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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.