The Meaning of Repentance

Isaiah 8:23-9:3
1 Cor 1: 10-13, 17
Matthew 4: 12-17

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

This is the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time. Our message today is twofold: one, the image of light appearing in the darkness, and two, the meaning of repentance.

As I was thinking about this message, I remembered something that happened to me as a child. I suspect nobody here will get it, but me. It’s a family joke going back to when my brother and I were little kids. I don’t know where we lived at the time. I was an Army kid and we moved around a lot. Somewhere, my parents took us to the zoo. We were at the zoo and we decided we wanted to ride the train. The train was made up to look like a dragon, so the front car, the engine, was made up to look like a dragon. It was a purple dragon train. We rode around the zoo and we went through a tunnel, and the train broke down in the tunnel. And there was smoke billowing. We probably should’ve been scared, but it was so exciting!  There was this smoke blowing through the tunnel. I remember it vividly. It was an exciting thing to happen. The tunnel was dark, but I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, literally. They were telling us to go towards the light to get out of the tunnel. At that moment, that was the light in the darkness. Now, for us the light in the darkness is Jesus Christ.

I want to begin by talking about our Old Testament reading, which, at first blush, looks like it’s describing places that are strange to us, but it’s actually describing a map. This map becomes a part of a prophecy about the mission of Christ in the world. I’ll read a passage from it and explain. This is from Isaiah, chapter 8. “First the Lord degraded the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali; but in the end He has glorified the seaward road, the land west of the Jordan, the district of the Gentiles.” So what is he talking about? What happened, historically, was this: there were two tribes of Israel, Zebulun and Naphtali. They were in the northern part of Israel. They were invaded by the Assyrian Empire, which was in part of what is now the country of Syria. They were invaded by the Assyrian Empire, and the Assyrians forced them to intermarry with the Assyrians. This is the origin of the Samaritan people. The Samaritan people had their Jewish background in faith, and so forth, but they were looked down upon by other Jews as being less than. You’ve all heard the story of the Good Samaritan, right? This was the man who did the right thing and helped the person who was in distress. Part of the meaning of that story was, this person who was looked down upon by the world around him, he was the one who did the right thing. That’s where the Samaritans came from. They were looked down upon people. Isaiah is referring to this, but then he talks about wonderful things happening there. “Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness: for there is no gloom where but now there was distress. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” The people in that area had undergone bad things, but something wonderful has happened.

This is a prophecy that’s referred to in our Gospel message for today. The essence of it is a great light from God shines from this place, where there had been gloom and sadness, and bad things happening there.

Our Gospel message today is about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and it’s from Matthew, chapter 4. I’ll read a bit and then I’ll talk about it. “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled.” This is a reference to what we read in the Old Testament reading today. Galilee is in that region, in the northern part of Israel. The cities of Nazareth and Capernaum, which are connected with Jesus, are there in that region. And that’s where Zebulun and Naphtali were. This fulfills that prophecy, but more so it tells us, Jesus is that great light. He is that great light that shines from that place where there had been gloom and darkness. Jesus is the light in the darkness of this world.

How do we get to that light? How do we get to the cross of Christ? That brings me to the second part of my message today, which is what repentance means, and what it means to us. Repentance is referred to in Greek, the New Testament Greek, as metanoia. Metanoia is a Greek term that means a transformation, a change of path, a fundamental change in the person, a deep down change in the person. So that’s what repentance is. It means more than just saying, oh gosh, I messed up, I’ll try not to do that again. It means more than that. It means a deep change of heart, that’s what repentance is.

All of us, right now, are going in some direction in our lives. All of us are. Every one of us is headed in some direction. The world pulls us away from God’s intentions for us. The world tries to get us to deviate from that path to the cross of Jesus Christ. The world tries to pull us away from God. There are so many things in the world that seek to do that: other people, things, stuff we see in the mass media, stuff we hear out and about. Things that look like that bright shiny object, that if we can just get that, we’ll be everything, everybody will love us, and we’ll be happy, and blah blah blah. That bright shiny object, that something in the world pulling us in a direction away from God’s intentions for us. But repentance means that we’re changing that direction. We’re changing that direction away from those other things that would take us away from God; those bright shiny objects, and instead we’re looking to the true light, the light that shines from the cross of Jesus.

Repentance is not a one-time thing. Repentance is something we have to do repeatedly. I remember, recently, I was somewhere and I saw somebody walking a dog. The person was walking this dog, and this dog did not want to be on a leash. This person was walking the dog on the sidewalk and the dog was straining as hard as it could to go some other direction. It was determined to go some other direction. The person was patiently walking along with this dog straining at the neck to go some other direction. We all have that dog in us, trying to take us in a different direction, away from the cross of Christ, toward the world, and away from Jesus. We all have that in us. That’s why repentance is something we have to do over and over again: to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ, to make that change of heart, to make that change of direction, because we are flawed and imperfect. We are insufficient by ourselves. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot live under our own power the way that God intends for us to do. We have to keep changing direction to go towards Christ, who is that light in the darkness.



The Baptism of Jesus


Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7

Acts 10:34-38

Matthew 3:13-17

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

Today is the feast day of the baptism of the Lord. Today we remember the day on which Jesus was baptized.

Talking about this, I want us to ask ourselves two questions:

(1) Who are we?

(2) What should we do?

These are questions that confront every reflective person. If you think about what you’re doing, you’re going to ask yourself these questions at some point. (*Loud engine noise coming from outside.*) Some people are motorcycle riders … and other people do other things, but we all have to ask ourselves these questions, who are we, and what should we do?

I want to suggest two answers that we can accept, whoever else we are, and whatever else we’re doing:

(1) We are part of the body of Christ.

(2) Our mission is to live in faith and to help build the kingdom of God on earth.

Today’s commemoration of the baptism of Jesus is connected with Epiphany. Recently we celebrated Epiphany and this had to do with the Magi coming to see the baby Jesus. This was a particular historical event, and so is the baptism of the Lord. But what happened? What does it mean? Those are the really important things for us about these events. They happened, but what do they mean to us today? The baptism of Jesus, like Epiphany, reminds us again of God’s action in human history. God acts among us in the world.

Jesus’ baptism was a turning point in His life. We all have moments like that, that are really life altering, critical moments in our lives, and Jesus’ baptism was one of those for Him. In thinking about the baptism of Jesus, reflecting on our baptism reminds us of how we came into the Christian faith. Some of us were baptized as infants, others were baptized later, but it’s the same either way. It signifies our becoming part of the church, part of the body of Christ. The church is the body of Christ on earth. It’s the mystical body of Christ. All of the Christian faithful all around the world are Christ in the world. This is part of how God acts in human history through the world, is through the church, all the Christian faithful everywhere.

Baptism also means our personal rebirth as a Christian, and a cleansing of sin. Sin just means, in this sense, of being separated from God. Our baptism, the sacrament of baptism, connects us with God, and in that sense it’s a cleansing of sin that we have before our baptism.

As we see in the story today, John baptizes Jesus. They didn’t invent baptism. Jews did this as a ritual cleansing. John, in his ministry, which we’ve seen a couple of weeks ago, preached baptism as a preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Remember, his message was very simple: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. And he preached that “somebody is coming after me who’s going to be the Messiah.” Baptism was a part of preparing for that. This is why he was John the Baptist. He had this simple, powerful message of repentance and preparing for the coming of the kingdom of God into the world. He was baptizing people to prepare them for that event.

Jesus, in this particular account that we read today, transformed baptism into what we do now. For Jews, it was a ritual cleansing, and that’s what it was for John. It was a ritual cleansing that Jews did to prepare for worship and so forth. And he was doing this to prepare them for the coming of the kingdom of God.

With Jesus’ baptism, baptism becomes the beginning of a new life of faith, and that’s what it is for us as Christians today. Baptism, in this sense, links us with Jesus. As I say, it makes us part of the body of Christ. It’s a rite of Christian initiation that brings us into the church as part of the body of Christ. It’s also part of our identity. It’s part of who we are. Each of us is a member of the body of Christ. We are all adoptive children of God. God has adopted us as His children when we come into the church. The holy water is what they call the res, or the thing, in the baptism rite. It’s the thing that performs the action of the sacrament. It’s the thing that does the cleansing. There’s more to it than just the thing. It’s not just water. It’s holy water that’s been blessed and is using with an intention, a specific intention, of bringing this person, initiating them, into the church, making them part of the body of Christ. It’s a sacrament. That’s what makes it different than just getting splashed with water, or dipped in water. Holy water, which we have in the church and which we use for things like blessing houses and other things, reminds us of our baptism. That’s why we can use it to bless other things. That’s why we can use it to bless ourselves, as we come into the church or leave the church. So this is part of our identity. Our baptism is a part of who we are as individual people. Second, as I said, this all answers the question about what we should do. This, who we are, points to our mission in life. Our mission, as I said, is to live a life of faith. Live, recognizing that God is present in us. Work at growing closer to God through prayer and through service to others. We can take time to say a prayer each day. If we do that, it works, we will draw closer to God. Prayer works! You’ve heard people say that. It’s true. If you say a prayer each day, you will grow closer to God. It works. You may not always get what you pray for, but you will draw closer to God, by reaching out to God every day.

And by service to others. We were talking about this before church. This is a powerful spiritual lesson: if you’re having a tough time, one thing you can do is to do something good for somebody else, to help somebody else, and you will feel better. It will make your problem seem much smaller. They may even just go away – the problem may not go away, but the bad feeling you have about it will be less. This is something you can do. Prayer and service to others are ways we can live our lives as Christians. We can live a life of faith, recognizing that God is present in us, and we can show God to other people. This is how we can help build the kingdom of God on earth – through the way we live. We can help bring the kingdom of God into manifestation, into being on earth, through the way we live our lives. And we can do that because we are part of the kingdom of God. Think of blades of grass in a field, think of bricks on a wall, that’s what each of us are. We build the kingdom of God on earth through the way we live, all of us individually, and together.

The church calendar, with things like the feast day we have today, offers us guidance. We just celebrated Advent recently, that’s the beginning of the church year. Advent is the period leading up to the birth of Jesus. It’s a new beginning in human history, and we celebrated that beginning. Epiphany, which we just celebrated, and the baptism of the Lord, which we celebrate today, these are beginnings, too. They’re wonderful accounts of things that happened, the Magi coming to see the baby Jesus; the Gospel story that we read today, where Jesus is baptized by John in the River Jordan.

I’ll repeat it briefly. John is baptizing people in the way I described and Jesus appears. John knows who He is. John knows this is Jesus and he says “I’m not fit to tie your shoes. I can’t baptize you. You should baptize me.” Jesus tells him, “no, this is what’s supposed to happen.” He baptizes Him and then you hear this thundering voice, “this is my Son with whom I am well pleased.” This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

We often think of beginnings in the early part of the year, which we’re doing now. Let this be a new beginning for us. Who we are and what we are to do. Remember, who we are – we’re part of the Christian faithful, we’re part of the body of Christ. And what are we to do – our mission is to live a life of faith. We do that, and our lives will be more like God intends for them to be.


Christ the King

2 Samuel 5:1-3
Colossians 1:12-20
Luke 23:35-43

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

This is the Feast of Christ the King. Today is a special day. Advent begins next week. This is the last week of the church calendar. We’ve had a message that’s been building over the last few weeks. Who was Jesus? We looked at different aspects of Jesus. Jesus was a multidimensional figure, more so than anybody who’s ever lived, because he was a divine man. He was a multidimensional figure in that he had a number of roles that he played, both while he was alive, in the fleshly sense on earth, and today. This week, we focus on His dimension as our King. Jesus Christ is our King. Why does this matter? Why do we have a special day set aside for this? It’s a feast day, so it’s a celebration. We celebrate Christ as our King. Why do we do this? Why do I want to talk about this today? We all serve someone. This is a fact.

When I was a young guy, the singer Bob Dylan came out with a few albums that had Christian themes to them. There was a song on one of the albums, “You gotta serve somebody.” That was the name of the song. Great song. Very catchy tune.

But that is the theme of what I’m talking about right now. You do serve somebody. You serve somebody. Even if it’s just by default, you serve somebody. We have governments among us in the world that we serve. Not by choice, but because we have to serve them. We pay our taxes to them. We obey their laws, or we’re punished. We serve them. That’s not a choice, it’s not. There’s kind of the fiction that it’s a choice, but it’s not a choice. You have no alternative. But there’s a greater authority that’s not as visible to us as those worldly authorities. There’s the visible power of governments and other kinds of authorities in our lives, but then there’s the one that’s not as visible, and that is divine power. But what is less visible is more real. Its authority is real. God’s power is real. God’s authority over us is real, much more so than these governments that have ephemeral, temporary power. More importantly, we make a choice to serve that power. We make a choice to respect the authority of God. This is a choice that we make, unlike those worldly authorities that give us no choice at all. So today we ask ourselves: who do we choose to serve? Do we choose to serve Jesus Christ? This is the question we ask today. Christ is our King, if we choose Him to be our King.

Our Old Testament reading today is from 2 Samuel, chapter 5, and this reflects a particular historic event that happened among the Hebrew people. Their first King was Saul. The people demanded a king. They didn’t have a king. If you go back before Saul they had Judges, they were called, which really were spiritual leaders and they were respected as authorities, but they weren’t a government. They weren’t kings, they didn’t have the kind of political authority that a government would have. This is, in a sense, a stateless society. These were people whose King was God. But they demanded a king. We want a king, they said. They told Samuel, the last of the Judges, we want a king. This was very upsetting to Samuel, because he said, you have a King. Your King is God. That’s your King! God said to Samuel, fine. Let them have a king, they want a king. So they got Saul. Saul turned out to be, as all human beings are, a flawed person. He disrespected God in some important ways. He disobeyed God in some important ways. I’m not going into the stories, because they would take us away from our central message today. But Saul sinned against God, and so God took the kingship away from Saul’s line and gave it to their second King, David. So David becomes the second King of Israel. David had flaws, too. David sinned against God, too. He did some terrible things. Like all people, earthly kings have pride in their power and pride in themselves. They have egos and they’re flawed, just like all the rest of us, so they’re going to let us down. The government the people demanded let them down. The government the people demanded thought it was equal with God. The government the people demanded sinned against God. It rejected the authority of God, of their true King. This is the message that we get today from 2 Samuel.

Now the Epistle for today is from Colossians. Colossians, first chapter, and this is actually a hymn. A big part of it is a hymn. It was sung among the early church. And they’re talking about angels. The people in Colossus were interested in angels and so forth, which are real, but they had a big focus on angels in their thinking about God. All Paul is telling them there is that Christ is in charge of everything, including all these angels that you’re so interested in. He created them. He says, this is Jesus, this is the image of the invisible God. So God became a man, He became one of us. He had an image of us, but he was also the image of God. He was God on earth. Paul writes, “He was the firstborn of all creation. For in Him were created all things.” And that’s what this hymn says. This refers to an image that’s very appropriate for today, which the Greeks call Christ Pantocrator. Christ Pantocrator means Christ who created everything. Jesus Christ is the Ruler of the universe. He’s also He who created the universe. He created it, He governs it, He is King over it, it’s His. And the hymn goes on to say that Christ reconciles all things in Him. Christ reconciles man with God. Christ reconciles these flawed, imperfect beings with the perfection of divinity, with the perfection of God. But the message of Colossians is that Christ is the King of everything, including the other invisible beings that we don’t see in our daily lives, such as angels. He created it all and he is Lord of all.

Our Gospel message for today is from Luke chapter 23. In some ways this is kind of a jarring thing to see after what we’ve just been talking about, which is Jesus as the King of the universe, He’s being crucified. Jesus has been hung on the cross and there are two criminals there that are crucified with Him. This is an image that everybody’s familiar with. There is Jesus, hanging on the cross, being tortured to death, along with two criminals who committed crimes that justly deserved that punishment, as one of them says. And the soldiers and rulers are jeering at Jesus, they’re saying, if you’re really the King of the Jews, save yourself. Come down from the cross. If you’re really the King of everything, you can take care of this yourself, we can’t kill you. They’re making fun of Him. This is an important thing. I’ll mention this – one reason we redid the hymn this morning was, I read an article about it where somebody was objecting to it, a commission that studied it, because this hymn had the audacity to point out that it was people who killed Jesus. I will tell you that it was people who killed Jesus. It wasn’t just one people. It wasn’t just Jews, and it wasn’t just Romans, it was everybody. It was all people who killed Jesus. All of us. All of humanity murdered Jesus Christ, tortured Him to death and killed Him on a cross. That’s the message of the Gospel – that it was humanity who rejected the Lordship of Jesus Christ and killed Him and ridiculed Him while they did it. Not just one people. All people. Everybody. That’s what the Gospels are teaching us. What they’re telling us is Jesus Christ is the King. He is our King. He is the King of all humanity. We choose to recognize that. Those two criminals who hung there with Him on their own crosses, one of them chose to believe and to accept the Lordship of Christ, one of them chose not to. But the one who did, Jesus says, “Amen, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” This is what happens when we accept the Lordship of Christ. He recognizes us as His subjects. He recognizes us as His people. All we have to do is accept him as our King. This is a choice that we make, and it’s a choice we can make every day, and we can forget about it and then we can make it again. This is part of the love of God for humanity – he always gives us another chance. Even when we mess up, we still get the opportunity to come back to Him and recognize Him as our King. In everything that we do, in how we live, we decide who we serve. We can make Christ our King each day. It is a choice that we have the power to make for ourselves.


Do the Next Right Thing

Malachi 3:19-20
2 Thessalonians 3:7-12
Luke 21:5-19

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

We’re nearing the end of the church year. Advent is just around the corner, and the message today is about Christian eschatology, which refers to the final days and the return of Christ. This is a heavy subject, so I will start with some levity. I couldn’t help but think of it, we’re also nearing the end of the semester where I teach. On the last day of class I tell students, “well, I hope you liked this class, but if you didn’t, look on the bright side: it’s over now.”

Christian eschatology, talking about the end times, the final judgment, is a difficult subject. Among different churches and scholars, there are different ways of interpreting the texts in the Bible that describe these events. One thing we know, because it’s part of our faith, is that this will happen. This is something that is going to happen. Our creed, which we will say after the homily today, the Nicene creed, includes the following: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end.” That’s part of our confession of faith. That is part of our faith. Christianity is very much a historical faith, centered around historical events, both in the past and in the future. Every Sunday, we talk about the life, the ministry, the passion, and the death of Jesus. We talk about His resurrection at Easter. We talk about His ascension after that. These are historic events that actually occurred. Today, we’re talking about future historic events, the return of Christ and a final judgment. These are very important things for Christians to reflect upon. I think this is part of the take-away from today’s talk – I get this from a psychologist, Carl Young. He was not talking about the final judgment, but he was talking instead about the end-of-life. We all experienced this and, as we grow older, it becomes more real to us. As I’m in late middle age now, it’s much more real to me, eventually my earthly life will be over. What he said about that was, it’s the end-of-life that gives our lives meaning, because we know we’re not going to live forever. It’s important what we do today. Our lives take meaning in the present, because we know they don’t last forever. I want to think about that in the context of what do we, as Christians, think about eschatology, about the final judgment and the return of Christ.

We hear about this in today’s readings. The first is from the Old Testament. Malachi, chapter 3. Malachi is one of the minor prophets and this is the last book in the Old Testament. He is writing after Jews have returned from their exile in Babylon. They come back to Judah, they’re home again, but the people have lived among pagans for a long time, and they adopted some of their moral laxity. They weren’t following the faith that they had been taught by their ancestors, and by their holy books. The priests were not doing right. They were not leading the people properly. They people weren’t supporting the temple properly. And Malachi writes of a future judgment and he writes of it in very powerful terms. “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evil evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch.” This very powerful imagery. It means that something really scary is going to happen. Something really terrible is going to happen. What do we take from that? Well, what we take from that – it matters what we do now. That is what God, through Malachi, is telling the people. The way you live now, both the priests and the people, is very important. Think about how you’re living. Mend your ways. Live in accordance with your faith now. That’s what’s important – in the present. But we don’t know when this is going to be. Malachi certainly doesn’t tell us.

And Jesus underscores the fact that we don’t know when this is going to happen. He says this in multiple places in the Gospels. One of them, we look at today. This is from Luke, chapter 21. The people are talking about the Temple, look at all the beautiful things on the Temple, the beautiful stones, and so forth. Jesus says, all of this is eventually going to be thrown down. There will come a day when all this worldly stuff that we’re familiar with is going to be swept away and replaced by something new. The people ask Him when is that going to happen? How will we know when this is going to happen? Jesus doesn’t say. Elsewhere, Jesus says, nobody knows, but the Father. Only the Father knows. He doesn’t give them a direct answer, but He does tell them something very important. He says, there will be bad things that are going to happen. There’ll be wars, and rumors of wars, and insurrections, and all kinds of terrible things, but that doesn’t mean these are the last days. People may say, look at all the terrible things happening, this means these are the last days. Jesus says, it doesn’t mean that. He also says, people will come after Him, claiming to be Him, and claiming these are the Last Days, and that they are the risen and returned Christ. He says, don’t believe that. What He’s telling them is, you’ll know when this happens. You’ll know. You’ll know when this is happening. He does say, too, that you will be persecuted for being Christian. People who are Christians, in those Last Days, will be persecuted for it. But what does He tell us about how to deal with all this? The uncertainty about the future and the potential for being persecuted in our lives? He says the way to handle it is to trust God. He says, “remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself should give you wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” By our steadfastness in our faith, by our trust in God, we will be okay. We will be okay. Even if our bodies are not okay, we will be okay. Our eternal souls will be okay. Jesus will take care of that. So He’s saying, trust God. In all this uncertainty about the future, trust God. We don’t know when, but we do know this from Jesus. He’s saying, trust God.

Our Epistle today, I think, is particularly helpful in telling us what to do now, in view of the fact that eventually there will be an end of time as we know it. The world will someday be vastly different than it is today. This is from 2 Thessalonians, chapter 3. Paul is writing to the church in Thessalonica, a Greek city. There the people had become convinced – and this was very common in the ancient church – that the end times were upon them, that this was about to happen immediately, in their lifetimes. Paul is telling the people, you shouldn’t live that way. People were trying not to care. Like, well, the end is here, what should I care? I don’t need to take care of myself. I don’t need to do my duty to anything. I just need to wait for things to happen. Paul says, no! He says, keep doing what you’re supposed to do. In particular, he’s talking about the ordinary business of life. Paul, like priests in the Independent Old Catholic Church, was what’s called a tent-making priest. That is, he had to support himself by ordinary labor, and he always did that. What a great example he set for the people. He could’ve lived off of other people, but he didn’t. He chose to work at a common craft, making tents. He says, that’s what you should do. He says, be productive, keep doing your duty, whatever that is. Do what you’re supposed to do. Live the way that you’re supposed to live. As I reflect on what he says here, overall, his message is this – and it’s a common saying we sometimes hear – keep doing the next right thing. Do what God wants you to do. That’s how you will be prepared for whatever happens in the future. Again, Paul, like Jesus, and like Malachi, is telling us what’s important is what we’re doing in the present. That’s how we can be prepared for anything that comes to us in the future. They’re giving us a guide to life: live in accordance with God’s will for us, do our duty to others, and do the next right thing.


When you turn to God, God will be there


Wisdom 11:22-12:2
2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2
Luke 19:1-10

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

God loves us and wants us to turn to Him. We make a little effort and God supports us. Our effort is repentance, and God’s support is His grace. That’s the message of today.

The Gospel message is the story of Zacchaeus, who I’ll turn to in a moment. Before I start, though, I was thinking about something. Susanne and I’ve been watching recently this miniseries they made about the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. We watched this and were talking about this last night; the people who ran the plant tried to cover this up, that the nuclear reactor had blown up in that the core was open to the air and spewing out dangerous poison, damaging the health and threatening the lives of thousands of people. They thought they could cover it up and we said what a bizarre thing to do.

As I was preparing this message, I was thinking about that. It wasn’t just bizarre, it was evil. They did it because they were afraid. They were afraid of getting in trouble. They got in trouble, anyway. But God would forgive even them. If they were to repent and convert, and turn from their sin, and turn to God, He would forgive even them. God is here for all of us. God loves all of us. God wants all of us to turn to Him. If we make that little effort to repent, God supports us in doing so. That’s the message for today.

Our Old Testament reading is from Wisdom, one of the deuterocanonical texts. The question the author is trying to answer in this passage, Wisdom, chapter 11: Why doesn’t God do away with evil men? Why doesn’t God just wipe them out? Why doesn’t He just get rid of them? The answer is that God is benevolent to all people. God loves us, because God created us. His Spirit is in us. His Spirit is in all things and He doesn’t want to destroy what He has created, because He loves it. He rebukes us a little, to encourage us to mend our ways, and He wants us to repent. The author says, “you spare all things, because they are yours, O Lord and lover of souls, for your imperishable spirit is in all things! Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little, warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O Lord!” That’s our message. Our message is one of love, forgiveness, and repentance.

Our Epistle today is from Paul’s 2nd letter the Thessalonians, chapter 1. What’s happened here is that the church had received a fake letter. A letter that purported to be from Paul, but really wasn’t. Who knows why someone would send this, but they sent this phony letter, saying the Second Coming has already happened, Jesus has already came back. You can imagine how this affected the people in Thessalonica. They were terrified, and some of them quit going to work, they just dropped everything, because, after all, the Second Coming is here. Why bother, right? This had a big impact on the people there, and Paul says, no, I didn’t send you a letter like that. He continues this message we’ve been talking about, how God supports us and helps us. He writes, “our God may make you worthy of His calling and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith.” That is every good purpose, every effort of faith that you have, God supports that. God is behind that. God will make you worthy of His calling. You just answer that calling, and God will help. God will support. We don’t ever have to do anything alone. We are never alone in this world, because we always have God with us, to support us and help us.

Our Gospel message today is from Luke, chapter 19. Jesus his traveling along and He’s going through Jericho. He was planning to just pass through the city, but there was a man named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. We’ve read about people like this. Remember, the dishonest judge? Last week we saw another tax collector. We’ve seen that message. Somebody who is bad. Zacchaeus is a bad man. He’s wealthy. Why? Because he ripped people off. That’s his career, to rip people off. He’s not just a tax collector, he’s the chief tax collector, so he probably gets a cut from the other tax collectors, too. This is a bad man – but he wants to see Jesus. Jesus is traveling through the town and Zacchaeus is a little guy, so he can’t see over the crowd. He climbs up into a sycamore tree, because he wants to see Jesus. He made an effort. This is what we’re talking about. He made an effort, because he wanted to see Jesus. He just wanted to lay his eyes on Jesus. This bad man wanted to see Jesus. Jesus knows this, and so He calls out to Zacchaeus and says, Zacchaeus I’m going to have dinner with you tonight, I’m going to stay at your house tonight. Zacchaeus says, I want forgiveness for all the bad things I’ve done. I’m going to give away my wealth, my ill-gotten gains, and if I’ve wronged anybody I’m going to repay them four times over. That’s repentance. And Jesus says, “today salvation has come to this house.” Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus by climbing up into the tree. He made an effort. He reached out to Jesus. Jesus knew it and reached back, and that is how salvation came to the house of Zacchaeus. Jesus says, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” That means everybody, even somebody like Zacchaeus, who’s done lots of bad things, even somebody like me, even somebody like all of us, Jesus has come for all of us. He wants us to reach to Him, reach to God, turn to God, make that little effort, and God will help us do the rest.


Prayer and Humility


Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Luke 18:9-14

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

Last week, our message was about praying without becoming weary, to continue to pray, to keep trying. The week before that, we talked about humility, the importance of humility in the Christian life. This week continues those thoughts and in a way puts them together. When we pray, we humble ourselves before God. Humility is a part of prayer.

I was thinking this morning about something back in my law days. We had a big case up in Chicago and we had a whole team of lawyers up there. The judge in the case was a hard guy to get along with and he had a bad temper. There was something one of the other lawyers asked me present the argument for. They said, Scott, when you talk to the judge, you’re very respectful and polite and he likes you. And so they wanted me to do this. The thing is, I was always that way with judges. They’re in charge. They’re in charge of the court and they represent the law. They are important and we should be respectful to them. But I’ve seen many lawyers who were not respectful to judges, and I always thought that was a bad idea.

So I thought about that. When we pray, we humble ourselves, because we’re petitioning somebody. We’re petitioning God to do something. In that other realm, I was petitioning a judge to do something. You humble yourself. You ask humbly, will you do this for us? When you go to God, you humble yourself before God. And it’s not just when we pray. Our whole lives can be about humbling ourselves before God, because we recognize our reliance on God when we’re humble. When we realize that God is everything and we are really nothing.

Our first reading today was from Sirach. Sirach is one of the deuterocanonical texts. It’s part of the wisdom literature. In the Jewish world, these were about teaching people how to live. Some of these are in the canon, such as Job, and Ecclesiastes, but deuterocanonical texts are not. They don’t have the same status as those that are in the canon. The message we read today was from Sirach, 35: 12-14, 16-18. The chief message that the author is imparting is, God will hear the prayers of the poor and the oppressed. In the chapter before, the author is talking about what kinds of sacrifice are acceptable to God. The author says, keep the Commandments, do works of charity, give alms to the poor, avoid injustice and wrongdoing. These are the things that commit our lives to God. When we do all of those things, we’re recognizing our reliance upon God, we’re humbling ourselves before our Creator. Now here, in this passage, the author is saying, God listens to the prayers of the poor and the oppressed. We submit our humble petitions to God. He writes, “the one who serves God willingly is heard.” The one who serves God willingly, is the one who humbles himself or herself and petitions God for help.

Our Epistle today was from Paul’s 2nd letter to Timothy, chapter 4. We’ve been reading this for the last few weeks. Paul is preparing Timothy to take his place, because Paul knows his days are numbered. He is in prison and he knows he’s going to be executed. And he’s trying to build up Timothy’s confidence to become a leader in his place after he is gone. Paul writes, “I have kept the faith; I have finished the race.” At the beginning of the passage he says, “I’m already being poured out like a libation”, like a sacrifice. Paul is sacrificing his life for the faith. He is sacrificing his life for the faithful in Christ. He knows his days are short, but he knows he will be with Christ after he’s gone from this world. But Paul emphasizes that it’s not Paul himself who does this. It’s not Paul himself who finished the race. It’s not Paul himself who was able to keep the faith under his own power. Paul writes, “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.” Paul recognizes his dependence upon God. He recognizes that God is everything; the source of all that Paul can do. It all comes from God.

In our Gospel today, from Luke, chapter 18, Jesus tells the following parable. We’re all familiar with this one. It’s a very striking image. Jesus tells about two people who go up to the Temple to pray. One of them is a Pharisee, and of course the Pharisees were very strict in their adherence of the law. That was how they practiced their faith. This particular Pharisee took great pride in that. He goes to the Temple and he says, ‘God, thank you that I’m not like all these other people. I’m not bad, I’m not an adulterer, I’m not this-or-that, I’m not like the rest of humanity.’ That’s the way he puts it. What is he saying? I’m better than everybody else. Thank you God, I’m better than everybody else. I do all these things, I fast, and pay tithes on my whole income. He says, I’m not like this tax collector. Now, tax collectors typically were people who were dishonest. They would collect taxes on behalf of the Roman government. They would also collect more and keep it for themselves. They were basically stealing from the people. So that’s the image that Jesus is giving us here. This man is a sinner, but the difference between him and the Pharisee is, he knows it. It says, he “stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but he beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And Jesus says, that’s the prayer that God heard that day, not the one of the Pharisee who exalted himself, but of the humble tax collector, who realized his wrong, who realized that he was a sinner, and realized how dependent upon God he was.

This is about the vice of pride. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins, and St. Thomas Aquinas taught us that this may be the worst sin of all, because it shows contempt of God. It places ourselves on equality with God. If we’re prideful, we don’t recognize our dependence upon God. We think we work under our own power. We don’t realize how absolutely dependent upon God we are. So Jesus is telling us, don’t be like the Pharisee who thinks he’s great under his own power. I love these images that Jesus uses. Remember the one last week, with the widow who kept going back to the dishonest judge? Jesus is telling us, be like that widow, keep going back, keep praying, keep asking, keep petitioning. Now he is telling us, be like this tax collector – not dishonest like the tax collector was in his work – but be like this tax collector in recognizing that we are sinners and we are dependent upon God. Whatever we have going for us, it’s from God and not from ourselves. Don’t be like the Pharisee who thinks he’s great under his own doing.

Be humble and recognize our weakness and our flaws. Be like that tax collector. And that is how we pray, truly, a prayer that God will hear.


Keep Trying

Exodus 17:8-13
2 Timothy 3:14-4:2
Luke 18:1-8

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

The message I want to impart to you today comes especially from our Gospel, which is to persevere in prayer. Jesus told His disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always, without becoming weary. That’s what I want to talk about today.

As I prepared this message I remembered something I saw as a young man. Some of you may remember it, because it was in the news at the time. It was an athlete, a woman named Julie Moss, who did an Ironman triathlon in 1982. It was a very moving thing to see. I still remember it vividly. She was in the lead in the race. An Ironman triathlon is just an amazing thing. They do a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and then they run a marathon after that. All on the same day. They start early in the morning and when they finish it’s dark. I actually did one once, it took me 12 hours to do it. But that was a while ago. Julie Moss was an amazing person. That’s what I remembered about her this morning. She was unexpectedly in the lead in this race. This was early in the days when they were doing Ironman races. They started in the 1970s, so this was one of the early Ironman races. She was unexpectedly out in front, and during the run part, the final leg of the race, she got closer and closer to the finish when her legs just gave out. She collapsed in the road, and she struggled to her feet, and she got up and she kept going. The film of it is stunning to watch. You can find it on YouTube and see what she did. Her determination to finish that race is one of the most moving things I think I’ve ever seen. She got sick, she lost control of herself, you know, and she kept falling down and nobody could help her, because she had to finish the race under her own power. And she kept on! And she eventually finished the race, by crawling across the finish line. She wasn’t in the lead when she finished the race anymore, but she finished the race. That is perseverance. That is determination.

We know that God’s grace is free. God’s grace is a gift, but it is a gift that we have to be willing to accept, and our own natures often rebel against accepting that gift. We want to do things our way. We want to be in charge of everything. We want to be in control. That’s just who we are. That’s the way we are as people. So we have to come back. We have to reorient ourselves to seeking God and doing God’s will in our lives. And we have to do this more than once. This isn’t a one-time thing. It’d be great if we could just all instantly become saints and always do God’s will, but that’s not who we are. We’re people, we’re fallible, we’re flawed, were imperfect. God knows us and loves us in spite of that. He wants us to keep coming back to Him. And God knows this about us, hence today’s parable. Jesus is telling the disciples, He’s saying, you’ve got to pray, always, without becoming weary. You’ve got to keep coming back to God.

The parable that he tells us is in Luke, chapter 18. It’s the parable of the dishonest judge. Now the dishonest judge is somebody who was probably a magistrate that the Romans would pay to dispense justice, so-called, to the people that they had conquered and controlled. Somebody like that would be somebody who, very often, was dishonest. They would take advantage of people, use their position to make money, in a word they were corrupt. So that’s who Jesus is talking about, a corrupt official. That’s the image He is planting in the minds of the disciples who were listening to Him. And the woman who comes to him, this is going to be somebody who represents the poor, the vulnerable, somebody who is petitioning for justice. And they likely won’t get it from the corrupt official. But she keeps trying. That’s what happens in the parable. She keeps going back to the dishonest judge. I’ll read part of the passage. “The dishonest judge is one who neither feared God nor respected any human being. And a widow in that town used to come to him and say, ‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’ For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought, ‘While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.” So he does, he gives her a just decision. What is the point of the story for us? Because we know God isn’t like the dishonest judge. God is God. God is not a corrupt official. Jesus is not likening God to the dishonest judge, instead He’s telling us to be like the woman who keeps coming back. Keep coming back. Don’t give up. Like Jesus tells the disciples. He’s telling them this parable about the necessity for them to pray always, without becoming weary. Persevere in prayer. That is Jesus’ message to the disciples and to us. Prayer opens our hearts to God to seek to do His will. And that’s what we’re supposed to get. When we pray for other people, we can ask the same for them. And when we persevere in this, we’re inviting God into our lives.

I do want to pause for a moment to mention the Old Testament reading. This was from Exodus, chapter 17. How does this relate to this? It’s a story, an image, that’s very familiar from the Old Testament perhaps. In Exodus, in those early books, the historical books, the people have left Egypt and they’re on their way to Canaan, they’re on their way to the Promised Land. They have lots of wars and fighting along the way. They’re being attacked by a group led by Amalek, a political leader who is bringing his people to war against them. As long as Moses has his hands up, the Israelites have the better of the fight. Eventually Moses gets tired or his arms get weak, and so his assistants, Aaron and others, prop his arms up. What does that mean? When we read these things, people in those times lived a rough life, they lived a violent life. And they had this “magical” view of things: if only he holds his hands up, we’re winning.

But remember, as it says in 2 Timothy, the Epistle today, “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching.” What does that message teach us? As long as the people are invoking God, God is there. That’s what they needed to understand. Turn to God, petition God, and God is there. That’s what they needed to learn. That message and that image is different to them that it would be to us. God spoke to them in that way, a way that they could understand. They were assailed by enemies, over and over. People with swords coming after them. And as long as they were invoking God, God was with them. That was what they understood. We have a much gentler picture of God in Jesus Christ. We understand it a different way than they did, but Jesus is telling us the same thing: pray always, without becoming weary.

I have to add one thing that’s nice about the passage from Exodus, when Moses got tired, his friends propped him up. His friends supported him and that’s a beautiful image. So what on the surface seems like this horrible, violent image, actually has something beautiful underneath it. Like Paul says to Timothy, “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching.” So we keep invoking God. We keep coming back to God. We persevere in praying to God. And when we do that, we’re inviting God into our lives. That’s what we should do. God answers our prayers by His presence with us, by being there. Even when we are most alone, when we’re most troubled, and when we’re in pain, God is there with us. Through our persistence, like the widow in the parable, we can become aware of God’s presence by coming back, over and over again. Even when we have to struggle to do it, if we keep coming back, we can be aware of God’s presence with us. And that is what Jesus is telling us to do.



2 Kings 5:14-17
2 Timothy 2:8-13
Luke 17:11-19

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

Our message for this week is about gratitude. Have you ever heard that saying “Have an attitude of gratitude”? I have. I think it’s a good one. It’s easy to remember, rolls off the tongue. That is the focus of our message this week. As I prepared this message, I was thinking about something that’s become kind of a family joke for us. One time, I was driving somewhere with the children, and my oldest son, Jack, wanted me to get him a snack, which is a pretty common occurrence. We were driving by someplace where he wanted me to stop and get him a snack, and I was not as concerned about his snack as he was, and so I kept driving on down the road. And Jack said, “Dad, you are missing an opportunity to get me a snack.” We still joke about that. Poor Jack, he’s a good sport.

This underscores how much we take for granted. We do. We take many things for granted. We go along, we have so much in our lives that’s wonderful and we take it for granted. Sometimes, in my teaching, I have occasion to tell my students that there was once a world in which there were no cell phones, and there was no Internet. We didn’t even have copy machines to print off tests, I explained, the pages had this weird purple print on it and the paper smelled funny. My students just looked at me like I was from another planet. They take all that stuff for granted, because that’s all they’ve ever known. We get used to things, right? And then we take them for granted.

Gratitude is important in our faith. When we’re grateful, we’re humble, because we realize all of the gifts that we have in our lives. When we’re humble, we see those gifts, and we see God’s role in our lives. We see our relationship with God. When we see this relationship, we experience our faith in a very real and tangible way. So gratitude is a great instrument to help us see God in our lives. Our readings today illustrate this idea.

Our Old Testament reading today was from 2 Kings, chapter 5. Here you have a Syrian general, Naaman. He’s a pagan, not an Israelite, and he came down with leprosy. As an interesting historical point, when you hear about leprosy in Scripture, it could mean leprosy like we know it, Hansen’s Disease, but also could mean some noticeable skin condition, such as psoriasis, or something like that. People didn’t really understand what things like that were, and they took it to be a sign of uncleanness. And, of course, they didn’t want to catch a disease, so they would stay away from him. So this is a catastrophe for Naaman, the general, to come down with this. So he goes into the Jordan, because Elisha says so, and he goes into the Jordan seven times. When he comes out, his flesh is clean. He’s been healed of this disease. And now, Naaman is very grateful and he wants to give thanks to God. This is a conversion moment for Naaman, because he realizes, that the God of Israel has saved him, a foreigner, a pagan. He says – and this is a strange looking thing to us, but it is an interesting point – he says, “let me, your servant, have two mule-loads of earth, for I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other God except to the Lord.” He wants to take some of the dirt from Israel back home with him, so that he has some of Israel there. This is the God of Israel, so he wants to be in that place, Israel, when he gives thanks to God. This underscores his gratitude to the God of Israel for healing him. He was thankful to God for what God had done for him.

Our Epistle today is from 2 Timothy, chapter 8. This is a follow-up from last week. We saw, last week, Paul is in prison. He knows his days are numbered and he views Timothy as his successor, so he’s advising Timothy about what to do in leading the early church. He’s telling him to be steadfast in the face of challenges; that he’s going to have them. He says, look at me, I’m imprisoned, faced all kinds of challenges in my life. And indeed, Paul had a very adventurous, challenging, and in many ways very painful life. He’s in prison, Paul says, but he willingly accepts suffering, and he does this for the sake of those who will hear and accept the Gospel. He’s willing to undergo all these challenges and suffering because this is a mission he’s been given from God – to preach the Gospel to all the nations. And Paul says to Timothy: “this saying is trustworthy: if we have died with Him we shall also live with Him.” This is the promise of Christ to us: we know, even when we’re undergoing hardships and challenges and pain, that Christ is with us. We can be grateful for the presence of God in our lives, even in the midst of suffering and fear. We still have hope in Jesus Christ.

Our Gospel message for today is from Luke, chapter 17. This is something that happened. It has the look of a parable, but it’s not. This is an event that occurred in the ministry of Jesus. There are 10 lepers that He encountered while He’s traveling through Samaria and Galilee. The 10 lepers are there and they ask Jesus to heal them. “Have pity on us!” they say. Jesus says, “go show yourselves to the priests.” As they’re going along, they realize they’ve been healed. Jesus has healed them. And so, nine of them just go on their merry way. They’ve been healed, this is great. One of them, though, returns to Jesus and gives thanks to Jesus for healing him. Jesus notes, this one is a Samaritan. Remember, the Samaritans were looked down upon by the Israelites, they viewed them as less than. But this Samaritan, he was the one who came back to give thanks to God. This is what Jesus says to him: “has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” Then he said to him, “stand up and go; your faith has saved you.” This Samaritan, the one who is looked upon as less than by everybody else there, the one who has leprosy, the one who is ill, this one has been saved by his faith in God. And he demonstrates this by his thankfulness to Christ for saving him.

So, as I began, ‘have an attitude of gratitude’. It’s not always easy to do. When we don’t feel well, or encounter struggles and challenges, when we’re in pain, it can be really tough to have gratitude. But think about it this way, if you have that attitude of gratitude, you will be a happier person for it. You will see God around you and you will experience your faith in a very real and tangible way.


Putting God First

Wisdom 9:13-18
Philemon 9-10, 12-17
Luke 14:25-33

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

This week, I read a story about a man at the beginning of the process to be considered for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. His name was John Bradburne. Bradburne had quite an eventful life. He was a British soldier in World War II, and he was said to have a very aristocratic demeanor, he was a very intelligent man, and he wrote poetry as his avocation, and apparently set a record for the number of poems he wrote. He wrote thousands of poems. He had this artistic sensibility, but there was something missing in his life, something that he wanted to pursue. This was back in the 1970s. He was in his 50s by this time. The country now known as Zimbabwe had been controlled by the British, and it was then called Rhodesia. There was a revolution going on in Rhodesia, to overthrow the government, which they did. Bradburne inserted himself into this whole thing. He asked a British soldier, who was in Rhodesia, is there a cave in that country where I can go pray. This is what he wanted to do. He wanted to go and remove himself from the world and spend his time in prayer. Well, that’s not what he did. What he did instead was, he went to care for people in a leper colony. That’s what he did. There are amazing photographs of him, and it’s just stunning to see this, because it’s so much like what we read about Jesus healing a person with leprosy in the New Testament. And here he is, John Bradburne, this tall, fit looking guy with a long beard and longish kind of hair for the time, with his arm around lepers. That’s what he did. He took care of these people. Eventually, the rebel forces decided they wanted to get rid of him. They kidnapped him, they tortured him, and they shot him to death. Eventually, his body was recovered and he was buried. He was not a priest, he was a lay person. He was a member of the Franciscan order, so he was a monk. One of the things that he had hoped for, for the end of his life, was that he would be buried in his Franciscan habit, which he was. I mention Bradburne because this is something I saw on the news this week, but it reminds me so poignantly of the Gospel message from today.

Our Gospel message from today is something that, at first blush, does indeed sound shocking. In Luke, chapter 14, Jesus says, “if anyone comes to me without hating his mother and father, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” A little farther down he says, “anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” This message does sound shocking. We’re supposed to hate our family? We’re supposed to renounce all our possessions? We’re supposed to give up absolutely everything? What does this mean? That’s what I want to talk about today.

Jesus goes on to tell his listeners to count the cost of discipleship. He uses images to explain this. Somebody who’s going to construct a building has to make sure they have the supplies they need to build the building. He talks about a King, who’s going to go off into battle, to make sure he has enough soldiers to prevail in the battle. Count the cost, He said. So what is He telling his listeners to do? It says, “great crowds were traveling with Jesus, and He turned and addressed them.” And this is what He told them. He told them these things. These people were following Him on His way to Jerusalem. He knows what’s going to happen to Him. He says, “whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” He hasn’t been hung on the cross yet. He knows what’s coming, and He’s walking willingly towards his fate. He knows what’s going to happen to Him. Remember, He is God. He knows what’s going to happen. He has been telling people in hints and so forth about what’s going to happen to Him. He gave up everything as a human being. As a divine being, both God and man, He knew he was going to suffer a terrible, painful death and He did that willingly. For the sake of His Father, for the sake of the Kingdom of God – and this is what He’s telling these crowds what they have to do. Take up your cross and follow me. So what does that mean? All this shocking sounding language about hating our family, hating our parents, hating our children? Jesus has one point that I think is chief here. He says it in this shocking way, which is characteristic of Jesus. He tells us things in a big picture kind of way, using strong imagery and strong language so that we can understand what he wants to convey. His point: God comes first in the life of a Christian. If He had just said it that way, it would sound kind of prosaic and unsurprising. If He had turned to the crowd and said, you know, God should come first in your life, people would say, well, yeah, sure. But He didn’t say it that way. He said, you have to hate your mother and father, and hate your children, and renounce all your possessions. But that’s what He means, God has to come first in the life of a Christian. That’s a tall order. It’s a tall order and that’s why He uses this strong language. What He’s teaching the people is they have to learn to be detached from this world in order to be citizens and live in the Kingdom of God. We cannot be overly attached to the things that we love in this world. It doesn’t mean, don’t love your parents. It doesn’t mean, don’t love your children. It doesn’t mean you can’t own anything. It does mean, don’t be so attached to these things that God no longer comes first. God has to come first, and that’s what He’s telling us. He uses this strong language to drive home that point that God has to come first.

For the last few weeks, our message has been, in one way or another, about the high price of following God. The price of following God is a high one. We will talk about the reward, too. But the price is a high one. Here, Jesus is saying the price is total. Total commitment is the price. God has to be number one in our lives, before anything else. How is this possible? How can a person do that? It’s normal for us to put ourselves, family, friends, possessions, first. It’s normal. It’s ordinary. That’s our first inclination, to put all those things around us first. That’s our nature. That’s human nature to do that. So what is it that enables us to overcome our human, natural impulses? The answer is: the grace of God. It’s the grace of God that enables us to do these remarkable things, like learn to be detached from all these things that we still do love and still need. It’s the grace of God that gives us the strength to put God first. But there’s a catch. There is a catch. It’s a gift. The grace of God is a gift. That’s what it means. It is the unmerited favor of God. It’s a gift. It’s not something that we earn by being special or important. It’s a gift that God gives us. But I said there’s a catch. To accept this grace, which is a gift, we have to be willing to accept it. And that means we have to be willing to really put God before everything else. In order to receive that gift, we have to be willing to receive it. That’s true about any gift. We have to be willing to receive it.

I was reminded, too, about somebody I talked about recently, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian. He wrote a book called “The cost of discipleship” and a key concept there is the idea of costly grace. Cheap grace, he says, is the kind that says, well, everything is okay, I don’t have to do anything different, I’m fine the way I am, I’m okay, everything’s fine. That’s cheap grace. He says that’s not the true grace of God. That’s not what Jesus died for.  Costly grace is something else. Bonhoeffer, in a way similar to Bradburne you could say, Bonhoeffer was a very ardent opponent of the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s and 40s, and the Nazis killed him. They put him in a concentration camp and they executed him, because he wasn’t their kind of guy. He was opposed to the injustice of that regime. He understood and lived costly grace. He lived it. He gave himself for it. He gave up everything. Just like John Bradburne gave up everything for the Kingdom of God. We have to be willing to really put God before everything else in order to receive that grace, that costly grace. There’s only one way to accept it and that’s hard. It’s a hard thing to really be willing to put God before everything else. Yes, we can still love our parents, we can still love our children, we can still have the things that we need – but we have to be willing to put God first. And God will do this for us. God will enable us to live that way.

Jesus talked about counting the cost. What’s the reward? Well, we know what the reward is. It’s the beatific vision of God. This was Saint Thomas’ description. It’s heaven, that’s what it is. It’s eternal life with God. It’s being in the presence, the loving presence, of God. This is something that we can experience. It’s something that everyone else can experience. One thing I’ve said over and over again, this is not about just us. It’s about manifesting God’s grace in our lives, so that other people can see it, too. That other people can experience the love and the grace of God. We can spread this grace through our actions and through our commitment to God. Not only us, but everyone else, too, can experience that beatific vision, that imminence of God, that presence of a loving God. Seeing God face-to-face is the way it’s been put. For us, for human beings, there’s nothing more valuable than that and for this reason it’s worth the high cost of discipleship.



Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29
Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24
Luke 14:1, 7-14

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

I love those old Pink Panther movies, the ones with Inspector Clouseau. The joke is really the same, over and over again, right? Clouseau imagines himself to be this kind of 007-supercop, but he’s really kind of a bumbler, and he messes everything up – and that’s what makes it funny. It’s funny, because we all recognize that. We all have an intuitive grasp of the central idea of Clouseau. He’s this guy who thinks he’s fabulous, and he’s really not.

In the Gospel message for today, the key idea is that Jesus is teaching us about humility as a virtue. So that’s what I want to talk about today, humility. A virtue is what makes something good at what it is. This is true for all kinds of things. It’s also true for people. It’s even true for objects. The virtue of a knife is its sharpness, right? It’s what enables it to be good as a knife. We’re people. Why is humility a virtue for us? Let’s consider its opposite. When we’re grandiose, or conceited, were not putting God first. And this is something we all do.

In this instance, I’m reminded of myself. My wife, Susanne, will confirm this. She loves to watch police shows, and there are a couple she watches where the central character is a PhD. We’re watching those, and I say, I have a PhD, you know! She waves me off and goes, yeah, be quiet, I want to watch my TV show.

Humility is a virtue, because it gets us out of the way. And when we get us out of the way, then we can put God first. Then we, as people, can have a proper relationship with God. This is why humility is a virtue for a person. It’s what helps us to be in right relationship with God. In the Gospel message for today, it’s from Luke, chapter 14, Jesus is at the home of a leading Pharisee where He’s been invited to dinner. He starts to tell the people not to take a position of honor. He’s already reclining at the table. They’re all there. And it says, the people are watching Him carefully. So you can imagine, because we see Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the two principal sects in Judaism at that time, they were always challenging Him, trying to bring Him down, and so forth. Here He is, at this banquet at the home of Pharisee. He’s telling people, don’t take the position of honor at the table. He says, if you do that, you’re likely to have somebody else come in, who is it more honored by the host than you, and you’ll be told to move, and then you’ll be very embarrassed. So He says, don’t do that. Instead, take the lowest, least position, and if you’re asked to move, you’ll be asked to move to a higher one.

Everybody knows this passage, and it’s such a beautiful statement. “For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Let me loop back around to this idea of humility as a virtue. “The one who humbles himself, will be exalted.” If we have humility, we’ve gotten us out of the way. We’ve gotten ourselves and our ego out of the way, and then we’re in a position to be in a right relationship with God. So Jesus is telling us, don’t be like the one who thinks they’re great and discovers they’re not. Don’t be Clouseau. Instead, be humble. When you get yourself out of the way, there’s room for God. How do we do this? How do we go about being humble? Because, as I say – and we all know this – it’s not our nature to be humble. It’s not. We tend to put ourselves at the center of things. That’s part of the human experience. We see the world through our eyes. We see other people, and everything around us, through our own subjective experience and it’s very natural for us to make ourselves the center of things. But that’s what moves us away from God. So how do we become humble? Like so many things, it’s simple. It’s hard, but it’s not complicated. I think the answer is this: to learn humility, be grateful. That’s a practice that we can all do. When we are grateful for what we have, we will be humble. Because we’ll realize how much we do have. Then we can be humble and we realize how dependent we are on God. There’s a nice popular practice of writing down, each night, three things that we’re grateful for. If we do that every night, reflect on our day, that by itself is a good practice. But if we write down three things that we’re grateful for, then we’re learning humility when we do that. We won’t take for granted the things that God has given us. We’ll realize how dependent we are on God and how fortunate we are.

Doing this in prayer is another good way to do this. When we say our prayers, we can reflect on our day, we can think about where we could have done better, and we can be grateful for the things that God has given us. We can name them off, one, two, three. We can do that. The point is to make a practice of gratitude. When we make a practice of gratitude, we’ve moved ourselves out of the way – and then we can be in a right relationship with God as His grateful and loving children.