Sermon: New Year’s Day

CHThe following quote was the inspiration behind this sermon, but – in the end – the quote did not make it into the sermon: “Pray that I may never be satisfied with what is easy,” you say.  I’ve already prayed.  Now it is up to you to carry out that fine resolution.   St. Josemaria Esciva, The Way #39

I’m also going to get a bit of mileage out of this one as it will appear as an article in the Billings Gazette on January 11th.

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Legend has it that one day Socrates and Plato were walking down the beach, deep in conversation and Plato had expressed to Socrates his desire to gain the wisdom and knowledge that Socrates had.  Socrates didn’t answer him, but instead said, “Walk with me into the ocean.”  So, they turned and walked into the sea together.

Now, in your imagination, picture that happening: Student and teacher, two of the greatest philosophers of history, striding into the surf side by side.

The water started out around their ankles, then rose up to their knees. As the water got higher Plato wondered to himself, “What is the lesson my master is trying to teach me?”

When the water was shoulder height, Socrates asked Plato, “What is it exactly you want from me?” “Knowledge,” Plato answered, at which point Socrates abruptly grabbed Plato’s head and pushed him down under the water. After a half a minute or so Socrates let Plato up and asked him again, “What is it you want?” “Knowledge,” was again Plato’s answer, at which point Socrates shoved him back down under the water.

After a time, when Plato ran out of air, he began to struggle to get his head above the surface. He punched and kicked and grabbed to get free, but Socrates was a strong man and held him down. At the last moment before Plato blacked out, Socrates let him up and asked that same simple question, “What is it you want?” Plato coughed and spluttered finally responding, “Air! I need air!” Socrates calmly stated, “When you desire knowledge as much as you desired a breath of air, then you shall have it.”

Each year, we make our New Year’s resolutions, but really, how seriously are we about fulfilling them? I suppose that Plato could have made a resolution, “Be it resolved that I will gain true knowledge this year,” but as Socrates so politely pointed out to him, resolving to do something is quite a bit more than simply saying you want it. Truthfully, it’s really not a matter of wanting, who doesn’t want to lose weight or be a better a person? Perhaps the question should be, “What are you willing to sacrifice?” In the case of Plato, in order to truly have knowledge, Socrates said that he had to want it as much as he wanted air to breathe, as much as he wanted life itself. So what are you willing to sacrifice in order to fulfill your resolutions?

And I wonder, if you make a resolution to live healthier, regularly balance the checkbook, quit swearing and all that, have you ever made a resolution to God?  “Be it resolved that I will love the Lord my God more deeply.”  “Be it resolved that my life will be a witness to His love.”  “Be it resolved that I will work to fulfill my Baptismal Covenant.”  “Be it resolved that I will accept His forgiveness.” And if you make these resolutions to God, then how badly do you want them? What are you willing to sacrifice of yourself in order to fulfill them?

I resolve to love God as long as it’s convenient?  As long as it doesn’t really cost me anything?  I resolve to forgive others as I have been forgiven, except… except you know who!  I will seek to serve Christ in all persons, as long as they are like me.  I resolve to faithfully continue in the fellowship and the breaking of bread, as long as it fits in with my schedule. Or do you want these things as much as you want air to breathe? As much as you desire your very life?

You’ve made your resolutions to lose weight and all that, now make your resolutions to God and desire to fulfill them as much as you desire air to breathe? As much as Jesus desires you.

Sermon: Christmas Day

Candle burn

The first words of the bible are “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” then follows in very poetic words the account of the work of creation: light and darkness, sun, moon and stars, earth, land and sea, plants, animals, and finally humankind.  God’s creation.

The Gospel of John has an opening that sounds similar, “In the beginning…”  It is not the creation account that follows, but what was before even that, “In the beginning was the Word.”  Then follows another poetic passage about who the Word is and what he does.

But why is it that these verses are heard today?   It becomes clear when we read, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  These words are talking about the child in the manger.  They tell who this newborn child really is, a human child, but not only that.  His origins go back further and deeper than our own.  We are people begotten of men, but Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light” as the Nicene Creed tells us.  He is God’s own Son, who has become man, has taken on flesh, our mortal humanity, and has become one of us.

God became man – that is what we say about the Christ Child in the manger.  That is what today’s Gospel is talking about.  God becoming man and when he did, he brought with him the divine light that shines in the darkness, a light that turns every shadow and dark corner as bright as the noonday sun.

Why?  Because He knows that so often we wander around in darkness.  A darkness of sin, death, sickness, war, and much more.  That we can become lost in a world that is harsh and we don’t understand.  We look for answers when we don’t even know the questions.  This is why the Word became flesh.  Why God became man.  So that he might shine his divine light into the darkness of this world and into the darkness of our hearts, so that we might know joy and so that we all might find our way home to Him.

History records for us an interesting footnote.  It was during the dark winter of 1864.  At Petersburg, Virginia, the Confederate army of Robert E. Lee faced the Union divisions of General Ulysses S. Grant.  The war was now three and a half years old and the glorious charge had long since given way to the muck and mud of trench warfare.  Late one evening one of Lee’s generals, Major General George Pickett, received word that his wife had given birth to a beautiful baby boy.  Up and down the line the Southerners began building huge bonfires in celebration of the event.  These fires did not go unnoticed in the Northern camps and soon a nervous Grant sent out a reconnaissance patrol to see what was going on.  The scouts returned with the message that Pickett had had a son and these were celebratory fires.  It so happened that Grant and Pickett had been contemporaries at West Point and knew one another well, so to honor the occasion Grant, too, ordered that bonfires should be built.

What a peculiar night it was.  For miles on both sides of the lines fires burned.  No shots fired.  No yelling back and forth. No war fought.  Only light, celebrating the birth of a child.  But it didn’t last forever.  Soon the fires burned down and once again the darkness took over. The darkness of the night and the darkness of war.

The good news of Christmas is that in the midst of a great darkness there came a light, and the darkness was not able to overcome the light.  It was not just a temporary flicker.  It was an eternal flame.  We need to remember that.  There are times, in the events of the world and in the events of our own personal lives, that we feel that the light of the world will be snuffed out.  But the Christmas story affirms that whatever happens, the light still shines.

The theologian Robert Alden wrote, “There is not enough darkness in all the world to put out the light of even one small candle.”  That being true, then the divine light that was born in a manger in Bethlehem is more than adequate to eternally dispel the darkness of this world.

Furrow #429

josemaria-escriva

429: You have to learn to disagree charitably with others–whenever the need arises–without becoming unpleasant.  “Furrow” – St. Josemaria Escriva

Upon reading this, I immediately remembered The Rt. Rev. Jake Owensby’s piece on the topic:

The philosophers who inspired the Founding Fathers foresaw the threat that the majority could act in tyrannical ways.  Accordingly, our political forebears inscribed in our founding documents safeguards against the tyranny of the majority.

In addition to majority rule, democracy requires a loyal, gracious, and constructive minority.  Those of us in a minority are called to make a positive contribution to the solutions to the problems of the day in keeping with the will of the majority without sacrificing our integrity and our commitment to the truth.

Being a loyal, constructive minority is a difficult balancing act.  Politicians of the left and the right have served as poor models for this over the past decade or so.  Most of their energies have been devoted to devising strategies to gain majority status.  In other words, they exert their energies toward gaining power instead of finding ways to wield that power in service to the common good.

In the midst of it all, there is a severe lack of charity toward one another.  We do not simply disagree with one another, but find it necessary to attack in the harshest of terms.  Instead of simply disagreeing, we must put the foul-mouthed-idiotic-fascist-git in their proper place, which is without question somewhere beneath Dante’s ninth level of hell.  We forget that the person we have so denigrated was also – like us – created in the image of God.  We may disagree, but in the process we should demonstrate a little grace, charity, and if nothing else – class.

Furrow #115

esc115: Sometimes I think that a few enemies of God and his Church live off the fear of many good people, and I am filled with shame.  “Furrow” – St. Josemaria Escriva.

A few take Christ out of Merry Christmas.  A few take words out of context.  A few make laws for the many.  A few sow hate.  A few beat their plastic swords against their garbage can lid shields and we think that great armies have massed against us.  They are nothing.  They are clanging cymbals and noisy gongs.  Stand your ground.  There is nothing to fear.  “I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.”

Rabbi Barbara Block Visits St. Luke’s

St. Luke’s was pleased to welcome Rabbi Barbara Block of Congregation Beth Aaron to speak at our second Engaging Our World forum.  The topics were wide-ranging and insightful.  Below are a few pictures from Rabbi Block’s visit.

Rabbi Block

Rabbi Block and Fr John

Sermon: St. Thomas

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A football game has been described as eleven men in desperate need of a rest being criticized by thousands in need of some exercise.

In a similar fashion, as we sit in the comfort of our homes or in the pews and read through Holy Scripture, it is almost impossible not to find fault with the biblical characters and to criticize them.  Take for example poor old Thomas.  It is easy to understand why grade schoolers think his last name is Thomas and his first name is “Doubting.”  He gets a bad wrap, but is he really deserving of one?

Thomas is mentioned in all four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, but it is John’s gospel where he receives the most attention.  In John’s gospel he is first mentioned as Jesus is making plans to return to Judea where he would later raise Lazarus from the dead.  However, the disciples are concerned because it was in Judea that the Jews had tried to stone Jesus just a short time earlier.  Despite their concerns Jesus says, “Let us go to Judea.”  Then Thomas said to the rest of the disciples,  “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

If you can find a friend like this, don’t let them go.  Thomas in this situation is brave, loyal, and dedicated.  When the rest are “doubting,” Thomas is prepared to lay down his life for the Lord.

Later Jesus would cryptically explain to the disciples that he would be killed and be going to the Father.  He goes on to tell them that they know the way, yet Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”  Jesus goes on to explain that he is “the way and the truth and the Life.”

Thomas, in this case, by admitting that he did not know the way is demonstrating simple honesty in that he did not understand what Jesus was trying to tell them.  So, brave, loyal, dedicated honest, and now from today’s text… doubting.

When Jesus first appeared to the disciples, ten were there who saw and believed.  Thomas was not.  Thomas doubts.  The Lord appears again and Thomas is there and it is at this appearance that I believe Thomas redeems himself, because after laying eyes and possibly even his hands on the Risen Lord he makes a confession of faith regarding Jesus.  This confession is greater than what all the rest have said to this point.  Thomas declares, “My Lord and my God.”

Thomas doubted because he wanted to be certain of the facts.  He needed the truth for himself, not secondhand.  However,  once this certainty is established, Thomas commits himself fully to Jesus, declaring him to be Lord and God.

J.K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, received 12 rejection letters before she was picked up by Bloomsbury publishers and then only at the insistence of the CEO’s eight year old daughter.  Because of these perceived failures, should we forever refer to her as a hack?  Probably not.  By the same token, Thomas may have doubted, but to reduce him to the moniker “doubting” just doesn’t seem fitting.  However, if we must, let’s also include his other character traits as well: Brave.  Loyal.  Dedicated.  Honest.  Fully committed.  That’s more accurate than simply “doubting.”

Sermon: Proper 28 RCL C – "The Sky is Falling"

Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and, `The time is near!’ Do not go after them.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Our Lady of Martyrs Catholic Church has one of those signs out front where you can change the message each week.  Cumberland Presbyterian Church, directly across the street from their Catholic brothers and sisters, also has a similar sign.  Apparently this is true – the two signs got into a bit of a fight.  Week one: the Catholic sign said, “All dogs go to heaven.”  The following week the Presbyterian sign said, “Only humans go to heaven.  Read the Bible.”  The Catholics retorted the following week with, “God loves all his creatures, dogs included” and the Presbys fired back with, “Dogs do not have souls, this is not open for debate.”  Apparently the Catholics thought it was for they responded.  “Catholic dogs go to heaven.  Presbyterian dogs can talk to their pastor.”  Finding offense with this the Presbys shot back, “Converting to Catholicism does not magically grant your dog a soul.”  Thinking this not true, the Catholics  responded, “Free dog souls with conversion.”  The Presbyterians tried to change the subject, “Dogs are animals.  There aren’t any rocks in heaven either.”  And it would seem that the Catholics just like to argue.  Their final response, “All rocks go to heaven.”

I’m not sure about rocks, but all dogs go to heaven and even some cats.  But, that bit of bantering demonstrates that we have not solved all the mysteries of our Christian faith.  From whether dogs go to heaven, to the real presence in the Eucharist, to the very structure of the church; all of these things are constantly discussed.  Today’s Gospel brings up another such issue: The second coming of Christ, the end of days.

Folks have been waiting for the end of the world for a long time.. and no one has ever predicted it correctly, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying and it has stopped others from even trying to profit off of it.  Sure, there are all those books written on it, one particular item has caught my eye.  In big bold letters its advertisement begins, BE PREPARED FOR THE END TIMES!  It goes on to read, “Our Deluxe Survival Kit includes enough long-lasting, freeze-dried food to supply a family of four for three months, fifty gallons of pasteurized water, a completely stocked medical case, and a .357 magnum revolver in case your neighbors attempt to take advantage of your Christian foresight. — Tribulations Outfitters, Inc., Lawing, Utah.”  My goodness, hopefully nobody will accidentally shoot the Lord with their brand new .357 Magnum when he returns.

All that sounds a bit crazy, but as a Christian people, we do believe that Christ will return and when he does he will set all things right.  The old shall pass away and the Lord will create all things new.  So, is the time really near?  In our Gospel, Jesus gave us some very clear signs to watch for, so instead of speculating, let’s break these down a bit and see if we can come to a conclusion for ourselves.

First, Jesus speaks of the temple in Jerusalem where He and the all the other Jews came to worship.  It was a magnificent structure with some of the stones of the walls weighing up to 360 tons.  Jesus said that it will be destroyed.  Today, all that remains is the western wall, known as the Wailing Wall.  In the year 70 AD the Romans came in, wiped out Jerusalem, and completely destroyed the temple.  Ok, so “check” on the first sign.

What are the other signs?  False prophets will come in Jesus’ name declaring “I am he.  I am the Messiah.  I will save you.”  My goodness can you believe they are already lining up possible presidential candidates, all of which will solve all the world problems, not to mention that they will wash your windows too?  What about all the preachers promising happiness, health, and wealth?  Watch TV and you will be bombarded with advertisements that will tell you all about how you can take this drug or that one and live forever (provided you don’t succumb to one of the side effects such as death).. I don’t know that the one drug that will make your eyelashes grow longer will make you live longer, but at least during your lifetime you won’t be put to shame for having short eyelashes.  So “check” also on false prophets.

What about the wars?  Afghanistan, Pakistan, Peru, Sudan.  Presently there are over 40 active conflicts in the world with 12 of them being classified as “high intensity conflicts” because there are more than 1,000 causalities per year.  Those 12 have cause more than 3.5 million deaths.  Wars?  Check.

There will be great earthquakes.  Check.  Famines.  Plagues.  Check.  Check.  Dreadful portents and great signs in the heavens?  Well, toss in a good dose of global warming, increased sun spots, not to mention the occasional UFO and by golly we are batting a 1000!

As far as being arrested in Jesus name all I can say is don’t go preaching the gospel in too many foreign nations or you will find yourself in jail facing death.  When we look at all that we have a complete fulfillment of the signs, so today we can say with 100% confidence, “The end is near!”  Hope you are ready folks, because Jesus is coming back tomorrow!  

Or is he?  Hasn’t it been like this all along?  Haven’t there been wars, plagues, earthquakes, all of it?  Of course there have and this is just on a grand scale.  How many folks can claim for their own lives, “the end is near.”

Think of the head of a household.  Loses their job.  Can’t find work.  Bills adding up.  Bank threatening to foreclose.  Is the end near for them?  What about the person who has just been given X number of days to live.  Isn’t the end near for them?  Or the person driving down the street listening to Kenny G on the radio, not knowing that at the next intersection some drunken jerk will plow through the red light doing 70 miles an hour and is going to hit them broadside.  Is the end near for them?  Have I depressed you yet today?

No, I’m not making light of the end of days.  They will come and they will be dreadful.   As we say every week, “Christ has died.  Christ has risen.  Christ will come again.”  And scripture tells us, “In those days – when he comes again – men will seek death and will not find it; they will desire to die, and death will flee from them.”  People read this and it’s no wonder that they run through the streets with their hair on fire screaming, “The sky is falling!  The sky is falling!”  And in the process they miss the promise from God.  They miss the message of hope for those who love the Lord their God.  Following that litany of disasters in our gospel we read, “But not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  Not a hair of your head will perish.

Jesus says, “Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”  Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.”  St. Peter says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.”

When we consider the end of days, the second coming of Jesus, we are not to be focused on when it will occur; our focus, our daily concern should be – Am I prepared for it?  If it comes today, will I be ready?  If it comes in ten years, will I be ready?  Am I bringing my children and grandchildren up in the knowledge and love of the Lord so that they too, will be prepared?  Jesus says, “I will come like a thief in the night.”  Our concern is, on that night will he find us prepared?

There is a wonderful George Iles quote, “Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.”  Jesus says, When it seems the world is going to heck in a hand basket, when the darkness prevails, and the end of days are upon you, do not fear.  I am with you always and will take your hand and guide you through.