Sunday, January 3, 2016

Persecution, Martyrdom, and the Gospel of Peace: A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas

When most of us think of Christmas, I suspect the image of the baby Jesus lying in a manger comes to mind. Surrounded by barnyard animals, Mary and Joseph gaze lovingly at the Christ child. Maybe the wise men from the east have already made their appearance, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A large star shines in the night sky like a radiant diamond, bathing everything in soft light.

It’s a scene of deep peace and tranquility.

Compared to that, the story of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt and the murder of innocent children in today’s Gospel reading hits us like a bucket of ice water.

It’s not a nice story. It doesn’t fit the image of Christmas as the most wonderful time of the year. But as Holy Scripture and the Church calendar remind us, there’s more to the story than what we see in Christmas cards or creche displays.

For instance, the day after Christmas Day on December 26, we remember St. Stephen, one of the first deacons in the Church who was murdered by Jewish religious authorities. And so the day after we remember the birth of Jesus, we remember the death of a Christian martyr.

And then, on December 28 - and in our Gospel reading today - we remember the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Herod the Great was the ruler of the Jews at that time, and he had kept the peace in Palestine for 37 years by ruthless control and violent coercion. Herod was also a paranoid man who feared losing his throne. So when he heard a report that an infant King of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem, he ordered the murder of all male children age 2 and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding region. It’s hard to imagine anything more barbaric.

The Church has always honored these innocent children as the first martyrs of the Christian faith. For this reason St. Augustine described them as “buds, killed by the frost of persecution the moment they showed themselves.” Many Christians continue to believe that these young martyrs intercede in heaven on behalf of all innocent victims.

This strikes a dissonant note with recent holiday celebrations. But today’s Gospel story of tyranny and hatred, fear and hardship, violence and murder resonates very personally with Christians in other parts of the world. Because many of them live under the shadow of present-day Herods and demonic forces like ISIS that seek their destruction.

Accurate numbers are difficult to obtain. But some data suggests that there are as many as 8,000 to 9,000 Christians martyred each year.

Another report says that compared to 34,000 Christian martyrs in 1900, there were nearly 1 million Christian martyrs during the first decade of the 21st Century, with approximately 230 new Christian martyrs every 24 hours.

And it’s gotten worse. Driven by religious extremism and repressive governments, persecution of Christians is currently on the rise in many parts of the globe.

That’s true in Sudan where government authorities dampened the joy of Christmas by bulldozing church buildings and arresting as many as 200 foreign Christian pastors, giving them the choice of either leaving the country and losing all their belongings, or staying in jail to face charges.

Pope Francis recently described the global rise in persecution of Christians as “a form of genocide” that’s part of a “third world war.” Other commentators have labelled it “religio-ethnic cleansing.” Some information suggests that as many as 200 million Christians in 60 countries suffer varying degrees of discrimination, repression, and persecution because of their faith. That comes to 1 in 10 of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians. And perhaps as many as half of them are children.

All of this data on the persecution and martyrdom of Christians is quite sobering. And it doesn’t even include the hordes of innocent men, women, and children of other religious faiths and ethnic minorities who have been victims of the Herods in our world.

Reflecting on the plight of these persons, many of whom fear for their lives every day, we need to be informed about what is happening to them and to their countries. We have a moral duty to encourage our leaders to act in ways to resist and defeat evil while protecting the innocent from harm.

And as Christians, we need to be willing to do what we can to help. That’s true when it comes to any innocent person suffering persecution, regardless of creed, color, or nationality.

And it’s most definitely true when it comes to members of the Christian household of believers. For regardless of where we come from, what we look like, or what language we speak, we belong to the same Lord. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. We are citizens of a Kingdom that transcends national borders.

It’s cause for despair for persecuted Christians to think that we American Christians have forgotten them. And it’s a source of strength and hope to know that we remember them and that we care. We have a sacred obligation to remember and to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ, and whenever possible, to offer refuge and assistance.

Today’s Gospel reading confronts us with a tragic irony. For instead of responding with awe and gratitude to the good news of great joy, we find that some people respond to the birth of the Prince of Peace with murderous hatred. When we note that story and consider the plight of the innocents in our world today, it’s understandable to ask: where is the Good News in all of this?

That question raises a host of other questions that persons of faith have struggled with for millennia. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the innocent suffer? Where is God in the midst of it all?

There are no pat answers to such questions. Many of us know this all too well due to the trials and tribulations of our own lives.

But even as we struggle to make sense of it all, the Christian faith gives us sure and certain grounds for hope. For, as Anglican bishop N. T. Wright puts it: “Something has happened in and through Jesus as a result of which the world is a different place, a place where heaven and earth have been joined forever. God’s future has arrived in the present.”

That may strike some of us as an odd thing to say. After all, evil stills runs amuck. Christians and others are suffering persecution and even martyrdom. Injustice continues to rock our world. How can we say that the world is really a different place because of Jesus? How can we dare to claim that God’s future has arrived in the present?

We dare to do so only because we believe that God became human in Jesus Christ, and that after dying on a cross for the sins of the world, this Jesus rose from the dead.

If that's not true, then all bets are off!

But if it's true - if it really happened - then it changes everything.

Many years ago I came across a military analogy from World War II that helps puts all of this into perspective.

It was June 6, 1944, the day when Allied forces invaded Normandy in the largest amphibious invasion in history. It proved to be the decisive battle against Nazis Germany. And because the Allied forces prevailed, Germany’s defeat was certain.

However, between D-Day (the day of the invasion) and V-Day (the day declaring the Allies’ victory), there were many fall-back battles across Europe. Many lives were lost in those battles and much carnage inflicted before the Nazis surrendered. So while D-Day insured that the war was won, it was not yet fully over.

In the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God launched an invasion against the forces of evil in our world. But the fulfillment of God’s victory will occur only when Christ comes again in glorious majesty to judge the world.

Living between the first and the second coming of Christ, the battle between God and evil continues. We have the scars to prove it. But Christ’s ultimate victory is guaranteed. For Christ has already won the decisive battle against evil and death by rising victorious from the grave.

In the meantime, as we strive to keep our Baptismal Covenant promise to “persevere in resisting evil,” we do well to act as if everything depends on us and to pray as if everything depends on God (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305). And we can do so confident that whatever things may look like today, the ultimate outcome has already been won in and through Jesus Christ.

For the birth of Jesus Christ means the coming of light into a dark world. This light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. And it never will.

So no matter how many Herods try to snuff out the gospel of peace, the light of the Prince of Peace will forever shine. God will continue to dwell among us. The love of Christ will continue to be born in the hearts of faithful people everywhere. And our prayers that God’s great might will frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish His rule of justice, love, and peace will be answered. For in the end, Christ will “break brokenness, kill death, destroy destruction, and swallow every sorrow.” And God’s kingdom shall prevail.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Glorious Impossible: A Sermon for Christmas 2015

Have yourself a humid little Christmas, with mosquitoes …

It’s hard to believe that this is my third Christmas here at St. Luke’s. It’s been a joyful time with you all. But I’m still getting used to the idea of Santa making his rounds in south Louisiana wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

We’re not going to get a white Christmas. But the really important thing is why we are here in church in the first place. For tonight we join with Christians around the world to celebrate a message first proclaimed by angels over 2,000 years ago. It’s a message of “good news of great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10). For God has come into the world to defeat evil and rescue his people from sin and death.

And it’s how God did it that blows the mind. For Christmas says that the Lord of all creation, the One who made all that is, seen and unseen, has become one of us – a flesh-and-blood human being like you and me. And this Lord of all creation came among us, not in majesty and power, but as a helpless, vulnerable baby born in poverty to parents of no worldly consequence.

The God who created heaven and earth; the God who called Abraham and gave a child to Sarah; the God who delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; the God who chose David as King of Israel; the God who pierced hearts, troubled consciences, and brought the powers-that-be to their knees through the words of prophets like Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah; the God who called a young girl named Mary to conceive and give birth to the Savior of the world - here He is, a crying, naked baby, completely dependent for the basic necessities of life on the providence of two merely human parents.

Heaven has come to earth in the person of a baby named Jesus.

The Infinite and Almighty God has become a finite, frail human being.

The Lord of all creation was created by a mother whom He created, and held by hands that He formed.

It makes no logical sense.

But that’s precisely the mystery of the Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas.

God born into our world as a baby boy: that’s what author Madeleine L’Engle calls “The Glorious Impossible.” It’s glorious because it says that God loves us beyond all reason. God loves us so much that He stoops to embrace our condition, voluntarily giving up the advantages of divine power and privilege, assuming our humanity in its fullness in order to redeem it for eternity.

Impossible though it may seem, this is the Good News we proclaim at Christmas: that God came among us as one of us, not in wrath, but in vulnerable, tender love. God came, not to condemn, but to save. God became fully human to show us the path of humble service. God became fully human in Jesus so that we might share in God’s divine life.

We can’t explain it. We can’t fully understand it. And we can’t do anything to deserve it. It’s all a gift of God’s grace. It’s proof of just how much God loves us and that God is our Father and our friend. The only appropriate response is to rejoice, glorifying and praising God in the music and prayers of worship.

Since God has shared the fullness of our humanity in Jesus, all of our longings for wholeness and new life find their fulfillment in Him.

God knows that we long for a sense of meaning and purpose that transcends the busyness of our overbooked calendars and the seductive screens of our smartphones.

We long to be connected with a sense of wonder, awe, and mystery in the presence of the Holy.

We long to know that we are loved by Someone so much greater than the ups and downs of our daily lives.

We long for the reassurance that there is a Power at work in this world that can defeat the forces of darkness and destruction that so often make breaking news headlines.

We long to be set free from bondage to our sins and to be healed of the sorrows and losses that have wounded our hearts.

The good news is that God has responded to those longings by giving us the most precious of gifts - the gift of His only Son, the gift of His life and love made flesh in Jesus Christ.

This is a life lived in complete obedience to the Father. It’s a life given as a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world. It’s a life that has overcome death through resurrection. This is a life we receive every time we come to the altar and we hold out our hands, forming a cradle to receive anew this Body that was born and broken for us that we may live.

In the Incarnation and on the Cross, Jesus gave himself for us that we may give ourselves to one another. So when we take this gift of God’s life given to us in Jesus’ Body and Blood in the Eucharist, we are empowered to become little Christs. And we are commissioned to carry on the work of the Incarnation as the Church, the Body of Christ that worships, prays, and strives to restore all people to unity with God and each other.

And so Christmas is not just a celebration of something that happened 2,000 years ago when the Son of God “was made perfect Man of the flesh of the Virgin Mary his mother” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 378). Christmas is also about all of us right here, right now. Christmas is a call from God to minister to the world in Jesus’ Name, taking the gift of God’s life and the salvation we have received in Jesus and sharing it with a world that is starving for the Good News.

That is the work of Christmas that begins with the birth of Jesus and continues every day of the year. And that work happens through people like you and me.

A friend shared a poem by Howard Thurman that puts it all together:

When the song of the angels is stilled, 
When the star in the sky is gone,  
When the kings and princes are home,  
When the shepherds are back with their flock, 
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,  
To heal the broken,  
To feed the hungry, 
To release the prisoner,  
To rebuild the nations,  
To bring peace among people,  
To make music from the heart.

My friends, may each of us respond to God’s call to do the work of Christmas by sharing God’s love and our blessings with the needy, the poor, and the hurting that they, too, may know the good news of great joy.

And may the joy and peace of this holy season strengthen and equip you for the holy work of Christmas throughout the coming New Year.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Waiting for the Light: A Sermon for Advent 2C 2015

Advent 2C

It’s a remarkable time of the year. And I’m not talking about the 70 degree weather for December or the aggressive mosquitoes that simply won’t take the winter off. I’m talking about where we are in the church calendar.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. And Advent is rich and complex. Like the shifting colors and patterns in a kaleidoscope, there are so many themes woven into this short season, like:


















The list could go on and on.

In the midst of that tapestry of Advent themes, we prepare for the coming of the Christ. We prepare for the Christ who comes as a baby lying in a manger, the Christ who comes through the Word and Sacraments of the Church, the Christ who comes among us in sometimes surprising persons (particularly the poor and the needy), and the Christ who will come again to fulfill God’s will for all of creation.

But the fulfillment hasn’t happened. And we haven’t arrived at Christmas. The child hasn’t been born. It’s not time to celebrate. And the healing, restorative judgment of Jesus Christ has yet to set all things right. We still live in a broken world filled with pain and suffering.

Advent doesn’t try to make it all better or pretend that everything is ok just as it is. Instead, Advent leaves us right there in the midst of it all, living as we do between the first and the second coming of Christ.

Little wonder that even before Thanksgiving Day our culture starts putting the petal to the metal in full pursuit of festivity. It’s so much easier to gear into holiday party mode than it is to sit still in the darkness of uncertainty, filled with the longings and the unfulfilled hopes of Advent. Many of us find it hard to sit still like that, or to take time for quiet reflection and self-examination. It can be hard to wait patiently in the darkness for the light of the celebration to come in God’s appointed time.

That may be the deepest challenge of Advent. For it reminds us that we are not in control. We don’t call the shots. The party doesn’t begin when we want it to. God’s plan unfolds in God’s way and in God’s time, not ours.

When many of us would rather move on to the baby Jesus, Advent insists that we must first deal with the wild and fiery John the Baptist. We meet him in today’s Gospel lesson “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” to the Israelites who have strayed from God’s ways (Luke 3:3). And by putting John the Baptist front and center during the season of Advent, the Church insists that we, too, must do the work of repentance, We, too, must “forsake our sins” if we are to “greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer,” the one who comes to judge, to heal, and to make all things new (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 211).

Repentance may not be the word that comes most readily to our minds during the holiday season. But it is the word that best captures what the gospel says our Advent time of preparation should be all about.

The verb “to repent” literally means to return or turn back. In the Old Testament, repentance means "both a personal turning away from sin and Israel’s corporate turning away from idolatry" [Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (Westminster John Knox Press 2004), p. 314]. Repentance often has connotations of return from exile, which echoes the powerful story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt.

So from a biblical perspective, repentance carries positive connotations. It’s all about forsaking idolatry and embracing liberation, freedom, and homecoming.

Repentance is a three-fold action.

First, we honestly face the reality of our lives, acknowledging where and how we’ve missed the mark of God’s holiness by falling into sin.

We then confess our sins. We acknowledge that our sins separate us from the path of life and cast us into a state of spiritual exile. And we admit that we are powerless to change ourselves.

And finally, we return to God, acknowledging that only God can free us from whatever binds us. And we accept his forgiveness and his grace to amend our lives.

Repentance is a life-affirming practice and a lifelong process. It’s about transformation. It’s about coming home. It’s about returning again and again to where we truly belong, to where we are known and loved and cared for by God.

As we practice repentance, we see that just as John the Baptist and the Old Testament prophets confronted the Israelites, Advent confronts us to forsake the sin of idolatry.

An idol is anything that takes the place of God in our lives, anything other than God that we rely upon for happiness and security. An idol can be a material object, like a house or money. It can be a person, like a spouse, a teacher, or a leader. It can be a career. Anything that takes the place of God in our lives by promising a happiness and security it simply cannot deliver - that’s an idol.

Just as we clear out space in our homes to put up decorations, we have to clear out space in our hearts to make room for Christ, space often occupied by the idols we substitute for God. And yet, we long for freedom from our sin. We long to know the life that only the Lord of life can give us.

Tapping into our longing for freedom and new life, Advent proclaims the twilight of all idols. The sun is setting on everything we substitute for God’s love and justice. During Advent, darkness envelops everything we thought we knew about ourselves and about God. For something new and unexpected, and something so wonderful mere words cannot describe it, beckons on the horizon of the future.

It’s the promise that the dawn from on high shall break upon us, shining on everyone who dwells in darkness and the shadow of death, filling the world with the life-giving warmth of God’s forgiveness and love, and guiding our feet into the way of peace. It’s the promise that God will dwell among us and that we shall be his people. It’s the promise that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).

But in the meantime, as the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, we wait. We wait for the final liberation of all things from bondage to death and decay and the inauguration of a new creation. We wait for the light of Christ to come and fill the world with glorious splendor. And we prepare to joyfully receive that light by repenting of the sins that bind us to the darkness so that we may live as children of light.

It’s this waiting for the fulfillment that only God can give that makes observing Advent so challenging. We long for God’s light and new life, and we want it now. It’s so tempting to jump the gun by substituting our own fabricated festivals for the true Nativity of our Lord.

We need patience. We need restraint. We need to trust God.

Christ is coming. But Christ won’t come when we tell him to. The celebration won’t start just because we’re ready to get on with it.

But if we do the work of repentance, if we forsake our sins and the idols that displace God from the center of our lives, and if we ask for God’s help to exercise patience and restraint, then when the light finally shines in the darkness it will truly be the birth of new life and the dawning of new hope. For Christ will be born anew in our hearts, dispelling the darkness of our fears, healing the wounds inflicted by loss and grief, reassuring us that God lives in and among us as our Father and our friend, and casting aside any shadow of doubt that we are destined for the joys of eternal life in a new creation with those we love but see no longer.

And that is worth waiting for.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Episcopal Church Decline and Evangelism Opportunities

In a blog posting entitled "New Data Says Millennials Are Less Religious Than Anyone Else ... So What?," Chris Martin analyzes data released by the Pew Research Center as it pertains to Millennials' attitudes toward religion, worship participation, and spiritual longings.  There's much interesting food for thought in Martin's analysis.  But I was particularly struck by his summary of the implications of this research for evangelism:

Pastors and church people, remember this as you seek to reach unbelieving Millennials in your communities.  There is basically a 50-50 chance the Millennials you speak to do not feel at peace with where they are spiritually, and a 50-50 chance they feel "wonder" about the universe.  This is not a generation closed off to the supernatural and wondrous - it's a generation weary of institutional hypocrisy.  Reach out to the young people in your community as a family, not as an "organization" or  a "club."  Engage Millennials' sense of wonder.  Speak to their spiritual unrest.  Point them to Jesus.

It's interesting to read this analysis and the opportunities it suggests for evangelism in light of an article by Neal Michell entitled, "New TEC Statistics: What Do These Numbers Say?"  Michell provides an overview of Episcopal Church statistics gleaned by Dr. Kirk Hadaway from Parochial Report data. Like the article on Millennials, there's a lot of information in Michell's piece that makes it worth reading in its entirety.  But the following quote summarizes the heart of the matter:

... we must admit that our church is broken, terribly broken.  We have been consumed - and continue to be consumed by the unholy trinity of Lawsuits, Legislation, and Liturgies.  We need to admit that this trio is not the solution to our decline and may, in fact, be one of the reasons for it.  We claim to be healing agents in the world when we can't even be healing agents in our own Communion or our own Province.  We must quit making excuses for our decline, citing the decline of the mainline denominations (our decline is worse), blaming the falling birth rate and increasing death rates of our members.  Instead, we must look to our own complacency, our own conflicts, and our own self-focus as sins of which to repent.

In an earlier posting, I noted the need for the Episcopal Church to get the evangelistic fervor right for church revitalization.  The mission field is ripe for harvest.  But if we Episcopalians stay too inward-focused and fail to address the core reasons for free-fall institutional decline, there may be little to nothing left of the Episcopal Church in which to include new persons within the next 30 years.  

I believe our Anglican tradition equips us with the resources we need for engaging the sense of wonder and speaking to the spiritual unrest of Millennials.  Instead of further distancing ourselves from core tenets of Christian orthodoxy by pursuing potentially diastrous Prayer Book revision and other ideological agendas, we do well to reconnect with those resources in ways that bring others into deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.  

Monday, October 19, 2015

Getting the Evangelistic Fervor Right for Church Revitalization

Lately I've started reading in the area of church revitalization.  One of the resources I picked up is Bill Henard's Can These Bones Live? A Practical Guide to Church Revitalization.  I was immediately struck by the following statistics cited by Henard:

  • 1,400 pastors in America leave the ministry monthly
  • Only 15% of churches in the United States are growing
  • 10,000 churches in America disappeared in a five-year period
  • The number of people in America that do not attend church has doubled in the past 15 years
  • The vast majority of churches have an attendance of less than 75

Elsewhere in the book, Henard notes the following:

Without new people coming into the church, the church will eventually die.  On average, churches will lose people:
  • 2% by death (older congregations obviously will have a much higher percentage)
  • 4% by transfer to other churches
  • 6% by inactivity or by dropping out
Thus, if a church is not replacing 10 to 12 percent of its membership each year, it then begins to plateau and eventually fall into decline, especially as these percentages increase due to age or demographic changes.

This data is all the more sobering when we see that The Episcopal Church's average Sunday attendance dropped by over 25% in just 12 years.  We've declined from 3.6 million members in the mid-1960s to 1.8 million today, even as the population in the United States has more than doubled (see Jeffrey Walton's "Episcopalians Continue Bleeding Members, Attendance at Alarming Rate"). 

Clearly, we're doing something wrong.

So in light of all of the data on decline, what's the next big thing on the docket for The Episcopal Church now that General Convention has officially launched the project of revising the theology of marriage?  Why, Prayer Book revision, of course!

I've already shared some curmudgeonly thoughts on why Prayer Book revision at this time and with the ideas proposed would be a disaster.  I'll simply repeat here a fact of history: every time Prayer Book revision has been undertaken, it's been divisive and people have left The Episcopal Church.  Pushing for Prayer Book revision at a time when The Episcopal Church is in free-fall decline is suicidal.  It's a strategy for accelerating ecclesial decline unto death.

Instead of driving off this cliff of destruction, we need to invest our time, talents, and money in church revitalization.  Among other things, that means taking evangelism seriously.  Here's what Bill Henard writes about this:

Evangelism is the barometer of our theology.  In other words, if a person's theology does not lead to having a passion for doing evangelism, that individual needs to get a new theology.  The same idea holds true for the church.  If the church does not have a strong theology that leads to evangelism, the pastor then knows some of the preparatory work that must be done before the church will begin to reach those outside of Christ.  This one thought may be the entire reason that the church has declined and is in need of revitalization.  Without a strong theology of evangelism, the church finds itself on the precipice of a slippery slope that affects every work and every ministry of the church.  Get the evangelistic fervor right and the church begins to head in the correct direction.

The correlation between having a "strong theology that leads to evangelism" and church vitality or revitalization strikes me as dead on.  How can any church or organization grow and thrive if the members don't passionately believe they have something unique that should be shared with anyone else who doesn't have it?  

I don't believe that progressive revisionist theologies that jettison the Nicene Creed and downplay the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the problem of sin, and our need for salvation are going to help us "get the evangelistic fervor right."  On the contrary, such theologies tend to reinforce the norms of self-expression and self-fulfillment worshiped by our culture as self-evident truths.  And those truths are central to the creed of a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that marks a decisive shift to a post-Christian (and at times anti-Christian) posture towards the Church.  

Instead of pushing ideological agendas that violate the Baptismal Covenant promise to "continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship," and rather than promoting the culture's Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the attempt to appear relevant, we need to recover a passion for the basics of the Christian faith.  We need to recover a passion for Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  And in line with the Baptismal Covenant promise to "proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ," we need to be able and willing to share with people outside the Church why they need a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Our survival depends upon it.  

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sermon for the Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist 2015

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).

That short verse from the book of Proverbs sums up a whole world of wisdom. It reminds us of the importance in our daily lives of having purpose and direction. To have that, we need to articulate the core values that ground our identity. And we need to align our actions with those values. Otherwise we run the risk of wandering aimlessly through life and failing to utilize the gifts God has given us

We need to know who we are.

We need to know where we’re going.

We need to know what it takes to get there.

And one of the best ways for staying focused on these core values is by articulating a clear and memorable mission statement.

Even Jesus had a mission statement to keep him on track with his identity as the Christ. We see what that looks like in today’s Gospel reading.

Jesus has returned home to Nazareth where he’s attending Sabbath worship in the synagogue. Handing him a scroll of the book of Isaiah, he’s invited to read a passage of scripture. And out of all of the possible parts of that lengthy book of Isaiah, Jesus chooses the following verses to read aloud: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

This passage from Isaiah serves as Jesus’ mission statement. It reveals Jesus’ true identity and purpose as the Christ. So if we want to know what Jesus is all about, we have to take a closer look at his mission statement. 

Using the words of Isaiah, Jesus starts out by saying that the Spirit of the Lord has anointed him “to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). Luke’s gospel always refers to “the poor” in a literal sense. So these are people who simply can’t make ends meet. These are people who don’t have enough food, adequate clothing or shelter, or other basic necessities of life. In Jesus’ day, many regarded poverty as a sign of God’s wrathful judgment and wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. By bringing good news to the poor, Jesus overturns popular opinion to reveal the generous scope of God’s care. Offering the hope of God’s love and the promise of God’s deliverance to the poor lie at the heart of Jesus’ mission.

Jesus has also been anointed by the Spirit “to proclaim release to the captives” (Luke 4:18). Throughout the Gospels, Jesus transforms the physical and spiritual conditions that bind people and hold them captive. As a healer, Jesus frees persons possessed by evil spirits and held in bondage to physical ailments. “Captives” also include those who are so imprisoned by sinful habits and desires that willpower alone cannot enable them to do good and avoid evil. People held captive move our Lord’s heart with compassion. Releasing them from bondage is a top mission priority. 

Jesus also provides “recovery of sight to the blind” (Luke 4:18).  Jesus heals persons who have literally lost their sight, thereby freeing them from a desperate situation. For blindness carried a religious stigma in Jesus’ day, with many believing that blindness was a sign of God’s judgment for sin. And in a society with no safety nets, the blind often had to beg for their survival.

But the problem of blindness in the Gospels goes beyond literal sight. There’s also the problem of spiritual blindness. This happens when, through ignorance or willful rejection, persons cannot see the truth even when it’s right in front of their faces. Failing to see the truth, the spiritually blind lack purpose, meaning, and direction, and thus are easily tossed around by what St. Paul calls “every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14).

God loves those who suffer from blindness. He wants to open their eyes and their hearts to see the truth that gives meaning, purpose, and direction to life. And for those who have eyes to see, that truth is most fully revealed in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.

Jesus rounds out his Kingdom agenda by claiming the Spirit’s anointing "to let the oppressed go free" (Luke 4:18). Oppression was rampant in Jesus’ day, including the Roman occupation of Israel, unfair taxation, and the extortion of widows and orphans by mercenary religious leaders. But the God we meet in the Bible is a God of justice. God cares about what’s right and fair. Abusing, manipulating, and taking advantage of people demeans their dignity, and that arouses God’s righteous anger and God’s desire to do justice.

Good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed: it’s a comprehensive Kingdom-of-God agenda that sends the powerful message that in Jesus Christ, God has come into this world to save, to heal, and to set things right. Through Jesus, God cares not just for our souls, but for us as whole persons. God wants abundant life for everyone right here, right now. 

Jesus shows us that no one is beyond the scope of God’s mercy and love. People who don’t fit into society, people who have suffered injustices, people who need help but cannot help themselves, and people who are looked down upon for their moral failings – these are precisely the people that move God’s heart with compassion. And they are the people Jesus actively seeks to befriend by offering them what they most deeply need but cannot give themselves: healing, hope, purpose, and freedom. 

Those are the core values and driving motives of Jesus’ ministry. And every person who has been baptized into his death and resurrection has been gifted by the Holy Spirit to share these values by joining with Jesus in the work of ministry. We do that by offering our gifts of time, talent, and treasure to promote Jesus’ Kingdom-of-God agenda. 

Just as Jesus had a mission statement to keep him on track, we who call St. Luke’s our spiritual home also have a mission statement. I believe it is consistent with the values of Jesus Christ, and that it accurately reflects who we are as a church family. It says: 

“Saint Luke’s is committed to caring for one another, to spiritual growth, and to bringing others closer to God through Jesus Christ.”

We are committed to caring for one another. 

We are committed to following our Lord’s example by befriending the friendless, reaching out to the lonely, the sick, the suffering, and to those who mourn. We do this in countless ways, with Lay Eucharistic Visitors taking the Blessed Sacrament to the sick and the shut in, Stephen Ministers befriending persons facing difficult challenges, clergy and laypersons visiting persons in the hospital, meals prepared and delivered to families who have lost loved ones, prayer shawls knit and delivered to the sick .... The list could go on and on of the acts of love and care we extend to one another and beyond our church family in the name of Jesus Christ. And your support makes it happen. 

We are committed to spiritual growth. 

As you can see in your bulletin announcements, we have a full array of Christian formation offerings for all ages on Sunday mornings. We have an active youth group that lately has been collaborating with the youth from Trinity Episcopal Church. We have several Bible studies that meet during the week, as well as a Men’s Fellowship and a recently launched Young Adult Ministry. We have special seasonal offerings, such as our Wednesday Lenten Series. We are blessed with numerous opportunities each week for spiritual growth. And your support makes it happen. 

We are committed to bringing others closer to God through Jesus Christ. 

The things I’ve already mentioned bring people into closer relationship with God. Foundational to it all is what we’re doing right now: worship. Offering praise and thanksgiving to God in this holy space, hearing God’s Word read and proclaimed in preaching, gathering at the altar to be fed by God, and joining our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven as we sing in joyful response to the Good News of God’s amazing grace and love. What a wonderful thing it is to come together each Sunday to give thanks to God for all that He has done for us in Jesus Christ. And your support makes it happen. 

Our parish mission statement provides a blueprint for answering God’s call as a church family. Living the core values of our mission statement, we share in the healing work of Jesus Christ by bringing faith, hope, and love into other people’s lives. And it’s only possible because we are willing to offer our gifts for the work of ministry.

I pray that you will join me in making a financial commitment to insure that St. Luke’s has the resources needed to equip us for God’s work. As we make that commitment, may we know the joy of belonging to a loving spiritual home that touches lives with the love of God, that nurtures spiritual growth for all ages, and that brings people into deeper relationship with the One in whom alone we find our true identity and purpose.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Prayer Book Revision Disaster

Since the the last General Convention initiated the process of Prayer Book revision, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific held a symposium on "Imagining a New Prayer Book" on October 8, 2015.  The Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers led the forum.  Here are some highlights of the forum as reported by The Living Church:

The Rev. Ruth Meyers predicted this week that a revised Book of Common Prayer will most likely reflect changes in creation, baptism, and trinitarian theology. ...

Drawing heavily on the work of Mary E. McGann, RSCJ, of Franciscan School of Theology and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Meyers advocated for more robust attention to ecological issues in the church’s worship. The church must move beyond the “tepid prayers” of the current book, which focus mainly on conservation of natural resources, to more “robust forms of confession and lament … giving voice to the cries of our wounded planet and its creatures.” 
She urged more extensive use of language identifying God as Creator, and for prayers that acknowledge new scientific insights, the beauty and goodness of creation, and our fellowship with all created things. A more effusive use of symbols, she noted, may also be an opportunity to restore reciprocity between the theologies of creation and redemption in the prayer book’s account of Christian belief. 
Meyers said a “baptismal consciousness” has clearly developed across the Episcopal Church since the introduction of the 1979 Prayer Book. But the baptism liturgy might be deepened to bear witness to the insights of its creators. Influenced by baptismal revisions in other Anglican churches over the last few decades, Episcopalians might consider using water and oil more extravagantly, reciting the Creed during a baptism, and developing new Baptismal Covenant petitions about environmental stewardship. 
Meyers urged continuing use of “expansive language” for God, including a return to “more concrete images of the Bible and the liturgy” in place of the arcane philosophical language of the fourth-century creeds. The texts of the 1979 book, while using a more inclusive language for humanity, are “overwhelmingly masculine in language and imagery.” 
Meyers urged continuing use of “expansive language” for God, including a return to “more concrete images of the Bible and the liturgy” in place of the arcane philosophical language of the fourth-century creeds. The texts of the 1979 book, while using a more inclusive language for humanity, are “overwhelmingly masculine in language and imagery.” 
She described the Nicene Creed as “a stumbling block for many,” and wondered if a creed is necessary during the Eucharist, given the Great Thanksgiving’s robust affirmation of God’s work in Christ. The use of modern creedal texts alongside the Nicene Creed might be a creative opportunity for engaging worshipers.

Read it all.

As an advocate of Christian orthodoxy and liturgy rooted in the catholic faith, I find this deeply troubling.  It's a reminder that with so few orthodox Episcopalians remaining in The Episcopal Church (particularly among the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies at General Convention), progressive revisionists are now free to change the content of the Christian faith in whatever ways fit their ideological agendas.  Citing new revelation, it starts with redefining the theological understanding of marriage as outlined in the Prayer Book's marriage rite and the catechism (last summer's General Convention made a decisive start on achieving that goal).  Next will be a severing of the relationship between Baptism and Eucharist.  I recently read somewhere that there are those who wish to regularly omit the confession of sin from the Eucharist, while others wish to eliminate the language of "Lordship" for Jesus as too patriarchal and oppressive.  

God only knows what other changes folks like Meyers have in mind when it comes to "creation, baptism, and trinitarian theology."  Orthodoxy and catholicity are on the chopping block.  And the smell of heresy is in the air.

In a posting on the Prayer Book at The Living Church, Fr. Jordan Hylden and Fr. Keith Voets hit the nail on the head:

We fear that a revised prayer book would not be written for the church committed to the Bible and the faith of the apostles, but for the church of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, with all particularistic and judgmental edges shorn off. It is less and less culturally necessary for young people to attend church now, and this trend will likely continue. If one can worship the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism from the comfort of one’s own home, and perhaps also from the shopping aisles at Whole Foods and the local yoga studio, then why bother with church? A prayer book written to suit such a god will be an exercise in futility, not to mention idolatry.

Futility and idolatry, indeed.

But back to the "Imagining a New Prayer Book" symposium.  Of particular interest to this creedal Christian is Meyers' quip that the Nicene Creed is "a stumbling block for many."  I've written before about instances of banning the creed to be "inclusive," letting go of the creed in the liturgy, dumping the creed for Easter, and dishing the creeds because they are "defective."  I won't rehash all of that here.

But I would like to point out that this business of eliminating alleged "stumbling blocks" to be more "inclusive" could put us on a dangerous slippery slope.  I recall that no less an authority than St. Paul notes that Jesus is both "a stumbling block" and "foolishness" (1 Corinthians 1:23).  So if The Episcopal Church is now in the business of removing stumbling blocks, what are we do to with this Jesus and the scandal of particularity he forces us to face?  Perhaps this is why some are calling for abolishing the language of "Lord" to talk about Jesus.  Shall we now avoid the name of Jesus altogether lest we offend secularists, atheists, and adherents of other religions who may find Christian claims about Jesus problematic?

If the Nicene Creed is eliminated in a new Prayer Book, it becomes much easier to water Jesus down to be more palatable for an increasingly post-Christian society.  Since the Nicene Creed defines a robust orthodox Christology over against Arianism (no "tepid prayers" going on here!), omitting this creed makes it easier to downplay or deny that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine.  If he's not fully divine, Jesus was just another human being like you and me.  And as merely human, he can be invoked as the champion of our politically correct causes, conforming to our expectations and agendas.  He can be commissioned as just another liberal social justice prophet who says what our itching ears want to hear.  And we can dream up all kinds of liturgies that use this Jesus to advance the cause of our politically-correct righteousness.

Part of that cause may be to purge the last remaining orthodox Christians from The Episcopal Church.  It's a brilliant strategy.  Instead of launching a frontal assault that from a PR angle would look really bad for those who purportedly champion "inclusion," just change the Prayer Book to eliminate orthodoxy.  That puts orthodox laity and clergy in the predicament of having to decide to either participate in liturgies that affirm heresy or leave The Episcopal Church. 

But considering the fact that The Episcopal Church continues in free fall decline, such a strategy strikes me as almost comically misguided.  Consider the following statistics as reported by Jeffrey Walton in an article entitled "Episcopalians Continue Bleeding Numbers at Alarming Rate":

The church’s domestic U.S. membership dropped 2.7 percent from a reported 1,866,758 members in 2013 to 1,817,004 in 2014, a loss of 49,794 persons. Attendance took an even steeper hit, with the average number of Sunday worshipers dropping from 623,691 in 2013 to 600,411 in 2014, a decline of 23,280 persons in the pews, down 3.7 percent. 
The numbers are significantly worse than 2013, when the church reported a 1.4 percent decline in membership and 2.6 percent decline in average Sunday attendance. 
Other measures of Episcopal Church vitality also saw decline: the denomination reported the shuttering of 69 parishes and missions, down from 6,622 in 2013 to 6,553 in 2014. Children’s baptisms declined 4.8 percent from 25,822 to 24,594 and adult baptisms declined during the same time-frame from 3,675 to 3,530, a decline of nearly 4 percent. 
Overall, the church has declined from a high of 3.6 million members in the mid-1960s to 1.8 million today, even as the U.S. population has more than doubled. The church has lost more than a quarter of its attendance since 2003.

Read it all.

At a time when attendance in The Episcopal Church has declined by over 25% in just 12 years, it's foolish to seriously think about changing the liturgies that shape the most basic ways in which we relate to God and to each other.  Our efforts would be better spent on evangelism and revitalization.  

Prayer Book revision a la Ruth Meyers may be a perfect way to encourage remaining orthodox Episcopalians to leave.  But there are many moderate and moderately progressive Episcopalians who may also take offense and decide to go elsewhere if things like the Nicene Creed, the necessity of Baptism for receiving the Eucharist, a theology of sin and redemption, and the language of "Lord" for Jesus are dumped.  Liturgies grounded in utilitarian religion and self-fulfillment will run out of gas.  Pursuing this agenda, the progressive revisionists may be sawing off the limb on which they sit.  

Whether we look at it from the angle of including the witness of a Christian orthodoxy that connects us to Anglicans worldwide and to the Church throughout the ages, or from the angle of addressing the serious institutional decline afflicting The Episcopal Church at a time when many younger persons crave traditional liturgy, Prayer Book revision at this time and in this manner would be a mistake.  Put both of those concerns together and Prayer Book revision would be a disaster.  

Monday, October 5, 2015

Answering God's Call: A Stewardship Sermon

It was Sunday morning and a little boy didn’t want to go to church. He did his best to resist but in the end his parents won out. Everything seemed to be going just fine. But then, during the service, the pastor’s sermon dragged on and on. It felt like it would never end. The little boy grew more and more restless with each passing minute. Finally, he leaned over to his mother and whispered: “Mommy, if we give him money now, will he let us go?” 

Many of us may have felt like that little boy at one time or another. And perhaps especially so when it comes time for the Annual Giving Campaign, which we’re kicking off here at St. Luke’s this morning. It’s perfectly understandable. Talking about money and giving to the church can make some folks feel uncomfortable. And depending on our history, we may have been involved in churches in the past that used guilt to inspire giving. 

It’s so very sad if that happens. Because giving to the church is not about guilt; it’s about stewardship. And stewardship is really just another way of talking about discipleship. To talk about discipleship is to talk about answering the call to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. And by following Jesus we know the way to the truth that sets us free to receive the priceless gift of abundant life. 

What could be better than that? 

I’m reminded of a hymn we sang at the 9 o’clock service last Sunday. It’s one of my all-time favorites. The words were written by the Anglican priest and poet George Herbert, and they sum up the beauty and the joy of answering the call to follow Jesus. 

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
such a way as gives us breath;
such a truth as ends all strife;
such a life as killeth death.  
Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength;
such a light as shows a feast;
such a feast as mends in length;
such a strength as makes his guest. 
Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
such a joy as none can move;
such a love as none can part;
such a heart as joys in love.  
(Hymnal #487) 

Can you hear it? Can you hear the depths of joy and gratitude to God in those words? Can you hear God’s call to feast, to friendship, and to life-changing communion with Him? 

Because that’s what the invitation to give our time, our talents, and our money to our church family is really all about.  It’s an invitation to new life. And the response to that invitation takes the form of ministry. 

Ministry is not reserved for a special class of “professional Christians.” It’s not just bishops, priests, and deacons who are ministers. On the contrary, every baptized Christian is a minister. Every person who has been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever is called to use their time, their talents, and their money to do the work of ministry. 

St. Paul unpacks all of this in his first letter to the Corinthians. He writes: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (1 Cor 12:4-6)

Paul underscores the truth that we all share the same faith. We’re all baptized into the same Lord. We all belong to that part of the Body of Christ that we call St. Luke’s. 

And yet, Paul also highlights the ways in which we are all different. In our baptisms, each of us is uniquely gifted by the Holy Spirit to make offerings that no one else can in quite the same way. Regardless of how young or old we are, regardless of whether or not we’re new to St. Luke’s or we’ve been here since this church started in the cow pasture, every single one of us possesses spiritual gifts for ministry. And God calls each of us to use those gifts for the good of St. Luke’s. 

St. Paul continues by noting that “each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits” (1 Cor 12:7, The Message). For “to each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7, NRSV)

There’s no such thing as a “small” or “unimportant” gift. All of it matters. Everything given to support the ministries of St. Luke’s makes a difference. Each offering gives glory to God. And everything we offer bears witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. 

It’s a basic stewardship principle that what we keep, we lose; but what we give, we have. 

What we keep, we lose. What we give, we have. 

If we hold on to our gifts, we lose the joy of working with God to touch people’s lives with His love and grace. But if we share what we’ve been given, it comes back to us and to the whole parish with countless blessings. 

Many of us have experienced this in our commitments to the ministries of St. Luke’s. How many times I’ve heard someone say, “I feel like I’ve received more than I’ve given by participating in this ministry.” Or: “I entered into this to share with others, but I feel like I was the one ministered to.” When that happens, it’s a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work - empowering, renewing, and transforming. 

God calls all of us to follow Jesus. God calls all of us to gather regularly for corporate worship. God calls all of us to work, to pray, and to give our gifts for the spread of the Kingdom. Those gifts include not only our spiritual gifts, but also our financial gifts. The money we generously give to St. Luke’s makes it possible for us to worship God in the beauty of holiness. And it makes it possible for us to fulfill our mission of caring for one another, spiritual growth, and bringing others closer to God through Jesus Christ. 

Along with a letter from me, most of you should have also received a copy of a prayer card. We have extra copies of the prayer card in the back of church and in the church office if you need one. This is the prayer on that card: 

Thank you, Lord, for giving me a loving spiritual home at St. Luke’s.  
What do you want to do through me for the good of St. Luke’s? 
Help me to hear your call to serve and to do your will with a grateful heart. 

As we enter into reflection on what it means to be stewards of God’s gifts, I invite you to use this prayer in your daily walk with Christ. I invite you to prayerfully reflect on what St. Luke’s means to you and to your family. I invite you to prayerfully listen for God’s call to serve one another and this community through the ministries of St. Luke’s. And I invite you to prayerfully listen for God’s call to support our ministries with your financial commitment. 

After taking time to pray and to listen for God’s call, all of us will have an opportunity to answer God’s call to make a financial commitment to St. Luke’s beginning on Sunday, October 18. 

As we prayerfully discern how to answer God’s call to give our spiritual and financial gifts, I pray that we will be grateful for belonging to this wonderful church family of St. Luke’s. And I pray that we will answer God’s call with the joy that comes from belonging to Jesus and to a loving spiritual home that welcomes everyone’s gifts for the work of ministry. 

My friends, every single one of you is minister of the Gospel. Every single one of you is gifted by the Holy Spirit. And God is calling you to serve and support St. Luke’s with the gifts of your time, your talents, and your money.

How will you answer God’s call?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Taking the Gospel Cure: A Sermon for Proper 21B 2015

Proper 21B

[Listen to the sermon here.]

The great writer G. K. Chesterton was once asked by a British newspaper to write an essay in response to the question: “What is Wrong with the World?” Chesterton wrote back with just two sentences: “What is wrong with the world? Me.”

It’s always easier to point fingers at the failings of others or to blame circumstances beyond our control. But using humor, Chesterton made the important point that we need to look at ourselves - into the depths of our own hearts and souls - to discover the root cause for what’s wrong with the world. And the root cause is summed up in our Christian vocabulary by the word “sin.”

Sin is the problem for which the Gospel is the solution. Or, to put it another way, sin is the sickness for which the Gospel is the cure. And viewed through the lens of Holy Scripture, we discover that we are all infected by this sickness of sin and we are all in need of Gospel medicine.

Over the past several weeks, our Epistle readings from James have directly addressed ways that sin surfaces in our lives and the deadly consequences it can have.

For example, James has warned us that showing partiality to the wealthy at the expense of the poor is a sin that drives a stake into the very heart of our unity in Christ (cf. James 2:1-9).

James reminds us of the dangers of intemperate speech, noting that with the same mouth we both bless God and curse those made in God’s image (cf. James 3:1-12).

James has also cautioned us against nursing bitter envy and selfish ambition in our hearts (cf. James 3:13-18).

Such things create disorder and wickedness of every kind. And if left to fester in our hearts, they serve as the root causes for hatred, bigotry, and even murder. That’s some pretty serious stuff!

We could go beyond the letter of James to look at the letters of Paul and John. We could peruse the four Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. We could go back and read through the entirety of the Old Testament. And all along the way we would find numerous examples of how sin wrecks lives and compromises the life and witness of God’s people.

So the theme of sin as a serious and pervasive problem permeates the pages of the Bible. If we seek to be faithful disciples of the crucified and risen Lord, we cannot minimize or ignore this topic.

So, what exactly is sin? The Catechism in our Prayer Book provides a very succinct and helpful definition. It says: “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 848).

That’s important enough to repeat.

“Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.”

In keeping with Holy Scripture, our Prayer Book confronts us with the difficult truth that we are sinners. Our wills are out of whack. We have a predisposition to serve ourselves at the expense of other people and in defiance of right relationship with God. We have a tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, excusing our own moral lapses while sometimes judging others harshly for theirs. And even when we know what’s right, we are often inclined to give in to the temptation to do what’s wrong.

This predisposition manifests itself in so many ways: addictions, obsession with money or power, harsh judgment of others, uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, jealousy, resentment, divisiveness, racism, arrogance, insubordination, negligence in prayer and worship, the rejection of revealed truth in favor of personal opinion – the list could go on and on.

Living in a fallen world, many of these behaviors can feel natural and right, as though they are just a part of who we are. But in reality, they contradict who God created us to be as persons who bear His image for the sake of loving and caring for the world.

Because we are fallen creatures, sin is not something that can be dealt with by deciding to do things better, as though we can just make up our minds to exercise more willpower and that solves the problem. Sin is not just a matter of doing bad things, in which case the solution is simple: stop doing bad things and start doing good things!

Doing things that contradict God’s will is merely a symptom. Because the deeper problem is that the same will that tries to do better is also the same will that is predisposed to serving self at the expense of God and neighbor.

We’re caught in a Catch-22. And we can’t think or will our way out of it.

St. Paul sums it up in his letter to the Romans:

“For if I know [God’s] law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time” (Romans 7:17-20, The Message).

Paul’s diagnosis is dead on. Over and over again, we fail to do the good we know we should by falling right back into the very patterns of thinking and behaving we know we should reject. And we cannot cure ourselves.

That is the problem for which the Gospel is the solution. That is the disease for which the Gospel is the cure.

In our Gospel reading today, we have a prescription for this disease straight from the lips of our Lord himself. And that prescription can be described as nothing less than radical surgery.

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell …” (Mark 9:43-47).

The shocking language of Jesus’ words reminds us that we’re dealing with a very serious problem that calls for a surgical strike against the root causes of our predisposition to seek self-will rather than God’s will. It’s the spiritual equivalent of open heart surgery.

Biblically understood, the heart is the center of a person’s inner life, character, and intentions. And it is within our hearts that sin has taken root and grows, spreading its deadly tentacles into our thoughts, words, and deeds. For, as our Lord notes earlier in Mark’s Gospel, it is “from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come,” and “they defile a person” (Mark 7:21, 23).

And so we need surgery. Some things have to be “cut out” of our lives – removed from the depths of our hearts – to make room for God’s healing and restoring grace.

We aren’t qualified to perform that kind of surgery on ourselves. Only Jesus the Divine Physician can do that.

This is why it is so important that we regularly receive God’s healing grace in both Word and Sacrament.

As part of a lifestyle of repentance we need daily immersion in God’s Word. For God’s Word is “sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, laying us open to listen and obey” (Hebrews 4:12, The Message). Through prayerfully engaging God’s Word in Holy Scripture, we open ourselves to the ministrations of the Holy Spirit who convicts our consciences and guides us to the One who offers mercy, forgiveness, and newness of life.

As part of our ongoing therapy, we also need to attend weekly worship where we not only hear God’s Word read and proclaimed, but in which we also receive what St. Ignatius of Antioch called “the medicine of immortality” – the grace given to us in the bread and wine of Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. By receiving the Eucharist, we stay connected to Jesus the Physician of Souls, letting his healing love and grace permeate the depths of our being, grounding us in that source of life apart from which we cannot bear the fruits of love and obedience.

The Church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners. And so it is through the Church that we sinners receive the treatment we need for the sickness of our hearts.

Receiving God’s grace in Word and Sacrament opens our hearts to the Divine Physician, allowing Him to gently but firmly cut out the sickness that warps our wills. And then God administers the healing balm of the Real Presence of the Crucified and Risen Christ. Through the Word and Sacraments of the Church, we receive forgiveness of our sins, the healing of our hearts and wills, and the power to amend our lives. We become more fully united with Christ. And the more united we are with Christ, the more we become like Christ, letting His will shape and guide our wills so that we desire what God desires for us.

In Jesus Christ, God reaches out in compassion and mercy to a fallen and sin-sick humanity. For Jesus came, not to condemn, but to save sinners just like you and me. Regardless of what we have done or failed to do, Jesus never stops loving us. For Jesus is God with us and for us. He's always ready to heal us and to free us from bondage to our sins so we may know the joy of abundant life.  And that is, indeed, good news!