endure.

 

We need to remember that there once was a time when people weren’t just looking out for number one, but when entire communities came together to help each other

 

We need to remember that there was a time when duty, and honor and respect and dignity meant something

 

Whenever we feel overwhelmed by the evil in this world which we have to fight on a continual basis, we need to remember the evil that our fathers, and grandfathers and mothers and grandmothers and great-grandparents had to confront.

 

The power of remembering their struggles and their sacrifices, is not just that it moves us to show the gratitude that it is only right that we show, the real power of remembering their struggle is in how it can change how we live now.

 

We need to remember for our sake.

 

Remembering their lives, has the power to change our lives.

 

This is a Christian church and part of the Christian hope is being reunited with those we love. You know, one of the very first things that was written in the New Testament is the Letter to the Thessalonians that we heard this morning where Paul talks about that hope we have of joining with those that have gone before us on the day the Lord comes. For me, “we’ll meet again” although it is a secular song, does express an important conviction of my faith. I live in the hope that we will meet again. I live in the hope of a future sunny day when we will meet the Lord in glory. That will be a glorious day when we see them again and greet the Lord face to face.

 

The bigger question for us though, and I think the question that the gospel asks of us…is how are we going to live in the meantime? How are we to live with uncertainty? What will be our response to living through dark times? Their battle may have ended, but we know that our fight goes on.

 

Are we to be like the foolish bridesmaids, impatient and unprepared, or are we to be like the wise: facing uncertainty with determination and hope?

 

How are we to keep our lamps burning bright in a dark world?

Well, until we meet them again, maybe we should remember those that have already done it.

Something worth investing in

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Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, November 5th 2017

Readings:

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Many of you know that I had an unexpected death in the family this week. A dear cousin of mine in Georgia died quietly in her sleep last Sunday night. She had just spent the previous weekend hosting a family reunion at her house and nobody saw this coming, which of course made her death that much more of a surprise and that much more difficult. It was a hard reminder that the life we live in this world is such a fragile and temporary thing. “For we have not here a lasting city..” the Book of Hebrews says and indeed we don’t.

 

Ever since death entered into the world it has been our constant foe. It lurks around the corner as an ever present threat. We may try to ignore it and act like it doesn’t exist, but we only fool ourselves. We may try to fight it, and we should, health and vitality and life should be important to us, but in the end death still claims us. No amount of eating kale will save us, no gun or weapon, and no machine will keep us alive forever.

 

In all of human history only one man has ever proven that he has power over death. Only one. In the vision that Saint John had of the redeemed gathered in heaven the multitude are singing this song: “salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb.” And the angels replied: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

 

Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb. Nothing on this earth has the power to save us. Nothing on this earth is eternal. We have not here a lasting city. That does not mean that we are to live only for the moment with no thought to the future. We are not told to be foolish, but rather we are encouraged to always keep an eye on our ultimate future. We are told to recognize that our true salvation belongs to God and to his son, the Lamb, not to the stuff of this world which so preoccupies us.

 

The whole passage from Hebrews says:

 

 “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

 

We must always keep an eye on the city that is to come. Salvation belongs to God, and through the life, death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ, the Lamb, he has offered it to us. We have been given the promise of living in that everlasting city of God. Death, which we could never defeat on our own has been beaten for us. We don’t know exactly what the next life will be like, but we have witnessed the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, (the first fruit) and our faith is that by living in him and sharing in his life, we too will share in that resurrection. We too will be like him.

 

That faith should affect how we live our lives in this world. It was that faith that led the saints throughout the ages to sacrifice the things of this world so that they could invest their time, energy and treasure in the city that is to come. The saints sacrificed worldly goods, worldly pleasures, they sacrificed lives of fame and fortune, they changed their priorities, they recognized by listening to the words of Christ that the things this world values are very often not the things that God values. The promise of heaven changed how the saints lived in this world. It should change how we live in this world too.

 

We are called to be saints of God. That doesn’t mean that we all achieve in this life what the church labels as sainthood, but it should be our aspiration. We are called to take our place next to the redeemed in heaven who sing before God’s throne. Our lips should proclaim the salvation that belongs to our God. Because we have been promised entrance into that lasting city, we should have a better appreciation of what has lasting value and we should invest our time and money accordingly.

 

I will be honest with you, I have lots of regrets in my life: I regret money that I have spent on stuff that never brought me the joy or the satisfaction that was promised; I regret time that I wasted chasing after meaningless things with no lasting value; I will tell you what I don’t regret though: I don’t regret one cent of what I have given to God in thanksgiving for all that he has given me. I don’t regret one second of time that I have ever spent in worship or in prayer. I don’t regret going to one family reunion and I don’t regret holding the hand of one person who was dying. I regret much that I have wasted in this life, but the time and treasure that I have given to God has never been wasted. When I make a sacrifice to God, whether it is money or time, I know that I am investing in something that has true and lasting value.

 

When my day comes, which it someday surely will, I want to be able to look at my life and see that at some point I decided to start investing my time and my money wisely. At some point I decided to stop chasing after more stuff and chose to put God first. At some point I decided to stop letting television and other people tell me what to value, and instead decided to put my faith and my time doing the things and investing in the things that Christ invested in. That’s what I want to be able to say when my day comes: at some point I recognized that salvation belongs to God and it changed the way I live in this world.

 

I want to challenge you today to make a decision. I want to encourage you to look at all the stuff in your life. Look at all the people in your life. Think about how you spend your time. Think about how you spend your money. Now ask yourself this question: what has lasting value? What is truly worthy of your time and your money? Invest accordingly.

 

Yes, we are asking you today to pray about what financial sacrifice God is calling you to make for his kingdom through the work of this church, but I also want to encourage you to pray about how you are spending your time: could you give God ten or fifteen extra minutes a day? Could you take the first ten or fifteen minutes of your day and spend them saying morning prayer? Or maybe take a few minutes before you go to sleep at night to read scripture or say evening prayer or compline? Instead of reading the news on your train ride to work, could you listen to morning prayer or an inspirational message instead? Let me help you with that. That’s why I’m here. It is an investment that you won’t regret.

 

Who are the saints in heaven? John was told that:

” these are those who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat, for the lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and  God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

 

You could say that that is just a vision written down by a man long ago, but I don’t know, to me, especially this week, that sounds like something worth investing in.

 

Food is love that you can taste

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I needed to make a couple cakes for my church fair a few weeks ago. I don’t know why, but for some reason I just knew that it had to be Cousin Joyce’s Strawberry Cake. No other cake recipe would do. It was my Grandma’s favorite cake. Grandma loved all sweets but she loved strawberry the best, so if Joyce was in town visiting you could put money on the fact that at some point a strawberry cake would appear in the kitchen. Joyce was good like that. She knew that food was just love that you could taste. That cake wasn’t just dessert, it was a symbol of the bond between them.

 

I pulled out Joyce’s recipe and started baking. The smell of that warm cake coming out of the oven took me right back to Grandma’s kitchen. I could almost hear Joyce in her thick South Georgia accent telling stories about all the goin’s on in Cairo. Joyce didn’t just work for the Cairo Messenger, she was the Cairo messenger. She knew current events; she knew about stuff going on with family members that I had neither met nor heard of; but mostly she knew those good old funny stories about real folks and real mishaps that made you laugh till you cried, and when they were over you appreciated life just a little bit more. At least I did. The rest of the world had Cousin Minnie Pearl from Grinders Switch; we had Cousin Joyce from Cairo, Georgia. I think we got the better deal.

 

Joyce came from a long line of storytellers and she always had a story. I will never forget the story that Joyce loved to tell about Uncle Guyett mixing up his and Aunt Ollie’s false teeth, or the time that Aunt Ollie drove her scooter too close to the catfish pond and dumped herself in. Joyce was the person you always wanted your Yankee friends to sit next to, because you knew that they were only going to pick up about half of what she said, but in the half they understood they would come to know pretty quickly what it means to be a part of this family.

They would learn that we cherish the tales of bygone days and loved ones that have long since gone to glory.

They would learn that we have this uncanny ability to laugh at ourselves and each other, and that our humor often comes out in unexpected ways.

They would learn that we take caring for each other seriously.

They would learn that we are far more sophisticated and wise than people give us credit for being.

They would learn that we get mad, but then eventually get over it.

They would learn that family ties run deep, but friends can be quickly adopted and treated the same as blood.

All this could be learned just by listening to Joyce for a few minutes. If you wanted to give someone a baptism by fire into this family, introduce them to Joyce. She was our ambassador.

 

I guess it is fitting that in our family cookbook on page one is a picture of Joyce sneaking into my Grandma’s refrigerator right over a story she told about her husband Lewis and his cousins travelling around in the backwoods of North Florida. Feeding people and telling stories with and about family, that is what Joyce was all about; that is how she lived her life, right up until the end. Feeding people, caring for people, looking after people, or telling stories about people. You could be sure that wherever Joyce was, she was doing one of those things.

 

I know someone else that loved to feed people, care for people and tell stories. Joyce knew him too. He liked to tell a story about a king inviting people who were unworthy to a great banquet. The guests didn’t need to be rich or famous or important, they didn’t even have to be good; they just had to accept the invitation. You didn’t become a part of this king’s family by being born of his blood; you became a part of his family by being washed in the blood of his Son. When the Apostle John had a vision of the heavenly throne in the Book of Revelation he saw that it was surrounded by people who had come through much, but stood robed in white before the throne of God. They had been made clean, not by their own efforts, but by being washed and made new in the blood of the Lamb. They had accepted the invitation to the feast, and there at that throne and at that banquet they hunger no more, they thirst no more and they suffer no more. The Lamb is their shepherd and he guides them to the water of life, and God wipes away every tear from their eyes.

 

Joyce wasn’t perfect, but she knew the Lord Jesus who was, and is. I know that she tried to model her life after his example, and that even though she was going to stumble and fall, as we all do, she trusted him to pick her back up again. Because that’s what a loving parent does, and that is the God that she worshiped: a loving parent.

 

Yesterday when I heard that Joyce had unexpectedly died and been taken home to the Lord, I stopped in church to light a candle and say a prayer for her. There on the kneeler in the chapel where I was praying was a prayer book opened to Psalm 84:

How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.

The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
by the side of your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.

Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.

Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.

Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.

They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.

LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; *
hearken, O God of Jacob.

Behold our defender, O God; *
and look upon the face of your Anointed.

For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room, *
and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God
than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.

For the LORD God is both sun and shield; *
he will give grace and glory;

No good thing will the LORD withhold *
from those who walk with integrity.

O LORD of hosts, *
happy are they who put their trust in you!

 

It was as if Joyce was pointing me to that Psalm herself. Maybe she was. The sparrow has found her a house, and I have no doubt she is happy there.

 

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This cookbook that Joyce was responsible for getting printed is one of my treasured possessions, and not just because it contains the recipe for her strawberry cake. When I look through these pages I see the names and faces of so many people that are waiting at that feast on the other side; including some we never dreamed we would lose so soon and so suddenly. I open this book and all of a sudden standing next to me is Uncle Sandy making his beef stew, Grandma making her cornbread dressing, Aunt Bebe stirring up a squash casserole, Butch throwing a red cockaded woodpecker into his ham hock and lima beans, Ollie frying hushpuppies. There are so many others gathered around the kitchen table like saints around God’s throne: Ralph, Dale, Aunt Ella Ruth, Gene, Jerry, Danielle, Uncle Guyett and now…Joyce. More than anyone else, Joyce is all over this book. Her recipes fill its pages, just like her food and her love filled our lives. I am heartbroken like the rest of the family, but I have a strong faith that I will be at a family reunion with her again, and I’m willing to bet that there’s gonna be cake there too.

 

One thing I always knew, was that if Joyce was around there was gonna be food and there was gonna be laughing and if that doesn’t sound like heaven I don’t know what does. I love you cousin. Save me some cake.

 

 

A Royal Invitation

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Sermon for Sunday, October 15th, 2017

Readings:

Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

I love it whenever we get a scripture that describes God’s kingdom as a banquet and this morning we are doubly blessed because we get two: both Isaiah and Matthew talk about God preparing a feast or compare the Kingdom of heaven to a banquet. As I am always thinking about my next meal, I find the idea of heaven as some sort of eternal buffet very gratifying.

 

It was a few Friendship Fairs ago that a couple of our industrious parishioners decided to edit and publish a new parish cookbook. Incidentally, we still have plenty of copies, so if you are new to our parish come and see me after mass and I would be glad to give you one as a gift. As a part of this project, one of our editors decided to send a request for recipes to Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. Now of course, nobody here imagines that her majesty spends much time in the kitchen, but it seemed like a clever idea and who knows, maybe one of the palace chefs would take pity on us and send us a recipe. This was during the height of the Downton Abbey series, and Highclere Castle came through with a couple recipes, so you never know. Well Jane, who was responsible for this idea did get a response from one of the Queen’s secretaries very politely declining to submit any recipes. Now you must understand that in addition to being a foodie I am something of a rabid monarchist. Yes, I am an American citizen, but I happen to think that constitutional monarchy is a perfectly good form of government and I am a huge fan of the royal family and her majesty. I am the sort of person who would stand on the street corner for hours just to see her drive by (I Haven’t had the opportunity to do it but I would). So I was endlessly amused by the fact that we actually got a response from the palace. It didn’t matter that it was a stock response from a volunteer secretary, what mattered was that it came from the palace on official letterhead. If you turn to the front of the cookbook, you will find there a scan of said letter, forever memorialized in the pages of our book.

 

Now I just want to point out here the subtle craziness of this: this is a REJECTION LETTER. This is a rejection letter from the palace and I still found it so meaningful that I thought it needed to be bound and included in the book. This isn’t an invitation to tea. It isn’t a recipe for the Queen’s favorite scones. It’s a rejection letter from a secretary, a very sweet rejection letter, but a rejection letter nonetheless. Here it is though, right in the front of our cookbook, right where I think it belongs. That is how I respond to a rejection from the palace…can you imagine how I would respond to an invitation?

 

Let me tell you…it’s probably never going to happen (I’m not that crazy), but if it ever did, if for some reason the Queen decided that she needed a few more priests at her parties to balance out all the politicians and celebrities, and if I were to come home one day and discover a letter from the Lord Chamberlain’s office slipped into my letterbox inviting me to any event whatsoever at the palace, I can promise you…I’m gonna go.

 

There isn’t much in this world that would keep me from going. I don’t care if I have to take a redeye flight and turn around and come right back. I’m going to go. I’d probably even buy a new suit, just so that I looked my best. It wouldn’t matter if I was sick, tired, busy, whatever…I would find a way, because it would be important to me. What an honor it would be. What a privilege it would be. How many people get invited to be the guest at a royal banquet? What would make it especially meaningful is that there is no reason for me to be invited: I’m not a celebrity, I’m not a politician, I haven’t made a significant contribution to British culture, I’m not even a citizen. I’m just your average admirer from across the pond. And maybe you all think I’m a bit eccentric, and maybe I am, but if I were a betting man, I’d be willing to put money on the fact that if any of you received a similar invitation, you’d do the same thing.

 

I don’t care what your citizenship is, what your politics are, or what you think about monarchy, I’m willing to bet that if you got an invitation to the Queen’s house for dinner, you’d take it seriously. If there was any way you could go, you would go. Who wouldn’t? And I’m also willing to bet that you would take it so seriously that when you showed up for dinner you’d look pretty sharp. Maybe you wouldn’t buy a new suit, but you’d probably wear the best one you had, because this would be a special occasion. Someone really important was taking notice of you. You would take the invitation seriously. I think that’s pretty much human nature. I may be a monarchist, but I have a hard time imagining that anyone would refuse the Queen’s invitation.

 

That is what makes the parable in this morning’s gospel such a ridiculous story. A king gives a wedding banquet for his son. He sends out invitations, but the guests don’t come. He sends out messengers to the guests to invite them again, and this time they kill the messengers. Finally, he tells his servants to just invite anyone that will come, and even then someone has such little respect for the invitation that he can’t be bothered to change out of his street clothes. This is a ridiculous story. Jesus knows that it is a ridiculous story. His listeners understand that this is a ridiculous story, because for the most part, that’s not how people act toward kings and queens. If an invitation comes from a king or queen you take it seriously. You don’t ignore it, you certainly don’t kill the messenger, and when you show up you show the proper respect to your host by trying to be and look the best version of yourself that you can be. Jesus knows that the story is ridiculous and unbelievable and that I think is part of his point. We know that we wouldn’t treat an earthly king this way, but how do we treat the King of Heaven?

 

People get squirmy with this Gospel story because they don’t like the part about the guy getting thrown out in the end for wearing the wrong thing. But I don’t think the point of this story is the behavior of the king at all. Jesus isn’t trying to say that God is like this King; what he’s trying to say is that we are like those guests. His main point isn’t how God acts towards us; it’s how we act toward God. He tells this absurd story so that we will recognize the dramatic difference between how we treat God and how we treat the leaders of this world. We treat the heavenly King is ways that we would never dream of treating an earthly king. We ignore his invitation, we kill his messengers, and even if we openly accept his invitation, still we often prove ourselves unwilling to take it seriously, unwilling to change, literally or figuratively. We don’t take God and God’s invitation nearly as seriously as we would take the invitation from any earthly king or queen. That, I think, is Jesus’s main point.

 

In Jesus we know God to be a God of forgiveness and grace. We know God to be merciful. I don’t think that God is tossing people into the outer darkness for not being dressed appropriately. We know that the heavenly king is infinitely better, more just and more merciful than any earthly king. An earthly king or queen will reject you…here’s proof. Earthly rulers are fallible. They are human. They don’t share their recipes. Although I am a monarchist, I can understand why some people aren’t because if you look at history there have been plenty of inept and sometimes even wicked kings and queens. But we know that the King of Kings, the heavenly king is so much better. So if we are willing to take an invitation from an earthly king very seriously, shouldn’t we take an invitation from a heavenly king that much more seriously?

 

We all have been invited to the most amazing banquet. We have been invited to share not just in God’s table here, at this church, but we have been invited to partake of the heavenly banquet. I know that Holy Communion may not seem like a real meal. Just a small piece of bread and a tiny sip of wine, but consider for a minute what is truly happening here. The God and King of all creation has invited us poor sinners to a banquet. We don’t deserve to be here. There is no reason that God should welcome us here, but he does. We come together with other Christians, not just in this place, but across the world and across time. Those we have loved and see no longer, they are here. The saints of God throughout the ages, they are here. This is a foretaste of the eternal heavenly banquet that God, the King of Heaven, has invited us to, and the food that he offers us is his own life. No earthly king or queen could do that. The invitation to communion with God is the most important invitation we will ever receive. It is a royal invitation, so shouldn’t we treat it that way?

 

Let’s face it, even those of us who accept God’s invitation, often don’t do it with the true joy and enthusiasm that it deserves. Maybe we are willing to show up and eat, but do we care enough to change, to be better, not to be phony, but to be the best version of ourselves that we can be? Are we coming to this feast reluctantly on our way to someplace else or is this where we really want to be? Are we excited to accept this invitation? Are we really taking the King of Heaven’s invitation seriously?

 

The truth is, I’m probably never going to get an invitation to dinner with the Queen. She’s a very important and busy person, and it’s no surprise that I’m not at the top of her guest list. Don’t get me wrong I still wanna go and I’d be thrilled to get one. But it’s ok. I have to remember that I have already received a royal invitation. A far greater and more important king has taken notice of me and invited me to dine at his table. Can I take his invitation just as seriously?