Sunday, August 23, 2015

There is a War

I don’t want to alarm you but there is a war going on. 

I am not just talking about conflicts in far off places like the Middle East, Africa, or Korea—although those are all certainly part of this—I mean the War that is going on here in our little village, in this parish, in your own back yard, in your living room, and in your heart and mind.

There is war and we all—men, women, and children alike—have been thrown into battle whether we like it or not. We are under siege and we must take up arms or perish.

This war has many fronts, but more than anything, it is fundamentally an attack on our souls. We are surrounded on all sides by enemies that bare a violent hatred against us, that envy what have been given, and want nothing else more than our ruin, to see us fallen and disgraced. These enemies deceive us into seeing our fellow human beings, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters as the enemy. They hope to weaken us by dividing our ranks and turning us against one another.

There is a Native American proverb which says, “No tree has branches foolish enough to fight among themselves.” And our Lord himself said, “if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”
Our faith, proclaimed to us in the Holy Scriptures, would have our eyes opened to recognize our true foes. While we are engaged in struggle against the people of that nation, the people of that political party, or the people of that creed, we are distracted from our common enemies. As Saint Paul says, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

These are malevolent spiritual personalities that are in rebellion against God their creator. They are the forces of darkness that rage against the forces of light. Their warfare against the hosts of heaven is older than the first conflict between brothers that resulted in Cain killing Abel.

It was the prince and captain of these rebellious spiritual forces  that first led mankind astray with his deception and false promises, and ever since he has been prowling the earth like a ravenous lion seeking whom he can devour.

The Scriptures give us a glimpse behind the curtain at this age old conflict that rages on invisibly all around us. They also assure us of its inevitable conclusion in which the powers of evil will be finally routed, bound, and destroyed. Although there are many assembled against us, those who are for us are greater. Saint Michael the Archangel and his army of angels fight for us. The twelfth Chapter of Revelation reads,

“Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.”

Some of you might say, “Okay, Fr. Matt, this is an exciting story, but it all sounds rather mythological, fanciful even. What possible practical use could believing all of this have for my life?”

My answer is that understanding this battle, and equipping yourself appropriately, will lead you into victory against the habitual sins and emotional, psychological, and spiritual struggles that rob you of living fully the life that God intends for you.

In order to claim for ourselves the strength of the Lord’s power, Saint Paul urges us to put on the full armor of God in order to stand against the wiles of the devil. These are the gifts that God equips us with to refute lies, resist temptation, and overcome despair. Just as the armor and weaponry of a soldier fortifies him in physical combat, so this spiritual armor fortifies us against spiritual attack.

The first item Paul mentions is the belt of truth. The belt of a Roman soldier is crucial to the effectiveness of the whole armor. Not only does it provide scabbard for his sword on long leather bands that protect his loins, but it also secures and holds up all of the rest of the armor. It is the core. Saint Paul is telling us to let Truth be the core of who we are and to be sure that everything we do is supported by it.

Specifically Paul is speaking here of our loins. Just like the Keel of a ship the loins are the central balancing support of our body.  In the Bible the loins, or the bowels, are the seat of feeling and compassion. They are also the seat of our passions and appetites.
When I vest for service in the sacristy, there are prayers that I say for each item I put on. When I put on my girdle or belt I pray this, “GIRD me, O Lord, with the girdle of purity and quench in me the fire of concupiscence, that the grace of temperance and chastity may abide in me.”

This is a powerful reminder. If we are loose, not properly supported by the truth of God’s word in this vulnerable area of our appetites then we have given the devil a major foothold in our life. If we want to stand firm in the Lord, we must begin by securing this area of our life.

 A typical Roman soldier wore a breast plate of chain mail. This was in order to protect his vital organs, and heart in particular, from assault. The greatest threat to our heart and soul is the wickedness we have allowed to infiltrate our lives.

Our own righteousness, weakened by sin, is powerless to stop this assault but in the second item Paul mentions, Christ gives us his own impenetrable breast plate of righteousness. As the proverb says, “No harm overtakes the righteous, but the wicked have their fill of trouble.” (Proverbs 12:21)

The third item mentioned by Paul is shoes. He encourages us to put on our feet anything that will make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Imagine you are stepping outside in the dark completely barefoot. Wouldn’t you be a bit halting and hesitant in the steps you make? You would be justifiably anxious about where you walk for fear of injuring yourself. If we have a good pair of boots on our feet we can be bolder about where we walk. We can go to places we never could barefoot. The devil wants us to be filled with fear and apprehension about stepping out to proclaim the gospel. When we are seeking to walk in God’s ways he will attack our heels like a snake in the grass. Christ puts strong shoes on our feet to go where he sends us and to crush the head of the serpent.

The fourth item mentioned by Paul is the shield of faith. The scriptures teach us that faith is the gift of God whereby we can know and trust in Christ as our Lord and Savior. The shield is a defensive weapon. It is used to deflect an attack. It does no good for us if it simply rests at our side. God wants us to exercise our faith, to raise it high when the devil fires his flaming darts. A shield can also be an offensive weapon. We can use our faith to drive our enemy to his knees and push him down.

The fifth item is the helmet of salvation. The helmet is of course meant to protect the head. Just as the devil attacks us in our feelings and in our heart, he also attacks our mind. He seeks to deceive us into believing in some other way to salvation apart from Christ or he afflicts us with intellectual challenges to the faith or doubt concerning our standing in Christ. The devil has been a liar from the very beginning, and we need to constantly remind ourselves of the truth of the gospel and the message of salvation to silence his lies. Through his deception, the devil would conform us to the pattern of this world, but the gospel calls us to turn and be transformed by the renewal of our minds. 

Finally we are called to take up the sword of the Spirit which is the word. The most powerful way in which God has empowered us to resist the devil is by giving us his own Spirit to dwell in our hearts. Without the Holy Spirit we are like a soldier with no sword. How could we ever hope to be victorious in our fight? The most effective way in which the Spirit empowers us is by arming us with the word of God. When Jesus was tempted by the devil he resisted and defeated him by using Holy Scripture which is God’s mighty word sharper than any two edged sword.

The whole armor of God that we are urged to put on, the secret of our power and defense, can be summarized this way, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is Christ who is Truth itself, Christ who is our righteousness, Christ who is our peace, the one who crushes the head of the serpent, Christ who is ours by faith, Christ who is our salvation, and Christ who is the mighty and eternal word through which all things were made. All who have been baptized in Christ have clothed themselves in Christ. We are strong with his mighty power and all that belongs to him is ours. As long as we are in him, all the forces of evil can never defeat us. He is our Captain who is leading us into victory.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Saint Mary the Virgin: The Mother of Every Christian

Isaiah 61:10-11 Galatians 4:4-7 Luke 1:46-55 Psalm 34 or 34:1-9 

As a Christian minister, one of the most common theological questions I get from people is, “what is the difference between Protestants and Catholics?”

Once I explain to them that pitting Protestantism and catholic Christianity against each other is actually a false dichotomy, and that theologically serious and historically minded protestants also confess belief in “the holy catholic church” of the creeds-- that perhaps what they really mean to ask is, “what is the difference between the churches of the Reformation and the roman church?”—they usually respond with, “right, but doesn’t it have something to do with Mary?”

To the outside observer, the most obvious difference between Roman Catholics and most Protestants is that in the Roman Church, The Blessed Virgin Mary is up front and center, so much so that she at times seems to even eclipse her son in the honor and veneration shown to her, while in many Protestant churches she is hardly given a mention except for the obligatory reference at Christmas time. Even in our own Anglican tradition, opinions about the role and importance of the Mother of Jesus are often sharply divided between the Low Church and the High Church parties.

Despite this, disagreements about the Virgin Mary were not the primary conflict of the Reformation, which had more to do with disputes over the role of good works in salvation, the authority of scripture, and the primacy of the pope. In fact, modern Protestants are often shocked to learn what the reformers actually believed about the blessed virgin. Even as staunch a Protestant as Ulrich Zwingli wrote, 

"The more the honor and love of Christ increases among men, so much the esteem and honor given to Mary should grow."

Mary is not just for Roman Catholics or even high churchmen, but for every Christian! As the mother of our Lord, she is also the mother of the Church who is the body of Christ. Evangelicals and other Protestants who are rediscovering their heritage are increasingly becoming aware of the place of honor Mary has in our common faith.

The honor shown to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, goes back to the early days of the church. Even before Jesus was born, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth honored Mary with these words, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” The child in Elizabeth’s womb, John the Baptist, even leaped at the sound of her greeting.
In our gospel reading today, Mary herself prophesies, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”

Besides Jesus, there are only two human beings named in our Creed: Pontius Pilot and the Virgin Mary. Pontius Pilot is singled out for everlasting shame as being the one under whose authority Jesus was crucified, but Mary for everlasting honor as the mother of our Lord. The third ecumenical council, the Council of Ephesus, honored Mary by declaring her to be the Mother of God because the child she bore was not only man but also God.

Many will argue that although Mary should be revered for her faith, she should not be given any more special reverence than other men and women of faith. But the honor due to Mary is singular and unique. Other saints are imitators of Christ and enjoy spiritual unity with him, but Mary is preeminent among the Saints because she enjoys the closest possible unity with Jesus as the one from whom his human nature was derived, who carried him in her womb, and nursed him at her breast. What relationship is as intimate as that of mother and child? She is mysteriously and wonderfully singled out among human beings and exalted to a peculiar honor.

Martin Luther said of her, “For what are all the maids, servants, masters, mistresses, princes, kings, and monarchs on earth compared with the Virgin Mary, who was born of royal lineage, and withal became the mother of God, the noblest woman on earth? After Christ, she is the most precious jewel in all Christendom…She is worthy of praise and can never be praised and extolled enough.”
Her feast, which we celebrate today, commemorates the day when this most highly favored lady and precious jewel of the faith was received by God into heaven. It is called by many of the faithful, “the feast of the assumption” because it is believed that at her death, Mary was taken body and soul into heaven. This has been the long held belief of many devout and pious Christians, and was even raised to an official dogma by the Roman Church in 1950. Anglicans have been more hesitant to affirm it, since it cannot be demonstrated by Holy Scripture. Archbishop John-Charles Vockler put it this way, whether Mary got to heaven ‘by the express or the local’: that she is glorified there is the important matter.

There can be no doubt that the Blessed mother has a place of prominence in that great cloud of witnesses that continually watch over us, with angels and archangels and all the host of heaven that add their voices to our praises. As one great hymn puts it,

O higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim, lead their praises,
Thou bearer of the eternal Word, most gracious, magnify the Lord,

On this her feast, and in all times, she is worthy of our praises, but It seems as if we cannot adequately express the mystery of her honor without treading on the precipice of idolatry!

Even while we give her honor, we also must remember that she is one of us, a sinner redeemed by Christ. He alone is the savior of mankind. The devotion we show her must never displace the supremacy and Lordship of her son. The honor she has is as a vessel of God’s grace and mercy to us.

Our Lady does not seek her own glory but always points away from herself to her Son. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings, “My spirit rejoices in God who is my savior!”

She is the frontier of the Lord’s mission of mercy and the first life to be touched by his incarnation. He chose her to be the source of his blessing to us. Mary is a type and representative of all of us whom Christ has visited in our poverty and lifted up in our lowliness. He has indeed done great things for us. Holy is his name! 

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Wisdom of Faith by Ralph Birdsall

If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead. — S. Luke, 16:31.

It is related of Charles Kingsley, that, as he lay dying, when one who stood by bent over the bed and asked what feeling he experienced, he replied, almost with his last breath, ' ' I feel — the most intense curiosity ! ' ' No stranger death-bed words, perhaps, were ever spoken. The man lay at the point of death, but no fear of death possessed him, nor terror of judgment, nor anxiety concerning the state of his soul. He was consumed with an intense curiosity, as he neared the dark valley, to see what lay on the other side ; to be transferred, with the wrench of dissolution, from the region of faith to the realm of sight ; to be at one moment gasping for breath upon a sick-bed, with the muffled sounds of earthly life beating upon his consciousness — the ticking of a clock, the cry of grief, the voice of commendatory prayer with its insistence upon the Christian faith of ages — and suddenly, in a flash, to float away into a new consciousness, really to see how near to truth are the dreams of men, and their visions of angels and archangels, Christ, God, eternity! The incident symbolizes a great human yearning, a desire for exact knowledge touching the unseen. Gazing out over the sands of Egypt for thousands of years the Sphinx symbolizes the same. It is the desire of all ages. Every one of you, at one time or an other, has felt this intense curiosity.

Many an earnest man has wished that he might receive from the unseen world beyond the grave some definite message from a relative, from a friend, who has passed on there, dwells there. We wonder sometimes if they do not desire to send back to us such messages. Are they so oblivious, in their new state of existence, that they would not, if they could, send us a word to console us, to warn us, to correct our misapprehensions of the world beyond! There are those who claim to have received such messages. But, for the most part, these messages are not sufficiently illuminating or uplifting to warrant the belief that they come from a state of existence superior to our own.

It is not strange that the Parable of Dives and Lazarus, with its reference to conditions of a future life, should have been made the basis of definite beliefs concerning what has not been otherwise revealed. For surely there are no words to which Christians should pay greater heed than those of our Lord and Master. But before we venture to build beliefs upon isolated parts of this parable, we must ascertain, if we can, what is the drift of its teaching as a whole. And when we have done so, is it not true that so far from being intended to give definite information concerning a future state, the very climax of the parable signifies that such information is not really desirable, and would fail to effect the object for which it is so earnestly sought!

For Dives has found his place in the un seen world. It is a world, by the way, quite Jewish in its setting, as though our Lord had employed the prevailing Jewish conception to point His moral. And Dives finds him self grievously disappointed. He is altogether surprised at what he finds when he awakes in the place of departed spirits. He begs permission to send back to the living a message of warning from the dead. But his request is refused. Not that such communication is impossible. Not that such a message would lack an eager welcome, or profound attention. But it would not finally accomplish any moral result. It might satisfy curiosity, but it would not convert; it would not change moral purpose in the land of the living. "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead."

The man's amazement at the contrast between life, as he measured it, and life, as God measures it, brings to a climax a series of contrasts in which the parable abounds. The story begins by creating a contrast which throws into bold relief the two extremest types of life in this world. There is one man who embodies the worldly idea of success.

Inexhaustible wealth, a luxurious home, perfect health, and a coterie of boon companions. He seems to have no care in the world; he wears the purple of kings; every day he pre sides at a sumptuous banquet. The world knowss not whether the heart that beats beneath the purple is the noblest, or the meanest ; or whether the hand that lifts the goblet is the cleanest, or the most contaminated. The world sees only the purple and the banquet. The eyes glitter and the mouths water at the thought of these things, and thousands of men bend closer at thousands of tasks all the way down the line which presses toward the golden goal.

Then there is the other man who embodies the world's idea of failure. Ordinarily he would be hidden from sight in a dingy garret in some far off part of town. But, by way of contrast, he is flung all in a heap at the very gateway of the house of the many banquets. He is penniless, homeless, sick and friendless. The street dogs are the friends who gather about him and nurse the wounds of his half- naked body. The crumbs that fall from the banquet table are his daily bread. The world knows not whether the heart that throbs beneath the poor man's rags is true or false; or whether the hand that reaches for the crumbs is weak because of dissipation, or because it would never touch dishonor. The world sees only the rags and the starvation. The eyes grow cold at the sight, and the lines about the mouth harden at the thought of these things, and men shudder as they bend close at their thousand tasks, saying, "Heaven save us from that!"

But the day arrives when Lazarus comes no more to beg for crumbs at the gate of the great house. The dogs miss their old companion. Lazarus is dead. The banqueters miss the presence at the gate of the odd, familiar character. They do not see the angels who have carried him to Paradise, with tender care. And in the course of time the prince of good fellows lies dead in his banquet hall. The lights are extinguished. His banquet is over forever. They march from the great house to the last resting place, in magnificent array, with pompous dirges.

Here is the last chapter of all ordinary stories of life. But of this story it is only the first. The next begins with the great awakening in the world of departed spirits. The Ever Successful One lifts up his eyes to take in his new surroundings in the world be yond. Not one of the things is there upon which he has learned to depend as essential to success and happiness. What is an eternal oratorio to one who has no ear for music! Others might delight in it, but for him it is torment. And there is Lazarus, transported with ecstasy, resting in the very bosom of the Father of the Faithful!

 It seems an abominable injustice that one man should be cap able of such utter misery, while an old neighbor should be so blissfully happy, and in the same world! But Abraham says, "Son, remember how it was in the other world, that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things : but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented." Then Dives remembered the daily banquets at which he had presided. How thoughtless and careless he had been of eternal consequences! But then, how could he have known ? He had not been sufficiently warned. If God had really desired his salvation why had He made it possible for him to doubt? Why had the Almighty not faced him with some absolute, compelling conviction of the existence of a future life and eternal judgment? There are those five brothers of his, still living on in the same ignorance and carelessness, measuring out to themselves the same miserable destiny. The lights are by this time flaming again in the banquet hall.
The boon companions are there. The empty seat has been filled, and the old revel is going on. But he will warn them if God will not.

"I pray thee, Father Abraham," he cries," send Lazarus to my father's house; for I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Let him suddenly appear as a terrible specter at their feast, a messenger from the dead, clothed in the rags which he wore when he lay starving at the gate; let him freeze them with terror; let him describe to them the misery of my fate ! ' ' But Abraham says unto him, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead."

The vast human ignorance of the life be yond does not deny us the ground for right belief and right living here. Nay, if the un seen were all revealed, if we were enabled now actually to see that toward which we grope with such intense curiosity, it would not effect a genuine moral reformation, or make better lives, where our present knowledge has failed.

There is a striking historic instance of the kind of morality produced by a certainty concerning what God has left unrevealed. At the close of the Tenth century there swept over Europe a strange conviction that with the year 1000 A. D. the world would come to an end. The belief seems to have been based upon a literal interpretation of a passage in the Book of Revelation. Many Christians of that time believed that for every man life would come to an end upon a definitely known date. It might have seemed that such knowledge was desirable, and would bring to pass a great moral reform. But it proved to be undesirable, and it did not bring about any genuine improvement.

While the prediction was false, so many believed it to be true, so many acted upon it, that it enables us to measure by its results the practical value of this kind of knowledge, supposing it could be obtained. In the Tenth century it produced an entirely artificial morality. Useful pur suits of life were abandoned. Commerce was neglected. People gave all their wealth to the Church by way of driving a bargain with God. They fought for places to sleep on the porches of churches that they might be saved by being near the bones of saints, and spared by clinging to other people's virtues. The more reckless of them determined that life should be as gay as it was short. All government and restraint had been abandoned.
Those who chose went about fighting, roistering, burning and pillaging. The logical result of the belief, apparently, was to reduce human society to a mob, some sniveling, others cursing, a spectacle dishonor able both to God and men.

In our own day, a somewhat similar phase of religion appears. Not, in our case, that religion has exchanged an uncertainty for definite and reliable information, as the Tenth century believed. The Twentieth century views the whole situation from a different angle. The modern plea is to abandon mystery altogether, and to reduce the dogmas of religion to the least common denominator of what can be intellectually ascertained, and proved, and demonstrated. While nothing could be more reactionary from the religion of the Tenth Century, the underlying thought is the same. It is regarded as desirable that the truths of religion should be removed from the realm of faith, and brought within the reach of mathematical certainty.

There are many advocates of this program who do not realize all that such an intellectual position involves. One man objects to the dogma of the Virgin Birth as being incapable of logical proof, but says he believes in the Incarnation.
Another cannot intellectually accept the Incarnation, but believes the doctrine of personal immortality. Another rejects everything usually bearing the name of dogma, but believes in the Love and Fatherhood of God. In these arbitrary choices of belief it is not generally perceived that the same intellectual grounds for rejection of the dogma disliked would argue with equal force against the dogma accepted and preferred. If the Incarnation be a dogma, so is the Brotherhood of Man ; if immortality be a dogma, so is the Love of God. And when you come to measure any or all of these dogmas by a standard of intellectual, logical demonstration, not one of them can be so established beyond a doubt. While many converging lines of evidence appear that convince the Christian believer of the logic of Christian dogmas, not one of these doctrines is capable of the kind of proof that amounts to scientific certainty. You cannot scientifically prove the Divinity of Christ, or the immortality of the soul, not even the existence of a personal God.

The reason that the very skeptics who reject one doctrine upon intellectual grounds, yet cling firmly to some other doctrine, is that there is a human hunger for belief in truths that are quite beyond the range of logical demonstration, and are established upon other and higher ground than mathematical.

A living, human soul is never quite able to make of himself such a logic-machine that he does not, in things that concern him most deeply, believe where he cannot prove, and where the ultimate truths are incapable of demonstration. In mathematical problems perfect proof is always possible, because man himself has formulated the rules, and created the symbols and defined the conditions with which he works.1 But there are deeper truths that lie beyond the range of demonstration. And wonderful as the logical faculty is, it is not the highest and supremest intellectual quality. The human mind possesses a quality of intuition and insight and vision that leaps beyond the range of scientific demonstration to grasp the deepest and most vital truths concerning the soul and God. This is the quality of faith. It would be sad indeed for the world if religion were based alone upon logical demonstration, and if its vital truths could be grasped only by a mental aristocracy.
Then would there be religion for the polished gentleman in his well-furnished library, but none for the ignorant old woman dying in her gar ret. There would be religion for Dives, but none for Lazarus. Boston, and not Jerusalem, would be the Holy City. And the apostles of religion would not be Galilean peasants, but the prize scholars of modern universities. If you go to the type of man who represents, in intellectual capacity, the low average of the great majority, and present to him a religion of cosmic forces and ethical culture, what will he make of it? But go to him with the gospel of Jesus Christ the God-Man, dying for him upon the Cross, and you have the basis of a genuine appeal that may reach the simplest intelligence, and yet a doctrine that intellectual genius finds unfathomable. It is this quality of the Christian religion over which the Founder rejoiced. "I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes." The power of the Christian faith lies in its profound simplicity. It is universal because it is human. It reaches the mighty because it touches the lowly.

A conception of religion that reaches no higher than logical demonstration will carry is weakest in its moral distinctions between right and wrong. From the purely scientific plane, actions that we call right and deeds that we call wrong are so considered by reason of the evolution of inherited prejudices, and many moral values are more or less arbitrary and fictitious. From the scientific plane, they have no ultimate imperative sanction behind them. When desire and present advantage are on the side of wrong, and when right is supported by nothing more than an inherited prejudice, how easily shall the necessary wrong become the possible right! The whole moral system of civilization would be shaken to its foundations. The power that saves is that men's Christian instincts are stronger than their arguments. Their morality is Christian. The atmosphere in which they fly their newly invented theological aeroplanes is Christian. There is no place to show how powerless are their religious inventions to stand alone.

But the religious answer to the question why the future must be shrouded in uncertainty is this: the Faith which guides a man's life in his journey toward the unseen is not merely intellectual, it is moral. That a straight line is the shortest distance between two points is a purely intellectual proposition. You can see that it must be true. The evidence for it is absolutely compulsory, either for the most exalted saint or the most hardened sinner. Morals do not enter into the question. But that the way of the Cross is the certain road to eternal life, that is a moral proposition. The evidence for that proposition cannot be intellectually compulsory.

The man who insists that he be intellectually compelled to have faith in Jesus Christ would as reasonably insist that he be physically compelled by a force of police to live the life of Christ. You believe in a good man by virtue of the goodness in you which corresponds to the goodness in him. You believe in a good cause by reason of the qualities in yourself which find expression in the righteousness of the cause. And to follow the impulse of this highest goodness in us to believe, even where we cannot see the end of the way to which it leads, is just as much a part of the moral test of character, as the choice between deeds and actions good and bad. Lazarus coming back from the dead to compel the trembling belief of the five banqueters is just as futile, from the moral point of view, as a police raid which should confiscate the purple and fine linen, and compel the diners to close the banquet hall. "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead."

For a life which neglects the opportunity that lies day by day at the very door, there can never be the excuse that you had not sufficient warning, or divine assurance of the out come. You have more than Moses and the prophets : you have the life and example and power of Jesus Christ, and the means of grace which He ordained ; you have the daily testimony of conscience illuminated by the gift of the Holy Ghost. You have the same spiritual opportunities which have enabled men for nineteen centuries to testify by their lives to the supreme power of Jesus Christ, the same opportunities to which the best men you know today, if you could learn their story, owe whatever power they have to resist the temptations that beset them, and to live in some degree as God meant them to live.

The things that we are sure of are sufficient to live by, even if they seem to lead us out into the dark. Dwell not so much on the things that you doubt. Be not faint hearted because the things which revelation has not revealed baffle all speculation. Begin with what you do believe, and make that count. Live up to that light. Faith, like a grain of mustard seed, may be small in the beginning. But it grows, if you are faithful to that little. It thrusts its roots deep into the earth, and lifts its branches higher and higher toward heaven, until it becomes the mightiest of all living, growing things.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Broom Tree and the Cross

1 Kings 19:4-8

Psalm 34:1-8

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

John 6:35, 41-51

 There are peaks and valleys in our spiritual life and frequently one follows very closely on the other.

We should think of our walk with God not as a casual stroll through a country meadow, but as an arduous journey across a mountain range. There will come times when after scaling the steep cliff we are rewarded with the dazzling view from the peak where all is bathed in sunlight and we rest awhile awed by what we see there. Even though the peaks are glorious we are not meant to stay there, no, we must journey on.

We just celebrated the feast of the Transfiguration this past week. If you recall this was Peter’s mistake. After witnessing his teacher on the mountain top resplendent with glory, and accompanied by Moses and Elijah, Peter wished to build booths and remain there forever, but the scriptures remind us that he didn’t know what he was talking about. Jesus knew that it was necessary to descend from that mountain, down the steep ravine, into the shadow of death and his cross.

Sometimes the heights of spiritual joy are followed quickly by the dark night of the soul. Such is the case in our Old Testament lesson which tells the story of one of the dark valleys in the life and ministry of the great prophet Elijah. He is on the heels of a decisive victory over the priest of Baal at Mount Carmel. He has proved that the Lord is mightier than the false gods of the people. His victory is capped by the Lord sending rain on the land after a long drought. The people are filled with awe and amazement at the power of God and recognize Elijah as his prophet. Yet his time in the sun is short lived. The wicked Queen Jezebel is enraged and seeks his life. Elijah needs to flee into the wilderness. 

As our reading begins, he is at the very end of his rope. He is utterly exhausted, every ounce of energy and faith that he has is utterly spent. Despite his recent victory, he doubts if his ministry to call the people back to God is any good at all. Many had failed before him and he thinks to himself, “I am no better than they were.” He is so full of despair and fatigue that he feels as if he cannot possibly go any further and he begs God to take his life. Not able to take a single step more he lays his weary bones in the shade of a broom tree. 

The broom tree is said to bloom with a myriad of white flowers that emit a pleasant fragrance of honey. The lovely odor of the tree was no doubt a balm to his sorrow and weariness. It is a time of much needed rest and renewal. This is the mercy and providence of God. He did not create us for work only, but also rest which is why it is written, “he gives to his beloved sleep.”

The well known slogan of the over-functioner and workaholic is, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” If we try to go without rest, however, our death may come sooner than we expect! Try as we might to fight It, no one can survive without sleep.

God has woven a Sabbath—a time of rest and renewal—into the very fabric of creation. Just as the sun goes down every evening and rises up again like a new creation every morning, so we too must lay down to rise up again refreshed and recreated each day.

We need not only rest but also times of recreation to restore our soul. God has planted Broom trees all over his creation. Where is it that you go for rest and restoration? Maybe you enjoy gardening, or time away hunting with your friends. Maybe it is music that lifts your spirits, reading a novel, or just spending quality time with your family. Too often in our work-obsessed culture, such activities are dismissed as idleness, but God blesses and honors these times as part of the necessary rhythm of life.  E.B. White said, “We should all do what in the long run gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting laundry.”

Sabbath exists for the renewal of joy. This idea of recreation—or re-creation—is at the heart of why God ordained Sabbath. He wants us to acknowledge that he is the creator and we are the creatures. We continually need to return to him to be restored and refashioned, strengthened for the work he has given us to do. This is never so necessary as when he leads us through the dark valleys.

There, in his place of rest at foot of the Broom Tree, Elijah, who had come to the end of his way, was restored by God. Twice an Angel, a messenger of God, touched him and invited him to eat and drink. God had provided a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water, but this was no ordinary bread and water. These two small meals were enough to keep Elijah strong for forty days and forty nights!

Generations of readers have enjoyed J.R.R Tokien’s classic series of novels, The Lord of the Rings. What you may not know, is that Tolkien was a devout Catholic. His tale is full of symbols that resonate with the Christian faith, not least of which is the Lembas Bread that the heroes eat on their long journey to save their world from its captivity to an evil power. This is a very special bread made by elves. Literally the name means, “way bread” or “Journey bread.” The novel describes it this way,

“The Lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travelers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.” (Return of the King, 262)

The Eucharist too is waybread. We eat it with our cloak tucked in our belt, sandals on our feet, and staff in our hand. The journey is arduous but with this food we endure!

When we gather together as the Church we share this Sabbath meal—The Holy Eucharist. This is the food that sustains us as we travel across the peaks and valleys of our spiritual life. When we feel that we cannot go on it is here that we receive God’s empowering grace. When we despair of our life it is here with our brothers and sisters around the Lord’s Table that we find hope.

Just as our bodies need rest and food to survive, our souls also need to rest in God through worship and to feed on the spiritual food of Christ’s most precious body and blood in the Holy Eucharist. Deprived of these the soul will soon grow weak and perish.

As wonderful as that broom tree was, under which God’s prophet was refreshed, it points beyond itself to another tree of which it is only a dim reminder. The tree upon which the Son of God purchased our salvation, the Cross of Christ. It is there in the shadow of the cross that we rest in his perfect, finished work. It is there that we come to be restored and recreated. It is there that we are continually refreshed by his sacrifice, fed with his body and blood. Jesus is the living bread that comes down from heaven whoever eats of this bread will live forever.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Nature and Grace by Ralph Birdsall

Unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. — Ephesians 4: 7

One is impressed by the bravery of the little company of men who fought the first battles of Christianity in apostolic days, with all the odds of the world against thorn. Among them there was a man who was originally a coward.

When yon speak of S. Mark, you remember that his symbol is a Lion, and that his name stands high upon the roll of mighty Christian heroes. But he was not always a hero. He was not of the stuff of which heroes are usually made. Nothing but the grace of God made him a Lion. In the glimpses given of his early life both tradition and Bible history unite in representing S. Mark as on the run from some post of danger. He will make no high ventures. He will face no great peril. He will stake no great issue upon faith in a friend. When our Lord, in the discourse at Capernaum, declared that His followers should eat His flesh and drink His blood, many of His disciples stumbled at the mystery of the saying, and would not wait for the explanation. They went back and walked no more with Him. Of these, tradition says, was S. Mark.

On the night of the betrayal of Christ there was a young man, not with the disciples, who witnessed the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, and who, when the Jewish servants of the High Priest laid hold upon him, left his garment in their hands, and fled away naked through the darkness. This, there is good reason to conjecture, was S. Mark. Some years afterward, when his cousin Barnabas, with S. Paul, took him upon a missionary journey, S. Mark became terror stricken at the dangers of the enterprise, and turning his back upon perils of floods and robbers in the wilds of Pamphylia, fled to his home in Jerusalem.

The mother of S. Mark was a woman of wealth in Jerusalem. She had a house large enough to be used for the gatherings of the Christian disciples, whose cause she had espoused. It is not unlikely that her house was the one, having the large, upper room, in which Christ ate the Last Supper with His friends, and instituted the Holy Communion.

In the house of Mark's mother, at any rate, S. Peter was often a guest of honor, and when the storm of persecution burst upon the Christians of Jerusalem, always they found refuge in this home.

S. Mark's mother, therefore, was a distinctly courageous woman. By making her house a center of resort for Christians she put her very life in constant jeopardy. Certainly S. Mark did not inherit his timidity from this valiant mother. But, since temperament is often hereditary, it is not unlikely that he derived from his father a some what shrinking and timorous disposition. If the father were living at the time, it is significant that no mention of him is made in the sacred narrative. The mother is the bold and aggressive spirit of the household.

There is early evidence of the fact that S. Mark suffered from some physical deformity. It was remembered in Rome that he used to be called, "Mark, the stump-fingered," or "Mark, the cripple." So we have the picture of this young man, not naturally strong either in body or spirit, brought up amid luxury at the home of his mother in Jerusalem, pampered by her, perhaps, as to the sons of heroic women not seldom happens, shielded from danger by her, while she conspired with Peter, the Rock-Man, and James and John, the Sons of Thunder, at secret meetings in the upper room, for the conquest of the world in the strange new name of Jesus!

It is here that Mark falls under the spell of S. Peter, and roused from his luxury and inactivity by the prince of Apostles, determines to give his life to the Christian calling. It seems no great gain to the new faith that this young man becomes a Christian. He is not inured to hardships, like S. Peter, by the storms of Galilee. He is not the man, like S. Stephen, to spread the faith of Christ by submitting to the cruel death of martyrdom. He is not the man, like S. John, to brave mobs in the city streets. In the first great test of his faith he miserably fails, and returns in defeat from the rigors and perils of the missionary field to the comforts of his mother's home.

His cousin Barnabas mourns his loss, and S. Paul, who has no patience with timidity, gives him up as a hopeless craven. But watch this man, as he groans beneath the shame of his defeat, and you will see the great, eternal miracle of Christianity ! There comes slowly into his life a power that changes and renews his character. He acquires a new force that counteracts his hereditary fear. He gains a grip that flings back the deadly coil of circumstance. He who dared not accompany S. Paul amid the dangers of Pamphylia proves worthy of a second trial, and the time arrives when throughout Asia Minor he becomes famous as a leader of missionary expeditions of his own.
There comes a day when S. Paul, who had rejected Mark as a poltroon, writes from his prison at Rome to Timothy begging him to bring Mark with him. "For he," says S. Paul, "is profitable to me for the ministry."

It is S. Mark who becomes the favorite companion of the fiery S. Peter, accompanies him in Rome, undaunted by the persecutions of Nero, stands by him during his martrydom, and when Nero's sword has fallen, continues in Rome amid the storm, to write, from his memory of S. Peter's reminiscences, the Gospel which bears the name of Mark. It is S. Mark who courageously meets his death, at last, dragged by a mob over the stones of the streets of Alexandria. Not without cause has the Lion been emblazoned as the symbol of S. Mark!

We are by nature the victims of heredity and circumstance. That is the modern phrasing of a truth that Christianity has recognized during many hundreds of years. Theological doctrine has it that we struggle against original sin, and the world, and the flesh, and the devil. The tendency of modern thought is to repudiate the theological doctrine, and to say that we struggle against heredity and environment. In effect this is precisely the same thing.

 It gives a more sophisticated expression to a truth that the Church has all along maintained. No truth is better established by the actual experience of human life and the consciousness of the individual soul.

You are the product of forces that galvanize through a long chain of ancestral lineage. You are in the grip of circumstances that have been in the making through all eternity. When Babylon was at the zenith of its glory, some direct ancestor of yours was living and playing his part upon the stage of the world, and helping to determine what you should be. While Christ was dying on the Cross, some ancestor of yours was plying his trade in the life of some ancient city, or shouting for the battle in some distant jungle. When Charles the Great built his empire, an ancestor of yours was somewhere building you. Self evident truth, but how strange to think on! And the circumstance of life! How little you had in the making of it. It was ready for you here when you arrived, like the mould prepared for the fresh molten metal.

 The great adventure of life, as Chesterton says, is being born. That determined everything. Where? When? In what circumstance? Under what influence? Heredity. Environment. A force pushes you here from beyond. Other forces encircle you and shape you from around. What else can you be but what you are?

It is a great delight to fathers and mothers to see in the faces of their children the miniature likenesses of their own. But it is a terrible awakening when you begin to discover in your child not only the likeness of your feature, but the reproduction of your fault, the image of your sins, the germ of your own evil tendencies. There is unutterable woe in the thought that you have brought this pure being into the world to develop into a replica of your unworthy self, to be bound through life to toil in the treadmill which you, by the failings of your life, have inevitably prepared. "Poor child," the father cries, "you are beating against the bars of an iron necessity, and I, who would set you free, have built your prison in days that are beyond recall!" How many a parent thus groans within himself, while he storms at the viciousness of his son, or scolds at the waywardness of his daughter!

Now the Christian faith, alone of all the religions by which man has sought to approach God, holds the answer to this problem of heredity, and the problem of circumstance. Other religions have upheld high standards, but none other has professed to give power to move toward them. "The law was given by Moses," says S. John, and he might have added the names of other great religious leaders, "but grace," he says, "came by Jesus Christ."

The Church which Christ founded differs from all other institutions in the world in its claim to be the dispenser of grace, the giver of a power which helps men to advance toward the ideals which it up holds. The Church admits, nay, she asserts it to be true, that man by nature is altogether fixed in the grip of heredity and in the clutch of circumstance. Christ claims to give a new force of heredity, a new birth. "Ye must be born again." He claims authority to bestow upon human nature a new strength, greater than the power of circumstance. "Abide in Me, " " Without Me ye can do nothing. ‘The Christian faith does not deny the strength of the forces which seem to drive us toward evil. But it asserts the actual existence of grace, a force through Jesus Christ, greater than all the powers of evil. "Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”

S. Paul seems to have been keenly conscious of the evil in his nature, of his own helplessness to combat it, and yet alive to the sense of a new power of grace through Christ which gave him victory.
"The good that I would, I do not," he says, "but the evil which I would not, that I do… I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. wretched man that I am," he cries, "who shall deliver me from this body of death!" And then he learns to say in deep humility, when he has conquered himself, "By the grace of God, I am what I am," and "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me."

This is the real miracle of Christianity. With all the sins laid to its charge, with all the failures and shocking hypocrisies of individuals, it has continually renewed life and transformed character. One must be deeply prejudiced against the Middle Ages that connect the apostolic days with our own who does not recognize in them a brilliant stream of genuine Christian life that shines forth through the darkness. And the amazing thing is that, in those ages, the growth of Christian living persisted, when the whole force of what we call heredity was set against it. The best minds, the best morals, the finest flower of Christianity, during that period, were cloistered within the walls of friaries and nunneries, and commanded never to re produce their kind. But the law of grace defied the law of heredity from age to age, and out of the common clay kept on producing ever new flowers of Christian living.

The law of grace abounds here in the Church today. It is inconsistent to accept the supreme mystery of the Incarnation, to believe that God became Man, to believe that the God-Man died upon the Cross for us, and to repudiate the consequent mystery of actual grace flowing from His Cross, through the Church which He established.

Yes, it is true! Grace is given in answer to prayer and in the doing of good works in the name of Christ. Grace is actually given in the Sacraments of the Church. Grace is given in Holy Baptism, a new birth to conquer the force of heredity. Grace is given in Confirmation, the seven-fold gift of the Holy Ghost, to arm men against the evil circumstance of life. Grace is given in Holy Matrimony, to hold men and women true to solemn vows. Grace is given in Holy Communion, by which through many failures, men are strengthened for the battle of the world. Only let us be humble, and earnest, and sincere, in receiving these great gifts, and the coward becomes brave, the angry becomes meek, the lecher conquers his passion, the miser becomes generous, the sot becomes sober, the sloth becomes diligent, and we press on toward the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.