The Judgment Only God Can Make

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Sermon for Sunday, September 17th, 2017.

Readings:

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

 

The word Judgment seems to be getting an awful bad rap these days. What do you think of when you hear the word judgment or hear someone use the verb “to judge?”

 

I hear people accused of being judgmental. I hear people say things like: “well, I’m not one to judge” or “who am I to judge?” Even Paul says: “why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister?” One could be excused for thinking that judgement in and of itself is a bad thing. But I’m not so sure.

 

I make hundreds of judgements every day. Making judgments, far from being just a bad thing, is sometimes an important part of staying alive. I have to judge when to start applying the brake when I drive my car. I have to judge when my piece of chicken is fully cooked. I have to judge how far away my foot is from the altar step. I have to judge how far I am swinging the incense from the chalice or someone’s face. In each case making a poor judgment can and has led to a rather unpleasant experience, for me or someone else. But then experience, either good or bad, can lead to wisdom, which hopefully results in better judgment in the future.

 

I’m not prepared to give up on the word judgment. I think we might need to revive it. Judgment is, after all, a part of how we make decisions. We judge between the benefits of doing one thing versus the benefits of doing another. You do it so many times a day you probably don’t even think about it most of the time. You need to be able to make judgments to survive. I think part of being a parent is about teaching your kids how to make good judgments. You weight the facts or the evidence in front of you and you make a judgment. You decide what the best course of action would be and that’s what you do. We want our kids to be able to make good judgments; we want our leaders to be able to make good judgments; we want to be able to make good judgments. So making a judgment, in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, it’s just the kind of judgments we make and how we make them.

 

We want to make good judgments, and the key thing, I think, to making a good judgment is having all the facts. In order to make a good decision, you need good information to base that decision on. There is no way you can make a good judgment if you don’t have all the facts. Sometimes the facts are obvious; sometimes they are harder to come by.

 

When it comes to another person’s walk with God; when it comes to the state of their soul, we never have all the facts. We need to recognize that. You may think you know someone very well. They could be your child or your spouse or your best friend, but it doesn’t matter how well you know someone, you never have all the facts about their interior life. They may have struggles that you know nothing about. They may have hopes, or dreams or fears that you have never imagined. There may be pain that they never talk about. You never know. We don’t have all the facts. Only God does. We can’t always know what is driving them, or what facts they are basing their decisions on. Only God does.

 

It can be very frustrating when people don’t see things the way you do. I can read a passage of scripture over and over again. Look up words. Research history. Study. Pray and decide what I think it means, and then somebody else comes along and reads it and says no that means something else. Were they just reading the same passage I was? Why can’t they see that my reading is right and theirs is wrong? What’s wrong with them?

 

Worship is another area where people just insist on doing things differently. I admit that I am someone who very often believes that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. When it comes to worship I make a lot of judgments about how I think things should be done, but no matter how many times you try to tell some people that they’re wrong, they just keep on doing what seems right to them. Next month will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg outlining all the ways in which he thought the Catholic Church was wrong and of course lighting the spark of what would become the Protestant Reformation. We have had 500 years of Christians trying to convince each other that the other side is wrong and where has it gotten us? More than 500 years really: Western Catholics split from Eastern Catholics about 500 years before that, and if you read Paul the way I do, it seems like there has always been this tendency for Christians to separate themselves from one another, sometimes over seemingly trivial matters, and where has it gotten us?

 

Anglicans (Episcopalians) are a weird hybrid. We inherited many of the protestant ideas or reforms that Luther called for, but we didn’t participate in the split in quite the same way. Not that our history is always admirable, far from it. But since the Anglican Church split from Rome not long after the Lutherans, there has been this tendency to define ourselves by not being those people (those people usually meaning Roman Catholics, but sometimes other protestants). The Anglo-Catholic reformers of the mid-nineteenth century received terrible ostracism and resistance because the things they wanted to do seemed too “Roman” and after all, we weren’t supposed to be like those people. Still to this day, I often hear Episcopalians trying to define ourselves in opposition to other types of Christians. We aren’t like this or we aren’t like that. We aren’t these people or we aren’t those people. I know I’ve done it, but I have to wonder if defining ourselves by what we are not, isn’t rather like the Pharisee thanking God that he is not like the tax collector. Maybe as we are judging or making decisions about how we wish to worship and follow Christ, we should be careful about how we view others who have made different decisions or who judge differently. Maybe we don’t have all the facts.

 

I was born in a Southern Baptist family, was baptized in a Congregational Church and was confirmed and later ordained as an Episcopalian. I went to seminary with people from a broad range of denominations and have worshiped with the most charismatic evangelicals and the most traditionalist catholics. All along that journey I have known faithful and thoughtful and believing and loving Christians. Just because we have discerned (or judged) that worshiping this way is what is best for us and for our faith, does not mean that there is necessarily something wrong with those that have discerned differently. You can make a judgment about what is right for you, without making a judgment about the person who disagrees with you. That I think is what Paul is getting at in his letter this morning: if something helps you to worship God, great. Do it. If it doesn’t don’t, but don’t go passing judgement on those that need it. If a certain type of prayer or a certain type of music speaks to you and helps you to glorify God, great, but you can’t expect everybody to see things the way you do. You can judge what is right for you, but you might not be able to judge what is right for someone else. You don’t have all the facts. As long as it is being done to the honor and glory of God, then accept that we may not always be of one mind about every detail. Being different doesn’t necessarily make you better or worse.

 

This is the conclusion I came to this week, after reading Paul’s letter over and over: I am not called to be a better Christian than you. I’m not. I am called to be the best Christian that I can be. You are not called to be a better Christian than the person sitting next to you in the pew. You are called to be the best Christian that you can be. We don’t have to judge ourselves in opposition to each other; we need to be judging ourselves against the person we used to be and the person that God is calling us to be. God is going to judge us each individually. I don’t think that God is grading us on a curve. I don’t think he looks at us and says: “well, at least he is better than her, so I’ll take him.” The same goes for us as a parish, as a church, as a denomination: we don’t have to define ourselves by constantly saying that: “at least we’re not like them.” We can make positive decisions about what is right for us as a church without tearing down others who see things differently. I really wish that Christians around the world would stop tearing each other apart. We have enough real enemies, there is enough evil to fight in the world without creating more by quarrelling over opinions. We may make different judgements or decisions about worship, practice and we may even differ on some doctrines, but could we maybe, possibly give each other the benefit of the doubt? Can you imagine what the world might be like today if Catholics and Protestants (all Christians) had decided to fight Satan for the past 500 years rather than each other? Maybe if we stopped demonizing each other we might actually get around to fighting the real Devil.

 

So here is a little admission of mine: every morning when I get up I listen to two podcasts online: the first, is morning prayer according to our Book of Common Prayer. The second is Joyce Meyer. She’s a very popular televangelist if you don’t know her. I know that may come as a surprise to some people, particularly my fellow priests, and I am sure that they are already judging me but I don’t care. I like her. That doesn’t mean I always agree with her, certainly not. We come from different traditions and often have a different perspective, but maybe that is why I like her. She challenges me to think differently sometimes. People say all sorts of things about her and I know that plenty have criticized her, but I have listened to her long enough now that I feel that even though we may have some big differences of opinion, we are worshipping the same Jesus. She has to judge what seems right to her and I have to judge what seems right to me. We all have to make those sort of judgments. But we don’t have to judge which one of us is better than the other, or which one of us is closer to God. That is a judgment that only he can make.

Forgiveness Comes First

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Sermon for September 10th, 2017

Readings:

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

If you are visiting us this morning, welcome; and if you are coming back after having been away for all or part of the summer, welcome back. The summer is a wonderful time of diversion and refreshment and travel, but I always feel it is nice to get back into the regular routine once it is over. Besides the autumn is my favorite season, so it is something I always look forward to.

 

If you are visiting or if you’ve been away, then you might not know that I have been away from the pulpit myself for the largest part of the summer. I had a very invasive jaw surgery this summer, that left me with my mouth more or less banded shut for six weeks. It will take some time before I am completely back to normal, so please bear with me if my pronunciation seems more off than usual.

 

I wrote on my blog a few weeks ago about how much I love the Andy Griffith show. Watching reruns of Andy and sucking milkshakes from a plastic bottle were my two primary sources of comfort during recovery, and while I promise I won’t keep referencing Mayberry in every sermon, I just can’t help sharing one of my favorite episodes with you this morning.

 

Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife were cleaning out the case files in the Mayberry courthouse one afternoon, when Barney stumbled upon a 19 year old case involving Floyd the barber and Mr. Foley the greengrocer. They had both been arrested for assault involving some altercation, but much to Barney’s dismay, no resolution was mentioned anywhere in the file. No guilt was assigned, no restitution or punishment proscribed. Nothing. Barney can’t believe it. Barney wants everything to be neat and orderly and he insists that everything be done according to the proper procedure. Andy tells him that it can’t be too important, just file it or throw it away. Floyd and Mr. Foley are two of the nicest and gentlest men in town and they have been friends for over 20 years so obviously whatever it was, was past. Let it go.

 

Well Barney won’t have any of that. He is determined to settle this case properly. He starts by interviewing Floyd, who doesn’t remember much. Then he interviews Mr. Foley, who thinks the dispute was over getting charged for a shave that he didn’t ask for. Then he tries to interview Goober who was five years old at the time and had been sitting in the corner reading a comic book and didn’t see anything. Well Barney tries to bring all the parties together to try and reenact the whole incident, and pretty soon their conflicting memories get in the way, then Mr. Foley calls Floyd a crook, Floyd punches Mr Foley, who then tries to get Goober to take his side, and Goober once again was reading a comic book and claims he didn’t see anything.

 

Then the whole town gets in on the battle: Mr. Foley punches Goober, Otis punches Floyd, and on and on until pretty soon half of Mayberry has a broken nose. Even Opie gets into a fight at school. Andy can’t take it anymore and he pulls Floyd and Mr. Foley into the courthouse. He sends Barney away and says to the two of them that we need to try to settle this like friends.

He says: “you two have been friends for more than 20 years, more than that you have been neighbors; you have been there for each other. You aren’t kids neither one of you and you both know the value of old friends and the first law of friendship is to be ready to forgive.”

 

The first law of friendship is to be ready to forgive. Forgiveness comes first. That isn’t what we think of when we think of Justice. When it comes to Justice we think that facts should be examined, guilt should be declared, restitution should be made, and then and only then maybe forgiveness can happen. That’s the way our legal system is setup to work. That is certainly the way Barney expects things to happen. But Andy sees things differently. Andy thinks that forgiveness comes first, and then reconciliation can happen. I wonder where he got such a crazy idea…

 

If Barney Fife represents Justice, then Andy Taylor represents Mercy. They are both fighting on the same side of the law, but you get awful nervous when Justice is left on its own. Mercy always needs to take the lead. Forgiveness needs to come first.

 

The first few times I read this morning’s Gospel passage, it seemed to me like Jesus was outlining a procedure for how to deal with conflicts in the Church. But as I dug deeper into this passage, I discovered that Jesus wasn’t creating new rules and procedures, he was amending old ones. In Deuteronomy, in the Law of Moses, it says that in order to prosecute someone for an offence or a sin, you need at least two or three witnesses. It’s a good law, because it is there to prevent someone from being unjustly accused, but Jesus thinks we can do even better. Before you go out and try and find other witnesses, before you involve anyone else, go to that person alone and try to reconcile. And even if you do have to involve two or three others, or even the entire community, your goal should always be reconciliation, not prosecution, not condemnation. But how does Jesus see reconciliation happening? Through forgiveness.

 

It becomes clearer if you keep reading beyond this morning’s Gospel passage and look ahead to what we will be reading next week:

Then Peter came to him and said: “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?”

Jesus saith unto him: “I say not unto thee until seven times, but until seventy times seven.”

 

Well I’m not good at math, but I can tell that that is a pretty big number. I think Jesus is trying to say that we always need to be ready to forgive, no matter how many times we have been sinned against. Of course, that’s an easy thing to say, much harder to do. Jesus knows that, so he goes on to tell a parable, and I won’t retell the parable now, you will hear it next week, but I think the gist of the parable is this: forgiveness will get a lot easier when you realize how much you have been forgiven. If you know, truly know and appreciate how much you yourself stand in need of forgiveness how can you stand in condemnation of another? It is so much easier to forgive and be reconciled and to love your neighbor when you realize that we are all transgressors of the law; that we are a community of broken, sinful people, that despite our sins are still beloved of God.

 

If you come to church here regularly you will hear the word sin a lot. We are what is known as a “Rite One” parish; we use the traditional language liturgy, and despite what some people think, the difference is about more than just thees and thous. You get a lot more talk about sin and sinfulness in Rite One. It is still there in Rite Two, but not nearly as strong. I often joke that if Jesus didn’t wash away our sins the 1979 Prayerbook certainly tried. I get that such talk about sin can make people feel a bit squirmy and uncomfortable. Everybody wants to be built up and told how wonderful they are, nobody wants to hear that they might not be as lovely as they imagine. But I think it just might be something that we need to hear. Understanding and appreciating how much we have been forgiven, just might help us when it comes time for us to forgive others.

 

Our faith proclaims that while we were still sinners, Christ was willing to die for us. God was ready and willing to forgive before we were ready to ask for it. Forgiveness comes first.

 

I used to think that Barney Fife was just a bumbling fool and that Andy Taylor was wise and had it all together, but since I have reviewed the series with older eyes, I realize now that Sheriff Andy was a mess too; he made mistakes all the time. It is just easier to forget Andy’s mistakes, because his character always puts love and mercy first. He believes in the law, but he also believes that love is the fulfilling of the law, so love and forgiveness always come first. Where did he get such a crazy idea?

 

At the beginning of the episode I mentioned, before the old case of the punch in the nose is found, Andy and Barney are singing a hymn as they go about their work. Andy says the title is “Lose all their guilty stains” but you probably know it as “There is a Fountain.”

 

There is a fountain filled with blood,

drawn from Emannuel’s veins

and sinners plunged beneath that flood

lose all their guilty stains.

 

The dying thief rejoiced to see

that fountain in his day;

and there have I, though vile as he,

washed all my sins away

 

E’er since by faith I saw the stream

thy flowing wounds supply,

redeeming love has been my theme,

and shall be till I die.

 

Redeeming love has been my theme…maybe that’s not such a crazy idea after all. Maybe it is something worth sharing.

All I wanted was a decent cup of tea…

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Sermon for July 9th, 2017

Readings:

Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-15
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Some people just don’t want a savior. I get it.

To have a savior, to need a savior, means on some level admitting that you cannot save yourself. I can understand having difficulty with that.

I am a very independent person. I like to be able to figure things out myself. I like to do things for myself. Some things I am pretty good at, but then again, I do get things wrong, all the time. Sometimes the errors are factual: like forgetting a name or a date. Sometimes the errors are moral: I know that I have done and said things that have hurt others, and I have done and said things that have hurt myself. It’s not that I ever set out to make either kind of error; I don’t try to be wrong, but sooner or later it always happens again.

When the apostle Paul says: “I do not do the thing that I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” I get that. It’s frustrating to make mistakes, especially when you are trying really hard not to.

You could tell yourself that you are simply not trying hard enough. You could blame your mistakes on others as many do.

Or, you could realize that you simply don’t have the power to do it on your own and that you need someone else to help you.

That was the revelation that Paul had. He eventually understood that salvation wasn’t something he was going to achieve through his own effort.

Some people still approach religion as if it were something that they could master, as if their intellect were more important than the disposition of their hearts.

Last Sunday our group attended mass while on pilgrimage at the cathedral which was just around the corner from our hotel. After we offered our worship to God in a very nice service, Keith and I thought that we might stop in at the coffee hour and meet some of the local congregation and perhaps greet the resident clergy.

As we were trying to mingle and make polite conversation, we encountered a retired clergy couple from England (a man and a woman). They were living in the area temporarily and were very excited to hear that we were married.

They thought that being two men, and priests, that we must be very theologically liberal, just as they were. And what commenced was an inquisition into our beliefs of various points of theology and biblical interpretation. In short order they were sorely disappointed.

They were shocked to find out just how seriously we take the Bible, and the traditions of the church.

When they found out that we actually believed in the Creed, the virgin birth and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, they were simultaneously astonished and annoyed. If we disagreed with Paul about homosexuality, shouldn’t we disagree with him about everything else as well? Wasn’t all of this just an oppressive and backwards myth, which should have been dispensed with by sensible people long ago?

You know, and this may be a revelation to some people on both sides in the church, it is possible to faithfully disagree: it is possible that our faith is not an all or nothing proposition. It is possible to be neither liberal, nor conservative, but a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, sinful, but forgiven, thoughtful and believing. It is possible to disagree about particular issues and still uphold core doctrine. It is possible, but some people just can’t do it.

Honestly, at this point I was more taken with their bad manners than their bad theology. I am totally sympathetic with people who struggle with questions of faith and belief, but don’t attack me for actually believing what we all stand up and say we believe every week.

At last came the coup de grace, when he claimed that he absolutely did not believe that he was born in sin. He just wanted to come to church to hear that God loved him. To which my husband replied that we absolutely believed that we, like all men and women, were born sinners and that we had come to church not so much to hear that God loves us, but to say that we loved God. Of course we believe in a loving God that loves us first, but worship and therapy are not the same thing.

Those are two very different outlooks. They were intent on being correct, we were intent on being forgiven. I didn’t get the sense that they thought they needed a savior, we were pretty sure that we already had one.

If you think that following Jesus can be hard, you’re right. Trying to do the right thing, and then asking for forgiveness when you fail can be something of a burden, but it is the lightest burden you will ever carry. Trying to be perfect all on your own, now that’s hard. Some people just don’t want a savior, but I know I certainly need one.

Eventually we extricated ourselves from the situation as politely as we could, but I did find it a bit sad that here we were visitors in this place, and had happened upon another clergy couple that could accept our marriage, but not our faith.

I don’t use this experience as an example of most of my interactions with clergy in the U.K., far from it. This couple was the exception, not the norm. I use it as an example of how we often misjudge what people are looking for, both when they come to church and when they engage us in conversation and I use it to illustrate how dangerous it is to make assumptions about people, including theological assumptions, based upon knowing one thing.

I hadn’t come to church looking for an inquisition or a theological debate. I wasn’t looking for an enlightened priest that had all the scientifically and politically correct answers. I didn’t need someone to solve all the mysteries of the Bible, or to lecture me about the various nuances of scriptural interpretation.  And I certainly didn’t need someone to tell me that what I believed was a myth.

I wasn’t looking for a savior during coffee hour, I already knew I had one. That is who I had just come to mass to worship. In truth, all I was really looking for at that point was a decent cup of tea.

Some people just don’t want a savior. I get it, but I am not one of those people.

 

 

The Stories Fathers Tell

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(N.B. The image above is of the original Winnie the Pooh on display at the New York Public Library. These toys belonged to Christopher Robin Milne and were used by A.A. Milne as the inspiration for his Winnie the Pooh stories.)

Sermon for Father’s Day, the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 18th, 2017.

Readings:

Exodus 19:2-8a
Psalm 100
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23)

The best argument for the truth of the doctrine of original sin, and the fallen state of our human nature, is living with a three year old (or maybe a two year old, or a five year old). Not every moment in the life of a young child is precious, let’s be honest. There are some moments that absolutely require endurance; there are some moments that are almost intolerable. It’s true that children are born with the capacity to love, but they are born with a lot of other capacities as well, some that are a lot less charming. They are born with impatience; they are born with tempers; they are born sometimes being greedy or selfish; they are born with a lot of things.

 

It takes a parent that can see past bad behavior in a child; that can continue to love a child even though they are not necessarily being lovely. It takes a parent in order to shape the life of that child. It’s true that we do learn some sins as we grow older through life, but some things just seem to come from the beginning. We are born with all these different capacities and it takes a loving and patient parent to love us before we are loveable; to love us despite our wickedness sometimes. It takes a loving and patient parent to spend the time to shape us, and to shape our character, and our souls, to form us into hopefully decent human beings. Parents, more than just protecting and providing for their children, a good parent should shape their child, should help to form their child as they grow older.

 

Now we could talk about mothers and fathers this morning. I think the role of a parent is interchangeable between the two. The reality is that we are not here this morning to celebrate a gender, we are here to celebrate a role. And the role of Father which we celebrate on Father’s Day, is in many ways similar to the role of Mother: it is the presence in a young life that not only protects and provides for, but also shapes for the future; that guides; that wants to be a part of that life, and not just create it and walk away. And our parents, they shape our lives in so many ways (by their example, by their patience), but one of the ways that I think parents most shape our lives (which they may not realize) is through how they play with us.

 

You see, I think part of the role of a parent is not just to protect and to provide for a child, but I think a good parent will also understand that playing with their children is crucial. Now you may think that playtime for a child is just time for their pacification, for them to let their imaginations run wild and their fancies set free. But I think that in that playtime of make believe and storytelling is where character is tested and formed.

 

If you look at some classic fairy tales and if you listen to the way that children play as their act out their fantasies, they are testing who they want to be in the world, and what they want to be in the world. They are trying to imagine what their world and what their life can be like. What better time for a parent to help shape their child’s future than in playtime? It enables parents to share stories with them that can affect the rest of their life. If you want to test what makes a good children’s story, go and read it now as an adult. If it still touches you; if it is still relevant to your life as an adult; that is a good children’s story. Children’s stories should be taken seriously. They are not there just to pacify the child so that you can go on and do something else. A good children’s story should be as relatable to your life as it is to theirs. One of the best things that a father or a mother can do for their child is to tell them stories that will mold them and shape them for the rest of their lives.

 

I was revisiting some of my favorite children’s stories these past couple weeks and rereading them. I was just amazed at how much I get out of them now, probably more than I did as a kid. For me the ones that are my classic favorites are The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne. I have found that I can go back to those stories and find them perfectly relevant to my life in so many ways now, perhaps even more so now than when I was little. And the beautiful thing about both The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh, is that both of those stories were created by a father telling a story to his son. It was a father creating story time with his children that created both of those stories. And what a gift that has been, not just to their children, but to children throughout the world. Generations at this point now have had these wonderful make believe stories that have the power to shape who we are, and to shape our character.

 

One set of stories that I didn’t actually come to as a child (I came to them as an adult) is the Narnia series, the fantasy series written by C.S. Lewis. C.S. Lewis whom I am very fond of as an almost academic writer and as a spiritual writer, (and who can be a little difficult to approach because he is very, very smart and very heady) wrote these wonderful stories that just entrance children, and I think relate the faith to them and shape them into people of character. As I was reading about Lewis and his creation of The Chronicles of Narnia, I cam across this article written by C.S. Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham. I want to share a couple pieces of what he wrote about his stepfather:

Lewis (I’ve always called him Jack, the nickname used by everyone who knew him) married my mother, Joy Davidman, when I was 10 years old. Four years after that my mother died. I was estranged from my father, who lived in America.

Suddenly a 62-year-old professor of medieval English literature who’d been a bachelor for almost all his life was the closest thing I had to a father. Jack was as grief-stricken as I was. And yet he did everything he could to raise me. I saw a C. S. Lewis few people knew, and I grew to love him deeply.

I didn’t feel that way on first meeting him. My own father was a successful writer, but he was an alcoholic and by the time he and my mother divorced he frightened me. My mother got to know Jack Lewis after writing to tell him how much his books on Christianity had meant to her.

The two began corresponding and then my mother moved to England and enrolled me in school there. I was excited to meet the author of the Narnia books and I pictured someone from Narnia itself, maybe a knight with a sword.

What I encountered instead was a bald, stout old man dressed in a shabby tweed coat and with tobacco stains on his teeth and hands.

I was crushed—until I began to get to know him. Almost immediately I noticed how funny he was. You always knew which room of the house he was in because someone was laughing there.

One of the first things he did was invite me out for a walk in the woods behind his house near Oxford. Jack loved trees and animals and gardens. More than that, he knew exactly how to talk to a child.

He was straightforward and took me seriously, not like some grown-ups, who get cutesy and condescending around children. He asked me what I liked to read and told me his favorite childhood books, including the Bea­trix Potter stories, which he said he still loved as an adult.

Most of all we talked about Narnia. We often spoke of it as if it were a real place, as if a faun or a centaur might appear in the woods at any moment. It was a delightful game.

Two years after my mother died I learned that my father had been diagnosed with cancer and, rather than face the disease, had committed suicide. I was now an orphan. Jack knew just what to say to me.

He didn’t offer trite condolences—he knew too much about pain and grief for that. There had been tragedy in my family and he didn’t try to sugarcoat that. He could have washed his hands of me but he didn’t. Instead, he made me a part of the last years of his life.

Jack died in 1963, when I was 18. At his funeral I saw a candle burning in a simple candlestick on his coffin. Others say they remember no such thing. But I am certain I saw that candle. Its flame burned unwaveringly through the whole service.

It was a perfect image of Jack’s love—for me, for my mother, for anyone blessed enough to have come into his circle of friends.

Jack Lewis embodied values that sound old-fashioned these days—courtesy, duty, loyalty. He was steadfast in his devotion to me and so I now do my best to remain faithful to him. What would I have done without him, alone there in England with no one to turn to?

I had gone as a child hoping to meet a knight in armor from a fairy tale. I got something far better, a father who understood that what children need most of all is unwavering love.

The complete article can be found here.

 

Douglas Gresham had two father figures in his life: one person who biologically created him and assisted in his birth, and another who helped to shape his soul and who cared to form and look after his character. One of those was his real father.

 

Jesus, when he is teaching and talking, time and time again he refers to God as “Father,” or “My Father” over and over again. He teaches his disciples to pray beginning with “Our Father.” He tells them in today’s gospel that when they are afraid of what to say that the spirit of their father will speak through them. So my question to you is this: when Jesus refers to God as “Father” which kind of father do you think he is talking about?

 

Do you think he is referring to a father that creates and then walks away, having done his job at the birth and feeling satisfied that his role is complete? Or, do you think the Jesus is referring to a father who is far more intimately involved in the lives of his children? Do you think he is referring to a father who wants to shape and mold, to live next to and besides, and yes even to play with his children?

 

I am sure, I am confident, that the father of Jesus isn’t merely a creator that walks away from his creation. The father of Jesus loves his children even when they are not loveable, as Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans this morning. The father of Jesus chooses to live among his children to share in their pains. He wants to shape the character of his children. He wants to guide them. He wants to feel their pain; he wants to share in their joy. The father of Jesus takes his children seriously. And as we have learned through the life of Christ, the father of Jesus very often seeks to teach his children using stories. More often than not, when Jesus was teaching his disciples it was by using a story (a parable). That is how he reached out to them to shape their character and their souls.

 

Our human fathers, they will always be imperfect. No matter how bad or good our human fathers may be, we will always have another father. Jesus sent his disciples out into the world to preach a message to people who were like sheep without a shepherd; people who were longing and needing to be loved, to be shaped, to be guided. He sent his disciples out to those people with the message that they DO have a shepherd. They do have someone who cares, not just about creating them, but about shaping them. That they have a perfect father in heaven.

 

C.S. Lewis was a brilliant man, and one of the best apologists for Christianity in the history of the world, but he like all men was far from perfect. His strength as a father came not from his stature, his biology or his genes; his strength as a father didn’t even come from having all the right answers or from being brilliant. His strength as a father came from his steadfast love and from his willingness to take a child seriously.

 

Fathers, we honor you all this morning, but remember as a father, as a human father, you will always be imperfect. You will make mistakes and that is OK. Fathers don’t have to be knights in shining armour riding into town with their swords ready to defend and prepared to defeat every evil. You don’t have to be perfect, just be sure that in your words and in your actions, and especially in the stories that you tell your children, that you are always pointing them to the one father that is perfect.

The Best Way to Honor Their Sacrifice

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Sermon for May 28th, 2017.

Readings:

Acts 1:6-14

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

John 17:1-11

Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36

Memorial Day, which is observed tomorrow in the United States, began around the time of the Civil War as Decoration Day, a day when people would visit war cemeteries and decorate the graves of the fallen soldiers. Supposedly, one of the reasons that this day was traditionally observed in late May, was so that flowers would have been readily available to decorate the graves with.

 

Well as much as placing flowers on the graves of the dead is a laudable custom, I can’t help but feel that the timing of Memorial Day is rather unfortunate. It comes at the end of the school year for kids, the end of the program year for churches and many other institutions, at a time when everyone’s minds are turning toward the coming summer and all that that entails. Because Memorial Day has become in our culture the unofficial beginning of the Summer Season, it is those summer activities that largely command our attention on this day, and not honoring the dead. Of course, moving the holiday observance to a Monday to make for a convenient 3 day weekend has only made this worse. Now Memorial Day is known for BBQs, the beach and sales at the department store, more than it is thought of as a day for honoring the dead.

 

While I agree with the VFW, that returning Memorial Day to its original date of May 30th, might be better; thereby making its observance something that is intentional, and not just a convenience, still I don’t think it would be enough. The purpose of Memorial Day is to honor those that lost their lives, not just in defense of our borders or our flag, but for our ideals. Those soldiers didn’t just die to preserve lines on a map, they died to uphold the very principles that Western Society is built on: freedom, democracy and self-determination. Its true we have always fallen short of our ideals; we have never achieved true equality in our societies, but at least it is an ideal; at least it is something we work towards and long for. Those principles and freedoms that we so often take for granted are what our soldiers died trying to defend. So we should ask ourselves: what is the best way to honor that sacrifice?

 

Is it enough to simply place a flag or a flower on a grave, or might true honor require something more of us? Might honoring a sacrifice require us to make a sacrifice of our own?

 

Regardless of what day we choose to pay our respects to fallen soldiers, I don’t think we do them much justice by simply tipping our hats as we go on about our lives taking for granted the principles they died for and not paying attention to the ways in which those same principles still need defending in our own day. A simple “thank you for your service” will not do. We must be willing to make sacrifices of our own. We must be prepared to continue to defend those principles and those freedoms, because if history has taught us anything, I hope it is this: there is no such thing as a war to end all wars. We can never just rest on the sacrifices made by those that came before us, because in every generation those principles which we hold so dear, will come under attack. Every generation will be challenged with defending them and protecting them anew. Respecting our fallen soldiers must mean respecting and protecting what they were willing to die for and that is far more difficult and more complicated than simply placing a flower on a grave.

 

After Jesus’s death and resurrection, his followers were certain that the victory had been won, that they were triumphant and that a new kingdom was about to be established that would put an end to their suffering and their struggles. They asked Jesus: “Is this the time when YOU will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They were ready to thank Jesus for his sacrifice, for all that he had done in dying for them and to praise his victory over death. They wanted to stand their and await all of the blessings that his sacrifice was destined to bring them, but Jesus looked at them and said: “it is not for you to know when God is going to establish a lasting kingdom or an eternal peace, but YOU will receive power, and YOU are to use that power to be my witnesses to the ends of the Earth.”

 

Jesus may have won the ultimate victory over sin and death, but Satan wasn’t done with us yet; his work may have been finished, but ours was just beginning. There was still work to be done in the world, there was still evil to confront and fight. As he ascended into heaven his disciples wanted to just stand there in awe of what he had done, but that is not what they were called to do. They were called to go back out into the world and continue the work that Jesus had begun. That is what he gave them the power to do. It is what Jesus and the Holy Spirit give us the power to do as well.

 

Peter reminds us that doing the work of Christ in the world is likely to involve some suffering and sacrifice. The devil never rests. He prowls around like a lion, seeking someone to devour. We can never become complacent. We cannot simply satisfy ourselves honoring the efforts and the sacrifices of others, and paying no attention to the ways in which we may be called to defend the same freedoms and principles that they did. We must be prepared to fight the devil ourselves; each and every one of us, because until that day when Christ returns in glory, the devil is not going to stop trying to steal our joy, our freedom and our peace. He will try to turn us against each other; he will trick us into abandoning the very principles we should be fighting for; he will fool us into becoming the very thing our fallen heroes defended us from. If we truly want to honor their sacrifice we cannot let that happen. We must be prepared to resist the devil, to resist succumbing to the evil in the world. We must be steadfast in our faith; a people who are willing to stand up for what we believe.

 

We cannot be surprised at the suffering and struggle in the world, especially by people seeking to live in a free society or people seeking to follow the will of God. Either way the devil, or the evil forces of this world are going to try to bring you down. As Christians we have been given the ultimate freedom from sin and death; as Americans, we have the great privilege of living in a free society. We cannot take for granted the freedoms and blessings that have been won for us; and whether that freedom was won for us by Christ on the cross, or whether it was won by our grandfathers on the battlefield, we have a duty in our own lives that goes beyond merely acknowledging what they did. We have work to do to. We have sacrifices to make. We have evil to resist. And we are not alone in this fight. Peter reminds us that we have brothers and sisters all over the world who are struggling and resisting evil just like we are. It seems like we are reminded of that all the time now. This week we saw Christians attacked in Egypt and free people attacked at a concert in England. Both were painful reminders that freedom, whether in this world or in the next one, comes at a price. We must be prepared to stand not only with our fellow Christians, or fellow Americans, but will all free people in the world that share our values.

 

After communion this morning we will be singing “my country tis of thee”, which was a popular national song in our country, long before “the star spangled banner” became our national anthem. Of course, it is the same tune as another national anthem, that of Great Britain. Both songs are sung by free people, who have suffered and lost much to preserve those freedoms. As a tribute to our friends across the Atlantic, the choir will sing the other version of “my country tis of thee” as a postlude. You are welcomed to sing along if you know the words.

 

I have said before that I believe that there is really only one war: the war between good and evil. It is a war, which like it or not we all must fight. We won’t all fight it in combat or on a battlefield, but we all must fight it. As Christians, we gather here every Sunday to remember the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ in that war. We give thanks for all of the glory that he won for us, but I hope, that as we leave here and walk out those doors, that we will remember that we have a duty that goes beyond giving thanks. I hope that we can be a people who truly wish to live differently; a people who know that some principles are worth fighting for and even dying for; a people who know that the devil isn’t done with us and who are prepared to resist him, steadfast in faith. If we want to honor Christ’s sacrifice, we must carry on his work in the world, and sometimes that will mean having to make sacrifices of our own.

 

It is good and right that we should take the time to remember the sacrifices made by the members of our armed services, and all of those who have fought to gain or preserve freedom, but we can do more than simply say “thank you.” We can go out into the world as citizens ready to live differently, holding ourselves to a higher standard, ready and willing to do whatever it takes to preserve the principles and the freedoms that they died for. That is the best way to honor their sacrifice.

 

Life Belongs to Him

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Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 14th 2017

Readings:

Acts 7:55-60

1 Peter 2:2-10

John 14:1-14

 

I had the great honor and privilege a few weeks ago to visit the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.

 

The Arizona was one of the first ships bombed in the attack on December the 7th, 1941. The ship sank within minutes, killing over 1000 sailors, most of whom remained trapped inside. It is a very painful moment in our nation’s history.

 

The memorial is quite well-done. It straddles the sunken remains of the Arizona, and allows visitors to quietly look down and reflect, not only on the events that happened, but also on the fact that this is a burial site, sacred to the memory of all those whose remains still lie within the ship. As you stand there and look out over the water, eventually you notice little black droplets of oil that occasionally bubble to the surface creating a slight oil slick. They are know as the “tears of the Arizona,” and it is actually oil slowly leaking from the ship’s fuel tank. The Arizona has been submerged for over 75 years, and still it continues to leak oil.

 

For those that lost loved ones on the Arizona, the drops of oil are a continual reminder of lives cut short, and a loss that remains, even after decades. As I was looking down, prepared with my camera to take a picture of the leaking oil, I noticed a fish swimming into my shot, and then another one, and another one. Finally, a whole school of fish swam by and I realized, that of course, the sunken ship has now become a living and active reef. Despite the fact that oil and marine life do not mix, for whatever reason the leakage remains restrained enough here to allow new life to flourish. I quickly snapped a few pictures to remember the moment.

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As I boarded the boat to ride back to the shore with the other visitors I thought to myself: “isn’t it ironic: here is a battleship, built by humans as a display of our own power, and destroyed by other humans equally as a display of power. The memorial is a testimony to how much we value human life, and a reminder of how little we value it at times. And the ruined hulk sits at the bottom of the bay, a symbol of the death and destruction that we humans are capable of, and yet it is now surrounded by new life.”

 

It was the Second Sunday of Easter, and we had just come from church and hearing the story of the risen Christ appearing to doubting Thomas, and here in front of me was a different, but equally powerful symbol of resurrection that I could almost touch. As I got off the boat back at the museum, it was as if I could almost hear God talking to me and saying: “you see, I am the author of life and death. Life belongs to me. I choose when to give it and where to give it. You humans may try to usurp my power. You may take the life that I give, but I, and only I, have the power to give it back again.”

 

It is true that a sunken ship turning into a living reef swimming with new life, is not the same thing as a dead human body miraculously coming back to life again, but it does illustrate an important point: God is in control of life. Life belongs to God, not to us. We humans are always entrusting our lives to the wrong things; we trust in the wrong things to save us.

 

We mortals, we are so prone to reject the true cornerstone of our life. We put more faith in our own power and our own abilities, than we do in God, who is the one, true living cornerstone. But only God has the power to save us. Only God can transform death into life. We can build houses and ships and walls and buildings and fortresses, but only God can build life.

 

We can destroy things, but God always has the power to build them back up again. We can sink a ship, but God can transform that vessel from a coffin into a crib; from death into life.

 

The Romans thought they had finished the job when they sealed the tomb over Jesus’s dead body; they were sure that they had destroyed him, but they were wrong. God is in control of life. The Romans didn’t know that Jesus and the Father, the author of life, were one. In trying to display to the world their strength and power, the Romans killed countless people, but in this one poor carpenter they finally met their match. They came face to face with a life that they could not defeat.

 

Jesus said to Philip “whoever has seen me has seen the father.” In Jesus we are given a glimpse of what God is like: not only in his teachings, but also in his life and actions. And what we learn time and time again is that God will not be restrained by our expectations, nor does he wait for us to understand before he takes action. He repeatedly shows us that he can create new life in the places where we see only death. Not only can he do it, he’s the only one that can do it. Life belongs to him.

 

In the Book of Acts we are told the story of the first deacon, Stephen. A faithful man condemned on false charges, he was dragged out of the city to be executed by the mob. And as he looked up, expecting to see death raining down on him from above in his accuser’s stones, what he saw instead was Jesus. And rather than use his dying breath to condemn those who were taking his life, he decided instead to use it to forgive them and to entrust his life to the only one who had the power to give it back again: Jesus.

 

If God can do that for Jesus, he can do it for us too, all of us. If he can give new life to the lifeless shell of a sunken battleship, I believe he can also give new life to his children that were trapped inside. Although the Arizona Memorial is lovely, I am not really impressed with what humans can do. Sure we are pretty clever now and then, but no sooner do we invent something good or build something good, when that fallen nature of ours takes over and we find a way to destroy it or use it for evil. But God, God never ceases to impress me, he can always take that evil we do and make it good again. God and only God can transform death into life. Life, all life, belongs to him.