Friday, November 22, 2013

The Child in the Midst

 A Sermon preached in the Chapel of 
Trinity School for Ministry

 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:1-6, ESV)

My daughter Helen is named for my grandmother on my father’s side, Helen Stromberg. Mom-Mom, as we called her, went to be with the Lord years ago, but I remember her very fondly. She was a very devout Roman Catholic. In fact, most of her younger sisters took religious orders as nuns. Mom-Mom also had a sweet tooth. As a kid, one of the best things about visiting Mom-Mom was that she kept little dishes of candy all throughout her apartment. I can remember one time in particular wandering into her bedroom looking for some Hershey kisses and discovering the statue of the Infant of Prague, the Child-Jesus, which she kept on her dresser surrounded with flowers. The rosy cheeked doll wore a crown and a glittering gown of white and gold. To my young protestant eyes, this doll was more than just creepy; it seemed dark and pagan, truly frightening! 

Oddly enough it is that very image that comes to me now, all these years later, as I contemplate our Gospel reading for today. It is the image of childhood crowned with honor and wrapped in majesty and splendor.Here, in this passage of Scripture, the Lord reveals to us his kind regard for Children and the special place of honor that they have in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The disciples—perhaps debating among themselves about which one of them was greatest—come to Jesus and ask, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” He responds by taking a child in his arms. The text does not say this, but I like to think that she was a girl. Given the circumstances it seems especially appropriate. Placing the child in their midst, he says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

I do not think—as many of the Church Fathers insist—that in asking his disciples to “become like children” Jesus is asking them to adopt some supposed virtue peculiar to children. In reference to this passage, one Church Father for instance (whose name I cannot pronounce) says that children “are not inquisitive and are free from malice, rivalry, and stubborn passion!” We can excuse the Fathers on this point. They generally lived a celibate and secluded life. Those of us who are parents of young children know better!

I think that Jesus is instead reminding his disciples that, in the Kingdom of Heaven, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. They are still thinking in terms of the world that is perishing. The world honors those who are strong and powerful, men of status and wealth, but the Kingdom belongs to the poor, the despised, the vulnerable, and those who are the least. The Kingdom is good news for these little ones, and Jesus teaches us to take our place with them.

Most of us would agree that children are to be cherished and protected. This was not always so. Much of the honor that children receive in our culture is a result of our Christian heritage. In the ancient world, and Roman culture in particular, the strong and the mighty were admired and the weak and the vulnerable were marginalized. Such a culture had little regard for children. We learn from Seneca that children who were weak or abnormal were often drowned at birth. In fact, in the ancient world, children were routinely left to die of exposure, especially if they were girls. Children were often sold into slavery as well. Even the disciples seemed to regard children as little more than pests. Jesus was unusual in the attention and dignity he gave to children. Through his teaching, he started a revolution of compassion in the way that children are treated around the world.

 It is alarming to note that as the Christian heritage of our culture erodes, so does much of the regard for children that the Gospel brings. Children are the first casualty of our idolatrous pursuit of pleasure, wealth, and status. They are increasingly seen as a nuisance to be avoided, a distraction from a life dedicated to the pursuit of self-interest. Unborn children are no longer even regarded as persons. It is permissible to terminate a fetus in the womb if its birth would be an inconvenience to us. In a world captivated by power and bent on self-aggrandizement, it is so easy for the weak and the vulnerable, especially children, to be forgotten or trampled on.

The Church too often is all too similar to the world in this regard. Who is it that we value? The beautiful, the charismatic, the wealthy, and the powerful. The church often seems every bit as captivated by status and celebrity as the surrounding culture. How often is ministry to children an afterthought? Have we taken time to know and love the children and youth of our congregation? Do we make their care and instruction in the gospel a priority? Jesus does not see Children as “second-rate” Christians. They are first in the Kingdom of God! To receive a child in Jesus’ name is to receive him, for such is the extent of his identification with them. Jesus pronounces emphatic words of warning for all those who would hurt or lead astray these little ones. The regard that God has for these little ones must be our own.

To humble ourselves and become like children, means to abandon any claim to power or status in this world.  Children have no authority, but are completely under the authority of their parents. They are utterly powerless and completely dependent. What do children have that they have not received? They depend on their parents for everything. Everything they have, and everything they know, they receive from their parents.

As parents it is quite daunting to see how much our seventeen month old daughter depends on my wife and I for everything. We feed her, wash her, dress her, and she in turn observes and imitate our every move. To humble ourselves and become as children means to take this posture towards our heavenly father. We must renounce ourselves and instead become what he would have us be. Nothing we have is our own and we should demand nothing but what he would give to us.

To receive a child in the name of Christ is to receive her as a representative of Christ and in some sense as resembling Christ. To return to the image we began with, my grandmother’s infant of Prague statue was not only an image of the dignity of childhood, it was also an image of God himself.
There is that in God which is like a child, the Son of God who humbled himself and became a child, who being equal in power and dignity to the father was content to become lowly and without status. Jesus eternally chooses to be the son of the Father.  He says, "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does” and

“By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.”
Jesus is the perfectly obedient son of his father.  He came down from heaven, not to do his own will but the will of he who sent him, to be born in human likeness, to live and die as one of us, and to be raised for our justification. In being born as a child, he sanctified childhood, making it a fit image of his divine humility, and an example to us. Let this mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus who humbled himself and became a child.  

George Macdonald asks, “Brothers and Sisters, have you found our king? There he is, kissing little children and saying they are like God. There he is at the table with the head of a fisherman lying on his bosom, and somewhat heavy at heart that even he, the beloved disciple, cannot yet understand him well.”

Very soon it will be Advent and then Christmas. As we enter into the ache and longing of the season, waiting for God to come among us and set things right, Jesus invites us to look for God not in the places of prosperity, rulers upon their thrones, or the mighty commanders of armies, but in the despised and marginalized places of the world, and in the face of a child.

Friday, August 16, 2013

God our Father

 A sermon preached at Canterbury Place
a Senior Community and home for assisted living in Lawrenceville, Pa.

In today’s gospel Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them how to pray

Growing up in a Christian home where prayer was an everyday part of life, I took it for granted that everyone knew how to pray. It was something that came naturally. Which is why I’ll never forget when a friend of mine, new to the faith, admitted to me with great embarrassment that he wasn’t really sure how to pray. “What is the secret he asked?” His question took me off guard, “I’m not really sure there is a secret, you just open your heart to God and talk with him.”

Prayer is simple, honest, and heartfelt and an intimate relationship of trust with God is the secret to a life of prayer.  When asked, Jesus gives his disciples the key: God is your Father. When you pray, look to God as your Father and yourself as the son or daughter of his love.

God is a king, our creator, he is Holy, he is infinitely greater than any created thing, and yet Jesus tells us to address him not in the groveling and indirect way that a peasant would address royalty, but as a child would address her father. Did you ever consider what a great privilege it is to have such direct access to the God and creator of the universe?

At this point it is important that I acknowledge that the idea of Father is deeply ambiguous to many and downright difficult for others. Maybe our own fathers were not always as loving as they should have been. Maybe our fathers were absent or inattentive. Although our Fathers may not have been perfect, God is the perfect Father that every heart yearns to know. This is the way we must think of God, as the one who loves us unconditionally and is always there for us. 

Jesus tells the story of a man who needed to borrow some bread, but the man was reluctant to get up to help him because he had put the locks on the door, put the kids to sleep, and was comfortable in bed. “God Away!” he says. His neighbor will not take no for an answer, however, and so eventually the man gets up to give him what he wants just so he will stop bothering him.

Is God like the reluctant neighbor who needed to be pestered and begged before he got up to help? The neighbor helps not so much because the strength of his relationship to the man who asked, but because of his persistence. He says enough already, here it is, just go away!

God is different. He is our Father. Think about the little girl who wakes her father in the middle of the night to ask for a glass of water. Who else could get away with that? If you woke in the middle of the night to find a guest in your home at the foot of your bed asking for a glass of water, you would be incredibly irritated. Let’s be honest, even if your spouse woke you for a glass of water you would probably role over with a huff and say, “Get it yourself!” But your child is different! They can come to you with whatever they need at anytime because you are their parent. In fact we love to give to them!

Its true we are human, we get tired, we grumble. I’ll confess, when my one year old daughter wakes in the middle of the night crying, I don’t always leap up immediately to go to her! Although, I may elbow my wife to wake her saying “The baby is crying!” My wife might grumble too, but because she is our daughter, we can never allow her to cry for more than a few  moments before we get up to attend to her. How much more God! He never tires, he is never selfish, he never grows weary of caring for us.

Jesus teaches us to ask, seek, and knock.

Our Father wants us to ask him for the things we need. He wants us to bring our longing and desires to him.

Remember though, God is our Father and not our Jeanie! He wants to see us happy, he wants to give us good gifts, but more than anything he wants what is best for us. He will never withhold from us what is necessary for us to be the people he has called us to be, but he knows better than us what we really need.

Children do not always understand what they are asking for do they? They can’t understand why their parents cannot give them the things they ask for. What is the ClichĂ©? When asked what she would like for her birthday, a little girls says, “Daddy I want a pony!”

If you are a father that loves to see your child happy, you might very well wish that you could give her a pony! The fact is, however, you might not be able to afford it! Would it be in her best interest if you went bankrupt? It is more important that she have food and shelter than a pony. She might not understand, but it is in her best interest to say no.

We may not understand why God does not give us exactly what we ask for, but it is never because he is not generous or he does not love us.

Who knows, maybe you are wealthy and you can afford to buy your daughter a whole stable full of ponies! Is it always wise to give your children everything that they ask for? Many parents have a lot of zeal to give gifts to their children, but they don’t have wisdom. It is possible to spoil our children by giving them, indiscriminately, every thing they ask. What kind of character does that create? It can make them spoiled and entitled people who always have to have their own way. That would not be in their best interest either!

In the Letter of James we read : “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (4:3). Because God loves us, he will not indulge of selfish inclinations.

Because God is our all wise and all loving Father, he may sometimes have to deny our request, in our best interest.

The one thing he is always ready to give to us and will never refuse us is his love. We never have to beg him to love us. There is nothing we must do to earn his affection, it is ours because we are his own children. More than anything else, he wants to give us his Holy Spirit. He wants us to know that we are his Children and that he is our Father.

If we ask God, he will send us the Holy Spirit to come and live in our heart. The Holy Spirit is the one who testifies with our spirit that we are beloved children of God and heirs of his eternal kingdom.

Saint Paul writes, “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”  So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” Galatians 4:6-7.

To be an heir means that all that God has belongs to us. There is no good thing we lack if we have God as our Father!

God’s plan was always that we would be his Children and know him as our Father.  This is the blessing he gave to us by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, to live and die as one of us. The bible says, For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren Romans 8:29.

In Jesus Christ, God looks at humanity and says, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased!” When you come before God in prayer, do so knowing that he loves us as his very own children, and say “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name!”

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Pillar of the Truth

 A Sermon preached at Church of the Ascension of May 15, 2013

Years ago, I read a book with the title They Like Jesus butNot the Church. The book chronicled the attitudes of the unchurched towards organized religion and the church in particular. The predominant feelings towards the church, even among those with an openness to Jesus, was suspicion and distrust. I’m sure you all know people who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. Maybe you are one of them. There is no doubt that a lot of this wariness and disillusionment is entirely justified.
One doesn’t have to dig very far to find reasons not to like the Church, the unending in-fighting and lawsuits, the hypocrisy, the dishonesty, and even the horrid corruption of sexual abuse. 

Many sincere and morally minded people have concluded that they would rather not be involved with the church. After all isn’t it just as possible to connect with God by reading your Bible in your home or on a Sunday morning nature hike? Such people say, “My faith is a personal relationship not a religion.”

I want to be clear, I believe that having a personal and heart felt relationship with Jesus Christ is essential, but the Lord also wants us to have a corporate relationship with his Church. Jesus loves the church, despite her many failings as his very own bride. Saint Peter writes, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellences of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.(1 Peter 2:9 ESV)   
The Church has a very special role in God’s plan of salvation. Our Epistle reading today describes it as, “the pillar and buttress of the truth.”

Scholars have often described the Pastoral Letters—1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus—somewhat negatively as the domestication of the radical movement of the Early Church. They say that the message takes a shift from the radical, world-changing, message of Paul’s early ministry to more conservative and institutionally focused concerns.

 In some ways they are right. There is a shift taking place. The age of the Apostles is coming to an end. The Apostle Paul wants to assure that the Church he has labored so hard to establish is preserved and the Gospel that was entrusted to him is defended from the encroaching threat of false teachers. It is imperative that the Church be left in the hands faithful leaders of godly character.

Those entrusted for the care of God’s people, as shepherds of the flock, are called epĂ­skopos which means overseer or guardian. It is also where we get the word Bishop. However, the office isn’t exactly the same as that of bishop as we would understand it today.

In the New Testament the offices of episkopos and presbyter-- which means pastor, priest or elder—were basically synonymous. It isn’t until the following generations that we see the three fold ministry of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons securely in place.
The office of bishop, as we understand it today, has more to do with continuing the role of the Apostles. The Apostles, appointed leaders, such as Timothy, as their heirs and charged them with the ordination of leaders and the defense of the gospel.
It is to that end that Paul instructs Timothy that, those who aspire to the office of overseer desire a noble task. Because of the awesome responsibility involved in being a pastor, It is essential that those ordained to this role be people of character who will not bring reproach upon the church.

There was a video making the rounds on Facebook of a school bus of children from my home town, acting absolutely appallingly. Somebody happened to capture the scene on their cell phone. It gets so bad that the police need to intervene! Needless to say it has caused a bit of a scandal. Whenever kids act up in this way the most natural response is to ask, “what is wrong with these parents?!” Parents are responsible for setting an example for their children, disciplining them if needed, and teaching them the appropriate way to behave. When parents do not have a strong character themselves, its absence in their children isn’t too surprising.

In the same way, pastors are to set an example for the church through their manner of life. They must not only be competent teachers, but also must be people not easily overcome with vice. They must be generous, self-controlled and faithful to their spouses.

 It is important that they manage the affairs of their own house well, not only for the sake of their reputation, but also as proof of their competency to lead the church.
The home has been described as the “domestic church.” Any life of virtue and devotion has to begin with one’s own family and loved ones. It is often far easier to maintain your virtue with strangers!
It is also important that a pastor be someone who is mature and experienced in their faith. One must learn the humility of being a follower and a student, before one is ready to be a leader and teacher. It is all too easy to allow a quick rise in status to go to one’s head. Those in positions of power and authority need to always be on guard that they not be consumed with pride.

Paul then turns his attention to the qualifications for diakonos  and  diakonissa, what we would refer to as deacons. There is some debate whether diakonissa refers to a female deacon or the wife of a deacon. The context seems to suggest that these are indeed female deacons or deaconesses  that are being referred to. Paul is talking about the qualifications for leaders, it would seem odd that he would shift gears to talk about the deacon’s wives especially since he did not do so for the role of overseer (bishop).  There is also a president for female deacons in phoebe who Paul refers to in Romans 16:1-2.

The title deacon comes from a common Greek word referring to a minister or someone who serves, especially at table. The qualifications for those ordained as deacon are very similar to those of overseer. They are to be people of virtue and self-control and must be mature in the faith having been tested. They are to be people of clear conscience who cling to the “mystery of faith.”

What is meant by this enigmatic expression? Paul uses a similar phrase a few verses later, declaring, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness.” The term mystery was a common expression in religious life of the Greco-Roman world used to refer to secret esoteric knowledge revealed to a select inner-circle. Mystery cults were committed to keeping this knowledge a secret and withholding it from outsiders.

Paul turns this concept inside out. The mystery of godliness, “the mystery hidden from ages past but now revealed to the saints,” is what Bishop Lesslie Newbigin refers to as an “Open Secret.” Open in the sense of being declared to the nations, but secret in the sense of being manifest only to the eyes of faith. The content of this open secret is God’s surprising and unexpected work of salvation in Jesus Christ and the community that declares his name,
“He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”

This short phrase, perhaps taken from a hymn, is meant as a summary of the gospel proclaimed by the Apostles and entrusted to the church. The Church is called to be a steward of this mystery, upholding the gospel and declaring it to all the world.
As the bride of Christ united to him as one flesh, the church herself is a mystery, declaring God’s plan to unite all things in Christ. Although she is broken and sinful she is simultaneously righteous in Christ who sanctifies her through the washing of water and the word (Ephesians 5:26).

Sinful, human, leaders often fail the church and fail to honor the nobility of their office. Many are wolves in shepherd’s clothing.  Christ, however, has promised never to leave nor forsake his Church. He is with us even to the end of the age. He himself is our High-Priest, the shepherd and overseer of our souls, and our exalted king who comes to us as one who serves.

How exceedingly wonderful and precious are the riches and glory of this mystery revealed by faith which is Christ in you, the hope of glory!