Sunday, September 27, 2015

"Trowels or Sledgehammers?" From the Pulpit (September 13th, 2015)

I'm a little late posting this.  This sermon was delivered at Christ Church Anglican in South Riding Virginia back on September 13th.

Looking across the texts of this morning’s readings, the idea of our words come streaming through both testament along with the Gospel reading.  Considering this, I’d like to take a few moments to think about what comes out of our mouths and ask, “Are our tongues trowels or sledgehammers?”

Tongues make up less than four ounces of our total body weight and we don’t think about them unless we’re brushing or we unexpectedly bite our tongues.  Without them we would be incapable of intelligible speech.  Think of the great orators of the ages.  Men like Winston Churchill, Dr. King, and Ronald Reagan could never have inspired the millions without the power of the spoken word.  Saint James alludes to this power of the tongue when he compares them to a ship’s rudder or a horse’s bit.  A full grown horse approaches one half ton and is fully capable of stomping a man into the dirt.  Yet a horse that’s been trained with bridle and bit can be mastered by a child.  That ship’s rudder, from a design and size standpoint is relatively small in comparison, yet it can move even a super carrier on a steady course through the water.  Yet this tiny organ seems to be the hardest to sanctify and the source of much of our troubles.

James seems to make a rhetorical statement is alluding to the perfect man in verse 2 (READ JAMES 3:2). 
“For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”

There are no perfect men or women, Christians notwithstanding.  While we’re being perfected and conformed to the image of Christ Jesus, we still stumble over our own flesh.  I think it was Chuck Swindoll who said something to the effect of though we’ve been crucified with Christ, the old man still tries to pull himself off the cross.  Stumbling in our words comes pretty naturally for all of us.
Our words hold power.  Now, I’m not inferring this in the sense of the false doctrines of the “Word of Faith” or Prosperity Gospel movements.  You know, name it claim it or blab it, grab it guys?  Rather, let’s think of our words as having the power to uplift or tear down.  A well timed, thoughtful word can serve to dry the tears and embrace those in sorrow.  A careless or rash word can damage relationships, often to being beyond to point of reconciliation.  Think too, how many punches in the nose stemmed from the slip of a tongue?  This is a reason that James, earlier in this letter reminded the First Century believers to be “slow to speak”, considering their words.

Our words will ultimately prove who or what we are.  Jesus in engaging the Pharisees over the issue of ceremonial cleanliness dropped a truth bomb on their accusations in declaring that it is what proceeds from an individual as to what makes them clean or unclean. (READ MARK 7:15)
“There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”

 The link between mind, soul, and mouth is unbreakable as what’s stored up within the heart of an individual will ultimately spill out of the tonsils for the whole world to hear.  Yes we’re going to stumble.  We’re going to yell at Alan Combs as he spouts off with some preposterous statement.  We’re going to be barking at the driver on the beltway who’s forgotten what merge lanes or minimum speeds are.  This is stumbling, it should also be that moment we’re we feel the Spirit whispering “Seriously?” into our hearts. 

James gives a call to examine our words in vv. 9-11 (READ JAMES 3:9-11). 

“With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.  Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?”

Is the mouth that lifts up thanksgivings in the sanctuary or within our prayer places the same mouth that cuts people to shreds through vicious gossip, lies or just plain ugliness?  James tells us that this incongruous and shouldn’t be found among the saint’s.  In comparing blessing to cursing, he uses the thought of springs.  Since it would be a few thousand years before Wawa, 7-Eleven or Sheetz would hit the scene, those out in the open would have to rely on naturally occurring springs for life sustaining water.  Fresh water was a blessing but a salt spring was poisonous and of use to no one.  One type of water or another flows through the opening.  The co-mingling of the two spoiled the water.

For me, a mind-jarring examination of my words seemed to have occurred by coincidence.  But we all know the definition of coincidence, that’s the Almighty standing in the wings and not taking credit.  I was a very immature believer at the time when after arriving a work, I grabbed my Fleetwood Mac cassette (Rumors) to play in the office.  After settling in, I dropped the cassette in the player and hit play.  The wheels were spinning but no sound was coming out of the speakers.  Nonplussed, I said exactly what was on my mind about the situation.  At the end of the day, I grabbed the tape and plunked it into the car stereo.  Immediately, I learned that the player at the office had malfunctioned, causing the unit to record over a minute of Stevie Nicks and I had the experience of me listening to myself doing George Carlin’s “Seven Word’s” routine.  I’ve got to say, I’ve never felt the Spirit’s conviction the way I did that afternoon in Germany.  I believe that actually listening to what spills from our mouths could be one of the more powerful and transformational things we could experience.

Jesus, in our Gospel reading speaks to us about the consequences of our words. After taking Saint Peter to task over his rebuke of his master, Jesus gives an admonition and a warning concerning his words in v 38 (READ MARK 8:38)

“For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Think back to what the Master said to the Pharisees concerning what flows out of the mouth and uncleanliness.  Our deepest thoughts concerning Christ and his words will ultimately appear within our own words.  This is where it can get hard and where our faith in Jesus gets placed on the line.
Jesus is speaking to hearers who are living within an adulterous and sinful generation.  Given the fact that man is thoroughly depraved and that as Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun, Christ’s disciples had to wallow in the same morass that we find ourselves in on any given day.  And while Jesus was speaking these words of truth to the contemporary culture, the religious establishment was already conspiring to kill Jesus and his band.  You see laying down one’s life and picking up a cross wasn’t a flowery metaphor, its meaning was clear.  Yet, speaking words of renunciation may have saved one’s neck for a season, it meant only kicking the can down the road to a point where one would experience Divine shame on that great and terrible day of the LORD.

As I consider Jesus’ description of that generation, I think of our own.  Political correctness is being wielded like a hammer and those who even dare to think counter culturally, receive quick retribution.  God’s word isn’t ambivalent over much of what our culture has descended into. Sadly, many have embraced this cultural rot as inevitable.  One who once repudiated such things now happily support them.  Their words are reflecting shame for timeless truth.

So what’s our takeaway ask we consider this morning’s readings?  I believe the answer is twofold.  Are we striving to convey words and speech that is God-honoring?  Are we striving to speak words that edify or friends, family and our fellow saint’s?  As well, is God’s Kingdom being advanced or waylaid by our words?

To end with my original question, are our tongues trowels our sledgehammers? 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sunday Reverie

A Contemplative piece for a Sunday Evening...


From the pulpit, July 19, 2015

...who has made us both one and has broken down
in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility
I had the blessing of being supply clergy to Christ Church, South Riding VA this morning as their Rector launched off on two weeks of CONUS and OCONUS mission trips today.  The message took on the theme of this morning's lectionary.

Our Old Testament reading today sets us down in the room where David, the king is enjoying a time of peace in his kingdom.  It’s in this quiet time where he begins to sense conviction.  I can only imagine what may have been rolling through his mind.  He’s taking in the luxuries of his palace, perhaps smelling the sweet fragrances of flowers or enjoying a comfortable seat when it hit him.  David was living in luxury while the presence of God (the Ark) was out in a tent.

David shared his desire to build a temple for the Almighty with Israel’s prophet, who after waiting on the Lord, brought back a word from on high.  Consider what was said

Read 2 Sam 7:6-7 “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’

In the many years from the time of the exodus to the moment.  God had neither dwelt in a dwelling, nor had he asked the leadership to construct one for his honor.  This was a reminder to David and by extension all of Israel, of the fact that the Almighty in his power and presence, can’t be contained within a building made by human hands.  But then comes a twist.  God points out to David how He had seen him dwelling out in the fields and had set him in a strong house.  Not only was David the recipient of this graciousness, but all of Israel to the extent.

It was the hand of God who put down the enemies of Israel.  All those who sought to destroy Israel were put down and were ultimately driven far from them.  It was also the mighty hand of God that planted David and Israel in the land where they would dwell under the light of his sustaining hands.

Though David would not build a dwelling place for the Lord, his son Solomon would.  He too would also enjoy the blessings of being numbered among the people of God.
The Psalmist, in Psalm 89 recounted this moment singing of God establishing his people Israel.  But here in the Psalm, the onion gets peeled back a bit and we now see that this provision wasn’t mere divine largesse.  No, this was a covenantal relationship between the Almighty and his people, Israel. 

Read Psalm 89:29-32

For as long as Israel would live under God’s commands and statutes, they would dwell in his blessings.  To do the opposite would bring promised discipline which would be as memorable as it was painful.  Sadly, it wasn’t long after the death of David and his son Solomon that Israel slowly but inexorably began to turn a disobedient and deaf ear to the commandments of God.  And as promised, severe, stinging judgment fell upon God’s chosen.  He never stopped loving them, but like a father disciplining a rebellious child, they’d have to be called into account.

The promises made to God’s covenant people were, but they were made for them alone.  Like people outside of Nat’s park or Camden yards who are only able to perceive the game from a distance, the Gentile could only look from a distance to see God’s interaction with his people.  Now, did this signify a divine hatred for all outside of Abraham’s bloodline?  Absolutely not.  In fact, His love was directed towards Israel to be a sign for all of humanity.  They weren’t any more deserving of God’s blessing than any other people group on the earth.  It would be through God’s great plan, that Israel would be used to call all of fallen humanity back to the arms of God. 

Saint Paul speaks to this in his letter to the Galatian church

Read Galatian’s 4:4-5:  But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.

Our vision is limited by light and horizons and our knowledge limited to what we’ve experienced, the knowledge and vision of God knows no limit.  While it would have seemed hopeless for the Gentile, it was God’s plan all along to break down the barriers that not only separated God from man, but those dividing man from man as well.  Ultimately, He saw far beyond Adam’s sin to a point where we would be reconciled, and he would have one people.  But, how was this accomplished?  Saint Paul gives us a beautiful view of this in his Ephesian letter.

As we look at St. Paul’s words to the Ephesian Church, we see that he doesn’t gloss over the extent of just how separated Jew was from Gentile in the former covenant. 

Read Ephesians 2:12:  remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

Paul was speaking to a church of former pagans who were converted to Christianity during his missionary journeys and were being pastored by Timothy. In speaking to their onetime alienation from God,   he describes a five-fold separation.

They were once Christless, aliens to the messiah.  Being apart from the messianic people, they had no thought or hope for a deliverer.  They were stateless, alien God’s nation and excluded from citizenship in Israel.  They had no stake in God’s theocratic kingdom.  They were friendless, strangers to the covenants of promise.  Though God had bound himself unconditionally to bring blessings on and through Israel, This promise wasn’t extended to the Gentile peoples.  Finally, they were hopeless, having no hope and being without God in this world.  Though their world was extremely religious in all aspects of daily life, their prayers and supplications fell onto dead ears of marble in the gods they served.  Their entire condition could be summed up in one word, and that it Alienation.  Through Christ, this would all be changed.

Paul could make powerful use of conjunctions and he does just that here.  Though the alienation was palpable and seemingly insurmountable, it was laid waste by the atoning sacrifice of Christ as holy blood was spilled on the cross.  Those who were once far away were now being brought near.  This holy blood allowed for regenerated Jew and Gentile alike to be drawn near.  To the Jew of the day, this idea was outright subversive.  Even as these words were being penned, a physical barrier stood in the temple in Jerusalem.  This allowed for God-fearing Gentiles to worship at the Temple.  At its boundary were signs in Latin and Greek warning the Gentile not to enter any closer under pain of death.

Through this sacrifice, Christ made peace and demolished the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile.  He didn’t simply make peace, He himself was and is THE peace that unites God and man/redeemed Jew and Gentile alike.
We have to ask, how was Christ’s death able to demolish this wall of separation?  His death accomplished this in three ways. 

Read Ephesians 2:15-16 “by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”

He abolished the Law.  Some might consider this false considering Jesus’ own words in the sermon on the mount where he stated that he’d not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.  Living his perfect life, Jesus fulfilled all the tenants of God’s moral law, while abolishing the ceremonial law, a major roadblock dividing Jew and Gentile.
He created a new humanity.  Paul describes Christ, through the atonement as creating “one new man”.  It’s an amazing thing to consider, but through the atonement, Christ created a new man, a new race and a new humanity.  Our early Church fathers recognized this and clearly communicated it.  Clement of Alexandria wrote “We who worship God in a new way, as a third race, are Christians”.  Think of it this way; Christ didn’t “Christianize Jews or Judaize Gentiles, he created an entirely new man.  Within this truth lies the answer to alienation, racism, prejudice or estrangement; when we’re in Christ, we’re all one.

He reconciled this new humanity to God.  This is the apex of Christ’s ministry of peace and reconciliation.  He came and preached peace to those who were near as well as those who were far away and separated from The Father’s covenant.  He became “our peace”, and through that peace we gained the privilege to be able to come boldly before the throne of God as the writer of Hebrew’s assures us.

So, what’s to be made of all this?  It’s yet another reason to celebrate and testify to the Love of our God.  From eternity past, He sought to make for himself a people.  These people weren’t to be one homogenous group of one race or one ethnicity.  No.  Jew, Greek, Barbarian, slave or freeman; He took from all to make a special people for himself.  Have you paused to consider that of the billions who’ve lived on this Planet, Christ has called you to be his own?  If we’re unsure of this fact we can be assured by scripture.  “Whosoever shall call upon the Lord will be saved.”  And, “If we believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord, we belong to Him.”  Our God has prepared a place for his people, and there is room there for all who desire to be there in this wonderful kingdom.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Wise Counsel from a Smart man.

In the wake of the tragedy that befell Charleston, SC last week, many from all sides of the debate have offered up opinions concerning the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia (C.S.A).  One thing that has struck me is the running theme of "States Right's" from individuals whom I know to be anything BUT racist.  I contend that though well-meaning in their intent, their conclusions are flawed base on their lack of understanding of the climate of the post-bellum South, and those fighting a guerrilla campaign to maintain the status quo.

Jim Denison, of the Denison Forum wrote a timely and salient piece on this latest wedge issue in today's mailing.  The entire piece can be read here.

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Time to Retire the Colors

One hundred and fifty years ago, our Republic saw the end of five years of hostilities which left us riven and bleeding.  970,000 Americans (north and south) perished across these five April's.  It took close to a century for some parts of our nation to recover from the physical effects of combat, deforestation, and troop concentrations as the battle lines moved north and south over those five years.  Even so, though two sides cast their lots, our Lord declared the outcome; The Confederate States of America were defeated and the the Union was reconstituted.  Despite this, there were those who would refuse to acknowledge the defeat of a cause and would engage in in guerrilla warfare against not only those working towards reconciliation, but people of color and differing faiths.  These individuals cherry-picked a banner from a lost cause, the battle flag of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to serve as their banner to rally their troops in the oppression of a people.

We fast forward now 150 years to a time where people of good will striving to finally bind the wounds of a century & a half ago.  If our Republic is to truly move forward, this Banner of oppression (the battle flag)  needs to be permanently be retired and the Democrats who used it as a Shibboleth for a Century, (Fritz Hollings, Jimmy Carter, Bill & Hillary Clinton, Al Gore) need to come forward and acknowledge their identification with it and to denounce it.

As to the flag, its high time those colors are once and for all retired.  Think about it for a moment; do German's fly the Nazi-era flag as it's an (unfortunate) piece of their heritage?  No, flags like these are only flown in the name of hate.

Finally, let me approach this from a purely Christian point of view.  We're called by scripture to not intentionally offend our neighbor.  Taking a queue from St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians:
Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. I Cor 8:13 .
  Now clearly, we make no apology for the Gospel, but this is anything BUT the Gospel.  It really shouldn't matter whether great-great-great-grandfather was a foot soldier dressed in butternut or a confederate general, if we're celebrating that fact in a way that brings offense to another we're acting sub-Christian

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Watching & Waiting, A Devotion for Holy Week

I had the opportunity to share this last evening at All Saint's Woodbridge...

From the time I was old enough to apprehend the events surrounding the passion of our Lord, I was captivated and would try to imagine what it would be like to be a face in the crowd as events unfolded.  This has only intensified as I grew into adulthood.  Songs like “Were you there?” or “I only want to say” from Jesus Christ, Superstar served to fuel these desires to have wanted to witness those events.  But for all these flights of fancy, I learned a much more profitable way.

Rather than letting our imaginations run free, chasing events and dramas of our own makings, we need not look further than Holy Scripture in order to catch a glimpse of Christ’s passion and propitiatory death.  St. Matthew’s gospel narrative gives us a gripping account of that moment, as Jesus was about to become the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world.

In one such moment, we find our Lord and his eleven remaining disciples at the gates of an olive grove on the eve of the Passover.  It had been a long day that was punctuated by the Seder meal, which was full of carbohydrates and wine.  It was approaching midnight when the band arrived, minus one disciple who departed to deliver his master over to those who desired his death.  It was here that Christ instructed eight members of the band to wait, while he and three of his closest disciples walked deeper into the into the grove.

With each step deeper into the olive grove, the gravity of what would soon transpire began to crush the sacred heart that bore no sin.  Its fair to presume that in his omniscience, Jesus was very likely seeing the next sixteen hours of his life unfold.  Scenes were unfolding; the cohort that was converging on their location, the bitter cynical kiss of the traitor, the lying testimonies of those who would come before the Sanhedrin, and the crowds calling for his crucifixion.  These alone were terrible but the coming hours would hold an unimaginable terror for the Son of God.  For all of eternity, Jesus knew the sweet communion of being one with the Father.  Yet soon, in a moment that would seem an eternity in itself, that communion would be severed.

It was in this dark moment that he commanded the three to wait and watch.  These words are somewhat defanged in our contemporary language.  Yet for Peter, John & James, these words had tremendous weight.

The three were commanded to remain and wait.  For most of us, the idea of waiting can bring unpleasant thoughts to mind.  Here in Northern Virginia, waiting can almost seem like a curse.  Daily, we wait in traffic.   We wait in lines.  We wait for the next available operator after pressing a number of the language of our choice.  It’s our natural inclination to hate waiting.  We acquired this early on when even as babies, we hated waiting as evidenced by our 120 decibel cries when the baby bottle was delayed.  We’d muscle our way to the front of the line because we didn’t want to wait our turns.  It’s made manifest in our day-to-day language in expressions like “I can’t wait”. 

The three disciples weren’t made of stained glass; they were men who shared the same weaknesses that seem to trip us up at any turn.  Waiting didn’t come any easier to them.  Nonetheless, Jesus commanded them to wait.  He didn’t direct them to kill time while spoke with the Father.  No, to wait in the garden was in a sense to abide with Christ in the grove on that night.   They had heard this before when Christ exhorted them and others to abide in him, otherwise they would have no part with him or his Father’s coming kingdom.  The night would soon become terrifying and there would be a strong temptation to scatter off into the darkness.  In this command, they were exhorted to resist this temptation.

The three were commanded to watch.  This wasn’t a mindless or inattentive watching like one in the departure lounge, nor was it the casual watching of the world while sipping an iced Americano at Starbucks.  This was active and attentive watching.  It was in a real sense, watching as if one’s very life depended on it.  The three were called to watch like a storm spotter on a day when conditions are ripe for tornadoes to spin into life.  Tonight, Peter and the sons of Zebedee were called to watch their Lord, watch out for one another, and watch themselves. 

This night would be a time for courage, and the band of disciples would have to go into it girded in prayer, wide-eyed and abiding in their Lord.  Yet for all of Christ’s clear words, they were overcome by the late hour and their big meal.  For this, they felt the rebuke of their master who called them back to watchfulness.
What can we take from all of this?  Like the Disciples, we also live in interesting times. 

They were mere hours from seeing the Father’s redemptive plan for humanity unfold. They would hear Christ cry out “it is finished” as the offense of sin was paid and the Father’s righteous anger was quenched.  Three days later, they would witness the resurrection of the one whose visage was marred beyond recognition.  Forty days later Christ would return to his throne at the right hand of the father. 

Jesus demonstrated the power of obedient waiting and watching.  Through his waiting and watching he was able to, as the writer of Hebrews stated, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

We live on the eve of Christ’s return.  We don’t day or hour, but we do know that it will come upon us suddenly.  The events of that great and terrible day will be as transformative as Good Friday.

In our day, we’re called to wait, watch and pray.  One beauty of Lent is that it gives us focus and a time of self-examination.  But how do we do these things, in a world that seem to be completely contrary to the Kingdom of Heaven?  In the words of one contemporary pastor, we “pray, pray, pray, pray, pray”.  As we ask, we will receive.  As we seek, we will find.  As we seek the Lord’s empowerment, we’ll grow in this.  St. Paul encourages us in that in and through Christ, we can do all things.

  Tonight in this watch, I’d invite us all to a moment of self-evaluation and rededication to watching and waiting on our Lord.