Where is Your Treasure?

This text was preached as a sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 11 August 2019.
Audio for this sermon was recorded on 13 August, after the loss of the original recording.

Jesus said: “Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.  Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Luke 12:32-34, ESV

Today’s Gospel reading begins after Jesus has been telling his disciples not to be anxious about our lives, and what great worth the Father sees in us.  The thirty-second verse is a nice summation of this teaching – do not be afraid, because God the Father wants to give you the Kingdom.  Throughout this message, I want you to keep that truth in mind – especially if anything you hear today troubles you, remember that your Father in heaven is pleased to give you the kingdom.

Despite this wondrous pronouncement, which should be enough for all of us to say, “fair enough, Lord, your will be done!” many of us – myself near to the front of the line – find ourselves prisoners of our anxieties.  Our temptation is to think that our very special circumstances somehow warrant more latitude from God in our fears – to use an idiom of today, we expect God to give us the “space” to be afraid.

Having told us not to be afraid, Jesus continues on to tell us what to do with our newfound fearlessness – sell all that we have and give to the needy. 

Much like the command to “fear not,” this command takes us aback and tempts us to look at Jesus and say, “surely you don’t mean all our possessions?”  This command, which is repeated multiple times throughout the Gospels, has been dissected and examined by many trying to determine whether Jesus truly means this to be as extreme as it sounds, or if he’s being hyperbolic.  There are several religious orders from Church history that take vows of poverty, the Franciscans being among the most famous, which clearly shows that taking the command at extreme face value is a valid interpretation. 

At the same time, we know from Luke’s Gospel account that there were several wealthy women who traveled with Jesus and provided for him out of their means, clearly showing that the command is probably not intended in its extreme universally.

Jesus provides the guidance for how to understand the heart behind how he wants us to approach wealth in the remainder of the verses I want to focus on today.  Let’s hear them again:

“Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

On its face, this teaching is somewhat esoteric and feels a little fanciful.  It is best to understand it by thinking of the contrasting reality.  If we have to be provided with a means to store something that “does not grow old” that must imply that the current way we use will one day be inadequate, much like the treasure that it contains. 

Think of it this way: if we have an incorruptible moneybag, why would we store something that will eventually fail in it?  Would the moneybag not therefore be more valuable than the thing it keeps?  Or if we have an incorruptible treasure, why would we store it in something that will fail?  Wouldn’t the failure of the moneybag mean our loss of the treasure?  Therefore, whatever we have on earth is incomparable with what the Father gives to us, and it is foolish for us to value anything whose value will eventually fail with more esteem than that which will remain invaluable forever.

Last week, Fr. Ben taught a paradigm which I think rightly captures what it is that our Lord is looking for out of his people.  While some people are called to a “holy destitution” where they are entirely dependent on the goodness and care of the Church for their day-to-day care and feeding, most of the rest of us are called to live lives where our long-term reliance is on God’s goodness.  Our Father gives us out of his goodness the things we need to live the life he calls us to, and his store of these items is endless and will not lose value or quality over time, nor will it be stolen out of his control so that he would be unable to continue giving us out of his goodness. 

The warning that goes along with this promise is that if we do not trust in the Father’s goodness to provide for us, to answer our prayers and supplications, then whatever we do trust to deliver us will fail, and what it is that we treasure – unless it is the uncorruptible, boundless and invaluable treasure of God – will lead our hearts to perish with it.  “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Today I ask you the question that I ask myself when I read this proverb – “Where is your treasure?”

For unless your heart is fixed on the goodness of God, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on your personal wealth and savings, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on the luxuries and pleasures of this life, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on your strength to overcome in life, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on your own personal vindication, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on preserving your life, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on writing the perfect sermon about a difficult topic, then your treasure is not in heaven.

If your heart is fixed on Auburn having a winning season, or Alabama winning yet another National Championship, then your treasure is not in heaven.

I felt I needed to include the last two to lighten things a little, but you get my point.  If we set ourselves so firmly on anything less than the goodness of God and his pleasure to give us the Kingdom, then we seek a treasure that may as well be a trash pile and we will aim far below what it is that our Father wants us to seek and to gain.

So, what does this mean?  That we don’t care about providing for ourselves or our families?  Not at all.  As Fr. Ben said last week, saving to ensure that we and our families are taken care of during lean times is much different from saving and storing up to ensure access to luxury and pleasure. 

But even this saving should be seen through the lens of God providing for us and not us relying on our own capabilities and financial prowess.

Are we to totally avoid all of the good things that life affords us?  Again, not at all.  When God rewards us with ease for a time, or bids us to eat and drink in the fullness of a feast, we do so gladly, but with the understanding that the pleasures of life are fleeting, and not the point of life.  Not every season is Lent, but neither is it always Easter in this life.  We look at the rewards given to us as glimmers and glimpses of the eternal feast, the always-Easter of Heaven.

What about our strength?  Should we be seen as weak?  Actually, yes – if the alternative is that we boast in our strength as being sufficient to succeed and overcome in this life. 

The same goes for our personal vindication against those who disagree with us – if the alternative is that we boast in our personal rightness, at the expense of facts or the experiences of other people, or contrary to the leading of the Spirit, then we ought to approach each situation as if we have at least the potential to be drastically wrong. 

The only things that we must be right about are the things that we will confess in a few moments in the Creed.  And yet, we are not called to weakness or foolishness – but to strength and wisdom that comes from Christ.  The difference is that if strength and wisdom come from the Lord, then they are not our personal strength and wisdom. 

If we rely on Christ, then Christ will be the one who overcomes on our behalf, and it will be Christ who is vindicated before the world.

It is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom.  This is the gift that is more rich than any amount of money we could earn or save in our lifetime, with might and power that is stronger than any exertion on our part, and which Our Lord tells us we need to yearn for above all other things – even at the expense of our lives.  Previously, I have talked about Jesus’ repeated call to lay down our lives, and that this is more than mere metaphor or hyperbole – sometimes we are actually expected to bear witness in ways that means that someone will do us harm because the days are evil and the hearts of flawed human beings are twisted to work all sorts of malice. 

However, in this day and age, when American Christians are not usually faced with the imminent threat of violence, treasuring something more than our life may apply in  ways that do not lead to our literal dying for the cause of Christ. 

One of the most anti-Christian aspects that I see in our American society is the tendency for many to approach any issue from the perspective of what is best for me, what doesn’t interfere with me, how I want to keep doing the things that I like to do, regardless of what happens to people I don’t know or who don’t look or think or act like me

The messages I get from any kind of popular media are so intent on wedging me off as an individual (even while trying to lump me into a demographic) that it becomes clear to me that the altar the society at large wants me to worship at consists largely of a mirror.  Christianity is not a me-centric faith, and if I approach it as if it is, my treasure is not in heaven. 

This is part of laying down our lives, and part of counting our treasure as being in heaven – that we allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit to make sacrifices even when our upbringing, our peers, and our politics tell us that we shouldn’t. 

In so doing, we emulate our Lord who, despite the political expectations of the day, rejected earthly power and followed the path to the cross – because his heart is eternally with the Father, and his treasure is heaven.

Sometimes those sacrifices are big, and require us to take bold stands against oppression that does not affect us directly.  More often these sacrifices are small and just require us to actually listen to the concerns of others, even when hearing them is difficult, rather than warding them off with an impersonal talking point.  Sometimes they require us merely to mourn with those who mourn.

As I said when I began speaking today, the Gospel lesson we have heard is hard – this concept of seeking after a treasure in heaven when all I know is the things of earth is vexing at times.  I know the things that are presented to my physical senses, while the things my Lord asks me to value above all else seem fleeting to me.  The Church recognizes this as well, which is why the Collect for today bids that God would “make us love what [he] commands.” 

The Church recognizes that this command is so difficult that we are unlikely to uphold on our own – if it indeed is possible for us to do so on our own at all – and asks for God to step in and change us so that we are able to please him.

Reflectively praying the Collect this week is the first of two works of prayer that I invite you to join me in this week.  If you already keep to the discipline of the Daily Offices, you will find that you already do this regularly, and all I ask is that you take some extra time to reflect on the words you are praying when you get to this point in the liturgy. 

If you want to incorporate it into other forms of prayer devotions, it is found on page 618 in the BCP, under the heading of Proper 14.  When we ask for God to “make us love what [he] commands” we show that our desire is for our heart to be with God, and that our treasure is in heaven.

In getting to the second work of prayer that I want to invite you to this week, let’s consider again the words Our Savior says: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” 

The fact that Jesus ties the Father’s gift of the kingdom to the command not to fear, and comes after the Lord has spoken at length against anxieties gives me reason to believe that at least part of the gift of the kingdom is the peace of the Lord, which we will exchange in a few moments.  Therefore, I ask you to join me this week in praying for God’s peace upon our lives throughout our busy days.  This can be as simple as praying in the morning when you wake up, as soon as you meet the first challenge of the day, as the day grows long, and as you look forward to your pillow.

 I encourage you also to pray for the peace of the Lord upon those you meet, even if – especially if – you feel provoked against peace through their actions or their words. 

In today’s world of online interactions, ask yourself continually if what you are commenting, posting, tweeting, or sharing works for the cause of the Kingdom’s peace, and if the answer is ever “no” then turn to the Holy Spirit for guidance on what to do instead.  Ask God to give you words to spread his peace, or to give you patience and contentment to be still in the face of the raging world, whether in our physical reality or in our online discussion spaces. 

By asking God’s peace upon our neighbors and even our enemies we show that our heart is with those whom God has made, and that our treasure is in heaven.

To close out my time today, I invite you to turn to page 672 in the prayer book.  Prayer 87, For Participation in the Peace of God, has been on my mind throughout this sermon preparation, and I invite you to join me in praying it either aloud or silently.

“Lord make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is error, truth; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.  O divine Master, grant that I may seek not so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.”

Prayer 87, For Participation in the Peace of God – The Book of Common Prayer 2019, according to the use of the ACNA

Come Lord Jesus!

(This post is adapted from a sermon preached on the same subject for the Sunday after the Ascension, 02 June 2019)

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.

Revelation 22:17, ESV

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart,
be acceptable in your sight,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

512px-The_Last_Judgement._Jean_Cousin.
The Last Judgment, Jean Cousin the Younger; The Louvre

Imagine for a moment, if you will, receiving an invitation to a wedding.  At first, you look at the envelope – maybe a little quizzically if you weren’t told to expect it – and realization dawns on you what it is as you open it and read the contents.

The invitation includes a card for your RSVP, a checkbox for “will attend” and one for “regretfully will not attend.”  If it is a wedding of a close friend, beloved relative, or some other notable in your life, you quickly check off the block beside “Will attend” without any hesitation, and joyfully return it to the mailbox so that an accurate count can be made.

However, consider instead that this wedding is for someone you haven’t seen in a very long time, is taking place in a different country, and, on top of all this, is scheduled for a weekend when you and your family had already planned a lavish and expensive vacation.

Maybe you have already purchased tickets to visit Disney Land with your children, or to go on a fancy cruise with your wife for your anniversary, or a once in a lifetime island vacation.  Faced with this, I’d be surprised if most of us aren’t as quick to check “will attend” or are more inclined to express our “regrets.”

Now let’s take it a step further.  You open the invitation, and not only is it for someone you’ve never seen in your life, being held in a different country, but where the date is customarily placed are the letters TBD.  Upon reading more into the invitation, you find that the RSVP is asking your invitation of the bridegroom!

I think most of us would be frankly taken aback and somewhat offended by such an “invitation.”  What an imposition!  How can I decide if I can attend – let alone want to – if I don’t know when it’s taking place?  And who would ask their guests for an invitation to a party they are throwing?

Wouldn’t you feel justified in tossing the invitation aside?  Or at least delaying your decision until the plans were more firmly in place, and the picture clearer to you?

This picture of invitations is what I want us to have in mind today as we consider one of the last great, simple prayers of the Church recorded at the very end of Holy Scripture.  Father Ben preached last week on the indwelling of God in those who believe, and this lesson can be seen as somewhat of a companion to it.

Today is the Sunday after the Ascension.  On Ascension Day, we remembered that Jesus returned to be with the Father forty days after his resurrection from the dead.  This is the last Sunday before Pentecost, so it feels especially fitting that the lectionary today is about asking and waiting for the movement of God.  It is also appropriate to consider how we invite Jesus into our lives on a daily basis as we leave the Easter season and prepare to enter Ordinary time.

Reading the lessons in preparation for today, I was drawn repeatedly back to Revelation 22:17, and the strange invitation that we are extended.  At first glance, it seems like the Spirit and the Bride are saying “come” to the wayward soul.  If I stopped there and cut short the reading, I’m sure that I could talk only about the way the people of God are to be welcoming one to another and to the world outside.

This is an important topic to be sure, especially in this time of division and distrust in our country.  To do so, however, would be a disservice to the text; and as any visitors will see during the passing of the Peace later in the service, this congregation needs little exhortation to be welcoming to those who walk through the doors.

In examining this verse, it is important to consider who is saying “Come” and who is conspicuously absent.  “The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come.’”  The one who does not say “Come” must be the one that is being invited – and the One whom we do not hear from in this verse is Jesus Christ, the bridegroom of the Church, and the one who sent the Holy Spirit after his ascension.

The Spirit says “Come” because he was sent for the purpose of preparing hearts to receive the Lordship of Christ.  The Bride – that is, the Church – says “Come” because it is the joy of the Bride to come into the presence of her bridegroom.

Hear the next part of the verse: “And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’”  This awakens something in me that I wonder how many others feel, a kind of struggle between desires.  I am one who hears, and St. John, as the author of Revelation, is praying that I would say “Come,” meaning that I would fervently pray for the return of Jesus Christ to the earth.

On the one hand I very much want Jesus to return, to end suffering and death.  On the other, however, there are things that I haven’t experienced in this life that I would like to, but would be unable to if Jesus returned this hour; and if I’m terribly honest I don’t relish going through the things that Scripture makes plain will precede his return.

All in all, and to my shame, I am often times like the person earlier who would wait until plans are firmer before agreeing to attend the wedding.  It feels like because I’m frightened of living through the turbulence of the End that maybe I’m not so eager to say “Come.”  And that fills me with all sorts of dread.

But John is not through with his prayerful invitation.  “And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.”  I am one who is thirsty!  I desire that I should know God and be delivered from my double-mind.

Throughout Scripture we are assured that God bears patiently with his people, providing ample time for recognition and repentance of sin.  This is part of our prayerful perseverance as well – that in our disgust at our sins we do not despair but instead turn to the wellspring of the water of life.

And in this I am reminded that when I say “Come, Lord Jesus!” I am not only joining with the Church from the beginning asking for his imminent return, but also that in a personal way he would come and be present with me and teach me so that I can earnestly look for his return even through whatever earthly hardships precede it.

Have you also caught that John’s invitation is not quite like the example I shared in the beginning?  Whereas the disjointed and oddly infuriating wedding I portrayed required its guests to invite the wedding party, John’s invitation is actually bidirectional – the Spirit, the Bride, you and I say, “Come Lord Jesus!” even as you and I are invited to drink from the living waters.  In his Gospel account John recounts Jesus as saying that he is the very source of living waters.  As we bid Jesus to come again, we ourselves are bid to come to him.

As Anglican Christians, we believe that the form of our prayer shapes our patterns of life.  Therefore, we believe that prayer is accomplished not only by words leaving our lips, but also by the way we live our everyday life.  In the General Thanksgiving from the Daily Offices, there is this great line that sums up this thought: “…that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives…”  In that spirit, the remainder of my time will be spent examining how we can live a life that says “Come.”

In preparing this lesson, I originally listed out three areas of invitation: prayer, obedience, and self-sacrifice.  As I tried to organize the thoughts along those lines, I kept coming back to the thought that really self-sacrifice is the core of the life the invitation to Jesus.

When I pray, I am sacrificing time, something the world increasingly seeks to claim for itself and tries to tell me that I am a fool for not investing in earthly pursuits.  When I follow commands – from Our Lord or any other who is able to issue commands – I give up my agency and hold myself in subjection to the will of the one who gives the orders.

The life that says, “Come Lord Jesus!” lives sacrificially first for Jesus.  The beginning of this sacrifice is to recognize the Lordship of Christ in prayer and the study of the Scriptures.  Once we accept the example of his leading, we seek to perform sacrificial works out of obedience to love God and our neighbor.

We must pray and study the Scriptures daily.  This sounds rote and trite and maybe a bit formulaic, but it is nonetheless true.  In order to live a life that says “Come, Lord Jesus” we must be able to regard Jesus as that beloved in our life whom we would never hesitate to rush off to see no matter the cost.

This prepares us so that we respond to the wedding invite more in the first way, without worries about when or how far away or things we don’t understand in the invitation.  The way that we grow closer to others is in spending time with them, getting to know them better.

Before we were married, the way I got to know my wife was by spending time with her on dates, talking to her for hours on the phone, and – in the information age – exchanging countless emails and texts.  The point is, in spending time with her, she became important to me to the point that I would do anything reasonable and innocent to please her.

Likewise, we must spend time getting to know Jesus.  He freely makes himself known to those who want to know him – the picture used multiple times in the Bible, as alluded to earlier, is that of a freely available spring of water.  The only bars to getting to know Jesus are the ones we place in front of us.

Practically, the way we spend time with him is in prayer.  Whether this is through the observation of Daily Office prayers or just momentary silences with our hearts turned to God, our prayers become those sweet moments spent with a dear and close friend.

The way we come to know him is in reading the whole of Scripture – as Jesus is present in the Old Testament as well as the New – with an ear constantly listening for what God wants us to hear.  The Daily Offices are especially useful for these purposes, by combining the hearing of Scripture and our responsive prayers.

We are called to obedience to Jesus as the Lord of our lives.  When we say “Come” we are saying that we will accept his leading and will do what he asks of us.  Jesus tells his disciples many times that the one who loves him will follow his commandments.  Whether this is in resisting temptation, caring for the poor and needy, healing the sick, or following the calls of God on your life, we live out our prayerful invitation when we obey our divine Master.

In his divinity, the Lord Jesus inhabits our being as Fr. Ben preached last week.  This cohabitation allows us to know him more intimately than we could any human.  In following his commandments, we live the life he lived – and in his living within us, he helps us in the doing of the things he commands.  Unlike almost all earthly masters and governors, who command their charges to do things they themselves would scarcely do, Jesus did not exempt himself from the commandments of God.

Following the commandments of God are life-giving, as Jesus affirms when he says that his yoke is easy, and his burden is light.  In living a life that follows his leading, we respond to the second part of John’s prayerful invitation and come to the waters of life.

Following commandments seems to be inherently practical; unsurprisingly, however, we humans excel at finding ways to overcomplicate matters – and I’m sure those who know me well would say that I am exceptionally gifted in this area.  We find ways to exempt ourselves, by reading into the text caveats and loopholes and exit ramps to get out of doing things that we find uncomfortable.

I especially find this is true for me in performing acts of mercy to strangers.  This is probably the area where I have the most difficulty.  I know that I should strive to do the things Jesus did unreservedly, but often I allow my fears and uncertainty drive me into paralysis until the opportunity to do the thing that is pleasing to God has passed.

If you are like me, and struggle with how to act in the moment to show mercy, then let me commend the discipline of almsgiving, while we pray together for discernment and growth.  The language Jesus used in talking about giving to the needy – saying when not if you give – makes it a clear expectation of something that a disciple of Our Lord does regularly.  Giving money to the poor, either directly or through the Church, is a perfectly valid way to show mercy.

I have heard many people say that they wouldn’t give money to a beggar because they wouldn’t trust what they would do with it.  I have said this myself and had myself thoroughly convinced that under “the right circumstances” I would fulfill whatever material need was unmet.  Surely it was mere coincidence that those right circumstances seemed to almost never come about.  But I became convicted that my supposed reasonableness was constricting my ability to be merciful.

I find that as I am still growing in this area, I trust the discernment given to ministers of the Church like my parish priest to appropriately handle gifts to the poor.  In our church building, there is a small box in the back near the doors for giving money to the express purpose of helping those who are in need.  Alternatively, one of our regular congregational activities is filling a purple bucket which collects assorted items for different vulnerable groups.  There are also online giving options to various charities – I can personally recommend the Anglican Relief and Development Fund.

It is my prayer that this week we will all examine how we invite Jesus into our lives.  In living sacrificially, through both our prayers and our obedience to the commandments of God, may we join the Church in ages past and around the world today in crying out “Come Lord Jesus!”

Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

 

Your Faith has Made You Well

The below text was preached as a sermon for the Sunday Morning Eucharist Service at Good Shepherd Anglican Church in Opelika, AL, on 28 October 2018.  A podcast recording this sermon is available on PodBean.

“And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ And the blind man said to him, ‘Rabbi, let me recover my sight.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go your way; your faith has made you well.’ And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.”  Mark 10:50-52 (ESV)

 

nicolas_colombel_-_christ_healing_the_blind
Christ Healing the Blind

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be always acceptable in your sight; O LORD my rock and my redeemer.

Is there anyone here who has difficulty seeing? How about anyone who is required to wear glasses to drive? Is there anyone here who is literally or legally blind?

For all of us, whether you deal with loss of vision or other physical impediment, I rejoice that new bodies await us after Christ’s Return, and that these and all other infirmities will be removed so that we may enjoy the Creation as God intended, in perfection and without physical ailments dulling our senses. Amen.

While I will mainly be focusing on the Gospel reading for today, this is one of my favorite Lectionary arrangements, because there appear to be clear connecting lines of application between all of the readings. I encourage you to come back and read all of the readings again later this week and see what fresh insight or questions come to you.

We are told throughout the Gospels that Jesus performed many miracles of healing, and that restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute, and mobility to the lame were the remarkable signs that he worked that got people’s attention. The Gospels contain several separate accounts of restoration of sight, and our Lectionary – the three-year cycle of readings which we read every Sunday during the worship service – captures two of them, the other being the account of the man born blind whom Jesus healed by spitting in his eyes.

What is so great about restoration of sight? Why is it that all of the Gospel writers included more than just one account of the blind being made to see? Why not just one and then lump the rest in with the many other healing works Jesus did? Why does our Lectionary make a point of recounting these and other healing miracles?

To answer these questions, it is important to consider what it means to be blind. Specifically, let us consider Bartimaeus. We don’t know much about Bartimaeus, beyond his name and that he was a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus. Mark does not say that he was born blind, and textual cues make it reasonable to assume that he was born with his sight, and lost it at some point – through disease, trauma, or perhaps just due to age. The way the crowd treats Bartimaeus, as well as other blind men approaching Jesus, tells about his social status; the crowd believes that he is beneath the notice of Jesus, and rebukes him, hoping to cause him to scurry off.

Just for a moment, I want everyone in here who is wearing glasses to take them off, but keep your eyes open and try to take in what’s going on at the front of the Sanctuary. If you don’t wear glasses, or if you wear contacts, close your eyes. I’m not about to ask you to consider anything very deep right now, this isn’t a segue into some sort of meditation. I only want you to briefly consider what it’s like to have your vision degraded or taken away. What is your immediate concern? If you were never allowed to open your eyes or put your glasses back on, what would that mean for you?

This is something like what Bartimaeus lived with. We don’t know whether his blindness was total, or if it was “merely” debilitating. He certainly couldn’t do any meaningful work, otherwise he wouldn’t have had to resort to life as a beggar. Standing up here, I am having to alternate between squinting, hoping that I have correctly memorized what I’ve written, and get close enough to the paper to make sure I’m on the right track. My life would be severely altered faced with the kind of reality that Bartimaeus lived with.

You may put your glasses back on and open your eyes.

Thanks be to God, that we live in a time that unless we have serious disease or trauma affecting the eye, most causes of vision problems can be corrected. Thanks be to God that Jesus, the Great Physician, healed Bartimaeus and the others recounted in Scripture of their physical blindness and gave them the gift of sight.

But this was never just about restoring sight to the blind, or opening up the ears of the deaf, or loosening the tongue of the mute.

Each of these works were important personal ministries from God the Son to the people he ministered to, but that is not the chief reason why the Gospel writers chose to capture them in their accounts.

Think back a few moments – having experienced a brief time of failing vision, what is the chief impact to you? Is it not that your ability to perceive the world around you is degraded?

In Mark’s Gospel, the account of Bartimaeus is the second of two sight restorations that occur on either side of Jesus providing key instruction on what it is to be his disciples. During this time, Peter has enjoyed favor after confessing Jesus as the Christ but has also been rebuked for speaking against the plan of salvation, in denying that Jesus would be handed over to the Gentiles and killed. Jesus has repeatedly predicted his death and resurrection, and the disciples have been reluctant to hear it. Peter, James, and John have seen Jesus Transfigured on the Holy Mountain. Finally, the disciples have been taught that to be first they must become last.

All of these events showcase particular areas where Jesus’ disciples had impaired spiritual senses regarding the ministry and purpose of Christ’s mission on Earth. All of them were physically seeing and hearing and walking with Jesus, but spiritually they were poor in sight if not totally blind; their ears were dull if not fully stopped up; their legs took halting steps when they didn’t collapse under them.

Jesus’ healing act regarding Bartimaeus is also instructive. In the earlier account in Mark, the first healing doesn’t appear to “take” – Jesus has to repeat laying his hands on the man. In contrast, we aren’t told that Jesus laid hands on Bartimaeus at all! The extent of the healing act is that Jesus tells Bartimaeus that his faith has made him well, and his sight is immediately recovered. The difference in the two healings is striking – why did Jesus apparently need a second try with the one, but barely needed to speak to Bartimaeus to heal him?

The answer of course is not that for some reason Jesus had to perfect his healing on the first man. Rather, this healing prefigures the spiritual healing that Jesus will perform through his instruction to the disciples, and the healing of Bartimaeus is the final instruction in this block of training – if you have faith, you will be made finally and perfectly well.

So, what does this mean for us?

We all have spiritual blind spots. Just as our physical eyes can become degraded or damaged, our spirits, which start out enthusiastic and open to the Word of God, can over time become heavy with the cares of life, cares which rise up like spiritual cataracts taking our sight off of the big picture. For we who are baptized and remain faithful to Christ Jesus, that is the extent of it, we don’t have to be worried about losing our spiritual sight altogether. Nevertheless, we should always strive for the removal of those blind spots, seeking our healing by faith in Jesus.

What are spiritual blind spots? What are things that degrade our vision of Jesus and his Kingdom?

Anything that seeks to take the place of Jesus as Lord of our Life, even if only for a season, fits the bill. These can either be things that steal our focus from what God calls us to do, or they can be things that blot out and make it difficult for us to see that call. Our lives are full of things clamoring for our attention, and sometimes we pay attention with God-colored lenses (meaning that we rely on God to inform us about these abstract things), and sometimes we attempt to approach God while wearing glasses that are shaded and smudged (meaning that we interpret our view of God based on the cares of the world that are stealing our attention).

Moving from abstract talk to specifics, let me give a couple of examples, which I think are especially applicable for our culture and moment.

Just as Fr. Ben preached a couple of Sundays ago, money is a major blind spot that most of us at some level struggle with. And our culture makes it very easy for us to miss what the Scripture says, by setting up monetary security as the lower bar of wealth. This is a sneaky work of the world against us, because it becomes very easy for me to say that because I still pay student debts, I’m not really financially secure. But Scripture clearly teaches over and over that God desires those who have to give to those who do not have.

I really want to exclude myself from that hard teaching, but the Spirit won’t allow me to. The fact is that I make decent money, and even with our current circumstances, there are still small luxuries that I know I am holding too tightly to when I should be looking for ways to serve others with the financial blessings that I do have. When I try to dodge out of the way of what the Scripture teaches me about how to handle money, seeking to not even let the words stir any kind of concern, then my spiritual senses are dulled, and I do not perceive the world rightly.

In this country, in this state, in our communities, politics is a blind spot that leads many into tragic conflicts and disagreements and steals our sight off of God’s works of wonder and love. We live in what seems like it must be one of the most divided times in the recent history of our country. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, a dyed in the wool capitalist or a bleeding-heart social liberal, the inclination to look for someone to rally behind who will lead us to electoral victories and right the wrongs we identify in our society is very strong.

It was the same for our forebears in faith, the disciples – part of the reason for their blindness was that they saw in Jesus not the Savior of mankind, but as just another – albeit divinely favored – earthly king who would restore Judah to its rightful place in the politics of Palestine and the surrounding countries. They were blind because they did not see that for Jesus to become that great ruler would actually be a hindrance to the salvation mission; for, contrary to the wisdom of the world, might does not make right and oppression cannot be overturned by oppression, but wounds are healed through mercy and sacrifice and the justice of the only One who can mete out Justice.

Likewise, we are blind when we put our trust more in politicians or platforms than we do in the might and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. I do not speak only to the right or to the left: there are Christians on both sides who come very near to falling into this trap. We must always be careful to keep concerns about the powers of the world in their proper place – informing our politics based on the whole witness of the Holy Spirit to the Church, and not informing our image of God based on our politics. When we despair over the “other side” gaining ground in the political arena and allow that to dampen our joy or incite us to bitterness about the state of the world, we reveal that we trust too much in princes and chariots and not in the Lord Our God.

How are we to overcome these and other areas of blindness in our lives?

A couple of weeks ago, we heard that “with man, it is impossible; but with God, all things are possible.” Today, we have heard Jesus tell Bartimaeus that “your faith has made you well.” This is the Gospel: that despite our spiritual infirmities, if we have faith in God, His will and His Word, we will be healed and made whole before Him. Jesus’ statement to Bartimaeus is not a one-off curiosity in the mystery of miraculous healings; instead it is an instruction and assurance to us just as surely as it was to the disciples who walked with Jesus.

This faith comes not from willing yourself into belief; rather, it comes from prayer and remembering the promises of God to His people. God has shown His character from the beginning of the world as a loving and merciful Father. Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, related the same truths both in teaching crowds and through personal acts of ministry and charity. I know for my part that when I look back on my life I can identify specific examples when God reaffirmed and renewed my faith in Him. I expect it is the same for most if not all of you.

Having this faith, therefore, I encourage you to reflect on the areas in your spiritual life where your vision is smudged of blurred. Ask in prayer for Jesus to heal those cataracts, and to remove the distractions from your sight which impair your ability to see Him fully.

In closing, I echo the writer of Hebrews in encouraging all of us to greater things, saying that “Though we speak in this way,” bringing up the hard and uncomfortable truth that we are all afflicted with spiritual wounds and ailments which apart from faith in Jesus lead to death, “yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”

Grace and Peace to you in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is our Good Shepherd and Great Physician. Amen.

Take Up Your Cross

But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”  And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

– Mark 8:33-35 (ESV)

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“21 New Martyrs of Libya”, Tony Rezk, 2015

 

What does it mean to “deny [yourself], take up your cross, and follow [Jesus]”?

On February 12, 2015, the world was first made aware of a great evil done by enemies of the Church.  Twenty-one men, twenty of whom were Coptic Christians, and one man who was a literal moment-of-death convert to the Faith, were tortured and beheaded by persecutors purporting to be the vanguard of an apocalyptic and anti-Christian state.  These men were in Libya doing construction work – 20 Egyptian Copts, and one non-believer from Chad.  They were kidnapped by masked men and were brought to a Libyan shoreline.  One by one they were asked if they were Christians, and then given the chance to renounce this claim, to instead follow a different religion, which they refused.  The strength of the Copts’ faith – to die as professed and confessing Christ-followers rather than live as turncoats – caused the 21st man to acclaim “their God is my God” when the enemy made the offer to him, and so die with those who were ethnically and philosophically different from him.  The icon of their martyrdom is in the bulletin this week, and I encourage you to take it home with you to remember the sacrifice of your brothers in the Faith.

This is a modern example of what Jesus means when he says that “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and gospel’s will find it.”

I fervently pray that none of us is faced with torture and painful execution at the hands of enemies of the Cross.  It is my preference to die a Holy death without violence and fully and totally prepared in my faith.  However, I feel that it is very important that we understand and fully realize that it is exactly this that Jesus means when he requires his followers to “take up their cross.”  We must, whenever and however it is required, cling to the confession of our faith in Jesus as the bedrock of our very existence, so that in the day of trial, persecution, or even martyrdom we may boldly proclaim “Jesus is my Savior and my God.”

I will freely confess that this Gospel reading is one of the passages that has given me the most trouble in my faith.  Because I don’t want to “take up my cross.”  I don’t, at my core, want to suffer, want to face hardship, want to even be inconvenienced on account of my confession that Jesus is my Lord.  I think this is somewhat our nature as humans – we are very good at survival, so to willfully accept and pursue a course that is counter to that fills us with dread and reluctance.  Sure, there are thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies – but, being realistic, these are seen as outside the norm, and doesn’t it take a sort of special dedication (or mental derangement) to find pleasure in placing one in harm’s way?  The vast majority of humans seek to keep living instead of flirt with death.

This is what makes the faith of martyrs so intense – the martyr’s sacrifice is either undeniably holy or obscenely absurd, depending on who is looking at it.  To the one whose eyes and heart have been opened, the Spirit of God can be seen in the faith of someone who is not afraid to die for the witness of the Cross.  To the hopeless and adrift, someone who willingly rejects a path to survival is at best a morbid and deluded person to be pitied, and at worst a deranged person to be feared.

The word “martyr” comes from the Greek word “martys” which means “witness.”  A martyr bears the ultimate witness to their beliefs – and the history of the Church is filled with accounts of people who became believers as a result of the faith of the martyrs, just like the 21st man on that Libyan shore, who came to belief as his friends and colleagues were killed around him and as he himself faced painful death.  This man’s eyes and heart were opened.   We have every reason to believe, based on the witness and promises of scripture, that his faithful death was not in vain; that he has won a martyr’s crown with the 20 who were Christians for most if not all of their lives.

The Gospel is a message of two sacrifices: the first is the sacrifice of Jesus, which is the perfect propitiation for our sins, eliminating the need for any other sacrifices of flesh and blood; the second is the “living sacrifice” that St. Paul refers to in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans.  All disciples of Jesus are called to give themselves up to serve the Kingdom of Heaven and witness about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  If this seems like a difficult calling, don’t feel you are alone – it very much is.  This is why the Church has an annual period of overtly sacrificial living embedded in the liturgical calendar.

Lent is a season of self-denial.  It is commonly seen as a season of preparation for the coming feast of Easter, when we celebrate the Resurrected Lamb of God, Our Lord Jesus Christ.  It is true that you cannot truly appreciate the joys of Easter without the somberness of Lent – just as we cannot truly appreciate the joys of the coming Kingdom without the hardships and sacrifices of this life.  Lent is a training ground in the midst of relative joys and pleasures, an opportunity to voluntarily give up luxury and take up discipline of our souls, minds, and bodies.  This way, when – not if – the world comes against us and we face hardship, persecution, or even martyrdom, we are prepared.

As our vicar noted last week, this is not a preparation based on our natural hardiness, or on our strength of will – that is stoicism and is devoid of hope and promise.  No, just as “success” in fasting is found in prayerful acknowledgment that our natural hardiness or our strength of will is insufficient to give any meaning to our self-denial, the preparation we undergo teaches us to call on Jesus in the midst of all hardships – whether it is temporary or terminal.

Not all of us will be called to be martyred in the flesh, and again I pray that we will all live holy lives and die holy deaths, fully prepared in our faith and untouched by violence.  For the remainder of my sermon, I will focus on the general calling of self-denial which does not require facing violence and death, which is what I expect most of us to face in our everyday lives.

While not all Christians are called to face imminent death for their beliefs, all Christians are called to give up passions, sinfulness, unfruitful desires, as well as pleasures that do not edify the soul, or are outright contrary to God’s stated will in Scripture.  This in and of itself can be a witness, especially when someone comes to Christ from a life that was devoid of this self-denial.  The person who enjoyed riches, and after coming to Christ donated practically all he had to a Gospel ministry bears witness that what used to be the most important thing to them is truly secondary to the message of Christ.  Similarly, the person who was mired in drugs and unsavory habits who, after coming to Christ, reaches out to minister to similarly afflicted people bears witness that the anchor around their neck that no one could remove has been lifted from the depths by the strength of the King of Glory.

I struggle with intemperance – with food, with drink, with entertainment, with nearly anything that could be called on its own enjoyable or innocently pleasing.  I am at my most un-Christlike when I feel that I haven’t gotten my “share” of something, which generally means if I’m not sick of it yet.  This has led to mental and physical struggles with health; dissatisfaction in the gifts that God has given me; friction with my wife, with friends, with roommates, nearly everyone who interrupts my ultimate aim of personal satisfaction.  Diets on their own work very temporarily; trying to strongarm my attitude to be more “content” fails after the first minor setback; resolving to be a better husband/friend/roommate/brother/son/coworker/etc only gets me so far as the next time whoever it is opposes me.

I have only found satisfaction in the denial that Jesus preaches.  It wasn’t until I took up Lenten observance that I saw the first glimmers of hope that whatever hole it is in me that food, strong drink, television, and video games couldn’t fill could be overcome, or stoppered up, or provided with something that would actually and completely satisfy rather than just frustrate my soul with its pale imitation of what was previously denied to it.  Because I am like Peter – I place more emphasis on the things of man and therefore I miss the things of God.  I believe that I am getting better, but if so it isn’t because of anything that I do, but the Spirit which fills what my self-denial leaves behind.

I encourage all of you to use this Lent as a training ground.  Last week, our vicar alluded to “fasts” of things that Christians shouldn’t be doing to begin with; I want to expand on that and encourage you that if there are things in your life that meet that charge, Lent is the perfect time to start working against them.  Don’t put them off as a fast to be taken up again at the end of Lent, but certainly use the season of self-denial to begin to train yourself that the goodness of Our God is greater than whatever momentary pleasure or benefit you are confronted with.  Even if Easter comes and you still occasionally find yourself doing whatever it is that you identify as needing to permanently give up, the fact that the Spirit has illuminated the thing, and has moved you to better behavior is victory on its own.  With continued prayer and fasting, you will be delivered from the thing you struggle against.

I also ask for and encourage your prayers for our brothers and sisters around the world, who face persecution and martyrdom daily.  There are many organizations who spread their stories and work to provide at least some measure of material relief.  One that I personally have investigated and commend to you is Voice of the Martyrs.  In remembering the persecuted Church, remember also to pray for your own continued and increasing faith and trust in the Lord so that in the day of trial you would “endure to the end.”

Grace and peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Citizenship in Heaven

Below is an excerpt from a sermon preached on 08 October 2017, on Philippians 3:14-21.  It has been edited to better fit a print format.

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” – Philippians 3:20-21(ESV)

What does it mean to be a citizen?

To be a citizen is to belong to a community – to be an integral member of a body of people.  Citizenship affords the citizen the right to be defended by the ruler – to have assurance that their lives and livelihoods will be protected so long as the nation stands.  In a well-run State, the citizen is provided for in order to preserve the social order and ensure the continued well-ordered function of society.  A citizen is also disciplined, and restricted by laws that place bounds on what it is acceptable for the individual to do.

It is for these reasons that Paul depicts our life in Christ as citizens of Heaven.  When I hear that I am a citizen of Heaven, I immediately know that I am joined to the body of believers that makes up the Body of Christ.  When I hear that I am a citizen of Heaven, I understand that I rely on God for protection, just as in my civic life – if I am a good citizen dwelling in a just society – I rely on the instruments of the government to defend my life and livelihood.  When I hear that I am a citizen of Heaven, I understand most completely that I am not a citizen of this world – that I am a sojourner among a strange people, a wanderer that is making his way home.

We, like Paul, are refugees fleeing the tyranny of Death.  Imagine the worst regime you could live under or be threatened by, and the one who seeks to oppress us is worse, and indeed the orchestrator of all of them.  We, like Paul, have been granted asylum, and not just asylum, but naturalization; indeed, we will be made as if we had been born within the bounds of Heaven from the beginning, reckoned as natural-born citizens of the Kingdom.

With this in mind, is it any wonder that Paul is moved to tears by those who “walk as enemies of the Cross”?  They are just as oppressed as we were, they enjoy no more favorable status than we do, though it may look that way on the outside.  And yet, they have chosen the blasted warzone for their home, though green pastures and quiet waters were a few steps away.  They choose to rebuild the shanty that has been blown down over and over, and will be blown down once more, when a house with a sure foundation is just a little further inland.  They are the prisoner in a camp who is given a modicum of sham authority to berate and degrade their fellow prisoners, when in the end the Oppressor will kill them along with those in bondage with them.

It would not do justice to Paul’s analogy to turn this into a discussion of “good” versus “bad” citizenship – he doesn’t leave room for there to be a “bad” citizen.  His contrast is between those who are citizens and those who are not.  Those who are await a Savior from Heaven who will change us from being naturalized asylum seekers to being natural-born citizens of Heaven.  Those who are not citizens pledge allegiance to a power that uses them up and affords them no benefits or quarter or justice.  We who will recite the Nicene Creed in a few moments pledge allegiance to a powerful God who sustains and builds us up, raising us to life, providing shelter from the enemy, and affording us the justness of His mercy in the sacrifice of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, since we are Citizens, we are part of the community of Believers.  Each of us contributes to the building up of the congregation, each voice lends its distinct note to our common refrain.  We are protected from the perils assaulting the soul and the spirit, that the roving lion who is our enemy is kept at bay from inflicting true harm.  We may be killed in the body, or struck with illness, or have our minds clouded in age, but we will be made new, and will never depart the presence of our God, and will not fear the tribulation and woes promised to the earth and the waters.

As Citizens, we are expected to perform certain duties – a citizen of the United States pays taxes, follows laws, and in some cases, answers the call of the Nation to come to its aid and defense.  Citizens of Heaven laboring on Earth are called to sacrifice to God and the Church, our time, talents and treasure; to remain Holy, as our Father in Heaven is Holy; and to stand against the power of the Enemy, relying on God for our salvation in battle against the oppressor.

The character of God throughout Scripture is to value the broken and contrite heart above all other offerings.  Unlike an earthly tax imposed by a State, which serves to sustain the daily operation of the government, our contributions are neither imposed nor are they for sustaining either God or Church.  God made everything we would give him, and the Church at times has subsisted in the desert.  Instead, our free offerings are the fruits of our appreciation in being granted asylum; we give gifts not out of obligation or because we want continued favor, but because our King gave us gifts, and we want to be like Him.  Practically, we accomplish this when we pledge a portion of our income, give sacrificially to support the ministries around us, and volunteer our time in the liturgical life of the church.  In these sacrifices, our citizenship is realized in the emulation of our Ruler.

Earthly nation-states have codes of laws governing the acceptability and suitability of the actions of the citizens under their rule.  These laws define the standard of conduct for citizens to follow, and set the bar for everyday interaction between citizen and community.  In the Heavenly State, the standard is Holiness, which is more than perfect action in accordance with God’s commandments – it is recognizing that I, having been granted asylum, am no longer bound by the clamor within me that beckons me to overindulge in food and drink, to put off work I can do during the week for when I have more time on Sunday, to lust and covet after what I don’t have, or to forego my prayer time because I want to get out the door for work just a little bit earlier.  Holiness, simply put, is refusing to cede ground from the height that God has called me to, lest I sink into the sinful mire that the world around me tells me is normal because it is “human nature.”  Our citizenship is confirmed in the Holy Spirit urging us toward right conduct and turning our hearts away from our “nature” and toward our Savior.

It is true that in most countries, only a few citizens are called on to defend the nation by force of arms.  In America, our military is staffed by an all-volunteer force, and only a few of them are called to active combat roles.  In contrast, we citizens of Heaven who labor on earth are not citizens who wait in the homeland for the army to return; we are that Army, undertaking missions and campaigns to advance the Kingdom in daily lives by seeking the welfare of others, even those who would be our enemies.  All of us are called to stand against the Enemy in our daily lives, whether he assaults us in our personal struggles with addiction, habits, and the various temptations of our mortal bodies, or whether he assaults us from others’ unreasoned hatred of someone who is different from them or us.  We are not expected to defeat the Enemy, because Satan is too much for us to beat finally – but we resist his call and his lures and seek to break his hold over others by showing them another way.  In following the banner of the Cross wherever it leads, we daily lay claim to our citizenship.

It should be clear that Paul’s vision of citizenship is an inherently active one.  Because of this, it should be no surprise that when he says “we await a Savior” he likewise intends an active waiting.

We wait for Heaven to send a Savior, not as someone who sits and waits, but like someone who is walking on a road, waiting for their friend to come and join them.  Part of this walk, and this waiting, is ensuring that our daily life looks like that of our Godly examples given us both in Scripture and by Providence in our lives.  This includes living out the commands and practical advice given by Paul and the other Apostles, as well as heeding the words of those God has placed in our daily lives as examples and authorities.  God has placed spiritually mature brothers and sisters among His people who have seen similar struggles to ours and whom God has blessed with an opportunity to witness to us.  In the Tradition of the Church, he has raised up Apostolic witnesses in our Bishops and Priests to provide voices from authority when we need more clear words of comfort and discipline.

Keeping our walk in this way is not only for our benefit, but for those who will come after us, so that we may be those spiritually mature siblings to the next generation of Christians, both physical and spiritual little children.  Going back to the Army metaphor from a little earlier, we watch our mature brothers and sisters in Christ like a new recruit watching seasoned veterans and learning the courtesies and customs of the army we march in.  In turn, we walk as those veterans for the benefit of the ones looking to our example.

Continue to meditate on this idea of “citizenship of Heaven,” and what it means to await our Savior as citizens.  Examine your walk, and consciously live your lives to be held up as an example for those that come after you.

“Our citizenship is in Heaven, and from it we await a Savior.”  Lord come quickly, and change us from asylum seekers and naturalized aliens to natural born citizens under you.  Amen.