Not by the opinion of others

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Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2018

Readings:

Before bibles like this were easily printed and readily available, if you wanted to hear the scriptures, if you wanted to know the stories of your faith, if you wanted to know the commandments and the promises of God, then you needed to gather together with others in a public assembly. The written word was precious and rare. People gathered together to hear it proclaimed and in those gatherings, in those communities, they also shared the unwritten traditions of piety and devotion. The learned how to interpret and understand what had been read. They were challenged to greater faithfulness. They learned that they needed each other. They needed to pray, not just for themselves, but for each other. They needed to help each other; to pick each other up when they are fallen and to help those who are too weak to approach God on their own, from the elderly to the nursing infant. As the prophet Joel says: “assemble the aged, gather the children, even infants at the breast.” The priests are instructed to weep and to plead for God on behalf of their people. There is an interconnectedness here. There is a recognition that in our walk of faith we need each other: for instruction, for comfort, for challenge, for strength, for inspiration.

 

Some things change, some things stay the same. We no longer need to gather in communities or assemblies to hear the word of God. The Bible is cheap, it is very often freely given away, you can download it on your phone if you want. Johnny Cash even recorded it on CD if you would rather listen to it. But even though the text of scripture is readily available now, we still need to gather in community for everything else. We need the community of faith for tradition, interpretation, love, support, guidance and even to challenge us from time to time.

 

Loving our neighbor as ourselves is the second commandment we hear in the summary of the law that Jesus taught. We as Christians are the body of Christ; we gather together as a community at the altar to share in his meal, we share in his promises, and we have responsibilities to each other.  The second half of the ten commandments deal with our relationships with each other in this world, so we dare not ignore that, but…they still come second.

 

The first commandment is: “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have none other Gods before me.” Jesus summarizes the first five commandments as this: “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy mind and with all thy soul…this is the first and great commandment.” This is the first and the great commandment.  The second is like it, the second is important, but this comes first. It is our belief in and love for God that fuels our faith and makes obedience to all the other commandments a desire of our heart.

 

You see, communities are important to our faith, but there is also a danger to practicing your faith openly. I don’t think it is any accident that the church has assigned two very different readings to this important day in the calendar. From the prophet Joel we have the instruction to gather a solemn assembly of the faithful, and then from Jesus we have a warning about the pitfalls of public worship: specifically self-satisfaction and the approval of others. Whenever we gather in community we are prone to become aware of how others see us, and that often affects how we see ourselves. We can get caught up in that. It can easily become a vicious cycle of worry and anxiety about what others are thinking that eventually shuts out the only person whose opinion really matters: God’s.

 

We are here to worship and adore God. That is where we must begin. That must be the fuel that gives energy to our faith. Our relationship with God, our love for God must be the driving force behind our actions. Our love for him should overflow into a love for his people; our obedience to his commandments will compel us to love others, but we must start with God.

 

Jesus makes it very clear that there is no substitute for a private, personal relationship with God. If all you really want is the approval of others, you can get that rather cheaply, but beware…you get what you pay for. Real devotion to God, like any living relationship, takes time and energy. It takes practice, until it becomes a part of who you are.

 

This bible has some wonderful commentary underneath the verses of scripture written by Matthew Henry, a seventeenth century divine, and in today’s gospel passage, underneath verse 4, that says: “thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly” it has this little gem: “When we take the least notice of our good deeds ourselves, God takes most notice of them.”

 

It isn’t those deeds that we are cataloging; it isn’t the deeds that others notice or pay attention to; it is what we do purely out of our love and devotion to God; the things that we ourselves fail to notice because our eyes are fixed upon God and not our own hands.

 

In our gospel today, Jesus discusses three important actions, sometimes we call them the “three notable duties”: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These are ancient forms of piety that people of faith have practiced to nurture their relationship with God. Not just Christians, but Jews, Muslims and people of other faiths as well. I would point out that Jesus, when he is speaking to his followers, does not say “if” you do these things…he says “when” you do them. Jesus doesn’t tell us to avoid acts of piety, he assumes that we will do them, he just wants us to understand why we are doing them. They are first and foremost about strengthening our relationship with God. It doesn’t matter if anyone else sees our devotion, in fact it is probably better if they don’t.

 

Lent is about falling in love with God again. It is about taking the time to nurture and strengthen that relationship. Yes, there are times like this when we gather as a community of faith, but nothing, nothing can replace the private time you spend with God and the personal relationship that you have with Jesus. We must always remember that in the end, we are saved by God not by the opinion or the approval of others.

Meaning and Purpose

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Sermon for February 4th, 2018

Readings:

 

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel.

 

So says Paul in his letter to the Corinthians this morning. Paul, was certainly one of the most enthusiastic proclaimers of the gospel of all time. He began by opposing the Christians, and ended by spreading their message all across the known world, and dying for the sake of that message. Paul makes it very clear that he will do whatever it takes so that the message about Jesus Christ will be made known to everyone: Jew, Gentile, Strong or weak…everyone. Paul wants everyone to know that God is alive and active in the world and he wants to draw people to that God. He finds God and the story of Jesus so compelling, so meaningful that it becomes the center of his existence and he cannot imagine suppressing it, or not sharing it. Proclaiming the gospel is in his DNA. It is a part of who he is. And it isn’t because he has something to gain from it. He actually has much to lose in this world. But what makes the gospel so compelling for Paul is what it has already given him: a vision of the glory of God and a glimpse of the personality that is responsible for all existence. That gives Paul’s life more meaning than anything else in this world ever could.

 

Christians…or perhaps I should say humans in general, but Christians in particular as worshipers of God have a really bad habit of lassoing the spotlight back onto ourselves. We become so concerned with whether or not we are worthy, whether or not we are sinful, whether our church or our preacher makes us feel good about ourselves, that we lose our primary focus which should really be the glory of God. Recognizing the grandeur and the majesty of the force that created the universe and gives meaning to all existence, that should be the first objective of any person of faith, not being obsessed with ourselves. That is the God that Isaiah is proclaiming when he says:

“It is he who sits above the the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing…to whom will you compare me, or who is my equal says the Holy One?”

Recognizing the supreme power of God, recognizing that there is a force in this world, compared to which we are but grasshoppers…that is the first step for those of us who are people of faith. Not focusing on ourselves, but focusing on God. Realizing how great God is how we receive the gospel, helping others to see how great God is, is how we share the gospel. Paul has seen a vision of the glory of God in the person of Jesus Christ and it is so compelling that he cannot imagine not sharing it with others.

 

We often have a very lopsided view of what it means to share the gospel. We have images of people standing or sometimes shouting in the subways and public squares, we see televangelists with big hair and even larger bank accounts, we think of the people knocking on our door inquiring about our eternal destiny. Well those may be forms of evangelism and I don’t want to doubt the sincerity of those individuals who practice such things, but I think there are more effective ways of sharing the gospel and they begin by keeping our own hearts and minds focused on the glory of god and not on ourselves.

I just returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and spending time in one of my favorite places in the world: Jerusalem. There is a power and an energy in that city that is almost impossible to describe. The holiest place within the holy city, for me at least is the temple mount and the remains of the temple where Jesus himself worshipped and prayed and taught. I can stand in one place there by that temple, and witness hundreds of Jews dancing and singing and praying with complete strangers all to glorify God. I can hear the Muslim call to prayer, calling the faithful of Islam to stop whatever they are doing and direct their thoughts to glorifying God. And I can hear the bells of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and numerous other churches, ringing to remind those within earshot that God has triumphed over the powers of this world. There is something very compelling about being surrounded by people that are alive for God, and say what you will about the middle east, there are people there that are alive for God. Their lives are centered on the worship and adoration and glorification of God. Yes, there is conflict. Of course there is conflict, wherever humans gather there will be conflict, but there is also meaning. People make huge sacrifices to live there, because the worship and adoration of God, particularly in that place gives their lives meaning and purpose, and meaning and purpose will always win over material comfort in the end.

 

We live in a very comfortable world. Now you might be very aware of some pains and struggles in your life, you may not think of yourselves as comfortable, but if we take an honest and close look at how the rest of the world lives, and how people in history have lived, we have it pretty good. Our culture is pretty good about selling us comfort, but what it’s not good at is giving that comfort meaning. We are good at finding and pursuing things, but we aren’t always good and finding and pursuing purpose. Think about this for a minute: we live in a culture, where at the supercenter down the road people will trample another person to death, just to get a few dollars off some cheap electronic appliance. We live in a culture where people will kill another person, will kill many other people, not for their land, or their property or even their religion, but for no reason at all. And I’m not trying to beat up on our country, the same could be said for much of the world we live in. I only say this to point out that our pursuit of material pleasures has not saved us, and more and more people are recognizing that. Don’t get me wrong, I like nice things, and I have no issue with anyone that wants to improve their circumstances, but I think we have to recognize that there is something in the world far more valuable than any of the stuff we collect. There is God. More and more people are discovering that the rat race doesn’t really get them where they want to be. More and more people are longing for their lives to have meaning and purpose…and guess what…that is what our faith should give us: meaning and purpose.

 

If you want to share your personal testimony of faith with others, by all means do so. If you want to talk about Jesus and how he was crucified, died, and rose again, God bless you. Go out and do it. But far more compelling than any argument you can make is simply living a life that is alive to God. People are watching you. More than anything you say they are looking at your life to see if there is anything to this religion business. Most importantly, I think, people want to know if God and this Jesus person give your life greater meaning and purpose. That is and always has been my vision for this parish; it is my vision for myself, not just as a priest, but as a Christian and a person of faith: to be someone that is alive for God; to find such meaning and purpose in adoring the creator of the universe that others who may have found the promises of this world empty, may wish to know more.