The Pearl of Great Price

Readings:
1 Kings 3:5, 7-12
Romans 8:28-30
Matthew 13:44-46

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been talking a lot about prayer and I want to continue that theme today. It’s very important, because this is something that we can do. It’s something that is in our power to do to grow closer to God. It’s something that we can do every day. So it’s very important. Prayer is very important and I’m going to focus on it again because it bears that. I’ve said, over the last couple of weeks, important things you can do: pray and read Scripture. But today, I want to talk more just about prayer.

What do we pray for? We pray for what God intends for us. Last week I said, we ask for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to do that. That’s what we pray for.

Why do we do that? Well, the Gospel message today tells us why we do that. This is in Matthew, chapter 13. Jesus is talking to the disciples about the kingdom of heaven. He likens it to a treasure buried in a field. He likens it to a pearl of great price. He’s saying this is what you value above all else. So how do we obtain that? How do we obtain the kingdom of heaven? We get it through growing closer to God. We enter the kingdom of heaven through growing closer to God. We do that through prayer. What is the kingdom of heaven? Let me start with that and I’ll return to prayer in a moment.

What is the kingdom of heaven? Well, there are 2 ways we can understand this. One is in terms of the future. As Christians, we do believe that we have immortal souls and the kingdom of heaven in the future for us is to be in the eternal presence of God. We believe that after we die, at the appointed time, the Christian faithful who have passed away will be resurrected in glorified bodies. And it’s a physical resurrection, it’s not just an idea. It’s something that will happen. Our bodies will be resurrected. There’s an old song, kind of a country gospel song, but I sing it to myself often. Even though it’s not very grammatical, it’s very powerful: “Ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down.” And that’s what the resurrection is. Our bodies will be resurrected in a glorified state and we will spend eternity in the presence of God.

So there is that, but there’s also the kingdom of heaven that we can access now. Jesus refers to it when He tells a group of people that the kingdom of heaven is among you. The presence of Christ in the church on earth is the kingdom of heaven among us now. The kingdom of heaven is here with us now. We can access the being of God among us now. That is the kingdom of heaven, too.

So the kingdom of heaven refers in part to a future state that we will experience as Christian faithful, but it also represents a now, a present, something that is here among us today. Jesus was telling them the kingdom of heaven is among you – He was among them. The kingdom of heaven is among us, because we as the church are the manifest body of Christ on earth, and Christ is present among us. Remember, He said, “when two or three are gathered together in my name, there I will be in the midst of them.” We have that right here. Christ is present among us right now, and that’s the kingdom of heaven among us.

Now let me turn again to the parable of the hidden treasure. This is what Jesus tells the disciples about in today’s Gospel. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again and out of joy goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field.” He discovered this hidden treasure and he gave up everything else in favor of that. It is so valuable that you give away everything you have in order to obtain it. And He continues the thought with the parable of the pearl of great price. That, too, is so valuable that you’ll give everything you have for it. He says, “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” So the kingdom of heaven is more valuable than anything else. You would give away everything you’ve got to obtain the kingdom of heaven.

Turning again to prayer. When we pray, we invite God into our life. We are giving something away, but it’s nothing, it’s a little time. A little time and a little attention that we devote to prayer – and what we get for it is the presence of God in our life. When we pray, we are asking God to be there in our lives. We ask God to dwell within us. We ask to live with God. If we make prayer a habit, God will guide us. Earlier this week a parishioner asked me, how do I know what God’s will for me is. I explained that’s called discernment. It’s not an easy thing. It’s something that we can never be 100% sure. If we had, like Solomon, God telling us exactly what, or we had Moses and the burning bush, God right in front of us telling us something, well then we could be sure. Because most of us don’t have that kind of experience, there’s always some uncertainty. But what I have found is, when you when you discover God’s will for you, you have a certain quiet confidence about it. A certain comfort level with it. You just know it’s right. But that’s not something that’s a hunch, the ability to have that kind of discernment is something that we have to develop. If you want to be in better shape, you have to exercise. You have to exercise your body to strengthen your body, right? To strengthen your relationship with God, you pray. You read Scripture and you pray. These things I’ve been talking about. When we make these a habit, we strengthen that relationship with God. We are more attuned to understanding what God intends for us, and it’s this that makes discernment possible for us. It’s not just our hunch, it’s not just us telling ourselves that what we want is what God wants. That’s not discernment. Discernment is when we have that quiet certainty and confidence that we know what God intends for us. This comes from making prayer a habit and reading God’s word. If we do those things, God will offer us that guidance. God will do that for us.

The Old Testament reading today is from 1 Kings and it’s about Solomon as a young man, and of course we all know that Solomon became the wisest of men. How did this happen? We see in 1 Kings, chapter 3, Solomon has a dream. There’s God speaking to him and he says to God, you know I’m just a young man and I’m going to become the king. What do I do? How do I know what to do? How do I know the right thing? He says, “give your servant an understanding heart to judge the people and to distinguish right from wrong.” He’s asking God for knowledge of His will. He’s asking God, tell me what’s right, so that I can do that. God is pleased with him and He says, “because you asked for this, it will be granted to you”. Of course, we know Solomon was famous for being so incredibly wise. This was a gift that God gave him, because Solomon demonstrated that’s what he really wanted. He just wanted to do the right thing. He wanted to do God’s will and he wanted to know what that was, so that he could do it. So God gave him that. Look at what God tells him. He says, “because you have asked for this, not for a long life for yourself, nor for riches, nor for the life of your enemies, but for understanding, so that you may know what is right, I do as you requested.” Solomon didn’t pray for himself. He didn’t pray that he was going to be rich, he didn’t pray that he was going to live a long time, he didn’t pray that his enemies would be defeated. He didn’t pray for any of those things. He didn’t pray for Solomon. He prayed for knowledge of God’s will and the ability to do it. That is what he asked for and God granted that prayer.

One prayer we say often is the Lord’s prayer. We say it as part of our liturgy each week and, of course, it’s a prayer you can say anytime. It’s the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray. And it’s a model of prayer. It’s a prayer we can repeat the way Jesus taught us to. It’s also a model of prayer that shows us what to ask for when we pray.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” It begins with praise. We begin by praising God. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”  We pray that God’s will be done. “Give us this day our daily bread.” We do ask God to cover our needs, our bare necessities. “And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” We ask God for forgiveness for our sins. We ask for those basic things. We ask for God’s forgiveness, we ask that our basic needs be fulfilled, so that we can do God’s will. And we recognize, at the end of the Lord’s prayer, that this world is God’s. “Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.” So be it. So when we pray, those are the things we’re doing: we’re invoking the power of God by praising Him, by asking for His will to be done, for our basic needs, for forgiveness of our sins, and that we do the right thing and forgive other people their sins against us. So when we pray, that’s how we pray.

We read Scripture to help understand, too, what God intends for us as human beings. Reading Scripture is something we should do in connection with prayer. It’s a good idea to read Scripture when you pray. It’s a good idea to read from Scripture and then pray. Reading Scripture teaches us God’s expectations for us and puts us in the right frame of mind for prayer. Do those things together. If you do those things every day, you’re giving up a little bit of your time. You’re setting aside a little bit of your time each day to spend with God, and when you do that, you will reap a tremendous reward. Much, much greater than the time you devote to it. You will find that pearl of great price. You will find that hidden treasure – the kingdom of God. When you pray, pray for what God intends for you and the ability to do that. And if you do that, you can’t go wrong.

Amen.

Growing in Christ

Readings:

Wisdom 12:13, 16-19

Romans 8:26-27

Matthew 13:24-43

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This is the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time and last week my attempts to record the service failed. Well, we do the best we can. But last week I was talking about what do we do to grow closer to God, what are things that we can do. I want to continue that idea this week, especially since it’s lost somewhere in my computer. What do we do to grow closer to God? Last week I said there are things that we can do: read the Bible and pray. It’s simple. It’s not easy to do. Like so many things that are really the most important things we can do, they’re very simple and yet they are difficult. This is a reason why God is so forgiving, why He’s so lenient.

I read from of the Book of Wisdom a few minutes ago and it talks about God’s lenience and God’s forgiveness. God is that way. God created us, He knows how weak we are. He knows our failings better than we know them ourselves. It is hard, and, no, we don’t have to be perfect. But we can try – and trying yields results. I want to talk more about prayer this week.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans that we read from today, says we don’t know how to pray. That’s okay, because as I said a moment ago, we’re fallible. God knows that about us.  We are fallible. We know that we can rely on God’s justice and mercy. We know that God will respond to our prayers. But what do we pray when we pray?

I was thinking what to say about it and I will tell you the kinds of things that I pray when I pray. Sometimes the most powerful prayers, I think, that I have are what one of our readings describes as an “inexpressible groaning”. That wasn’t talking about prayer, but that’s really the most powerful prayer that I experience. Sometimes it’s when I realize my own fallen nature that I feel closest to God. When I express that in prayer, not with words, but simply with acknowledgment of that reality of my fallen state and my imperfection. Sometimes when I pray, I pray for myself, not for specific things but for God’s guidance. I ask God for knowledge of His will for me and I ask for the strength and the courage to do that, whatever it is. Sometimes when I have a particular problem I’m dealing with, I just give it to God. If it’s something where I know that I’m going to struggle with this, I give it to God. I say, God, I’m giving this to you, I’m going to let you have this. Please take this away from me. God does answer those prayers. Why don’t I ask God for something like winning the lottery or something like that? Well, I don’t know if that’s what I need to have. Maybe. Maybe not. So I don’t ask for particular things like that, because I really don’t know. I think that praying for knowledge of God’s will is sufficient to cover those things. I don’t play the lottery, but if God wants me to win the lottery then God would give me the knowledge that I should do that and would let that happen. But I don’t pray for particular things like that, but sometimes when I pray for other people I do. If I know that a friend or a parishioner is struggling with something, I will pray for that person that God watch over them in that particular problem. I will do that. Those are the kinds of things that I pray. I say traditional prayers as the predominant thing that I do, from Psalms and other traditional prayers. Those are ways that I do that. You don’t have to do it that way. You can try anything you want.

But I do think that Paul’s message about we don’t know how to pray goes to that. We often are tempted to pray for a particular thing, and it may or may not be the very thing that we need. I find myself that those kind of general petitions to God, of knowledge for His will and the strength to do it, and sometimes that kind of groaning of the spirit to God, those are the kinds of prayers that I typically do.

One thing that prayer does for me, it reminds me that I’m not alone in this. That I have one who is much more powerful than me behind me and watching over me. Prayer does so much for us when we do that. We realize that we’re not in this by ourselves and we also learn that God does the hard part. I often say that, but it’s true, God does the heavy lifting. If I ask God, daily, to change me, God will do that. And I don’t have to have the strength to change myself, because I really don’t have it. God has it. But I can borrow God’s power. God can give me His power and enable me to do that.

Again, the reading today from the Book of Wisdom, which incidentally is one of the deuterocanonical texts, meant for teaching, for edification, to help us learn more about how to live in this world, but it tells us a great deal about our relationship to God. I’ll read it, because it bears reading again: “Though you are a master of might, you judge with clemency, and with much lenience you govern us; for power, whenever you will, attends you.” God has the power to do what needs to be done in us and around us. We can rely on that. We’re not in it by ourselves. God does the heavy lifting. We can count on that.

But above all, when we pray, we are inviting God into our lives and making Him present in us. Then our prayer becomes God’s prayer. Let me say that again: when we invite God into us, God becomes present in us. The spirit of God dwells in us and then our prayers to God become God’s prayers for us. We enter into an intimate relationship with God through prayer. We become one with God in that sense. The Spirit of God dwells in us – and we dwell in Him.

That’s a part of our liturgy, when we talk about Christ dwelling in us and we in Him. This is why we come each week to receive the Eucharist. It really shows us the spiritual presence of God in the Eucharist and within ourselves.

Now, more about what this does for us. I think the Gospel message illustrates what I’m talking about, what prayer does for us. In the Gospel today, there are three parables, all about growth. In one way or another, they all relate to something growing. The first is the parable of the wheat and the weeds. I’ll talk about these more in a second. The second is about the mustard seed that grows into the big bush, and then finally the third about the yeast being put into the dough to make bread. In each of these parables, the “thing” that’s the central concept, grows into what it really is. The mustard seed, which Jesus uses a few times in the Gospels to illustrate the Kingdom of God, starts out as a really small seed. It starts out as a small thing, but it grows into a really big, beautiful tree. I was looking this morning, just to see what they look like when they grow, it’s a bush, but it really is a tree. If you saw fully grown one, it would be about 20 feet tall and about 20 feet across, so it’s a bush, but it really is a big, pretty tree. And it starts out as a little tiny thing. The yeast being put into the dough; the woman in the parable kneads the dough, He says, until the yeast is dispersed and spread throughout the dough, so now it’s going to become leavened bread. So the little seed grows up into the big pretty tree. The yeast spreads throughout the dough until the dough becomes the leavened bread, and then, finally, the one about the wheat and the weeds. The key thing I think to underscore there is: be the wheat, not the weeds! We don’t want to be the weeds. We don’t want to grow up into something that’s really contrary to God. We want to grow up into what God intends for us to be. And there is something we can do to make all that happen in our lives: read Scripture and pray. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. It doesn’t even have to be very time-consuming, but if we spend a few minutes each day with Scripture and prayer, we will grow closer to God. It will happen. We just have to keep doing it. And in doing that we will grow spiritually into the person that God created us to be. Just like the little mustard seed will grow into the big pretty tree that God created it to be.

Amen.

Trinity Sunday 2020

Readings:
Exodus 334:4-6, 8-9
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
John 3:16-18

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This is Trinity Sunday, so I’m going to talk to you today about the concept of the Trinity and what it means to us. I want to begin with a story that I’ll call the story of “Bo and the dusty table.” This is kind of a fun family story that we’ve told many times among ourselves that I want to share with you today, because it’s relevant to what we’re going to talk about.

Some years ago, my youngest son, he was much younger then, saw a table in the house that probably needed some dusting. He looked at the table in wonder and he said, “this table must be really old.” He seemed genuinely impressed with what he perceived to be the great age of the table, and he continued, “it’s really dusty”. So in his young mind the dust on the table denoted great age. This must have been an ancient table indeed.

The reason I tell you that story is I think that this is a nice segue to the concept of the Trinity. How so? Well, we have lots of thoughts about God, we always do. We think all kinds of things about God. We even evaluate God. We wonder whether He’s doing a good job. We sometimes think maybe He’s not doing such a good job, and we think we’ve got it figured out. Sometimes we might even think we’d do a better job than God would. Of course none of that is true. God, who knows all of our thoughts, knows those thoughts that we have about Him and He probably regards them in the way we regard “Bo and the dusty table”. Bo didn’t understand the dust on the table, he was just a little boy, and we don’t understand God. And the concept of the Trinity is a perfect way to see how we don’t understand God. Our lack of understanding of God is really built into the very concept that Christianity employs to tell us who God is.

We can define the Trinity, in sort of an academic way, as follows: God consists of three persons and yet is one God. Each of the three persons of God are coequal, coeternal, uncreated, and omnipotent. Now that’s kind of an academic idea, but I think that’s the way we can, not unpack it, because it really can’t be unpacked very well, but I think that the way we can pull it together in a way that we can sort of understand, is to say this: that the Trinity is a mystery of the Christian faith. In order to be people of faith, we have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that there are some things that really are mysteries to us. It’s simply more than our finite human minds can understand. How can three persons be one God? How is any of this possible? We simply can’t see it. Our minds can’t understand it. One way I’ve often explained this, in homilies and also in conversations with people, is to say “try to imagine infinity”. Your mind simply cannot do it. We can’t do it. God is infinite, therefore we can’t understand God. We simply can’t wrap our minds around the being of God. And the concept of Trinity is helpful to us in seeing that. It’s a central mystery of the Christian faith. But it tells us what we can understand about God. One of the things it tells us about God is that God is awesome. When I say God is awesome, I don’t mean the slang term, like the term we often use to express approval of something. You know, that’s awesome. I mean God is mighty. God is omnipotent. God is all powerful. And God is King of the Universe.

The reading that we saw a few minutes ago, from Exodus, describes God as “coming down in a cloud” and Moses addressing God as Lord. This is a beautiful way to picture what we can about the being of God as an awesome, omnipotent God. Exodus goes on to tell us more about God. We see that God is a mighty, but yet a loving God. This, in a sense, is a story that repeats itself over and over again throughout the Old Testament. The people of Israel, they kept turning their backs on God, they kept abandoning God, and sometimes God would let them kind of suffer the consequences of their abandoning Him. But He always came back. He never abandoned them, even when they abandoned Him. He always gave them another chance. Those stories that we see over and over again in the Old Testament show us the forgiving, compassionate, and loving nature of God – that we see also in the person of Christ in the New Testament.

God is both mighty and loving. Moses, in Exodus, in the passage we read today, asked God if he would “come along in our company” and receive us as your own. Can we be your people? And God accepts them as His people. God bids us to come to Him. God is always there, always waiting for us to turn again to Him. We see that in Exodus, we see it throughout the Old Testament. We see it in the New Testament as well.

In the passage that we read today from John, chapter 3, verses 16 – 18. These are passages that most everybody has heard at one time or another. “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.” God gave Himself for us, because remember the Son is a person of the Trinity. God gave Himself. He assumed human form, He became God incarnate, He became one of us. He had all the sufferings and everything that any normal person would have, yet He was God. So He took upon Himself the ultimate suffering, tortured to death on a cross, because He loved us that much. “He so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” He gave himself for us.

So what does the Trinity tell us? It tells us again, in the first place, that God is a mystery to us. Try hard as we might, we’re not really going to fully understand God. We just can’t. Our minds are not capable of fully grasping the being of God. But we can learn a lot about God. In Scripture, we can see that God is infinitely powerful, mighty, and our King. The King not only of us, but of the whole Universe, which God created. We can also see that we are not alone, that God is with us, and that God always bids us to come to Him. Even when we in our lives turn away from him, or abandon Him, He’s there waiting for us to turn back. And He bids us to come to Him. We are always in the presence of an all-powerful creator who loves us – and that is awesome in the ordinary sense in which we like to use that term today. God is almighty and God loves us.

Amen.

Who do you follow?

Readings:
Acts 2:14, 36-41
1 Peter 2:20-25
John 10:1-10

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This is Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s the Fourth Sunday of Easter. We also call this Good Shepherd Sunday because of the Gospel message that we just read.

In this passage, Jesus is talking to the Pharisees. In the previous chapter, chapter 9, He was also talking to the Pharisees, and they were challenging Him and trying to trick Him, as they often did. So He’s continuing His conversation with them, and He uses a familiar image to identify Himself to them – and to us. A sheep pen would have a fence or a wall, and a gate. The shepherd would lead the sheep in and out of the sheep pen. So in the day they could go out to graze, he would lead them out through the gate, and at the end of the day they would come back to the pen. He would lead them all into the pen through the gate. At night, the shepherd would sleep by the opening to keep the sheep in the pen, but also to keep predators or thieves out. So if somebody was trying to break into the pen, they wouldn’t be able to go through the gate, because the shepherd was there. They’d have to go over the wall. Jesus uses that very image to distinguish Himself from false teachers and false leaders. He says He is the gate. Jesus is the gate. He is the only way in, where the sheep belong. Again, others who come over the walls, those are thieves, those are robbers, He says. He’s talking about these Pharisees who are trying to trick Him. Now, our Gospel author, John, says the Pharisees didn’t get that. But that’s what Jesus is telling them, and of course that’s what He’s telling us, too. Those people were just interested in their power and authority – the ones who were trying to deceive Him, the ones who wanted to defeat Jesus. They were threatened by Jesus. They were interested in their own position in society and in their religious institutions. But Jesus is the gate. Jesus is the way. The sheep would follow the shepherd because he cares about them and the sheep recognize him. Jesus says they recognize my voice. Just like the sheep would recognize the voice of the shepherd, Jesus says His people recognize Him and follow Him. They know who He is. The sheep would follow the shepherd because he cares about them.

There’s a connection between this week’s message and last week’s message. Remember, last week we talked about the disciples who met up with Jesus and at first they didn’t know who He was. Then, as they were breaking bread with Him, He said the blessing, they saw this is Jesus. That was a focus last week, this coming to recognize Jesus, to see who Jesus is. Jesus is there, even when we don’t know it. Even when we’re down, even when we’re feeling lost, even when we’re feeling alone; which I know many people are right now. Jesus is there, whether we know it or not.

And we know who He is. In our first reading for today, from Acts, is that same speech we heard part of last week; where Peter, at the feast of Pentecost, is telling a crowd who Jesus is. He’s telling the people there in Jerusalem, who gathered there for the feast of Pentecost, that Jesus is their Lord, and their Christ, and they killed Him. Some of the people hear what he says. Remember what Jesus said in the Gospel message today, some people will hear His voice and recognize who He is. These people heard this message about Jesus and they knew who He was talking about. What do we do? What do we do, they ask. Because it says, “they were cut to the heart”. They felt terrible about what had happened. What can we do? And Peter tells them, “repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

That’s what we do – and so what I want to say is this; these passages I’ve been talking about from Acts and from the Gospel message today sum to this question you can ask yourself – who do you follow? Who is it that you follow? This is what these passages are telling us. They want us to reflect on that. Who is it that we follow? You can follow your own inclinations. You can seek to be your own master; it’s unlikely you’ll succeed, because there’re so many things trying to sway you one way or another. You can follow other people, other people you know, other people you see, and so forth. You can follow politicians. You can follow media, advertising messages, you can follow the world around you, social movements and changes and ideas and all that. You can follow all those things, but there’s only one who is the gate and that is Jesus Christ. I want you to ask yourself today: who am I following? And do everything you can to make the answer to that question: Jesus Christ.

Right now we are all tired. This lockdown has dragged on and on, and we’re tired. We’re tired of the stress and anxiety and uncertainty. We’re tired of being shut in. We’re tired of being alone. I’m tired of not being able to see my congregation. I miss them. We’re all tired of this. I’m tired of not seeing the people I work with and know and so forth. I know you are, too. We want to return to normalcy. We’re tired. And when you’re feeling tired, I want you to remember that image of the Good Shepherd and the gate. At the end of the day the sheep would follow the Shepherd through that gate to rest. At the end of the day, when they’re all tired, they could follow the Shepherd. And the Shepherd would lead them back to where they belong, where they could rest.

Find your rest in Jesus Christ. Follow Christ and Christ alone.

Amen.

The Road to Emmaus

Readings:
Acts 2:14, 22-33
1 Peter 1:17-21
Luke 24:13-35

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This is the third Sunday of Easter. Today, our Gospel story is one that is well known to most, about the road to Emmaus. Sometimes, people refer to the story just as that, the story of the road to Emmaus. What I just read to you, what happens is, two of the disciples are traveling to Emmaus from Jerusalem. Somebody comes along and starts talking to them. This person appears to not know what’s happened – the biggest thing that’s happened ever, the death of Christ – and so the two of them tell him about it. He starts to talk to them. Don’t you believe in what all the prophets have said about this very event? He begins to disclose to them all of the things that refer to Him in Scripture. They convince him to stay with them, and he sits down at table with them and he breaks bread, and gives the blessing. Then suddenly they realize this is Jesus! This is the Risen Christ!

They had been told about this – what we read last week, the two Marys went to the tomb and saw Him not there, and the others come and see what happened. Peter and John are there and they see the empty tomb. We’ve been talking about this for the last couple of weeks. Now, we see another story about a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus.

The big point that I want to make this week, in talking to you about our Gospel message is that very thing that happens in this story of the road to Emmaus for these two disciples — that of coming to recognize Jesus. They suddenly recognized who He was. This happens in a lot of these post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. There’s somebody and they don’t realize who it is, and then *poof* they realize, oh, it’s Jesus. And so that’s what happens here.

We all have a story like this in our lives, where we, at some point, came to understand who Jesus was; where we came to recognize Jesus for ourselves. This happens to everyone of us. For some of us, it may happen in an instant. We may suddenly have an insight, an epiphany, where we realize Jesus is the Son of God. He really did die for my sins. He really is watching over us. He really does love every one of us, even me! Some of us have that kind of epiphany. For others, it’s something that happens over a long period of time, as we grow and mature in our faith and we come to recognize who Christ is. However it happens for us, it happens for us. It continues to develop throughout our lives. As we continue to grow and mature in our faith, we recognize Jesus more and more clearly. This is what I want to focus on today.

There is a second aspect of the story that I want to point out to everybody. Look at what happens in the story – it’s not just that they come to recognize Jesus. It’s the fact that He is with them. Jesus is with them! They’re downtrodden, they’re unhappy. Their leader, their teacher, their friend, their God has been killed in a terrible way and they’re lost. They’re sad about this, but then, there He is. Suddenly He is with them. They realize, He is with us!

And that’s another thing, too, and it’s a part of this coming to recognize Jesus, is recognizing that Jesus is with us. I say this often, we are never alone. Jesus is always with us. In fellowship these two disciples came to recognize Him. This is a reason why we celebrate together. I often say, too, the Christian faith is not something that we do alone, it is something that we do together. Of course, right now, we’re not all together because of the public health crisis. This is a source of great sadness for us. But even right now, Christ is with us! Christ is with us, where two or more are gathered together in His name, there He will be in the midst of them. We have that. You have that, too, because as one of the Christian faithful, Jesus Christ is always with you. You are never alone.

Yet a third point I want to make is this – we can manifest Christ to others, because Christ dwells within us. Christ is always with us, because Christ dwells within us. Christ is in our hearts and from our hearts can shine forth His love to others.

The first reading for today was from Acts of the Apostles. This was a speech that Peter makes on the day of Pentecost. All the disciples and other Jews are gathered together for the Jewish feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem. We’ll get to Pentecost soon enough. We will celebrate Pentecost. But this is the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Paraclete, that Jesus had told them would follow His death and Ascension. This reading for today is this part of the story of Pentecost, Peter making this speech. A major point of this part of the speech is he’s telling the people that God revealed Himself to us in Christ. God revealed Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ, and we can reveal Christ other people and ourselves, but first we have to recognize Christ for who He is. We have to recognize Jesus as our Lord, as our Savior, as our God. A God who is always present with us and who loves us; loves us so much that He was willing to die on the cross to save us from our sins, to atone for our sins.

We’re all getting lots of quiet time right now. We can let it get to us, we can let it get us down, or we can try to use it. I want to encourage you today to try and use this quiet time that you have to grow closer to God. How can you do that with all this quiet time? You can use some of this time for prayer, for meditation, for study, and for reflection on God’s word. You can use this time to recognize Christ and His presence with you, and to recognize Christ for who He is. To sense the presence of God with you, to become aware that Jesus is with you. You do this through doing those things. When you pray, when you meditate, when you study, and when you reflect, you become aware of the presence of God. I will say, this is one of the strongest sources of my faith, those moments when I really, genuinely am aware of the presence of God with me right then at that moment. And you can do that! You can do that through, especially, asking God to let you see Him through doing those things.

We can find good in almost any situation. There are many, many stories like this in Scripture that show us how something good came out of something negative. Use this time, negative as it is in many ways, to draw closer to God. Use this time to do those things that help you recognize Christ for who He is.

Amen.

Jesus Wept

Reading: John 11:1-45

Welcome, Friends! This is the Fifth Sunday in Lent. As you may know, in our area, Gwinnett County, Georgia, things are closed down right now. Unfortunately, this includes our church, so we can’t meet – but I want to be online with you today and to tell you about God’s word that’s reflected in our Scripture readings for today, and also to wish you all the best.

Right now, there’s a lot of uncertainty. People are afraid of what’s going on. Justifiably so, because we’re anxious when we don’t know what’s going to happen next. Oftentimes, when we’re struggling and when we suffer this way, with fear and anxiety, or suffering of other kinds, we ask ourselves, why does God allow such things to happen? Why doesn’t God just create a perfect world for us to live in? Where bad things don’t happen? We often hear people say things like that. When I hear that, I’m reminded of the Creation narrative about the Garden of Eden in Genesis. God tells us there through His word that we’re not in the Garden of Eden anymore and there is no perfect paradise for us to live in. We live in a world in which we have the will to choose things for ourselves, what we’re going to do next, and how we’re going to live. Everybody has that, and some people choose well, some people less so. We also live in a world in which natural processes like diseases, for example, work themselves out. It’s not the Garden of Eden. God’s already told us that’s not where we are. There’s no point in asking why doesn’t God put us there. We can read the story in Genesis and reflect on its meaning for us.

Also, God’s already told us that in many cases it’s simply not for us to know why something bad has happened. In this context, I’m reminded of the story in Job. Terrible things had happened to Job and his family. After he becomes frustrated enough, he asks God, why do you allow these things to happen? Why do these terrible things happen? I’m a good person. I’ve done what I’m supposed to do. Why do you allow this? God in essence tells him, it’s really just not for you to know. There are times when we have to trust in God and allow our Faith to guide us, because there are some things that we simply cannot understand.

With that background in mind, I want to talk about the account of the raising of Lazarus by Jesus, in John, chapter 11. That’s today’s Gospel, for the Fifth Sunday in Lent. The story is a familiar one. Jesus is away with His disciples and they get word that Lazarus is very ill. He knows Lazarus, and He knows Martha and her sister Mary. Mary was the woman who anointed Him with oil and wanted to touch His robes. She was a woman of great faith. Not His mother, a different Mary. He knew them and He cared about them very much. They were all in the town together, Bethany. He says, we’re going to wait a while. We’re going to wait a couple of days, and then we’re going to go. His disciples tell Him, look, people are out to get you. Are you really sure you want travel right now? He says, well, yes, but we’re going to wait a couple of days. So they do that, and when they get there, Lazarus has died. There are a couple of really important parts to this story.  One is, the familiar part, we know that Lazarus is risen from the dead. He’s already in tomb when Jesus gets there, and Jesus says, Lazarus was just sleeping and he’s now come back, and they find him alive. That’s an incredible story of the power of God. There are a couple of things in it that I want to relate to you today. Important things that Jesus says and does. One of them is something that Jesus says. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He tells this to Mary and her sister to describe who He is. He says, “who ever so believes in me, shall not die but live. Even if we die,” He says, even if we physically die, “we shall live.” Death is not forever for the faithful. That’s what He tells them.

Jesus knows that we suffer. Jesus knows that everybody is sad at what happened to Lazarus. In another part of this passage is the shortest sentence that you find in the Bible, and yet in some ways it’s one of the most powerful. It says, “Jesus wept.” That’s all it says, “Jesus wept.” This is Jesus’ reaction when He comes and finds that Lazarus has died. He sees everyone sad about Lazarus’ death. He shares their sorrow. He knows what’s going to happen. He is Jesus. He knows that Lazarus is going to come back from the dead. But He shares their suffering. He shares their sorrow and He weeps. He cries with them. God knows when we suffer. God knows when we’re anxious. God knows when we’re fearful. He knows when were sad, and He shares that with us. Remember, He became a man in the form of Jesus Christ and died on the cross for our sins. He suffered a terribly painful death for us. He shares our suffering. He weeps for us. We see this in the story of Lazarus.

So in the midst of all this uncertainty, in times of anxiety and fear, have Faith. Let your Faith guide you, let it comfort you, and be wise. God did give us a will. He did give us reason. He enables us to do our best to take care of ourselves, and I want all of you to do that.

Be healthy. Stay safe. Stay home. Practice good hygiene with your hand washing and so forth. Practice your social distancing. Do all those things that we’re being advised to do. Be wise. Have Faith. Know that God is watching over us. God loves us. And as Jesus tells us, He is the resurrection and the life.

Amen.

Grace and Faith

Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year A
3-22-2020
Readings:
1 Samuel 16:1, 6-7, 10-13
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1, 6-9, 13-17, 34-38

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Lent and today I want to talk about grace and its relation to our faith. This is not an easy topic. It is a difficult topic, but it’s really central to understanding the Christian life. Faith is not just an intellectual assent to something. It’s not just saying “I believe that” or “I know that’s true”. For example, I can say I know that Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. I wasn’t there, but I believe that. I believe that happened. It’s reported by historians that it happened. There’s no reason not to believe it. So I believe it. But that fact has no impact on my life. None at all. It is of no importance to me that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815. Now, by contrast, I also believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins, and rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father. That has an impact on my life. I believe that. I believe it not only because it’s reported in the Gospels, but I believe it because God has given me the grace to have the faith to believe that. And that has an impact on my life, too. So faith is not just an intellectual assent to something. It’s a commitment. It changes our life. It has an impact on the way that we live. And it’s a commitment. Commitment is hard, right? Anybody who’s been married knows that. Commitment is hard, but God helps us to sustain that commitment by the gift of His grace. What is grace? Grace is the free and undeserved help of God. It’s a gift. It’s unmerited favor. It’s God’s love for us. It’s a gift from God to us, and God’s grace supports our faith in Him.

Our readings today reflect this idea. Our Old Testament reading was from 1 Samuel, chapter 1. This is the story of David’s anointing. David who is going to become the King of Israel is right now a young man. Samuel who is the Judge of Israel at this time is sent by God to go find the future King of Israel and to anoint him. Samuel goes and he finds a family there; he finds Jesse and his sons. Jesse has a number of sons and they’re very tall, handsome, rugged, strong people and he goes, oh yeah, this is going to be them. God says no, it’s not one of them. So Samuel asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” Jesse replied, “There is still the youngest, who is tending the sheep.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Send for him; we will not begin the sacrificial banquet until he arrives here.” Jesse sent and had the young man brought to them. He was ruddy, a youth handsome to behold and making a splendid appearance. The Lord said, There – anoint him, for this is the one!” And so Samuel anoints David with oil, “and from that day on”, Samuel tells us, “the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David.” This is a beautiful story that illustrates what grace is. Grace is this gift of God. “The Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David.” So David is anointed, he has a very special mission to perform with his life, and God enables him to do that. That is grace.

Our Gospel story today also illustrates this and directly relates it to faith, which is my central topic today. This is from the Gospel according to John, chapter 9. Jesus sees a blind man. He’s been blind all his life. Jesus spits on the ground and makes clay with the saliva, smears it on his eyes, and says to him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” – which means Sent. So he went and washed, and came back able to see.” People start asking the guy, what happened to you? You’ve always been blind and now you can see. Some are just people who know him. Some are Pharisees, who say, how was he able to see? And he said, He put clay on my eyes, I washed, and now I can see. Some of the Pharisees question this. They say, He must not be from God, because he doesn’t keep the Sabbath. He worked on the Sabbath, which was forbidden in their law. Others said, how can a simple man do such signs? They asked the blind man, well, what do you think? And he said, He’s a prophet. So they threw him out – because they rejected what this man was saying. So the man sees Jesus again. Jesus comes and finds him. Jesus seeks him out and says, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” And the formerly blind man answers, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “I do believe, Lord”, and he worshiped Him.

This is the grace of God, and it’s the grace of God that gave this man faith in Jesus Christ. The grace of God here is illustrated by what Jesus does for him. He heals his blindness – and its relation to faith is shown in how Jesus discloses Himself to this man, and then he believes in Jesus. This is how grace gives us faith and supports our faith, that continuing commitment to live the life that God has created us to live. Even once we believe, we’re continually faced with challenges to our faith. This happens to all of us.

Our Epistle today gives us guidance about this. Our Epistle is from Ephesians, chapter 5. Paul is writing to the church in Ephesus. He says to them, “you were once in darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth.” God is always holding out this gift us. Always! At the beginning of our faith, with our conversion – like what happened to the man in the Gospel story today – in enabling us to live the life he’s prepared us to live. Like David, with the Spirit of the Lord rushing out upon him, so that he could do what God made him to do. And also in continuing to live our life, we can experience sanctification, which is the way God changes us, through His grace, to enable us to become more and more the people He’s created us to be. This is what Paul is talking about here. “You are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.” He’s talking about receiving this gift of sanctification, which is also from God’s grace. God’s grace supports our faith in Him, and God is always holding out this gift us. God’s grace enables us to accept that gift. How do we accept that gift? We accept that gift by being willing to make Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. We accept that gift by trying our best to live the way that God has created us to live. We accept that gift by receiving His grace through the sacraments. We accept that gift by studying the word of God, by reflecting on it, and by letting it have that impact on our lives. These are ways we accept that gift that God is holding out to us right now and all the time. And in doing that, we become children of light. We are part of the Christian faithful; part of the body of Christ on earth. We live as children of light by the grace of God. God is always reaching out to us. Reach back and accept the gift of God’s grace!

Amen.

What is the Living Water?

Third Sunday of Lent, Year A
3-15-2020

Readings:
Exodus 17:3-7
Romans 5:1-2, 5-8
Gospel: John 4:5-15, 19-26, 39, 40-42

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our Gospel story today was about the woman at the well. She’s a Samaritan woman and she encounters Jesus at the well. She knows there’s a social distinction between Samaritans and Jews. She comments on that, and Jesus tells her, I’m here for everybody. That’s the short of it. He says there will come a time when all of us will worship together. Now, we worship in separate places. There will come a time we all worship together. He’s telling her who He is. She says, well, the Messiah will come and tell us everything, and He says, “I am He. I’m the Messiah”.

This is a passage where Jesus reveals to somebody, verbally, who He is. I want to focus on this story about the woman at the well, what it means to us, and why we’re reading about it during Lent. Jesus tells her that He’s Living Water. What is this? What is the Living Water? Jesus often uses images to describe who He is. In this passage, He tells the woman that He is Living Water. In another He tells people He is the Bread of Life; in another He tells people He is the True Vine; in another He says He is the Gate; in yet another He says He’s the Good Shepherd; and in yet another He says He’s the Light of the World. Jesus uses these images to tell us who He is, because images like that are powerful and they can stay in our minds, and they can change us. They can show us who Jesus is in a way that we can understand internally. Jesus also defines Himself. Sometimes He gives a definition of who He is. He does that here. He says He’s the Messiah. In other places He says, “before Abraham was, I am”. He’s telling the hearers He’s God. In another place He says I am the Resurrection and the Life; and in yet another He says I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He tells us He is God. He is our pathway to life. Why this image of water?

That’s the one in our Gospel reading today and that’s the one I want to focus on. Why does He use this image of water to tell the woman who He is? We know that during Lent we commemorate Jesus’ time in the desert. As He prepared for His ministry, He spent 40 days in the desert, He fasted and prayed. He got hot, He got hungry, and He got thirsty. We all know what it’s like to be thirsty. Think about it for a minute. Remember a time when you were really thirsty. As I was preparing this message, I was thinking of a time when I had been out for a run. A long run, it was really hot, and I was incredibly thirsty. I still remember that. It was years and years ago. We can all think of a time like that, when we were really thirsty. Now, remember what that was like, when you were really thirsty and you got a drink. Oh, it felt so good! I remember, I had red Gatorade after that run and it felt so good. That’s peace! That feeling you get when you quench that terrible thirst – is a feeling of peace. But we always get thirsty again, right? That’s what Jesus tells the woman. She says, you know, how can you get water out of the well? You don’t even have a bucket. And He says, I’m not talking about that water. If you drink that water, you’ll get thirsty again. The water I offer is a water that will quench your thirst forever. It’s Living Water. Water that will quench your thirst for good. He tells her that He’s the Living Water. He uses this phrase. He says, this water will create within you a spring of water, welling up to eternal life. This is the water that’s given to us by the Holy Spirit. When we drink physical water, we always get thirsty again.

During Lent, we focus especially on penitence, and charity, and disciplines that we take upon ourselves. We’re trying to get rid of things that separate us from God in one way or another. When we drink regular water, we always get thirsty again. Things that separate us from God, the things that we’re penitent for during Lent, sin, anything like that, separate us from God. If you think about things like that, they’re a kind of thirst that can’t be quenched, whatever it is. They’re something we’re chasing after, whatever it is, even if we get it, we won’t be satisfied. We’re going to want more and more and more of whatever it is. Or we’re going to want it again and again and again. The world is always presenting us with things like this, through advertising, through messages we get from other people, and so forth. Get this and you’ll be satisfied; get this thing, and you’ll be okay; get this thing, and you’ll be happy. Those are things that distract us from God, that separate us from God. Only God can really satisfy our thirst, and that’s what Jesus is talking about here.

Our Old Testament message today has an image of this. It’s from the passage of the people to the Promised Land. The people had been freed from bondage in Egypt and they’re wandering through the desert. They’re hot, and they’re tired, and they’re thirsty. They say to Moses, where can we get water? God tells Moses, take the staff that you used to part the Red Sea, take it and strike the stone, and water will come out. It gave them water. The water came from God. This was the message to the people. This is the message that Jesus is giving to the woman at the well. That He is the source of the water they need, the Living Water. How does this work? This is something we can reflect on during Lent.

Paul gives us an idea about this in his letter to the Romans, chapter 5, which we read from today. He says a couple of things that are very relevant here. He says, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Remember that peace I said that we felt when we quenched that terrible thirst? This is the peace we get from God. This is what Paul is talking about. How do we get that peace? Paul writes, “the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” He’s telling the people that the Holy Spirit brings the love of God into our hearts. God becomes present within us, and this is what quenches that thirst, this is the Living Water that Jesus is talking about, that He tells the woman at the well about. Paul’s talking about the same thing.

Okay, so why are we reading this during Lent? What does this have to do with Lent? This is a time when we discipline ourselves, in some way or another, to grow closer to God. Maybe we give up something, or we take on additional things, like we pray more or read the Bible more, or maybe we do things for other people. All of these things have something in common: they get us out of ourselves. I talked about this before. A minute ago I said, when we’re doing things that are separating us from God, this is what we mean by sin. We’re doing something that separates us from God. A common thread that draws different forms of sin together is selfishness, or self-centeredness. It’s me. Me. Me. I’m focused on something about me. I’m not focused on God. I’m focused on me. When we’re in sin, we’re selfish, and we’re pushing God out of the way. This is what separates us from God. God always wants to be with us, but we push God away. This is why Lent is a time of penitence. It’s a time to turn away from those things and to focus on things that will draw us closer to God, that remind us of God. Maybe, you know, we miss that ice cream or whatever it is. Maybe we spend more time reading Scripture. Maybe we’re doing something for another person. Whatever it is, it’s taking us out of ourselves. When we’re focused on God, we’re getting out of ourselves, and we’re getting ourselves out of the way to make room for God. This is the reason for these Lenten practices: get ourselves out of the way and make room for God to come in. Then, like Paul tells us, “the love of God is poured into our hearts”, like water, the Living Water that Jesus told the woman at the well about. And this is the water that quenches our thirst. And this brings us peace. True peace. The peace that Paul is talking about. The peace that we get from the love of God that’s poured into us like that Living Water.

Amen.

What do you choose?

Readings:
Sirach 15:15-20
1 Corinthians 2:6-10
Matthew 5: 20-22, 27-28, 33-34, 37

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today, we hear part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and these are passages that everyone is familiar with. I’m going to talk about them today. One of the things you can’t miss when you read from the Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus has, what seems to be, an impossibly high standard for us to meet. The Mosaic law says, don’t kill, but Jesus says don’t be angry. The Mosaic law says, don’t commit adultery, but Jesus says don’t look at a woman with lust in your heart. How do we do that? How can we not be angry with somebody? How do we not be lustful? How do we not do these things that are inside, that are in our hearts? It’s one thing to control our actions, but it’s another thing to control how we feel and what we’re thinking. So what is Jesus telling us? What is the reason behind what Jesus is telling us?

As I was preparing this message I thought of a common experience we all have, at least if we have kids, and maybe we’ve experienced this ourselves in other ways. The kids do something you don’t want them to do, maybe they’re mean to their brother or sister, something like that, and you say, “tell them, I’m sorry.” Right? “You better tell your brother/sister you’re sorry for what you did.” And they don’t want to do that, so they say “I’m  sooorry” in a very insincere way. We’ve all seen this. We may have done it ourselves. I suspect I have from time to time. They’re not really sorry, right? They say they’re sorry, but they’re not really sorry. They don’t have regret in their heart for what they did that was wrong.

This is what Jesus is getting at in this part of the Sermon on the Mount. He presents us with a very high ideal of ethical behavior. It doesn’t mean that the law is being displaced. He says I’ve come to fulfill the law, not to change it. Jesus comes in fulfillment of the law, not to change the law. One thing I want to say right there, Jesus is telling us who He is. He’s not just one of the teachers. He’s not like a scribe, or a Pharisee, or one of the lawyers. He’s somebody who speaks with a very special kind of authority. He’s telling us who He is: He is divine man; He is God incarnate; He is Christ. He is different than the lawyers and the teachers of the law. He’s come to fulfill the law, and He’s telling us what it means in the Sermon on the Mount.

There is a question of the law. Are we supposed to follow the Mosaic law? We talked about this before. In the early church this was an issue that was debated and discussed. Paul concentrates a lot of effort on it, in his letters to the churches, saying that we as Christians are not obligated to follow the Mosaic law. Not all the dietary laws, the circumcision, and all that sort of thing, but the ethical parts of it, Paul says, we are expected to follow. You can tell there are some different portions of the law. There are some that clearly relate to ethical behavior: How we treat other people, and the respect that we have for God and for our fellow human beings. Paul explains, there are other things that are markers of the Jewish community. These were things that serve to set the Jewish people apart, as God’s people with a special mission from God to perform in human history. So there are some things that made them recognizably Jewish; the dietary laws, the Sabbath, and those kinds of things. But these, the kinds of things Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount, relate to all Christians. These are the ethical core of that law that relates to all of us as Christians, and that God expects all human beings to follow. I told you already what some of these demanding principles are that Jesus sets forth in the Sermon on the Mount. So why does he do that? Again, He’s not changing the law. He’s saying, this is the law, and He’s not changing anything. This has always been the law.

If you look at a woman with lust in your heart, you’re committing adultery. If you’re angry with your brother, you’re doing something wrong. You’re violating that commandment, thou shalt not murder. You’re not physically killing him, but what are you doing if you’re doing things that are cruel to other people. He says, if you call someone a fool, you’re liable to judgment. If you’re cruel to other people, if you’re doing these things, this is what’s in your heart. That cruelty, that wrong kind of lustfulness, that anger, and so forth, this is what’s in your heart. This is what you choose.

Our Old Testament reading from today is from one of the deuterocanonical texts, Sirach, chapter 15. This is relevant to what we’re talking about, because Sirach is telling his readers that “God has set before you fire and water to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.” Choose is the key word there. “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” Whichever we choose! We make a choice! We make a choice over our actions, but we also make a choice about where our heart is! Where is our heart? And this is what Jesus is getting at in these very challenging, demanding passages in the Sermon on the Mount. What we do is important. What we do comes from the heart that we have within us. What our intentions are, where our heart is. Think about it this way. Think about somebody who doesn’t actually do these things, like murder, and adultery, and all these sorts of things, but they really want to. They really want to do that. They really want to commit murder, they really want to commit adultery. Is that person seeking God with all their heart, with all their soul? No! They’re not seeking God at all.

If we are seeking God and intend to do His will for us, we won’t do these things. We won’t do the murder, and we won’t do the adultery, but we also won’t have the bad intentions, and the bad heart, that Jesus is talking about, in these very demanding passages presented in the Sermon on the Mount. We won’t want to do these things. We won’t think about these things, not in a willful kind of way. We won’t have those bad intentions, the anger, all that kind of stuff, and wanting to be cruel, and so forth.

Think about it like this: sometimes we’re angry at somebody. We all experience this. We get mad at somebody, and we imagine ourselves really telling them off, right? We all do this. We’re really going to tell them off, we’re really going to put them in their place. Is our heart where it needs to be when we do that? No! Most of the time we’re not actually going to do those things, but when we’re thinking those things, our heart is not where it needs to be. So what do we do? Our heart is often in the wrong place. That doesn’t mean we’ve actually killed somebody, or committed adultery, but often our heart is in the wrong place. What do we do about that?

We have to recognize our dependence upon God. We depend upon God, and God will transform us, if we let Him do it. God will put our heart back in the right place. If we reach forth, like Sirach says, if we “stretch forth your hand.” If we reach out to God, and ask God to put our hearts in the right place, God will do that. I said it this often, God does the hard part, God does the heavy lifting. God can change our thoughts and our intentions and our hearts. God can do this. And then we won’t be as cruel and lustful, etc. because the Holy Spirit has transformed us. God works sanctification in us, makes us more holy, more like He intends for us to be, through the Holy Spirit in our lives. God does this. God changes our hearts. We just have to let God do that.

Let me go back to the example I gave at first, of the kid saying I’m sorry. Think of how you feel when the kid does it properly. When the kid really does feel bad, and they say to their brother/sister “I’m sorry” and they mean it. You’re happy, right? Because your kid, who you created, is doing the right thing. This is like the joy God has, when we live in the way God plans for us to live. God is joyful when we do the right thing, when our heart is in the right place.

We know we’re flawed. We’re imperfect, right? We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. This is Paul’s message, repeatedly, that it’s not the law that saves us. We cannot save ourselves by following the law. We don’t save ourselves by anything we do. We’re powerless to do that. It is Christ that saves us. Christ has saved us through His death on the cross, as a propitiation for our sins. We will fail to follow the law. We will. Especially the demanding principles that Jesus articulates in the Sermon on the Mount. We are often going to fall short of that standard, because we are human. But what we do? We don’t accept failure. We don’t go, oh well, I’m a fallen, simple creature, so I’m just going to wallow in sin. No, we don’t do that. We keep seeking after God. We do what we can to be willing to let the Holy Spirit, sent by God, transform us into the people that He created us to be. That’s what we can do – be willing and be persistent.

The Psalm today, Psalm 119, part of it says, “blessed are they who observe His decrees, who seek Him with all their heart.” Let’s do that! Let’s seek after God with all our heart, and God will transform us, putting our hearts in the right place, in the place He created them to be.

Amen.

The Light of the World

Readings:
Isaiah 58:7-10
1 Corinthians 2:1-5
Matthew 5:13-16

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

One common question that many people ask is about the relationship between faith and works. Some people say, well, we in the Catholic faith believe that we are saved by works. Of course, we don’t believe that. In fact, Scripture tells us otherwise. We’re saved by faith through the grace of God. But what is the relationship between faith and works? The book of James in the New Testament is prominent for its discussion of the importance of works. The relationship is this: if you have faith, your works will show it. If you have faith, it will shine forth like a light from you, for other people to see the glory of God.

And this is the message of our Gospel today. Jesus says, don’t hide your a lamp under a bushel, right? “It’s set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” Our good deeds glorify God. They don’t save us. We can’t do anything to save ourselves. This is the core message of the Gospels; certainly one of them. We’re saved by the death of Christ on the cross. Christ is the remission for our sins. Our works do not save us. They cannot save us. St. Paul tells us that over and over again. Your works do not save you; circumcision does not save you, none of these outer things save you. Only Christ saves.

But again, what is the relationship between faith and works? Jesus tells us, we’re like a light on a hill; we’re like a city on a hill, that other people can see. This is from Matthew, chapter 5. What does this mean? It means that God’s loving nature shines through us when we live out our faith. When our faith is shown in our actions, people can see God in what we do. Other people see our faith in our works and are attracted to it. This means, for us to take our faith seriously. We shouldn’t take it for granted. We shouldn’t go, yeah okay, I believe in God. What does that mean? What does it mean when we say to ourselves that we believe in God? If it doesn’t mean anything to us, then it literally doesn’t mean anything! Just words. Words. Words alone aren’t anything. If we really believe, if we really have faith, it must have an impact on the way we live our lives. It would have to.

When you have a quiet moment, reflect on what the meaning of God is to you. What the meaning of God is to the world. A God that created everything that exists. A God that became one of us and suffered a terrible death to save us from our sins.

Think about the difference between us and God for a moment. I see this all the time in my work. We all see it. Whenever people mess up, often their first instinct is to try and blame somebody else. “Somebody else did it. I didn’t do it.” Look at what God did! God took our blameworthy nature on Himself and died on a cross for us. This is what God did for us. God didn’t have to do that. We were the ones to blame. We were the ones responsible for our own sins. God took our sinful nature and died on the cross. If you really think about that, if you really internalize that, if you really understand that as something that’s real, it has to have an impact on how you live your life! This is what I mean by saying, if you have faith, if you really believe that, your works will show it, because it will have an impact on the way that you live your life.

In our Epistle today, 1 Corinthians, chapter 2, Paul speaks of having “fear and trembling”. He says, “I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling,” speaking to the people in Corinth, “and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of Spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” Paul was an educated man. He was a smart man. You can tell when you read his writings. He was very capable of sophisticated reasoning and argument. But he’s telling the people in Corinth, that’s not what I showed you God with. I showed you God by my faith. As he puts it, “a demonstration of Spirit and power.” He’s writing about the Holy Spirit manifesting God through him, so that people can see the power of God, not in Paul, but in the Holy Spirit that was there with Paul. And he’s telling us to do that. Do that for others. Let other people see God present in you and in your life.

When we speak of works, what do we have in mind? Our Old Testament reading for today, from Isaiah, chapter 58, gives us some good examples. “Thus says the Lord: share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.” Let people see the light of God in you, through the things that you do. This is a light that emanates from you, through your actions, to show other people what the love of God really is. Isaiah writes, “if you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday.” Again take away those bad actions and the light comes when you remove that darkness; people can see the light of God. This image of light is a beautiful one, and it shows us what we can do through our actions to let other people see us – and see God in us – in what we do. Our works don’t save us, but they show other people what God is like. They see God manifested in us through the power of the Holy Spirit; that makes us treat other people with justice and with compassion. Keep this image of light shining from you. Jesus uses images like that over and over again in the Gospels. He uses powerful images. Like these images that He uses today, about “you are the light of the world”, “a city set on a mountain cannot be hidden”, “nor do they light a lamp and then push put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house”.

Let people see the light of God emanating from you, in your compassion, your justice, your love for others. This image of light in this context again means us manifesting God to the world. So, as Jesus tells us, you are the light of the world. Be that light, so that other people can see the presence of God among us.

Amen.