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.

Sermon: St. Simon & St. Jude

James Lloyd Breck was known as the Apostle to the Wilderness.  In the very early days of the church he traveled to foreign countries like Wisconsin and California.  In 1842 with two classmates, and under the direction of Bishop Jackson Kemper, he founded Nashotah House and was truly one of the great missionaries.

Many years later, on a gray autumn day in October of 1897, the missionary council of the Episcopal Church gathered at Nashotah House to lay to rest the remains of James Lloyd Breck.  In attendance were the students of the House, clergy, and several Bishops including, Bishop Daniel Sylvester Tuttle – The first missionary Bishop of Montana.  It was Bishop Tuttle that spoke the words at the graveside following Communion in St. Mary’s Chapel.  Bishop Tuttle said:

There was a Grecian race in which the runners were charged to care not for themselves, nor indeed for each other, but for the torch they bore.  As one and another, wearied and overcome fell by the way, he held aloft his torch, handing it to a comrade who seized it quickly and sped on.  So with the torch borne by the Christian man.  It has a triple flame, God’s truth, Christ’s love, men’s good.  We are to hold it up and pass it on.  One or another of us is soon to fall in the hard-trodden, dusty path.  But never mind us, it is dust to dust, though it may be sacred dust that falls, and God will take care of it.  Do not mind us; seize the torch, we pray you, and push on to the blessed goal.

Now, at this point you might be thinking to yourself, I thought we were celebrating the feast of Saints Simon and Jude not James Lloyd Breck the Apostle to the Wilderness, and you would be correct.  However, this statement of Bp. Tuttle’s seems to speak perfectly to these two obscure apostles: Simon we know as the Zealot, but we’re not quite sure why, and Jude who was surnamed Thaddeus.  After that, it’s all legend and speculation.  Honestly, we have no idea who these two were and it would not surprise me if that doesn’t please them immensely.

Simon and Jude were men who recognized that their lives were not their own.  They belonged entirely to God and the work of his Church.  They knew that it was not about them.  As Tuttle said, it was about the torch, the gospel message of Jesus Christ, and the blessed goal.

We should all be of this mindset, because it is not about us either – those made of that sacred dust – instead it is about the torch with its triple flame: God’s truth, Christ’s love, and men’s good.  We must learn to set aside our own agendas, desires and plans and to take up this torch that has been passed on from all the Simons and Judes, Marys and Theresas, and Brecks and Tuttles.  If we do so, then one day they will look back to us and say that we also seized the torch, held it high, and pushed on to the blessed goal.

St. Jude concludes his epistle by declaring: To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy– to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.

Throughout our very busy lives, let us always remember our first love and calling: to carry the torch and let the light of Christ illumine our every step and the world around us.

Sermon: St. James of Jerusalem

St. James by El Greco

St. James, he is called James the son of Zebedee, or James the brother of John, or James the Greater, or Boanerges, which means Son of Thunder, a nickname he and his brother earned after Jesus preached in a village which failed to hear his words at which point James and John turned and asked Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”  Personally, I like that kind of spirit in my apostles; however, just like them my way of thinking is not always pleasing to the Lord.

As with many of the early saints, there are some rather interesting stories of James.  One of my favorite miracles attributed to him tells how he brought back to life a boy who had been unjustly hanged, and had been dead for five weeks. The boy’s father was notified of the miracle while he sat at supper. The father pronounced the story nonsense and said his son was no more alive than the roasted bird on the table. Legend has it that at that moment the cooked bird promptly sat up, sprouted feathers, and flew away.  I’m tempted to try that the next time I’m at a Kentucky Fried Chicken!

The legends are fun, but it is Holy Scripture where we find the most accurate picture.  Scripture says,  “Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men.’  At once they left their nets and followed him.  Going on from there, Jesus saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.”

Immediately they left the boat.  Immediately.  I hear that and I have to wonder how I might respond.  Would I respond “immediately?”  If someone called to me and said, “Follow me,” I would probably reply, “Who are you?  Why?”  I would probably need to see a few more credentials, but after establishing it to be the Lord, would I continue to hesitate?

Remember the story of the prophet Samuel when he was called as a boy.  Samuel had been serving Eli.  One night after they had gone to bed Samuel here’s a voice calling to him.  Being a dutiful servant he runs to Eli saying, “Here I am.  Here I am, you called,” but Eli said that it wasn’t him and to go back to bed.  This happened two more times, but on the third time Eli realized that it was the Lord calling to the boy, so Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you again, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”  And this is what Samuel did and it was then that the Lord spoke to him clearly of his plans and the purpose he should fulfill.

For all of us, if the Lord calls to us by name or says, “Follow me,” we may all be a bit hesitant at first.  We may want to be certain of who it is calling first.  But like Samuel and James, once we determine that it is the Lord, we too must respond immediately.

James started as a fishermen, but when Jesus stepped into his life and called him, James became a fisher of men.  He heard the truth in the message of Christ and he immediately gave up everything, including – in the end – his very life for the sake of that call.

Sermon: Proper 24 RCL C – "Smacking God"

Luke 18:1-8

Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Ever wonder why vending machines have one of the craziest warning signs ever?  It reads – “Never Rock or Tilt: Machine can fall over and cause serious injury or death.”  I suppose that is a good thing to know while purchasing your ice cold Coca-Cola, but as it turns out, the warning is necessary.  It seems that a 19 year old college kid came home to his dorm drunk from a night of “binge drinking” and in a misguided attempt to steal a can of soda, rocked a 920-pound Coke machine and sent it tipping over upon himself.  In layman’s terms, he was squished and died following the accident.  This resulted in his relatives suing Coca-Cola and two other companies, in addition to the college, and winning damages to the tune of  $660,000, plus funeral expenses. They alleged that the machine was not secured and lacked any warning signs that it could tip over.

Now, I’ve never rocked or tipped a vending machine to try and get something for free out of it, but I have given one a good smack on occasion when it didn’t dispense what I paid for, especially if it’s getting between me and my peanut M&Ms.  We’ve all probably done something similar, but I can honestly say that my efforts have never been so violent as to tip the machine over, so I’ve never been in  danger of “serious injury or death.”

Even though it’s apparently an extremely dangerous piece of equipment, the vending machine does serve its purpose: immediate gratification to thirst or a nagging sweet tooth.  Pop in your quarters and – if all goes well – out pops your not so nutritious snack.  I’m not sure about the rest of the world, but for Americans it gives us immediate gratification.  No lines.  No waiting.  Here you go.

So, is it any wonder that we expect God to act in a similar manner?  We step up to God the Cosmic Vending Machine, pop in our prayers, and expect them to be answered.  I don’t have to ask if you’ve ever done that, because we all have.  “Dear God, _____.  Heal me.  Feed me.  Comfort me.  Take care of this.  Give me what I want.”  We have dutifully stood before the God the Cosmic Vending Machine.  We have popped in our prayers.  And we now hold out our hands waiting for God to produce.  To do his job, by golly!

When he doesn’t perform as expected, we might think that we didn’t put in enough money – enough prayers.  So we give it another shot.  “Dear God, _____.”  If God answers, then we are good.  Like the Samaritan leper from last week, we might remember to say, “Thanks,” but otherwise we go about our business.  However, if God doesn’t answer, several things could happen.

When the Cosmic Vending Machine doesn’t produce, some will hang their heads and walk away thinking that it must be broken.  Nothing in there anyways.  Others will look up to heaven and declare, “I didn’t expect you to do anything about it, anyways.”  And a very rare few will give it a good smack.  Shake it a bit.  Maybe even kick it a time or two and shout out, “Oy!  I’m talking to you!”  I might add that this is a good way to get squished.  However, our parable today speaks of another way.

The unjust judge was one who cared nothing for God and nothing for people.  He was all about himself and what was most convenient for him, yet in the case of the persistent widow he says to himself, “If I don’t give her what she wants she will just keep nagging and nagging and nagging and I’ll never get a moments peace.”  In response to this Jesus says, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  From a few weeks ago,  “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?  Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?”  Our Father in Heaven is trustworthy.  He will answer your prayer.  And, unlike the unjust judge, he doesn’t consider it nagging when you come to him time and time again.  But in the meantime, don’t go smacking him or walk away angry or sad if what you desire doesn’t pop out at a moments notice or doesn’t pop out at all, because sometimes what we ask for is not what we need –  “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?”  A true statement, but “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a snake, will give it to him?”  Not many, I would wager and neither will God.

The Apostle Paul writes, “in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”

When we go to God in prayer, we can be persistent in asking, but what we must also remember is that what we are asking for is not necessarily what we need.  It would in fact harm us even more – although I can assure you that if God let me win at Powerball, I would be a much better person – but in the meantime, from the time of asking and the time of receiving or not receiving we shouldn’t go smacking God around like a vending machine when it doesn’t dispense our M&Ms.  It is during this time that we must stand in faith, understanding that God is with us and that we must rely on him to provide in our weakness.  This is one of those major differences between that head faith and heart faith that we spoke of a few weeks ago – the head understands that God is always with us, but the heart grows weak when the emotions kick in.  We must understand that it is in those times that we are nearest to Christ Jesus and are in fact walking with him.

Consider these words of my favorite monk, Thomas a Kempis, “JESUS has always many who love His heavenly kingdom, but few who bear His cross. He has many who desire consolation – that is comforting in times of trouble – but few who care for trial. He finds many to share His table, but few to take part in His fasting. All desire to be happy with Him; few wish to suffer anything for Him. Many follow Him to the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the chalice of His passion. Many revere His miracles; few approach the shame of the Cross. Many love Him as long as they encounter no hardship; many praise and bless Him as long as they receive some comfort from Him. But if Jesus hides Himself and leaves them for a while” … if the cosmic vending machine doesn’t give them what they want then    “they fall either into complaints or into deep dejection” … they start smacking the machine … “Those, on the contrary, who love Him for His own sake and not for any comfort of their own, bless Him in all trial and anguish of heart as well as in the bliss of consolation. Even if He should never give them consolation, yet they would continue to praise Him and wish always to give Him thanks. What power there is in pure love for Jesus — love that is free from all self-interest and self-love!”

Our relationship with God is not about what we can get out of it.  It is a relationship based in love.  God is love and that love as Brennan Manning said in our study is a “magnificent monotony.”  It is never changing or failing.  We therefore must love him in good times and bad.  When we get what we want and when we don’t.  That is what the statement at the end of our gospel reading is speaking to, “Will God grant justice to his chosen ones?  Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them,” then Jesus adds, “And yet when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

When the Son of Man comes will he find us angry and smacking the Cosmic Vending Machine or will he find faith?  Will he find us grumbling and defeated  or will he find us trusting in him while persevering in our perceived trials?

At the end of the Prayers of the People there is always a concluding collect.  One of them reads: “Heavenly Father, you have promised to hear what we ask in the Name of your Son: Accept and fulfill our petitions, we pray, not as we ask in our ignorance, nor as we deserve in our sinfulness, but as you know and love us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

Bring your prayers to God.  Lay them at his feet everyday knowing in your heart and your mind that they are being answered.  Maybe not as you would like, but answered.  Answered and fulfilled in perfect love.

Sermon: St. Luke

St. Luke, by El Greco

It was last week during our Adult Sunday School program that we were discussing Patron Saints.  It was noted that the naming of churches, St. Andrew’s, St. Theresa’s,  St. Luke’s, etc., were originally based on the relics of the particular saint which were entombed in the altar of a particular church.  Later, there would be numerous guidelines established, but many times churches were given the saint’s name which corresponded with the date they were consecrated.  For example if a church was consecrated on November 30th, it would often be given the name “St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church”, because that is the feast day of St. Andrew.  What I found curious about the naming of our church, St. Luke’s, is that our church has nothing to do with relics in the altar or the feast day of St. Luke, which is Friday.  However, the reason we are called St. Luke’s is noted in our history.

From February 14, 1886: The first morning and evening services were held in the new building at 1st Ave. South and South 29th Street. The initial subscription for building the mission was $1,200. A generous gift of several hundred dollars was received from members of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church of Rochester, New York. In appreciation, the Episcopalians of Billings named their new church in honor of this eastern parish.

We are named in honor of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Rochester, New York, which for the record still exists, but has been named The Episcopal Church of St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene, after two Episcopal Churches there were combined.  Yesterday, after learning all this, I wrote to the rector of the church in Rochester and told him “Thank You” for their original support, that we were doing well, and blessings to them and their work.  He in turn had no idea either, but was delighted all the same to learn of it.

History can be fun.  I can track my own personal history through Montana, Texas, Louisiana, with a brief stint in Wisconsin.  My family history can be followed through the deep south and Texas, but further back you will encounter a few Irish, some English, a bit of French and even Cherokee.  Before that, I’m not real sure except for one little piece and that one little piece is the same for all of us – no, I’m not going to track our history through Adam and Eve.  This history has nothing to do with nationalities or skin tones.  Instead, it has to do with who we all were as members of the human race.  Quoting Isaiah, Jesus outlines part of our common history: 

“’The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In our common history, we all were once the captive, the blind, and the oppressed, but through Christ we are the rich.  We have been released.  Given sight.  Freedom.  Paul states it clearly in his letter to the Galatians, “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Through Christ we have been freed from our “history” – those things that in the past that separated us from God – and given new life in Him.

The history of our church, our families, the nations are all very interesting, but our true and eternal history cannot be discovered in history books or genealogies.  To know your true and eternal history, you must look to God and his actions in the world and your life. By doing so, not only will you discover your history, but you will also know your true and eternal future.

Sermon: Proper 22 RCL C – "Head or Heart?"

Luke 17:5-10

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, `Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”

A man named Johnny was walking along a steep cliff one day when he accidentally got too close to the edge and fell. On the way down he grabbed a branch, which temporarily stopped his fall. He looked down and to his horror saw that the canyon fell straight down for more than a thousand feet. He couldn’t hang onto the branch forever, and there was no way for him to climb up the steep wall of the cliff.

So Johnny began yelling for help, hoping that someone passing by would hear him and lower a rope or something. “HELP! HELP! Is anyone up there? HELP!”  He yelled for a long time, but no one heard him. He was about to give up when he heard a voice.  “Johnny, Johnny. Can you hear me?”  “Yes, yes! I can hear you. I’m down here!”  “I can see you, Johnny. Are you all right?”  “Yes, but who are you, and where are you?”  “I am the Lord, Johnny. I’m everywhere.”  “The Lord? You mean, GOD?”  “That’s Me.”  “God, please help me! I promise if, you’ll get me down from here, I’ll stop sinning. I’ll be a really good person. I’ll serve You for the rest of my life.”  “Easy on the promises, Johnny. Let’s get you off from there, then we can talk.”  “Now, here’s what I want you to do. Listen carefully.”  “I’ll do anything, Lord. Just tell me what to do.”  “Okay. Let go of the branch.”  “What?”  “I said, let go of the branch.  Just trust Me. Let go.”  There was a long silence, Finally Johnny yelled, “HELP! HELP! IS ANYONE ELSE UP THERE?”

It would seem that Johnny was lacking a key ingredient with his new found relationship with God: faith.  As Christians we speak of faith all the time.  When things are going wrong folks always say, “just have a little faith.”  It has got to be in the top ten sermon topics for priest.  You can’t even read the bible without running into discussions on it.  The words of Paul, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  In other words, everyone who has faith in Jesus will be saved.

In our Gospel, Jesus speaks of faith, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” 

So if everyone is talking about it, then what is it?  What is faith?

Paul says, “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.  This is what the ancients were commended for.  By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”  That’s nice.  Everybody understand faith now?  Maybe we should break it down a bit more.

Faith is believing in what we cannot see, but it comes in two different varieties, C. S. Lewis broke it down for us as “head faith” and “heart faith” and it is best broken down in an example:  Head faith, Lewis says, is when he goes in for a surgery.  He can trust the anesthesiologist because he understands through the intellect the workings of the body they’ll put the mask over his face, start pumping in the gas that will put him to sleep, and after he is asleep – and only then – will the surgeon begin the operation and the cutting.  Because he is deeply asleep he knows that he will experience no pain.  The intellect is sound, right up to the point when they lay him on the table and actually put the mask on him.  It is then that his emotions, his “heart faith,” takes over.  Fear kicks in and his heart says, “Oh my goodness what if this doesn’t work?”  “What if I’m not asleep when they start slicing into me?”  “What if I can feel everything, but can’t tell them?”  The head was good, but the heart took over and left him a nervous wreck.

The same is true in our Christian walk.  When all is well with us our faith is strong, but when we find ourselves hanging off a cliff with a thousand foot drop below and only an invisible voice in our heads saying, “Trust me,”  then our emotions ramp up and our heart begins to doubt.  We begin to doubt.  “Is God really out there,” we whisper to ourselves.

There is a dramatic difference between the head and the heart when it comes to believing in what we cannot see.  Deciding which one will rule our souls – head or heart – will also make a dramatic difference in our Christian walk.  We came across this passage last week in our Wednesday night study of the Ragamuffin Gospel: “If a random sample of one thousand American Christians were taken today, the majority would define faith as belief in the existence of God.  In earlier times it did not take faith to believe that God existed – almost everybody took that for granted.  Rather, faith had to do with one’s relationship with God – whether one trusted in God.  The difference between faith as ‘belief in something that may or may not exist’ and faith as ‘trusting in God’ is enormous.  The first is a matter of the head, the second a matter of the heart.  The first can leave us unchanged, the second intrinsically brings change.”

If head faith is greater than heart faith, then how do we go from one to the other?  How do we go from remaining the same, to being transformed in Christ?  It is a matter of rephrasing that simple question.  Instead of asking, “Do you believe in God?” ask, “Do you trust in God?”

“HELP! HELP! IS ANYONE ELSE UP THERE?”  No, there’s not.  Trust in Him.  The Psalmist says to the Lord: “The Lord is trustworthy in all he promises and faithful in all he does.”  And what does the Lord promise?  Do this for me… Turn to page 779 of your Book of Common Prayer.  What does the Lord promise?  Let’s say together Psalm 121:

I lift up my eyes to the hills; *
    from where is my help to come?
My help comes from the LORD, *
    the maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved *
    and he who watches over you will not fall asleep.
 Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel *
    shall neither slumber nor sleep;
 The LORD himself watches over you; *
    the LORD is your shade at your right hand,
 So that the sun shall not strike you by day, *
    nor the moon by night.
 The LORD shall preserve you from all evil; *
    it is he who shall keep you safe.
 The LORD shall watch over your going out and
                              your coming in, *
    from this time forth for evermore.

Have faith in your head.  Stop simply believing and start trusting, for the Lord himself watches over you.

Sermon: The Holy Guardian Angels

In 1986 Billy Graham wrote a book about angels. In it he recounts a most amazing story. John Paton was a missionary in the New Hebrides islands. One night the warriors from one of the local tribes surrounded the mission headquarters, planning to burn the Patons out and kill them. As you can imagine, John Paton and his wife were terrified, and prayed all through the night that God would save them. When daylight came they were astonished to see the warriors leave without attacking them.
A year later the chief of the tribe became a Christian. During the course of their conversations John Paton asked the chief about that night. What had kept the warriors from burning down the house and killing them?  The chief answered this question with a question of his own, “Who were all those men you had there with you?”  Paton replied, “There was no one other than my wife and I,”  The chief strongly disagreed.  He told Paton that he and his warriors had seen hundreds of men standing guard around the mission headquarters, men with shining clothes, holding drawn swords.
If you have ever been to the beach you’ve seen the seagulls as they run back and forth as the waves come crashing along the shore.  You’ve probably also seen young children imitating the seagulls, running back and forth trying outdistance the incoming waves.  If you run out too far, then you get soaked.  If you stay high on the beach… well.. where’s the fun in that.  However, at just about any given point during the day there is a certain distance that if you just stand there, on occasion, the waves will sometimes come up just enough to touch your feet, but most times they come up short.
Now, picture if you will that you are standing in that perfect spot, but instead of the waves being the ocean they are heaven.  It is the power of God working around you.  As you stand there you always know that it is very near.  It’s currents and waves are working powerfully around you all the time.  You can hear it and sense it.  Occasionally it seems to recede from you, while at other times it draws very near, but then there is that occasion when you “Know” deep down inside that heaven has actually touched you.
In the story of John Paton and his wife, like a wave on the seashore, for a brief time heaven touched them.  The angels could actually be seen guarding the missionaries through that dangerous night.  These waves of heaven happen all the time, but when we “know” that we have been touched we call them miracles.
How do these miracles occur?  The most honest answer: It’s a mystery.  But there are three ways that I believe they come about.  The first is through God acting directly.  At the wedding in Cana of Galilee, it was Jesus – God – who turned the water into wine.  God acted directly.  Second, miracles come about through his angels, his messengers, like in the story of the missionaries.  Throughout Holy Scripture we are told of the works of the angels, bringing messages such as the one to the Blessed Virgin; but it is also implied that we each have a guardian angel, for Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.”  It is these guardians that we celebrate today and many times their actions also bring about miracles – touches from heaven.
So miracles come about through God’s direct action and his angels, but I would suggest to you that the third source of many of God’s miracles is you.  Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”  Jesus says, that we too can perform miracles.
Miracles are mysteries as are the angels of God, but when you witness a miracle consider the source.  Was it God or was it the person standing next to you.  If neither of those two sources seem fitting, then consider the words of St. Paul, “Let brotherly love continue.  Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unknowingly entertained angels.”

Sermon: Proper 19 RCL C – "Tax Collectors and Sinners"

Luke 15:1-10

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Bishop Daniel Sylvester Tuttle, the first missionary Bishop of Montana, writes about the winter of 1867-68 that he spent in Virginia City.  He loved the people, but felt oppressed by what he described as the prayerlessness and godlessness.

For example, he had Sunday School teachers, of them he writes, there was “a Quaker, a Baptist, and two Methodists.. and one ‘churchman.’”  Even though these were the best he had, one of the these was an absolute drunk and another was a habitual gambler.  The vestry was worse, he writes, “Of the vestry of St. Paul’s church which we got together, one vestryman, high in civil office, got into an altercation with a lawyer over some matters retailed by gossip, and would have shot him dead had not a friend near by struck up the pistol.  One was a Unitarian.  Another, the most godly of them all, and the one on whom I most leaned for Christian and churchly earnestness, became involved in a dispute, and missed, by the smallest margin, the fighting of a duel.  Still another was an appallingly steady drinker.”  In early February he wrote to his wife saying… “Before I went to choir meeting Major Veale, my only faithful churchman here, called.  He and I are putting our heads together about the election of a new vestry at Eastertide.  We mean to cut down the number from nine to seven.  We mean to throw out at least drunkards and violent swearers.  Aside from him the other six, at the best, will have to be Unitarians, moderate drinkers and decent world’s men.”  Now if that was the Sunday School teachers and Vestry, then can you imagine what the rest of the church must have looked like?

The church is an interesting creature.  We would all like to think that it is entirely made up of saints and angels, but like Bishop Tuttle discovered this is far from reality.  On any given day you can look at the church and see the glory of God or the scandals that threaten to bring it down.  As Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Caterbury states, “The Church is not the society of those labeled virtuous.  It is the mixed community of sinners called to be saints.”  So, in the Church, there are days when we can all say with Shakespeare, “Hell is empty and all the demons are here.”  

Thing is, it has been this way from the very beginning.  At one point in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is debating with the leaders of the infant Church.  At issue is the fact that these leaders do have faith in Christ – they are Christians – but they are also Jews as were almost all of Jesus early followers.  However, because they are Jews, they have not abandoned the idea that the followers of Jesus must also be followers of the Law of Judaism, part of which was the requirement of circumcision for the men.  The leadership asked Peter, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”  This may not sound like much to us today, but back then it was a very big deal.  They are asking him, “Why are you associating with sinners?!”  

In our Gospel reading today, we have the same problem.  “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”  At another time Jesus will be seen eating and drinking with similar types, and the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”  If these same religious leaders had been around Bishop Tuttle they would have asked, “Why do you hang around drunkards and violent swearers.  And by the way, what’s up with that vestry?”   However, Jesus answers them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”  Jesus ate and drank with sinners, because they were the ones who were in need of repentance.  They were the ones who needed salvation.  

You and I also share a meal with each other every week.  We bless the bread and the wine and it becomes for us the Body and Blood of Christ.  But did you know, when you come forward to the Lord’s altar and share in that heavenly banquet, like Jesus, Peter and the other Apostles, like Bishop Tuttle and all the rest, that you are also sharing a meal with sinners?  Did you know that each and everyone of us who comes to this altar is in need of that salvation?  Each of us – comes to this meal – not because we are saints, but because we are sinners in need of redemption.  In need of forgiveness.

You all probably know that each summer I have the opportunity to go to Camp Marshall and serve as the Chaplain of Grace Camp, a camp for 3rd through 8th graders who have a parent in prison.  Each year we have some returning campers from the previous years, but we also have new campers who are unsure of their surroundings or even why they were chosen for that specific camp.  It was in my second year serving that I decided to start the camp off a bit differently.  Instead of tap dancing around the issue that they all had a parent in prison, I just came out and said it, “You are a part of this camp because everyone of you has either your mom or your dad in prison.”  No sugarcoating.  No hiding the elephant in the middle of the room.

At first, some of the kids were horror struck.  Looks of shock.  Embarrassment.  Some looks of anger were shot up at me – even by some of the counselors, but then it began to register: we ALL have a parent in prison?  I don’t have to hide this??  I am free from the stigma and the labels that are associated with this?  You mean to tell me that I can come here, be a kid and have fun?  And I get to answer, “Yes!” 

The Church – OUR Church – is quite similar.  Like those kids, we all have something that we hide.  Something that we would rather others not know about us, but the truth is unavoidable: we are all sinners in need of redemption and forgiveness.  Each and every one of us… Period.  We can’t act like the Pharisees during the time of Jesus, because we are the tax collectors and sinners.  There’s not a one of us who can get to thinking we’re any better than another, because we’re not.

By knowing and understanding this, we become like those kids at Grace Camp or those tax collectors and sinners who sat at Jesus’ table or those drunkards and violent swearers that were on Bishop Tuttle’s vestry; we no longer have to feel as though there is some stigma or label on us, as though we were the only sinner in the church.  By knowing and understanding this, we can no longer say to ourselves, “I’m not good enough for this.”  Nor can we say that someone is not good enough for us.  There was one of those funny cartoons that recently got passed through cyberspace.  It showed the fracturing and divisions of the church throughout history.  From one church, to hundreds of denominations and schisms – for the record, it is now estimated that there are 41,000 different Christian denominations throughout the world.  However, while pointing at one of the fractions the teacher declares to the students, “And this is where our church came along and finally got the Bible right,” to which one of the students replies, “Jesus is so lucky to have us!”  NO!  Jesus is not lucky to have us, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  Knowing and understanding this – that we are all tax collectors and sinners – gives us a freedom to be true to God and to one another.  As my friend Heidi, the Dean of the Cathedral, said: it helps us to understand that we are all in the “pig sty” together and all in need of God’s saving grace.

I said earlier that the Church is a very interesting creature.  She has some tremendous moments of glory and others of absolute disgrace.  From Jesus to Peter to Bishop Tuttle to us today, the Church has always been this way and until the day of the Lord’s coming, it will always be, for the Church is the meeting place between a very Holy God and very sinful man, which can make for a very messy business.  Yet, what we must not forget is that at the heart of this meeting place is the God who became man, Jesus, and it is through Him that all of our messy business is redeemed.