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Friday, February 27, 2009

Let the Fast Begin

(This post is my sermon from Ash Wednesday Services at Peoria, Feb. 25, 2009)

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10
Gospel: St. Matthew 6:1-6, 18-21

The first Sunday of Lent in 1983, I was asked to speak at an evening Lenten service of the campus Church at Findlay College. My subject was Fasting, since Lent is the traditional season for fasting for Christians.

In the congregation was Prof. Richard Kern, who taught History and Religion at the college. Prof. Kern was a minister in the college's sponsoring denomination and had been for quite a while.

After my sermon, as people were mingling, Prof. Kern approached me to chat. We talked for a little while and then he said something I've never forgotten. He said: "In nearly 30 years of ministry, this is the first sermon I've ever heard on fasting."

I was dumbfoundedly humbled and curious about why that would be. How could a man be in ministry for so long - how could he teach Religion for so long - and yet never hear a message about Fasting?

The interesting thing about fasting in the New Testament is that it’s not something that’s commanded – it’s something that’s assumed. Prayer and fasting are a duet that plays continually throughout the Bible, a melody offered to God by His faithful people.

Why is it that we pray so little and fast even less? I think part of it is because we don't really understand the importance of fasting. Often we have a hard time getting our hearts around the whole idea of prayer. To add "Fasting" seems nearly impossible.

Fasting has several dynamics that make it important for Christians:

1) Physical control
St. Paul states in several spots in the New Teatament: “I beat my body into submission” (in so many words). Taking charge of and being responsible for our physical being is a direct benefit of fasting.
* Do we control our bodies or do we allow our bodies to control us?
* Do we view our bodies as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit or do we keep the Holy Spirit as a guest, occasionally visiting and not really at home?
* Fasting is also a means toward physical health that God intends for us by allowing our bodies to find balance from the excesses we often put them through.

2) Personal discipline
* As much as we appreciate the ideal of personal freedom, we don’t do well with it. Left to our own devices, we come to self-ruin and a life of regret. We become ‘gods’ unto ourselves with little use or need for the One God.
* Without personal discipline, we become our own standard of our own lives, with little sense of a common 'right and wrong'. This is the issue in the Old Testament Book of Judges: after the Hebrews spent years on a roller coaster of good and evil leadership, the Book concludes somewhat fataliztically: “every man did that which is right in his own eyes.”
* Personal discipline restrains our own desires in order to allow a sense of community with others. If we're only out for ourselves, what kind of world can we possibly hope to live in? Fasting is a simple, basic way of practicing personal discipline.

3) A matter of social justice
Isaiah 58 explains to us "the kind of fasting the Lord has chosen":
- to loose the chains of injustice
- to untie the cords of the yoke
- to set the oppressed free
- to share your food with the hungry
- to provide the poor with shelter
Why would this be something God is concerned about? I believe it's because fasting helps us to see people in the way God sees them (and us). Fasting brings about a means for understanding ourselves:
- in Christ, our chains of injustice have been loosed
- in Christ, our yoke of bondage to sin has been untied
- in Christ, we are set free from oppression
- in Christ, we share the Bread of Heaven
- in Christ, we find shelter from the storms of life

4) A matter of personal and spiritual integrity
All that “secrecy” the Lord talks about in Matt. 6 has a point: secrecy in giving,
secrecy in prayer, secrecy in fasting. The old adage is certainly true: "Your true character is seen in who you are when no one else is around.”

God sees the heart. He knows who we are on the inside, what makes us tick. God knows that public, conspicuous giving leads to pride. He knows that public, conspicuous praying leads to Phariseeism. He knows that public, conspicuous fasting leads to self-satisfaction.

Why a “Lenten Fast”?
The Church is a community – there are things we do together. We work together on orojects, committees, and helping others. We fellowship together. We worship together. We pray together. Why not ‘fast together’?

Lent recalls the history of the Bible and the Church. The 40 days remind us of
- the 40 days of flooding when God established the Covenant with Noah
- the 40 years of wandering in Sinai when God established the Covenant with Moses
- the 40 years of the reigns of King Saul, King David, King Solomon
- the 40 days of fasting the Lord undertook after His Baptism

The 40 days Lent remind us that the Church has always had group and personal discipline. In the early Church, Lent was a preparation time for Baptism. They used the time as a special teaching time for children. Importantly, Lent was a time for reconciliation for Church members who have lapsed. (We still see a remnant of this reconciliation practice in 'Forgiveness Sunday', the first Sunday of Lent.)

If you're out of practice, how do you begin a Lenten fast?

1) Self examination and reflection – asking God’s help
Tonight’s service: Prayers together that exalt the Lord
Time to pray the Lord’s Prayer in a reflective manner
Personal confession before God, privately
Affirmation of our Faith in the Nicene Creed
Participation in the Body of Christ through Communion

2) Ask yourself: What will honor the Lord?
Remember the Gospel: Fasting and prayer are for God alone to see. No selfish motives: not fasting to lose weight or fit into a dress, and not to draw attention to yourself

3) Ask: What does God want you to do?
If we can try to discern what God wants for us in a small matter like fasting, we will learn the spiritual skills for understanding His Will for us
Early Church Tradition – fast from foods: meat, cheese, dairy, eggs, fish
Western tradition – fast from meat, then meat on Fridays, then meat on Fri. in Lent only
Bible: Fasting usually referred to abstaining from food
What are you unwilling to surrender? This is probably what you should fast from. Ask the Lord how can you turn it over to Him?

4) Be realistic. Accept this as a discipline with joy. Find a way to redeem it. Karen and I have a friend who fasted from chocolate each Lent and gave the money to Church. Some sacrifice a meal out each week and giving the money to a mission. Remember that discipline is corrective, not frustrating – what will help provide correction you need?

Ash Wednesday is a time to start –
- we are beginning together
- we are here for one another
- we will grow in our faith together as we look forward again to a Holy Easter

So, let the fast begin!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Last Judgment

The picture above is of the shrine built on the Island of Patmos, where St. John received the Revelation of Jesus Christ (now the last book of the New Testament). Patmos is located in the Aegean Sea, off the coast of what is now Turkey.

Epistle: I Corinthians 8:8-9:2
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

I have to confess: I take advantage of God's grace.

Some people might say I'm overly self-critical (and they would be right). I know that I'm a master at second-guessing myself and I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking that things might have been different if I'd only done 'this' instead of 'that'.

I take advantage of God's grace in the same way I take advantage of the fact that there are too few deputies on the county back roads: I drive faster than I should, hedging my bets that I won't get caught.

I take advantage of God's grace by overlooking aspects of my own life that I think God would over look, too. How bad can a short burst of temper be compared to all the abortions being committed in the world? So what if I swear under my breath; at least I don't have a meth lab in my basement. Why would God care that I waste material things? He most certainly cares more about the sweatshop women and children that make them.

Maybe you're in the same boat as I am. You and I wouldn't be alone. In our culture we have a tendency to wink at sin. We want to permit things to happen because we know that we want the same leniency given to us.

This general tendency in our lives makes it difficult for us to cope with one of the most certain tenets of the Christian faith: "He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead."

This is the last of the three-Sunday season before Lent (called the "Triodion") and it is called Sunday of the Last Judgment. The first two Sundays are shining examples of the grace of God: the account of the Pharisee and the Publican and the parable of the Prodigal Son. And now, seemingly out of nowhere, comes the narrative of the Last Judgment.

These three passages are actually a perfect match. People like me, who take advantage of God's grace, need a reminder that there comes a time when the rubber meets the road. God isn't some sort of divine enabler, permitting us to go on indefinitely in our self-destructive behaviors.

This is actually the message of the parables of the Pharisee and Publican and Prodigal Son, as well. The unspoken story line of the former is the fact that the Publican had come to a place in his life where he needed to repent. The parable compares his attitude with that of the self-righteous Pharisee, but the truth is that somehow, somewhere, he got to a place in his life where he begged the Lord: "God, have mercy upon me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13). Likewise, the Prodigal Son finds himself covered with the consequences of sin before he finally rehearsed his petition: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son" (Luke 15:21).

No one likes to be judged. No one wants to face the consequences of what we do (or don't do). Everyone would like to believe themselves to be their own moral and spiritual standard and, as such, there is no room for anyone else to judge us.

In this sense, we are exactly like the sheep or the goats in today's Gospel reading. There is very little difference in the general composition of sheep and goats. They may have marks or body structures that set them apart from each other, but essentially they are exactly the same as every other sheep or goat.

They eat. They bleat. They herd. They breed. They give milk.
They taste good when roasted with some savory herbs.

Sheep and goats can't judge one another's actions because they feel no moral or spiritual obligation for one another. In fact, sheep are so self-consumed that they will run from a predator as a herd until one is caught, then watch as the predator consumes the caught animal. No ovine relief effort is mounted. No special offerings collected for the orphaned lambs. No awards for volunteer sheep hours served. As animals, they have no will to choose their own way or God's way.

The context for the Last Judgment is aptly put among sheep and goats. First, we see that the sheep and goats have no idea of when the judgment will come. Second, we see that they have little understanding of the reasons for judgment. And third, they are not judging one another; this is left to the Shepherd.

A quick reminder: The account of the Sheep and Goats is the end of a private session the Lord conducts with His Disciples that begins in Matthew 24:3, in response to a question from them. "What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" Christ is clear through the rest of Chapter 24 than no one will know when the judgment comes, only that it will come.

When we know judgment is coming, we prepare. I have worked in the health care field long enough to know that when a state survey is expected, there is a tendency to 'straighten up and fly right'. Even at Timbercrest, where I work, and where we have deficiency-free surveys consistently, there is a mild anxiety that settles in, knowing that we'll be inspected at at any moment. Records are re-read to be sure they're in order. T's are crossed and i's are dotted, just to be sure we're ready.

In the public schools, knowing that ISTEP testing is coming, the unfortunate trend has been to 'teach to the test'. But who can blame them? When we know that 'judgment' is coming, we get ready for it.

The Lord has higher expectations of us. We are not told when the judgment will come because His expectation is that we should be ready for it at any time. We are told to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, not to wait until we know He's coming, then do it. We are told to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, not to wait until we meet them in the line on judgment day.

Judgment may come to us in two ways. The first, as the Gospel tells us, is at the Last Judgment, a day and time unknown in the future, when all of humanity is judged by God. This final judgment is what St. John the Apostle witnessed in his Revelation of Jesus Christ. This day has been anticipated by Christians from the first century to today. It is the day we anticipate in hymns like this one:

When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound,
And time shall be no more,
And the morning breaks eternal bright and fair;
When the saved of earth shall gather
Over on the other shore,
And the roll is called up yonder, I'll be there!

The second means of judgment somes to us at Death. As St. Paul tells us in Hebrews, "Just as man is destined to die once and after that to face the judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him" (Heb. 9:27, 28).

This 'destiny' for death (or, as the King James Version puts it, our "appointment" with death), is something we simply can't put off. Try as we might, death awaits each of us, and an account will be given before God of what we've done with our days, who we've become in the course of our years.

The time of arrival at our destination is only known to God, only to be determined by Him. This is a significant part of the reason that abortion, murder, suicide, and other man-made ways of taking another's life are wrong. If we take matters into our own hands in creating death for another, we assume a role that belongs uniquely and sovereignly to God.

What would you do to change your walk with Christ if you knew He was coming tonight? Why wait until judgment? Make the changes now, and live prepared to meet Him.

A second aspect about the Last Judgment is that the sheep and goats have little understanding of the reasons for judgment. After the Shepherd has pulled His sheep to His right and has blessed them for their lives, they still ask, "When did we do these things?" Likewise, after the goats on His left are condemned to eternal punishment, they ask the same thing, "When didn't we do these things?"

One of the nicknames that I have hoped to try and shake some day is "Instant-judgment Daniels." I often jump to conclusions about people based on their behavior or their outer appearance or their apparent lack of common sense or their inability to agree with me. I have criteria for judging people that is usually petty and insensitive.

God's judgment is based on compassion, love, grace and care. In Matt. 25:34-36, we read that God cares for the hungry, the homeless, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. God doesn't ask us to analyze or rationalize how people got hungry, or homeless, or naked, or sick or in prison. He simply cares that we care.

I believe the reason for this is that short-sighted human judgment comes when we begin to worry about how people get to where they are in life.
"She'd have enough food if she didn't waste her money on cigarettes." Perhaps cigarettes are her coping mechanism for a lifetime of abuse and her emotions trump her stomach.
"If he'd quit gambling he'd have enough to pay his rent." Maybe desperate life circumstances drove him to gamble in the first place. His plant closed. He was robbed. His family fell apart.
"They deserve to be in there for what they did." In truth, don't we all deserve punishment for the things we've done wrong?

God asks us to leave the affairs of the lives of others to Him. It is up to us to demonstrate His love and compassion to people, regardless of their circumstances.

Like the sheep and the goats, we may not understand this rationale about God's judgment, until we realize that we are subject to it as well. Are you (and I) willing to be subject to the judgment of others? Shouldn't we be more willing, more hopeful, in leaving our lives in the hands of God's goodness and compassion.

Finally, it's important to note that the sheep and goats aren't judging one another. That is left to the Shepherd. As I mentioned earlier, sheep and goats (and other animals) are remarkably self-absorbed. Even the most altruistic of animals - our pets - have to be trained to be so. And, given the chance, they'll fend for themselves every time.

I heard a speaker about 22 years ago talking about Christians in their role as servants. He said something I've never forgotten: "When we are busy serving our fellow man, we don't have time to judge him."

To me, this is one of the kernels of Christian faith. Of all the descriptive metaphors used of the Lord's disciples, not one of them is as a judge of anything. We are branches of the vine, servants (faithful and unfaithful), stones in His temple, etc. But we are never in a place of judgment.

Sheep in a meadow would only be able to judge other sheep in their same meadow because they have not been in any other meadow. Their perepective of the lives of other sheep is myopic, skewed only to how the other sheep in the meadow have treated them. Who got to the good clover first? Who stood where in the snow and rain? Who has what number on their ear tag?

It takes a shepherd to keep the fences mended, the wolf at bay, the hay stocked and stacked. It takes a shepherd to be aware of the conditions outside the meadow and to prepare his flock for them. It takes a shepherd to tend sheep that are ill or metastasized or orphaned or hungry, because won't - and can't - do it for each other.

Likewise, Jesus Christ in His place as Judge at the Last Day is the One Whose perspective sees beyond our own life's 'meadow'. He understands us and why other sheep may get the good clover before us. He sees when we're left standing outside the sheep pen in the rain and he knows how or why it happened. He sees 'wolves' that we are completely unaware of because we are so pre-occupied with our own concerns.

As we prepare to keep a meaningful and holy Lent, keep in mind God's Judgment. However you observe Lent - with fasting or abstinence, with added devotion or discipline - remember that your Shepherd is Jesus Christ and He has great compassion and care for you.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Prodigal Son

On the Orthodox calendar, Sun., Feb. 15 was the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. This is my sermon from that morning. The icon above depicts the joyful return of the son to his compassionate father.

Epistle: I Corinthians 6:12-20
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32

The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most popular of Jesus Christ's teachings. Who among us hasn't found ourselves at one time or another in the position of the prodigal? Or the older brother? Or the forgiving father? Who among us hasn't hoped for a home to go to when our lives have fallen apart? Who hasn't opened our hearts with forgiveness to someone who is truly sorry?

The Lord's words in this parable are so applicable to our human nature. Maybe more importantly, the parable reveals more about God's nature and mystery.

God is the Lord of grace and forgiveness. We may not see that sometimes. In truth, we may look at the Old Testament and think otherwise. Was it a God of grace Who...
...expelled Adam and Eve from Eden?
...witnessed the murder of Abel and cast Cain into the wilderness?
...destroyed the earth in Noah's flood?
...ransacked Canaan with Joshua's armies?
To read the history of the Hebrews and their Jewish descendants is to wonder where God's grace and forgivenss can be found.

There are a lot of people who think this way. They see violence and injustice, despair and disease, and ask: "How can a God of love allow all this to happen?"

I'm not here to defend God because God needs no defense. He is Who He is. In the parable of the prodigal son, the Lord gives us reason to believe and an avenue to understand that He is truly the God of grace, forgiveness, and love. Jesus Christ reveals this to us, not as a defense, but as a gift.

The obvious mysteries revealed are that God accepts the repentant sinner and celebrates his return home. God gives freely to His children because they are His children, not because of their merits. God allows us to squander the gifts of life because He knows we'll discover life's true value in Him. These are the obvious lessons and they are enough for us to ponder for a long time.

However, there is more. If we settle for the obvious, we will miss the subtle, nuanced, and priceless mysteries of God's nature.

Consider the fact that the father in the parable loves equally both the repentant son and the son who never left. His estate was permitted to go to both sons, not because one was good or the other was promiscuous, but because they were both his sons. His estate was for both.

You who are parents, don't you think the father in the parable had an idea that his younger son would wander? We know our children are bound for unique and different paths. Isn't it good to know that God also knows that His children will take unique and different paths?

Some of us will never stray from God. We may have minor infractions - a cuss word here, a short cut there - but over all, some will never stray.

On the other hand, some can't seem to stop straying. Like a smoker who resolves to quit on New Year's Eve and has a smoke after breakfast on New Year's Day, some of us simply can't seem to stay on the straight and narrow.

One of the things revealed to us in this parable is this: Being God's child is merit enough. Just as Proverbs reminds us that God causes it to rain on the just and on the unjust, it is equally true that He loves all His children without favoritism and without prejudice.

The prodigal son was loved by his father even when the son couldn't love himself. Whatever else was going through the prodigal's mind, as he wandered thoughts of his father's disapproval were most certainly a regular occurance. We see it in the path he chose. At first, arrogant and proud, the son ignores his father's disapproval and seeks his inheritance anyhow. As he spent his money on loose women, drunkenness, and debauchery, he certainly thought he was undoing his father's life.

His arrogance descended to self-justification when the young man's money ran out. He must have thought, "I can make it without the old man's help."

The futility of going on his own descended to desperation, a mode of survival: "My father hasn't approved of anything I've done so far, he's not going to approve of me now."

Desperation became defeat when the son became bound to eat with the pigs in order to sustain his body.

You and I know this cycle, don't we? We have been down this same path:
It is the universal human experience when we are left to our own devices.

In much the same way, we know that God loved the son who never left, even when he couldn't love himself, either.

He, too, was arrogant, likely gloating over the obvious folly of his younger brother. Didn't his younger brother appreciate what he had at home? Couldn't he see how the father's heart would break? Certainly he, as the oldest, would never dishonor the family this way.

The older son's arrogance also descended to pride. I imagine those first few weeks without his younger brother meant that the older's chores might have shone a little brighter. Little digs at his brother's wasting life came up at family dinners. Self-justification took shape in his own mind: "I am the good son, after all."

Self-justication spun down to desperation as the older son saw his father kill the fattened calf and send his best ring and robe to the returning younger brother. What's fair about that? How could he get away with it? Didn't the father know how foolish his brother had been?

The older brother's desperation finally spun down to defeat. The tone of verse 30 is clear: he was angry, frustrated, and disgusted with his father.

The path of both sons through arrogance, pride, self-justification, desperation, and defeat is a path that I'm familiar with, and I suspect you are, too. But always remember: Being God's child is merit enough. In His infinite grace and love, God cares for both we who wander and we who stay.

Another mystery of God that Jesus Christ reveals is that God gives us freedom to exercise our own will. The younger son knew full-well that is was rude and unconventional to ask for his inheritance early. (Would you have done it?) In asking, the younger son was exercising his free will; his will to go and be contrary to what his father wanted. In spite of the younger son's determined will, the father allowed his son the latitude to go his own way.

We may understand this better when we see our own behaviors in the same light. How often do we ask for our "inheritance" from God before it's time?
We want our prayers answered now.
We want our blessing now.
We will take from God whatever we can get, not the full inheritance He intends for us.
According to verse 13, the younger son took the money and ran. Could this describe your prayer life? "Yes God, I'll take your salvation. Yes, I'll take your kindness and love. But don't bother me with anything else."

Had the younger son stayed, he would have gained the life skills and wisdom of his father. He would have witnessed the finesse of his father's business. He would have watched his father age and he would have grown as his father matured. He might have followed his father's example, with a wife and sons of his own.

The son's loss in his short-sightedness wasn't only his squandered wealth but also his squandered life. In order to exercise his own will, the son lost the benefits of witnessing his father's will complete.

We also see this in the older son. In fact, the older son had strayed. He had the opportunity to gain the life skills and wisdom of his father. He witnessed the finesse of his father's business. He watched his father age and likely had his own wife and sons.

The older son's will was revenge. His own will was favoritism. His own will was fairness.

God will not force you to follow His will. God will not violate your will in order to accomplish His will. The way to gain God's true inheritance is to pray as we do each week: "Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done..."

Finally, the last mystery we're shown is God's unfailing compassion. Notice that the Lord doesn't tell us that the father spent all his days and nights looking for his wandering son. That would have been an act of enabling. He didn't track him down, send out spies, stalk his friends and messages. The father likely knew exactly what his younger son was doing: exercising his own will.

God's compassion is free enough to allow us our own way. As I Corinthians 13 states, His compassion "is patient and kind; it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not keeps no record of wrongs. It does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth. [God's love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres..."

Compassion is not a smothering desire to inhibit someone else. It is the action of love to be there when someone else falls.

Compassion is not a judgmental "I told you so." It is a generous "Here, let me help you."

Compassion doesn't see us covered with the soil of the pig sty; instead, it runs down the road to meet us, it brings the best robe, the brightest ring, and sets the table for a celebration.

We see God's compassion best in His own Son, Jesus Christ. In sending Christ for us, God didn't stop sin from happening in the world. He didn't make the Virgin Mary obey His will. He didn't dictate to St. Joseph the direction of the Holy Child's life.

Because God has compassion for us, He doesn't become an enabler, chasing us down, spying on us, and stalking us. He waits for us to come home, His home.
There is one Cross, not many.
There is one Calvary.
There is one Empty Tomb.
When we are lost and wandering, He draws us home by the Holy Spirit, with open arms ready to meet us.

The parable of the prodigal son is truly one of the most popular in Scripture. Through it we get a better glimpse at God's nature. We see that being a child of God is enough to merit His love and blessing. We understnad that God loves us enough to allow us to exercise our own will in spite of whatever consequences we may face. We see that God's unfailing compassion waits for us to repent to find our way to Him, to Calvary.

Who among us hasn't found ourselves in the position of the prodigal son?
Who among us hasn't hoped for a home to go when our lives have fallen apart?
Who among us hasn't hoped for forgiveness from God and man when we are truly sorry?

God is waiting for you.