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We’re located at 408 Levee Road in Mount Sterling, across from the MCHS football stadium.

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MAMA Church at Bethany House
PO Box 502
Mount Sterling, KY


Monday, August 26, 2013

The Vicar’s Victuals: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost - Sermon

“Beyond This Point There Be Dragons:
Why We Drift into Heresy”

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 28:14-22; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-29; St. Luke 13:22-30

May the truth of your Word, O Lord, drive all falsehood from within us, may the peace of your Spirit fill us to overflowing, and may the love of your will bring our lives to their perfection: In the Name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The map makers of old, when they came to the end of the known world, wrote at the edges of their maps, “Beyond this point there be dragons.”  Because the explorers had gone only so far, the map makers had to admit the limits of their knowledge.  They sensed (as we do) danger in the unknown, so they spoke sparingly about what they did not know.  They exercised an uncommon self-restraint as members of the human race.  Rather than engaging in creative thinking and speculation, they chose to post warning signs until the truth could be known.

Filling in the blanks, making new innovations, creating our own answers for our own worries is what we want to do as human beings.  We’ve never been good at waiting for the truth to be revealed.  We’ve never been good at contenting ourselves with the truth that’s already been revealed.  We don’t like gaps in our stories.  We don’t like being bored with the old way of doing things.  And, above all, we don’t like waiting for our worries to be addressed.

So we engage in tasks that don’t belong to us.  We create so-called Gospels that tell us about the childhood of Jesus.  We create new forms of worship that border on paganism, because we’re bored with the faith handed down to us.  We create new theologies (most of which take us into the territory of heresy) to address our worries, rather than waiting on the Lord.  In all these ways, we express our lack of trust in God.  What’s worse, we reveal our arrogance in thinking that God’s answers aren’t good enough or that they won’t meet our needs.  In essence, we attempt to draw maps to take us where God has said we must not go.

It’s that last category of things that I really want to take up this morning.  That’s what our Scripture lessons deal with so clearly this morning.  Where we encounter worry, we often panic.  And when we panic, we usually stray into the territory of heresy – of doing and teaching things that run contrary to the will and teaching of God.

Let’s look at some of the ways we do this: We worry about our worthiness before God, so we decided that God blesses our sinful behavior.  We worry about God’s judgment, so we decide that everyone goes to heaven.  We worry about self-sacrifice, so we decided that self-fulfillment is our only goal (this is what underpins things like abortion, euthanasia, and lack of emotional commitment).  We worry about the state of our planet, so we worship creation (placing it alongside God in the altar of our hearts).  We worry that our needs won’t be met, so we make prosperity and materialism our goal.  We worry that we won’t get our way, so we live by the motto “might makes right”.

We have a long history of turning legitimate worries into portals of heresy.  There’s nothing wrong with us expressing our worries.  There’s nothing wrong with us telling God that we are worried.  There’s not even anything wrong with us asking God whether our solutions might also be his.  But we must wait for his answers.  We must make covenant with him, as he has made covenant with us.  We must open ourselves to the possibility that our worries may never have an easy or painless solution.  We must learn the art of waiting and the joyful discipline of obedience.

In our lesson from Isaiah this morning, we read that God’s people have taken their worries into their own hands.  Where God had called them to trust, they chose to panic.  We don’t know exactly what they feared, but we do know what they were thinking.  The Lord reveals their thought pattern.  They said, “We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol (the place of the dead) we have an agreement; when the overwhelming scourge passes through it will not come to us; for we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter.”  In other words, for fear of fear they’ve capitulated to the enemy and resigned themselves to their nightmares.

What amazes me about this pattern of human thinking is the fact that it completely forgets the miracles of God.  They’re turning their back on the One who sustained them in the wilderness for forty years.  They’re choosing to forget the victories he’s given them.  What’s even more amazing is the fact that God is still reaching out to them.  Listen to this: “Therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: “One who trusts will not panic.”  And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet; hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and waters will overwhelm the shelter.’”

Where they’ve created this crooked shelter, the Lord’s offering them one that’s properly built – a shelter that’s built around himself, with a sure foundation and walls that are lined up with justice and righteousness.  He calls them to enter that shelter, reminding them not to panic.  But there’s also a message that’s full of foreboding.  He says, “Then your covenant with death will be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol will not stand; when the overwhelming scourge passes through you will be beaten down by it.  As often as it passes through, it will take you.”  All he’s really doing here is stating the obvious.  There’s no deal that can be made with death, with lies, with falsehood.  In the end, the enemy of our lives wants only one thing: Our destruction.

As long as we attempt to shelter our worries in our own solutions, we make ourselves enemies of God.  This is the point the Lord’s making when he says, “For the Lord will rise up as on Mount Perazim, he will rage as in the valley of Gibeon to do his deed – strange is his deed! – and to work his work – alien is his work!”  He’s telling them that his power and might, his justice and righteousness will treat them like he treated their enemies at Mount Perazim and in the valley of Gibeon.  How can it do otherwise?  If they’ve made a pact with the very things the Lord stands against, how can they not expect to take fire?

We see this fleshed out even more clearly in today’s Gospel lesson.  Someone has asked Jesus how many people will be saved.  And Jesus responds by telling them that it depends on how many have chosen to take shelter in him.  He says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.”  He’s telling us that many will attempt to enter by a wider door, a door widened by attempting to dwell where there are ‘dragons’.  He’s telling us that he alone sets the rules, that those who attempt to accommodate themselves won’t fit through his door.  This is why the master of the house (Jesus) will say to those left outside, “I do not know where you come from.”

But, because we’re human, we’ll attempt to gloss over our pacts with falsehood and say, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.”  And he’ll once again respond, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!”  That’s when it will hit us: We needed to trust him.  We needed to shelter ourselves in his love and discipline.  That’s when we’ll realize that if we had waited just a little longer for his promises we might never have made our awful pact with the enemy.  Instead of standing in the cold for all eternity, we could’ve been basking in his warmth.

I’m reminded of a cartoon I saw recently.  A treasure hunter who’s been tunneling toward a buried treasure is pictured walking away.  What he can’t see is that he’s just inches from his goal.  If only he’d clawed away at the dirt just one or two more times, he’d have reached his treasure.  If only God’s people would tarry a few minutes, a few days, a few years longer for the fulfillment of his promises, they’d reach the overwhelming joy of his will for their lives.  Why, in the name of all that’s holy, do we give up so easily on God?!  Why?!

It’s because we don’t pray.  It’s because we avoid putting ourselves in the place of listening to him, of coming to know him.  It’s because we’re so busy telling him what we want and how he should give it to us, that we miss his response altogether.  Listen to what the Lord tells us in the letter to the Hebrews: “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.”  When we approach him (if we ever get around to approaching him), we realize that we’re in the Presence of Someone who stands above, beyond the world of time and space.  We realize that we’re in the Presence of One who will never be fazed by our worries or by the cause of our worries.  He’s more real than fire, darkness, gloom, tempest, and the sound of a trumpet.

He tells us, that in approaching him, we “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”  How amazing is this reassurance?!  How small our worries become – if we choose to tarry in his Presence?!

He tells us, again, “See that you do not refuse the One who is speaking.”  But how?  How do we keep ourselves grounded in the power of the One who is speaking?  We have to enter into the life of listening prayer.  We have to offer him the only sacrifice we can give: Ourselves.  Yesterday, as I was praying at lunchtime, I offered myself to him again.  With him, I went through all the parts of my life – the worry-ridden parts, the grief-stricken parts, the joyful parts, the regretful parts, and all the other parts that I’d like to control.  As we inventoried them, I offered each to him.

What keeps me going is this: I know that when I pray, I am entering in the Presence of the One who can save me – from myself and from my worries.  I also know that whatever I entrust to him will not return to me unblessed, unsanctified.  It may take years, it may even take my entire lifetime, but I know that “he who began a good work in me is faithful to bring it to completion.”  How do I know that?  That’s what he tells me when I listen to him.  That’s what he tells me when I enter daily through the narrow door.  That’s what he tells me when I make him my foundation, my refuge, and my shelter.


Monday, April 1, 2013

The Vicar’s Victuals: The Easter Sermon of Saint John Chrysostom

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Vicar’s Victuals: The Good Friday Liturgy - Sermon

“Moving Forward in Christ: Choosing the Way of Sacrifice and Suffering”

The Good Friday Liturgy
Genesis 22:1-18; Hebrews 10:1-25; St. John 19:1-37

All’s quiet in the Church tonight, all over the world.  But if all’s quiet, does it necessarily follow that all is peaceful?  We’re just finishing the forty days of Lent – of mourning, remembering, listening, and adjusting – and tonight we realize that those days are done.  We gaze backwards and try to remember whether we’ve covered all the bases.  We may wish that we had put a little more thought into this area or prayed more about that area.  Even so, there’s a finality about tonight: Jesus is dead, his body lies in the tomb, and – as the first disciples probably did on that first Good Friday – we’ve gathered together to pray, to think, and to talk about it.

Unlike those first disciples – and this is very easy for us to forget – unlike them, we know the rest of the story.  We know that the tomb didn’t contain his body for long.  We know that he descended to the dead to preach the Good News to the captive souls in hades and to break the gates of death for ever.  But they didn’t know that.  We gather tonight in stunned silence, hearing a story that’s been handed down to us from two thousand years ago.  They gathered in stunned silence, not knowing what would happen next – not knowing that hope would live, not even knowing whether they would live.

In some sense, their fearful reaction to the Passion and death of Jesus is understandable.  Yes, had they been listening to his words, they wouldn’t have been surprised by his trial, or by the crown of thorns or by the cross.  But let’s be careful not to throw too many stones.  We know – sitting here tonight – what they didn’t know, and we still shrink from following Jesus.  The battle waged in the heart of humanity ever since the fall of Adam and Eve has been – and will be until the end of time – the battle to follow God rather than self.  And we know that self is really defined as self-preservation – self-preservation in the face of sacrifice and suffering.

Perhaps what really stuns us tonight is the fact that we witness Jesus giving up his right to self-preservation.  Add to that the fact that we call his suffering and self-sacrifice the ultimate gift of love, and the question becomes: “Why aren’t we doing that for each other, for the world, and for him?”  The Stone that the builders rejected really has become a stumbling block for us, hasn’t he?  He tells us what needs to happen and he does it, then he tells us to join him in doing it – to join him in his sufferings, in his self-surrender.

So yes, the quiet in the Church tonight is very real, but it’s also very uneasy.  In small ways and in large ways God is asking us to enter into his life of sacrifice and suffering.  Whether or not we recognize it, the command given by God to Abraham is not unheard of in our own lives.  He may not be asking us to offer up a child, but he may be asking us to offer up some other part of our lives – something, usually a gift from him, that we’ve come to think of as our own.  Maybe he wants us – as we gaze at Jesus upon the cross – to take the next step in consecrating our lives to him.  Maybe he’s asking us for deeper and more pronounced service in building his kingdom.  Maybe he’s calling us to a deeper life of prayer, and therefore a surrender of some hobby or leisure activity.

Our union with Jesus, our communion with him in his suffering, death, and resurrection really does come at a price.  The Blessed Virgin understood it, especially as she stood before the cross watching her Son die a criminal’s death.  Saint John and Saint Mary Magdalene understood it as they risked being publicly associated with the King of the Jews.  Saint Peter and the others who watched from afar understood it, especially in the grief they surely felt for moving away from him and denying him.  Even Pilate understood something of what was happening, going back and forth as he did with the religious leaders, arguing that Jesus wasn’t guilty.  Judas understood it…way too late.

The question for us tonight is difficult, but quite simple: Are we willing, for the sake of loving Jesus, to pay that price?  Are we willing to so enter into his suffering and self-sacrifice that we feel even a small part of his pain?  We’ve been told for most of our lives that Jesus did everything for us – which he certainly did – and that we don’t have to do anything more than accept the gift.  It’s true that we have to accept the gift, but it’s an unscriptural lie that our involvement in his suffering ends there.  He asks us to join him, he asks us to take up our cross daily and follow him, he reminds us that when we turn our lives over to him there will be two promises: That of trouble and that of his abiding Presence.

So there’s quiet among us tonight, as we await the rest of the story.  But deep in our hearts there probably should be a nagging unease as we try to answer his invitation – an invitation that comes to us directly from his cross.  May the answers come as the story unfolds.

In the Name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The Vicar’s Victuals: Holy Thursday - Mass of the Lord’s Supper - Sermon

“Moving Forward in Christ: Holding onto the Golden Thread of the Lord’s Supper”

Exodus 12:1-14a; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32; St. Luke 22:14-30

There are two great joys that I’ve experienced over the past four years.  One is a daily commute that takes me through the Daniel Boone National Forest and the other is being in the car long enough – during that commute – to hear some very interesting conversations.  There’s something that thrills me when I get to listen to a thought-provoking conversation – and last Saturday was certainly no exception.  NPR host Bob Edwards talked with two veterans who’ve contributed to a collection of short stories, each of them written by members of the military who served in either Afghanistan or Iraq.

The stories they wrote were fictional, but they were based on the realities faced by members of the military while serving in those conflicts.  What struck me was the emphasis they placed on their relationships with family and with non-military friends.  I could almost see, running through their words, a golden thread that kept them connected to home and to “normal” life.  It’s a thread that sounded – to my ears, at least – very fragile.  It’s a thread that figures prominently in their stories precisely because it was the thread that connected the lives they had once lived to the lives they led in the midst of their duties.    What they once knew and experienced stood in stark contrast to what they faced on the battlefield.

But the conversation became most poignant when the topic turned to coming home.  This is where the distance between their two lives became apparent.  This is where we see how close that golden thread had come to breaking.  This is where we see the strain and stress of living two lives in two different worlds.  One of the vets talked about his reactions to the problems of “ordinary” life.  He talked about how his responses were often inappropriate, how they were calibrated to armed conflict rather than dealing with family and friends.  The other vet talked about his sense that coming home was what he most desired, but that it was also what he was least prepared to receive, to rejoice in, to embrace.  He said that it took him a great deal of time to get to the point where he could fully enter into the joy of coming home.

While we don’t face the nightmarish circumstances they faced on the battlefield, as Christians we do share something in common with them: We also live between two worlds, we also face the daily need to hold onto a golden thread that unites our present life with the life we long for in our home, the life we long for in heaven.  Just like those returning vets, we sometimes encounter problems in navigating between the two worlds we inhabit.

We often find ourselves approaching the Master of our heavenly home in ways that are calibrated more to the coldness of doubt and fear than the warmth of trust and love.  It’s also not an unknown phenomenon that we find ourselves ill-equipped to embrace the Master of our heavenly home.  Just like those returning veterans, we often find ourselves in need of internal adjustments and sometimes we even need a translator to help us understand the difference between life in this world and life in God’s Presence.

What we celebrate tonight – the Mass of the Lord’s Supper – is our golden thread.  It is what keeps us sane as we live in the already-but-not-yet of God’s salvation.  We are no longer of this world, but we are still in it.  We know that we are bound for heaven and that eternity has already entered our hearts, but we are still living in the fallen world of time and space.  The Lord’s Supper – the Holy Eucharist – is the thread we hold onto, knowing that if follow it we will be led home to heaven, to life as it ought to be lived.

Yet, the ambiguity of living with one foot in eternity and the other in a fallen and messed up world can take its toll on us.  That toll shows up in how we approach God, how we approach his desire for our beliefs and how we use the life that belongs to him.  We hear the stories surrounding that first Passover in Egypt, and we wonder why God had to kill the first-born children of that land.  Why couldn’t he have freed Israel by another means?  For those of us who love animals, we wonder why an innocent lamb had to die in order to provide the sign of protection on the doorposts that night.  Why couldn’t God have used some other sign to protect the first-born of his chosen people?  Sometimes we even question why any sacrifice of anything is necessary for us to receive God’s protection and mercy.

We hear the words of Jesus at that Passover meal in the upper room – at the institution of the Lord’s Supper on the night before his crucifixion – and we ask ourselves, “Why didn’t Jesus say something like, ‘Take, eat this represents my Body, this represents my Blood’?”  As we ask these questions – as we begin to listen to God’s answers with our minds focused on the world’s way of thinking – that golden thread begins to stretch and fray.  In fact, the very fabric of what this night is about begins to rip apart.

At some point we have to stop and ask ourselves a very important question: “Where are my questions coming from?”  Is the life I lead as someone still in this world directing my questions, or is the life I long to live with God in heaven directing my questions?  When God calls me to believe something, to receive something, to act on something, am I calibrating my responses based on the battle I do daily in a world of falsehood or are my responses flowing from eternal truth?

So often our response to God’s call to believe and to trust is gradually eroded by the constant drumbeat of falsehood that surrounds us.  So, for example, we may start out believing that Jesus meant what he said in the upper room – we may start out believing that he’s offering us his very Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist.  Eventually – because we listen to the whispers of falsehood that surround us – we may come to say that the Holy Eucharist is just a way to remember his love for us, or that the bread and wine are just tokens.

But then someone will stand up in our midst and call us to re-calibrate ourselves that we might fully enter into the truth that God is offering us.  They might remind us that underneath the appearance of bread and wine are the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus.  They might remind us how so many people – including religious people – looked at Jesus during his earthly ministry and saw only a radical preacher because they never bothered to look at him with the eyes of faith.

Saint Paul is giving us such a word tonight.  He’s saying, in no uncertain terms, that what we receive in the Lord’s Supper is his very Body and very Blood.  He reminds us to re-calibrate our minds, our eyes, our ears to God’s way of thinking, seeing, and hearing.  What’s more, he reminds us of the dangers involved in letting ourselves gradually slip into the world’s way of thinking about the Lord’s Supper.  He says, “every time you eat this bread and drink from this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  It follows that if one of you eats the Lord’s bread or drinks from his cup in a way that dishonors him, you are guilty of sin against the Lord’s Body and Blood.  So then, you should each examine yourself first, and then eat the bread and drink from the cup.  For if you do not recognize the meaning of the Lord’s Body when you eat the bread and drink from the cup, you bring judgment on yourself as you eat and drink.”

When we receive our Lord Jesus in Holy Communion, we’re receiving much more than a mere memory.  We’re receiving his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.  We’re receiving a spiritual and physical reminder that what makes absolutely no sense to our finite minds is absolutely true even though we don’t understand it.  We are receiving Jesus in such a way that we a pulled ever closer to our life in heaven and farther away from our life in this world.  We are receiving Jesus in such a way that we become, more and more, him in this world.  We are receiving Jesus in such a way that all the sacrifices make sense – both his and ours.

Talk about “moving forward in Christ”!  In both a spiritual and physical way, he takes over our body, our soul, our spirit more and more each time we receive Holy Communion.  And the closer we draw to him in that context, the more deeply we identify with him.  How can we forget that he calls us to be in him as he is in the Father?  How can we forget that we die with him and so are raised with him?  How can we forget that he communed so deeply with us as to literally take our sins into himself and to place himself on the cross in our place?

So, yes, we need that golden thread.  We need the reminder we’re given tonight to re-calibrate our thinking and believing, to widen and deepen our capacity to receive Jesus in his fullness.  May you see tonight the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of the One who saves you.  And may you receive both him and the glimpse of heaven he’s offering you.

In the Name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Vicar’s Victuals: The Passion of Our Lord: Palm Sunday - Sermon

“Moving Forward in Christ: Stumbling in the Light, Instead of the Dark?”

He stood in front of us, speaking a whole lot of truth.  He reminded us of the solemnity and the joy of our task.  But, to be honest with you, his words utterly stunned me.  I don’t know why I hadn’t understood it before, I just know that I hadn’t.  He was offering us words of wisdom for ministering to the youth who would be attending the Ichthus Christian Music Festival that year in Wilmore.  He was also offering us sound theology.  “When they come to you,” he said, “their emotions will be overwhelming.  It’s your job to help them move their emotions from their heart to their head and back again.”

He was right.  The emotions on that last night of the festival were indeed running very high.  We had just received Holy Communion with fifteen thousand other people.  We had heard a message from God’s Word that stirred within our hearts.  And something would’ve been very wrong had we not responded, had our feelings not been kindled in the reality of God’s love.  Hundreds responded to the Altar call that night.  Some came into the ministry tent crying.  Others came in a stony silence, as if struck dumb.  All of them came with emotions at full throttle and wanting Jesus to do something with them.

What surprised me most was that so many seemed disoriented – almost as though they had been knocked over and they were struggling to get back up on their feet.  It put me in mind of someone who’s just been in a car crash – a collision.  At first, there’s that stunned look on their face, then come the tears as the reality hits, then comes the thanksgiving for having been spared.  In a similar way, those coming for prayer that night had just been through a spiritual, rather than a physical, collision. 

Many of them looked as though their entire world had just collided with something beyond themselves.  And that’s often what happens when we encounter the living God, isn’t it?  We find ourselves stunned.  We find ourselves disoriented.  But we also find ourselves filled with joy and with thanksgiving.  So, whatever the case may be, we must be careful to never allow the experience of our emotions to displace the work of Jesus within us.  That work – his work – always involves a union of heart and mind – it’s never, ever just one or the other.

In the last part of last Sunday’s Gospel lesson – a part that I chose to not preach on last Sunday, Jesus says, “What then does this text mean: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?  Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”  He’s talking about the fact that he will be rejected, but will nonetheless become the cornerstone of victory over sin and death.  He’s telling the scribes and the chief priests (and all those who are listening – including us) that unless we pay attention to his words we will stumble over them and we will find ourselves in a world of hurt.

Now, we know that people like the scribes and the chief priests are not hearing his words because, well, they’ve shut him out.  They refuse to listen to him.  What you and I need to remember, though, is that there’s another way we can miss the words of Jesus.  We who are bathed in the light of his Presence can find ourselves stumbling over his words if our faith is limited to our emotions.  We need to engage in the work of integrating heart and mind, otherwise we’re going to miss the whole point of moving forward in Christ.  Just as the disciples discovered during the events of Holy Week, we, too, will find that we’re not prepared for the twists and turns that will surely happen if we focus on our emotions alone.  We’ll find ourselves stumbling over Jesus rather than standing with him.

Let’s think of it like this: We’ve all had the experience of sleeping in a strange place, waking up in the middle of the night, getting up, and stumbling over something and injuring – at the very least – our pride.  That’s understandable, isn’t it?  We’re in the dark.  But what if we stumble over something in that same room in the daylight?  That’s not quite so understandable, is it?  We might say that the scribes and chief priests will stumble over the words of Jesus in the darkness because of their lack of faith.  But how do we explain the fact that nearly all of Jesus’ disciples abandoned him?  Though they were walking in the light of his Presence, but they couldn’t come near the cross.  They, too, stumbled and fell away.

Saint Luke tells us, in verse forty-nine of today’s Gospel lesson, that “…all [of Jesus’] acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”  Leaving aside the fickle crowds who shouted “hosanna” one day and “crucify him” just a few days later, how could the disciples – the very ones who had lifted him onto the colt, who had pledged loyalty to him, who sang his praises, who witnessed his miracles, who shared intimate moments of insight with him – how could they now leave him, one after another,  and stand at a distance while he dies?  The answer in their case is the same as it is in ours: They stumbled in the light; they missed his words because their emotions ruled them without their minds being engaged.

For some time, Jesus had been telling the disciples that he must suffer and die, that what was foretold in the Old Testament must be fulfilled.  Time and again, though, they missed it.  They went on living in their emotions, arguing amongst themselves as to who was the greatest and who was going to sit on his right hand and about other such “important” things.  They walked in the light of his Presence, but their eyes and their ears were closed.  So we shouldn’t be surprised that they stumbled over what they should’ve known.  They stumble over the One whose words should’ve filled their hearts and minds.

Just like those teens responding to an Altar call, when the disciples see Jesus hanging on the cross, their only reaction was to be stunned.  The question for us, as we enter Holy Week and beyond, is this: Will we be surprised, or have we been listening and watching?  Will we stumble in the light, or will we know how to navigate because we’ve been giving thought to the very words of Jesus?  May we walk and not stumble.

In the Name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Let us pray.

Holy Father, you have called us together on this day to remember, to have both our hearts and our minds awakened to the reality that took place.  We find ourselves crying “hosanna” today, may we do so in the days to come.  Father, help us to not stand at a distance when we see Jesus on the cross.  Keep us close to him.  We ask this in his holy and precious Name.  Amen.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Vicar’s Victuals: Fifth Sunday in Lent - Sermon

“Moving Forward in Christ: Adjusting to Life on a Different Scale”

When I was a little boy, I had two train sets.  One was a Lionel and the other was a Tyco.  They were each built to a different scale.  The Tyco was much smaller than the Lionel, and that bothered me.  In my world, Matchbox cars could not be mixed into adventures that included Tonka trucks, nor could houses built with Legos be allowed to inhabit the same neighborhood as those built with Lincoln Logs.  I was willing, though, on occasion, to concede that my GI Joe could speak with Barbie – but only because he thought she was a babe!

When it came to trains, I liked each of them.  But I knew that I could never allow myself to play with both of them together.  Either one was too big or the other was too small.  You see, they came from different worlds, from different scales of life, and I could never figure out how to make them mesh.  That being the case, the smaller Tyco and the larger Lionel never mixed in my railroad adventures.

The funny thing about life – especially as we grow older – is that we often try to mesh things together that don’t belong together.  When we find ourselves at transitional points in our lives we try to make our past fit into our future – or vice versa.  We rack our brains to make it happen, only to find out that our past was built to a different scale than our future.  It’s like trying to combine centimeters and inches, or work boots and dress shoes, or Led Zeppelin and Mozart.  Sooner or later, you realize that you just can’t get there from here!

And probably each of us in this Chapel has been through something like this.  It’s the kind of crisis point we talked about last Sunday, when we’re confronted with two mutually exclusive realities.  We know that to live and to grow and to flourish we have to move forward.  But we also know that the past was so very comfortable, so familiar, and oh so reliable.  No, it may not have been the best, or even the happiest – in fact it may have been down-right miserable.  But, “better the enemy we do know than the one we don’t.”  And so, we try to figure out a way to cobble together a future that doesn’t require any risk or suffering or sacrifice – even if the reward for stepping out in faith is a fantastic promise.

I can’t help but think of the vision that the Lord is giving Israel in today’s Old Testament lesson.  From the beginning of chapter forty-three, he’s telling Israel that there’s no price that he will not pay to see them brought home and restored in the Promised Land.  This is one of my favorite chapters in all of sacred Scripture.  So I’d like to read verses one through seven to you.  Just listen to this and picture the immensity of what God is telling his people: “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.  I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.  Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.  Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth – everyone who is called by my Name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.’”

WOW!!!  Do you see the grand scale of life that God is offering them?  Can you see immensity of his promise, the breadth and depth of what he’s willing to do to regain his chosen people?!  There’s nothing lacking in God’s power to make this happen.  Nothing, indeed!  The only thing that could gum up this promise is found in the hearts of his people: Are they willing to adjust to life on a different scale?  Or, are they going to do that most human of all things: Are they going to proceed into God’s promises with unnecessary caution?  In verses eighteen and nineteen of chapter forty-three, God says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

That really is the question, though, isn’t it?  Do they – do we – perceive the different scale of life that God is offering us?  And even more importantly, are we willing to hear the one request he’s making of us in the midst of all these promises?  Can we – will we – forget the former things, the things of old?  Well, I guess it depends on what those things are, doesn’t it?  If it’s our trials and tribulations, our heartaches, our sorrows, then yes, I suppose we’d forget them right away.  But it goes deeper than that.  He wants us to forget the causes of so many of our trials and tribulations, heartaches and sorrows – he wants us to forget our sinfulness.  But it’s really deeper than that, too.  He wants us to be so focused on him, so busy in loving and fellowshipping with him, so filled with him, with his character that we actually forget how to sin!  He wants our total – our TOTAL – devotion.

Why should he ask that of us?  Why should he come to us and say, “I want you to forget all your old ways.  I want you to undergo the kind of suffering that comes from detaching yourselves from the false realities you’ve created.”  Why?  Is it, perhaps, because the sacrifice he’s asking us to make pales in comparison with the sacrifice he actually made?  Jesus tells us a parable today about some wicked tenants and their landlord.  He tells how the landlord attempted, through messengers, to collect what was owed to him.  The tenants brutalize the messengers – the three of them – and send them back to the landlord.  Finally, the landlord sends his own son to them, to show them what is right.  They kill him.  The tenants are, of course, Israel.  The messengers are the prophets, and the son of the landlord is Jesus himself.  And the life of God is sacrificed for the sins and the stubborn memories of his people.

The future that God offers us in exchange for our measly past is of such a different scale that we often do what those tenants did: We insist on staying put, no matter the cost.  I’ve seen it happen in my own life.  You’ve seen it happen in yours.  We see it happening all around us.  There’s a deep-seated fear involved with letting go of the past in favor of an unknown future.  Ironically, we in the Church seem to have a much more difficult time embracing the future than those who are not in the body of Christ.  We know the One who holds the future in his hands.  We should be the ones walking confidently into the unknown.  But we’re not.  We’re continually squabbling with him and each other about how much we prefer the old way.

The story’s told of a priest who went to his bishop, perplexed as to how to deal with a troublesome new person attending worship in his parish.  The priest wasn’t sure how exactly to help the man understand that living as a Christian meant certain changes in his life.  The bishop chuckled and offered some wisdom with which every pastor is familiar.  He said, “If you really want to be rid of the problem, just baptize him and you’ll never see him again.”  It’s sad, but all too true.  In our lives as individual believers and in our common life as the Church, whenever we approach the portals of life on a different scale we tend to run away.  It’s because we know intuitively that some level of suffering will be involved, but it’s also because we fail to balance that intuition with the promise of God’s blessing.  It’s as simple as that.

Paul tells us this morning all about his own encounter with this very problem.  What’s more important, he tells us how he resolved it!  He says, “More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake” (listen closely to the words he uses here) “I have suffered the loss of all things,” (the past is gone in his life) “and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…”  Oh yes, he’s heard God’s call – on the Damascus Road and elsewhere – to mourn and to remember, to examine himself, to allow God to speak truth into his life, and when he came to his own crisis moment – in which he realized what the truth is – he was will to do whatever God asked.  And now, he’s telling us that it all comes down to weighing the suffering of surrendering the past against the promise of “[gaining] Christ and [being] found in him.”

What’s more, he tells us that this shift in his life could not come about by pursuing God’s promises as he did in the past – remember, he was trying to keep the Old Testament law.  He knew that a difficult, but necessary, surrender had to take place.  This surrender of his former ways of pursuing God was so important because, as he says, “I [wanted] to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his” (yes, here’s that word again) “sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”  Once he had seen the power behind God’s promises, he wanted ALL of what God has for him – not just the easier parts.

As we stand near the threshold of holy week – and another portal to life on a different scale – a beloved phrase comes to my mind: “Totus tuus, Iesus Christus.”  It’s Latin for “Totally yours, Jesus Christ.”  Between now and next Sunday we need to ponder what Paul’s laying before us in his testimony of embracing God’s gift of life on a different scale.  Listen, one last time, to what he says.  He says: “Beloved,  I do not consider that I have made it” (the new scale of life being offered to him) “my own; but this one thing I do: Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  That’s his expression of “Totus tuus, Iesus Christus.”  May it be ours as well as we continue to move forward in Christ.

In the Name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Let us pray.

Father, you have brought us, in this Lenten season, to the threshold of a bright promise.  We don’t quite know how to step forward into that promise, but we declare our trust in you; that you will lead us, that you will help us, that you will guide us.  We declare to you, “Totus tuus, Iesus Christus.”  Amen.