Render unto Caesar . . .

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars and to God the things that are God’s.” Most of us have little trouble rendering onto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Every year, quite a while before the deadline of April 15, we sit down and struggle with form 1040. In my instance, it usually winds up being a packet about 3 inches thick. Through the variety of computations and attached schedules we generally come to an understanding of exactly how many dollars and cents we need, under penalty of law, to render unto Caesar. Whether we feel cheerful or resentful doesn’t matter. We still need to send it. Some of us have been rendered enough and might be getting a refund; others of us are invited to send along a check to complete our being rendered. In some happier instances we look forward to a refund. That means of course that we’ve overpaid during the course of the year.

 When it comes to the matter of stewardship, it’s all different. There is no schedule 1040. There is no one demanding particularly that we give. There’s no schedule to be filed to tell us how we are to give, or under what circumstances we give. It’s a matter between what’s in our heart and what we know is right in proportion to what we know about our relationship with God. Far from being a compulsory burden, stewardship is supposed to be an occasion of joy. It is not an act based on compulsion, but an act that is based upon our loving response to the tender mercies which we have encountered from Almighty God.  The heart of stewardship stems from an awareness of the blessings that we have received during the year and during years past throughout our lifetimes.

 The very heart of stewardship rests on the notion that we are aware that we have received blessings from Almighty God, and that we are thankful and filled with gratitude for the blessings which we have received. We are asked to count our blessings and to approach the altar with hearts that are filled with thankfulness.

 Now, being human, it is our tendency often to base our system response of stewardship on what we see as the needs of the church. We all know costs go up in terms of price. Most of us know that from running our homes each year.  We also know how things go up in the life of our parish. Utilities, insurances of various sorts, Cost of living, (2% this year) necessary but routine repairs. We all know none of it goes down. We know that if our stewardship is strictly parish-needs based that for Saint Paul’s to

But ultimately the grounding of stewardship rests on the ways that we are aware that we have been and how we are blessed. That’s the thing that our theme for the year is supposed to remind us. It is not me and it is not you that have gotten for ourselves all that we have and all that we enjoy. Rather it is that all that we are and all that we have comes from God. The real challenge of those words of Deuteronomy “Be careful lest you may say to yourself, “my power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember to give your thank offering to the Lord your God.” The real challenge is don’t forget to be thankful, don’t forget to be grateful. Remember to show your gratitude to the Lord your God and offer your gift with thanksgiving.  

Faithfully,

Fr. Greg+

 

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“The Thing I do, I hate. . .”

Here’s a meditation on Romans 7:15-25

Before we decide that St. Paul has gone around the bend, before we analyze him from the view of modern psychiatry, before we dismiss that second reading from the Epistle to the Romans as the ravings of one gone mad, perhaps we might pause for a moment of gratitude. We might be thankful for his candor and self-disclosure. We might rejoice for his fundamental honesty. Because what we could learn from the 2nd reading this morning is that life in the fullness of the power of the Holy Spirit entails hard work. It is an invitation to a life of self-discovery in the light of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. To embark on the life is essentially to engage in journey, no; more than a journey, an adventure of growth in the life of the spirit.

Of course, God loves us just the way we are. But that’s not to say that he has the expectation that we will engage in the that journey towards the fullness of life in the Holy Spirit. And eventually, in that life of the spirit, if we are faithful to the promptings and the calling of the grace of God, we will come to a realization. And that realization is twofold.

-One, that you are being called to become something other than what you are today, because God is not finished with you yet.

-And Two, that as we become more attuned to life in the power of the Holy Spirit, that there is a gulf fixed between where we are and the high ideal that we are called to in the completeness of life in Jesus Christ our Lord.

That’s because it is, as we all know, impossible for us as human beings to live fully and completely every minute in the life of the Spirit. Even if we were to live in a place where the distractions were minimized, it would be impossible for us to with that much energy and intentionality. Eventually we come to the recognition that there is a distance from the high ideal to which we are called and the reality of where we are in human terms. Curiously, the more aware we become of the potential which is ours in the of life in the spirit, the more we are also aware of just how short we fall from the ideal. While we might delight in the law of God, like Paul, the more we are aware of what life might be like in the Holy Spirit, the more aware we become of how our mortal nature weighs us down.

Sometimes it is alleged of Christians that we seem to be people who are preoccupied with sin. In some popular perceptions, Christians are characterized as the sort of people who are no fun to be around, who can’t lighten up and enjoy life, who have an overwhelming sense of rigidity in making sure that they don’t transgress the commandments. I would tell you with tears in my eyes that I have known well-meaning people who present Christianity in this fashion. But that is not the essence of Christianity. Christians are called to be preoccupied, not with sin but with life in the grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. We would be doing a greater service to the mission of the Church if we could figure a way to articulate this better and more accurately.

Canon Greg+

 

 

 

 

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Ascension–why’s it important?

Most of us can relate to many of the aspects of our Lord’s life. For example, most of us can relate to the idea that it’s good news that someone has conceived and is about to bring a child into the world. So we can find a way of understanding the doctrine of the incarnation. Many of us, if we do not have the experience ourselves, have known people that have had the joy in bringing a child home from the hospital. So we can relate to what a tremendous joy birth is. We don’t really have a hard time conceptualizing or struggling with the meaning of Christmas and the touching story of the birth of Jesus.  While I’m reasonably sure that none of us have had the direct experience of resurrection, I’m quite sure that all of us here have had the experience of laying a person to rest. Someone whom we have loved and cared for. Someone for whom our heart aches as we come to that moment “where even at the grave we make our song alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” So in a real way we can relate to the disciples and Mary Magdalene and the others. We can imagine the tremendous joy that they must’ve experienced when they encountered the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

But things are different with the Ascension. That’s an experience with which throws most of us. It is hard for us to relate to it.

For starters, no one I have ever met ever had any direct experience of anybody else’s Ascension.   We have never had the experience of someone that we know and love being suddenly picked up and drawn up into heaven and disappearing before our very eyes. Oh, we can understand the likes of Ralph Kramden making a fist and hollering “to  the moon to the moon, Alice, to the moon. But Ascension? That’s something entirely different. If we were to experience something like that, I’m sure that our reaction would not have been so different from the early disciples. “Men of Galilee why stand you gazing up into heaven?”  Why indeed? Wouldn’t we all?  For most of us  the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ stands fairly abstract and obtuse, something inaccessible and incomprehensible.

Well, we can reflect theologically the Ascension, and in so doing, we could make the statement that the Ascension of our Lord is important because it reminds us that Jesus is not only an itinerant preacher from Galilee but he is also the cosmic Lord and King of all creation. We can reflect, as Saint John did, that there is a certain necessity of the Ascension because our Lord goes to prepare a place for us in his permanent heavenly kingdom. We might notice, as did Saint John that there is a necessity to the Ascension:  he goes that we might be filled with power from on high. The Ascension is a precursor signaling that the Messianic era is over as we look forward to something new which is the era of the Holy Spirit  shared upon all humankind.  We celebrate that in the feast of Pentecost,  next Sunday. The fulfillment of the promise of the prophet Joel, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”

But the second thing about the Ascension is that it is a marvelous moment in which the followers of Jesus are reminded that they are commissioned to go forth into the world to preach, to proclaim the gospel to all nations, and bring all peoples into the fold. In the words of the Great Commission we are sent to baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The angelic beings chastise those men of Galilee for standing around too long saying goodbye. “You have work to do. Get on with it.  Get out into the world and start proclaiming the love of Jesus and quit standing around staring up into the sky.”

Graduations are popular at this time of year. So I suppose we could think of this disciple graduation day. Usually the other name for graduation is commencement. It’s not the end of the journey but it’s the new beginning. So Ascension Day is tremendously about this living into the vocation of proclamation. Proclamation is a thing that we are all called to do. To proclaim Christ by word and example to seek and to serve him in others. Unfortunately, it’s a whole lot more comfortable for all of us as it was for Peter, Andrew, James, and John, and the rest to stand in to gaze. Far more comfortable to stand and gaze than to go out into the world and to represent the love of God in Jesus Christ. Yet the mission of the church is the proclamation and representation of Jesus in the community in which we live. Yours is fundamentally the same as the apostolic commission and so is mine.

Last thing that comes to my mind with the assumption of our Lord Jesus Christ is this: it’s a very touching moment and it’s a hard moment because most of us find it incredibly difficult to say goodbye. In representations of art often times the disciples are shown reaching up in the air as if to grasp the feet of Jesus to hold him back stay with us stay with us a little longer. Reassuring as our Lord’s last words to his disciples may be about how he’s going to be present with them always, that does not soften the blow as they reach up while he ascends. Yet ascend he must so that they must be filled finally and wonderfully and completely in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Faithfully,

Canon G+

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How to be human

Moral Theologians instruct us that there are three main virtues, known as theological virtues. They are Faith, Hope and Caritas. Caritas is one of those specialized Latin words. Sometimes it is translated as Love; at other times Charity. In English, of course, there is a vast difference between Love and Charity, though presumably any act of Charity springs from an intrinsic attitude of love which finds its expression towards meeting the need of an individual or group.

In 1 Corinthians 13, Saint Paul articulates that the greatest of these virtues is love, and that is doubtlessly inspired by the words of Saint John’s Gospel such as we have heard this morning. But we might notice just how inter related these are.   Faith, in the way in which Saint Paul expresses it, is not a dogmatic system of belief—as we sometimes refer to the Christian Faith—as an expression of systematic theology. No, in Saint Paul, it is different. Faith is a thing that springs from our response to the love of God which we have encountered in Jesus Christ. As a virtue, Faith entails the development of a dynamic relationship of trust towards God. It also entails a dynamic relationship of trust towards other people in our lives. So we place our faith in those of whom we have the experience that they have earned our trust.

But without faith, hope is not possible. One of the great things that springs from our capacity to grow in faith is the capacity to have hope. Absent faith, eventually the human spirit becomes hopeless, downtrodden, browbeaten into the dust of the earth. Absent hope, the only response that makes sense is radical alienation.

Carried to its logical extension that means separation from God, from one’s fellow human beings, and ultimately from life itself. One finds that sense of radical alienation in the existential philosophy of the last century; one finds it also expressed certain hate groups that seem to be gaining ascendency today. Because if I have no hope and no influence of positivity, something essentially has to come in to fill that void. Those might include: fellowship with others who express their radical alienation in the same manner as do I; it might have to do with turning to drugs, or alcohol to numb the innate human drive to find meaning to life.

If it is true that without faith, there is no hope, it is also true that without hope, humans have a diminished capacity for love. If I have no ideal, nothing in which to believe, then why should I be concerned about anything other than myself. Absent faith, hope and love we all too quickly find ourselves down a path to sociopathy.

And that is why religious experience is fundamentally a part of what makes us human. It serves as a critical reminder that

-life has meaning and has a purpose

-that life is based on a series of relationships with G od and with our brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings, and the family of humankind,

-Faith, hope and love channel our attention from negative, self-destructive thinking to positivity and potential rather than failure and self-loathing. Without these, the world devolves into a vicious, hostile environment.

In 1971, a somewhat obscure Country singer/songwriter published a cut “Angels from Montgomery.” That song had a bit of popularity when it was performed by Bonnie Raitt. The Chorus is:

Make me an angel that flies from Montgom’ry
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

So it is for good reason that we are reminded of these virtues: Faith, Hope, and love do more than abide forever. They are the minimum required building blocks that make us human.  Want to be human? Abide in the love of Jesus, strive to live a life filled with faith and hope.

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The Lord is Risen Indeed Alleluia!

Alleluia. Christ is Risen.

The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia.

This has always intrigued me. In scripture, God always speaks the language of positivity and the language of hope.

Even at those moments such as one encounters with the prophets, where there is that dark and angry tone of excoriating judgment, there is always a note of hope. Even when it is not likely that his people will either hear or heed his voice, there is always that subcontext of God who created all things in love. While God may be angry or frustrated with his people, it does not seem to be in his character to hate them.  So even those prophets whose message was so strident, there is that note of compassion: “if only my people would listen to me.” “if only they would turn with new hearts.” “if only they would follow and obey my commandments.” “if only they would be my people and if only they would let me by their God.”

Over the years it has been the task of preachers on this happy Easter morning to try to persuade people that the resurrection of Jesus is real. And of course there are a number of resurrection appearances of our Risen Lord recorded in the New Testament; most of them are not private audiences but involve two or more witnesses. Those appearances have a weight of authenticy about them. They are credible, if for no other reason, no one makes up a tale about someone being raised from the dead—and if they had concocted such a tale, who among them would endure the suffering and painful deaths that all the apostles endured (except John). They would have folded—changed their story—as part of a plea deal. But they didn’t. And that in itself testifies to the truth. It makes no sense from human experience; Easter, this day of Resurrection,  while incomprehensible from from the human point of view, teaches us

·         that God is greater than the human point of view,

·         that the power of God is greater than all things in heaven and earth

·         that in the face of all things broken in the world, God was in Christ, reconciling all things to himself.

·         That the love of God is greater than the hatred of the world.

That our Lord’s message to the disciples, “be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world,” is just as applicable today as it was then.

When we live fully in the power and the promise of Jesus’ resurrection, things change.

·         We are no longer held prisoner by the fear that is in the world,

·         We are no longer, chained by the negativity that grips people’s lives, and institutions and systems,

·         We can give up what I call the little liturgy of the wringing of the hands over the dismal prospects of a bleak future, because we can come to trust in Him who promises, “Behold, I make all things, New.

·         We are no longer consumed by the pettiness that is the hallmark of the press and grind of daily life, because we know that we dwell in the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

·         We can fully live in the vision of this morning’s epistle, for if we have truly set our minds on the things that are above, and not the things on earth, we will be continually renewed by the way in which our life is hidden—that’s to say covered, protected and enfolded, with Christ in God.

Here’s the mistake that most people make: the resurrection of Jesus is not an intellectual proposition. It is not a time worn, outdated dogma of the Church. And we need to quit acting as though it were those things. The celebration of Jesus’ resurrection is a proclamation about a dynamic relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ that transforms life wondrously.

Alleluia. Christ is Risen.

The Lord is Risen indeed.

Faithfully,

Canon G+

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Palm Sunday: the Passion of Jesus

He died. Just as any of us do. For some of the people standing there, it was a huge disappointment. No new era of reign of God appeared. Just one more human life snuffed out. Call him an itinerant preacher, or a prophet, he was just a part of the surplus population who came to an end. Granted, more tragically than most, but then most of the prophets did not come to cheerful ends either.

Of course, not everyone turning from the scene of the crucifixion had that reaction. There were those who had hindsight—which they say is always 20/20. Even the centurion, hardened by his years of service to Rome, a man who had seen much in the way of human suffering and tragedy, and who had dished out more than his share of it upon people—even he was able to see something different. It was not just his sense that a mistake had been made, or that there was a miscarriage of justice. Hardened though he may be, as he turned away from the horrific scene at Calvary, these words escaped his lips: surely he was the Son of God.

And of us, what thoughts press upon us as we turn away from Calvary this morning?

Do we think as some do that Jesus died in vain? After all hatred still seems to go on in the world. The message of love as agape has never really taken hold. The kingdom that Jesus preached does not appear to have reached its perfection. And if that is your reaction, then you must ask yourselves, “Have I grown indifferent to the message of the Gospel that I am not moved by our Lord’s sacrifice?”   “Does it no longer move my heart, because it is just lost in the vast sea of instances of human beings’ inhumanity to one another.”

Or maybe it is that we ourselves are overwhelmed by a sense of horror that is conjoined with guilt and remorse. For, if you were raised with a certain understanding of the atonement, then you would understand that Jesus died for your sins and that is but a polite way of trying to work around the painful awareness that I caused this. I was the causative agent of his suffering and his death. I was the responsible one.  It may have been a Roman soldier who did it in historical time, but I might just as well have been the one who plaited the crown of thorns and pressed it upon his head; I might just as well have been the one who took the nails and drove them into his hands and feet and plunged the spear into his side.

That is, of course the traditional way in which our Lord’s Passion is proclaimed. But when a person remains stuck with that sense of guilt and remorse, then ultimately, what is supposed to be redemptive, the sacrifice of Jesus, becomes instead itself an occasion of destructive sin. Because ultimately Calvary is not about what I did. It is about what God has done.

The classic teaching of the Church about the Passion of Jesus is that it is to be used to move us to a sense of thanksgiving. We are called to be thankful because of the many things that Jesus endured for us and for our sakes. It is hoped that our gratitude is the lever that helps us to change our lives and our attitudes towards one another. Having a profound sense of thanksgiving is the basis of spiritual renewal in Jesus Christ.

But lest we think too narcissistically about it, the Passion of Jesus is not solely about me. It is about the redemption of all that is broken in the world. It is the message that God’s grace can overcome all things in a world gone wrong and how it is that even in the midst of all that has gone wrong and descended into madness, that there is hope where there is the grace of God.  

Faithfully,

Canon G+

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Jesus Wept

When I read the raising of Lazarus, it strikes me how I have come to appreciate it differently over time. I have always been deeply touched by what my grandmother taught me was the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.” For years I had presumed that Jesus was weeping over the loss of a friend, weeping as many of us have wept over the loss of those who have been near and dear to us. Regarding that scene, the divine sorrow of Jesus at the loss of Lazarus commingles with the sorrows of our shared humanity.

He who is soon to be victorious over death can conquer it, but he does not short circuit it. We may celebrate the resurrection and we may be people of the resurrection, but that does not insulate us from those very human emotions of grief—stages and emotions that Dr. Kuebler-Ross described so well in her important book, Death and Dying.

I have come to appreciate the courageous faith that comes out like an allegation from Martha and Mary, that oftentimes has been the allegation of the times in which we live, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Coming from them, it is a statement of faith in the healing power of the Lord Jesus. He, who gave sight to the blind man could have prevented Lazarus’ mortality had he been there to heal Lazarus. In our time, of course, that statement comes out more as an allegation—an existential cry of agony reflective of what we think of as the absence of God in the midst of crisis.

“If you had been here, there would have been no Kosovo. If you had been here, there would have been no Sandy Hook. If you had been here, there would have been no humanitarian crisis of starvation in the South Sudan, no refugee resettlement crisis of Syrians. If you had been here there would have been no Zika virus. If you had been here there would be no Isis, no Boku Haram. Dylan Roof would not have entered Emanuel A.M.E.  in Charleston, and killed all those people.” And so on.

This is the allegation of suffering humanity that on the one hand searches desperately for God, while on the other hand it denies that God exists. This is the allegation of a suffering humanity that would prefer Merlin the magician to Jesus the redeemer. Merlin has a magic wand; Jesus shows us the way of the cross. Merlin waves a magic wand and makes everything instantly better. Jesus, on the other hand, teaches that redemption is possible and that walking in the way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace. As the human race we might prefer Merlin; but God gives us Jesus. In the long run, Merlin’s results are temporary; Jesus’ results are the well-spring of eternal life.

At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus wept. But the cosmic Lord through whom all things were made and have their being weeps for his friend, but not his friend only. There is the cosmic dimension to His divine tears. He weeps for the human condition. He weeps in compassion for all that we suffer.

Faithfully,

Canon Greg+

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