Unexpectedly Blew My Mind

In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.

Yesterday, I had all the pieces of a puzzle click together and it blew my mind.

I was at the 10th Annual Diocesan Men’s Conference yesterday. I must admit, I skipped the previous nine Annual Diocesan Men’s Conferences for whatever reasons seemed good at the time, but this year the Archbishop of ACNA was the speaker so I decided to go. I figured this was my chance to meet him and hear him talk, so what the hey—let’s do this. So off I went.

I went to the opening Mass Friday night. Pretty normal stuff. Then I heard the opening address—nothing to really write home about, but not a waste of my time either. There were some opening jokes that I had heard before, but I just chalk that up to getting acclimated to room with some conservative material. So after day one of the conference, I’d give it a solid B.

The next day, I wake up and head to the Cathedral for day 2 of the conference really looking forward to hearing more from the Archbishop. He gave his talks and ditched other people’s material and seemed to really enjoy himself. There was plenty of time for our table small group to discuss the things that he brought up which was very profitable. The MC, Fr. Chris Culpepper (who spoke to us a couple years ago during one of our Lenten Speaker Series presentations) did a wonderful job of tying everything together and building on ideas during the large group wrap ups for each session. So by the end of the conference I would give the entire conference an A. I will be going back next year and encouraging our men to do the same.

But it was during the first session on the first day that I had an epiphany. We were talking about the will. As you know, God has given us free will, the ability to choose our own destiny. We are not held down by determinism—the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. We get the ability to choose.

But the problem is that our choices are not free made since we are skewed through our sin. St. Paul talks about this in Romans: “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”

So it seems that because of my sinfulness the deck is stacked against me and that every time I have the ability to choose good over evil and am being drug back by my sins such that I am only ever able to choose the sin. So the good might as well be taken off the table. That sounds much more like determinism than God intended.

But sin does not get the last laugh. Jesus assumes our sinful nature and redeems it restoring it back to its original design. We conform ourselves to him and his examples and he provides us with the grace to give us the ability to do so. And here is where my epiphany comes into play.

Archbishop Beach mentioned will power or the ability to take charge of our choices and give them to God. This turned me to Matthew chapter 17. While Jesus was up on the Mount of the Transfiguration with Peter, James, and John, the rest of the disciples were below trying unsuccessfully to exorcise a demon from an epileptic boy without Jesus’ help. Jesus then exorcises the demon and the boy was instantly healed. Afterward his disciples came up to Jesus and asked why he could heal the boy where they could not. He tells them to have faith, even a little bit of faith and they could have accomplished this, but this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting. “By Prayer and fasting,” this is source of my epiphany. Prayer is of course calling on God to aid in a given circumstance. Fasting is the willful giving up of food for spiritual benefit.

Now previous to this Lent, I had always fast one day, twice a year—Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But for this Lent, inspired by a buddy of mine, I decided to fast all of Lent. This was the key to the unlocking of this mystery for me. Normally when I fasted it was borderline torture. After not eating all day I had a ferocious headache that normally killed all spiritual benefits that seemingly resulted from my fast, and I was always glad that the thing was over.

But this year I decided to do this the Roman Catholic way rather than my way. My way was not eating period. But I decided to take up the Roman way to ease the pain and I thought I was copping out until another friend of mine posted a picture from a 1957 of a bishop’s direction for his diocese for fasting during Lent. One normal size meal and two small meals that don’t add up to the size of the normal meal. Prior to this revelation, I assumed (wrongly) that this was providing an easy way out for the hard work of fasting, similar to the Roman decision to move the celebration of all major feast days to Sundays to ensure the greatest number of people do not condemn themselves by failing to celebrate.

From this picture I learned that this was not an easing of the practice but the way it has been practiced. So I took it up. And then in that moment at the table in the Parish Hall of the Cathedral it all clicked. Fasting, the daily decision not to eat is the breaking of the hold of sin over the individual. What fasting for a prolonged time offers that a one day fast does not is the ability to get past the crippling headache. Your body gets used to the amount of food brought in and compensates. This daily decision not to eat makes you constantly aware of you control of the situation. You choose not to eat. So this act of regularly exercising of will power brings everything back into the proper balance because it is redeemed through the Holy Spirit.

Prayer always accompanies fasting and this is the key. God gives the power to overcome the hold of sin thus skewing the decision that St. Paul was so concerned about in the other direction. Now, through prolonged fasting and prayer, one is in the habit of consciously deciding one’s actions rather than letting habitual sin override the will. Habitual sin normally takes the power of decision away from the person because it is habit and very little mental facility is wasted on a habit, you just do it. Fasting breaks this habit by reintroducing the thought into one’s every action.

Jesus regularly fasted, and in fact we are currently fasting because he fasted 40 days prior to his entry into ministry. This was to regularly remind him who was in charge. He regularly broke any chance Satan had at getting an advantage over him by taking and keeping control of his will and regularly calling of his Father that it remain so.

St. Paul brings it all together in his letter to the Philippians today: “Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself.

This is key. Prayer and fasting into conformity to the mind and actions of Christ which in turn helps us to remember during these 40 days what we are doing and whose we are. So remember this in the things that you have given up for Lent. We are not merely giving things up for Lent because we are masochists and enjoy causing our bodies discomfort. We are disciplining our wills that we may fight sin and Satan by taking back that which is rightly ours. So go forth into the rest of Lent armed with the knowledge of what you are truly doing and whose you truly are.

In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.

 

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The Key to Lent

In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.

I am going to tell you something that you really aren’t going to like at the end of this sermon.

Today Jesus starts his Lent. He passes through the waters of Baptism and went into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by Satan. That is old hat for you all because we rehearse this information every year.

The Devil tempts Jesus the first time with bread during his fast. Jesus responds with Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man shall not live by bread alone.”

The Devil tempts Jesus a second time with authority prior to his setting out to redeem the world as one man. Jesus responds with Deuteronomy 6:13: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”

The Devil tempts Jesus the third time with his trust in his Father. Jesus responds with Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not put the Lord Your God to the test.

Did you know that Jesus in his short life was reliving all of Israel’s history? His life is the condensed version as its best representative—Israel’s champion to fight on their behalf—and in Christ Israel has another chance. Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy because this wasn’t the Devil’s first chance at tempting in the wilderness. Some 1400 years prior to this, Israel was tempted, right after passing through the waters of the Red Sea during their 40 years in the wilderness.

They were tempted with lack of food. Exodus 16: They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

And God did provide bread for them to eat. But as an ongoing reminder to trust in him, he commanded that they only collect enough for that day’s bread—he would provide more the next day for their needs that day. But they did not trust him. He told them to gather as much as they wanted and eat of it all day, but throw it out at night so they could gather it fresh in the morning. Some did not believe that it would come in the morning so they kept it, and when they opened their jar, they found it covered in worms and putrid. But all they had to do was wash out their jar because there was the manna exactly as God had promised.

The Devil wormed his way into their thoughts here in the wilderness. And gave them fear about the future. Sure God provided for today, but tomorrow is an entirely different occasion. What if the relationship is broken today and tomorrow the bread never comes? Pragmatism takes over. They hedge their bets by trying to keep some back just in case. But Moses tells them at the end of their times in the wilderness: “[God] humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Moses tells them not to base their relationship with God on the unknown future, but to base it on the past experience of God always fulfilling his promises. He tells them to be thankful for the love they are experiencing at this very moment as they eat the bread, and trust that tomorrow God will be true to his word again.

For the next temptation, the Devil tells Jesus that all he has to do to receive the whole world is to fall down and worship him. Well in Israel’s history this was a big problem. At Mount Sinai, the people made a covenant with God, He would be their God and they would be his people. “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

God will give them the world as he makes them a kingdom of priests to bring the world to him. Yet the first thing they do after they ratify their covenant with God and Moses is on top of Mount Sinai in the thunder and lightning for 40 days is to fashion another god and to fall down and worship that. Again their stress about their future in this harsh land has caused them to seek alternate deity oversight which is exactly what Satan is trying to Get Jesus to do.

Finally the Devil takes Jesus to the highest pinnacle of the Temple. Throw yourself down from here. How much do you trust all these things that God said? He quotes Jesus Psalm 91: “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” How much of the Kool-Aid are you willing to drink Jesus? Are you willing to put your money where your mouth is? How real is your commitment to what could be a figment of your imagination?

The people of Israel faced a similar incident. They were in the wilderness, and god had already provided food for them to eat. But they were now getting thirsty. Their canteens had now run dry and they again grumbled against God and wanted to go back to Egypt—to what they knew. But God provided water and Moses struck the rock and the water rush out. “And Moses called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

The people of Israel had not bought in yet. God had to continually provide signs for them to continually believe in him. The relationship was “What have you done for me lately?” The mentality of their relationship was again future oriented—a future that is unknown and scary. So God had to continually prove that he was worthy of their worship. Keep in mind all the things that these people had already seen at this point: the plagues—water turning to blood, the sun being darkened, the Egyptian first born sons being killed; the parting of the Red Sea; the manna—this miraculous bread from heaven; and now water coming from this rock—enough to water a million people plus their animals. God has done enough at this point to warrant their belief—yet they still want him to prove himself. It is to this mentality of constantly having to prove himself that Jesus responds to Satan: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Jesus responds each time with a quote from Deuteronomy because Israel has been tempted this way before and failed. Over and over again they failed. But Jesus came and was tempted by Satan and passed. He passed not necessarily because he was God and he could withstand it. He passed because he was not concerned with the scary future of what he had to do, but he was content with his daily bread. Later he tells the crowd: “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?… Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

CS. Lewis, in his book The Screwtape Letters writes, “Nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead…To be sure, the Enemy (that is God) wants men to think of the Future too – just so much as is necessary for now planning the acts of justice or charity which will probably be their duty tomorrow.”

And now the promised bad news: You are not an exception. These forty days of Lent we walk in the wilderness with Jesus and are tempted as he is. He will face these exact temptations, and we will probably fail as did Israel. But luckily for us all we need to do is pick ourselves back up, dust ourselves off and turn and look the other direction. When we fall, the direction of our gaze is normally on the thing in front of us, but that thing is not God. God resides in the present with us, beside us, and in the past with his arm around us. When we stand back up, we need to look at those things and allow them to guide us into that dark scary future. This, Beloved is the key to a successful Lent.

In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.

Ashes To Go?

There is a fad sweeping the nation today—“Ashes To Go.” This was started apparently in 2010 in Chicago at Grand Central Station by some Episcopal Priests who had their hearts in the right place. Why not take this mark of the beginning of the observance of Lent to where the people are? Sounds like a great idea. In a world where less and less people are willing to brave the inside of a church, these people are willing to take it to meet them where they are—quite literally. So they got a sandwich board that said “Ashes To Go” and a viral sensation was born. Ashes for everyone.

I was thinking about this phenomenon this morning. Apparently it was on the news that various Churches would be in Starbucks marking foreheads and reminding people of their origins as dust. I must admit I am resistant to this idea though it has some definite upsides to it.

Upside: It allows people to encounter the Church in a setting that is familiar to the people—the “home field advantage” shifts to the people. This is a great idea. Encountering people in a low-stress environment is a great way to win souls for the kingdom.

Upside: It gets people talking. Good Church news rarely makes front page news, but this encounter is something deemed newsworthy. Free publicity is always a good thing.

Upside: It introduces the idea of Lent to people desperately in need of it.

Upside: It captures the spark of spontaneity that God can use for conversion.

But with all these upsides why am I resisting something so seemingly good?

I checked out the information on their website and the one of the main emphases of this is brevity.  People are busy and especially at a train station, people have places to get at very specific times. The problem is, if brevity is the theme, what does smearing ashes on a person’s forehead and telling them they are dust do that simply handing someone a tract does not?

A tract can allow people on their time to peruse the material and make a decision to repent for their sinning ways and return to the Lord. Smearing ashes on one’s forehead in a dignified yet rushed manner and boiling down the message to “Jesus loves you. Remember that you are dust. Okay bye bye now” does not quite accomplish the same thing.

What do the ashes represent? Our reality “Remember O man that thou art but dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” This is a sobering reality that we don’t live forever and at some point we will have to answer for everything we have ever done. Now pause and think about all the things you have done in your life, are there some things that you are not so proud of? (Me too.) So here is an opportunity to make that right through repentance. So the ashes are a call to repentance.

But if we divorce the sign from what it draws us toward, would we really be doing people a favor by offering a brief opportunity to have their forehead smeared black? Would it not be better to offer roadside confession booths for those whose consciences are weighing on them at that exact moment?

The ashes placed on our foreheads here were once the palms we waived as Jesus rode triumphantly into his kingdom on Palm Sunday. But now they have been burned and transformed into a reminder that in order to enter into his kingdom we must first be reborn, leaving the former life behind through our turning around in repentance and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross that provides the atonement for the sins.

That being said, I am not opposed to going out among the people and giving them the opportunity to share in this wonderful opportunity that we are about to partake. But for the same reason that I would never do drive through Communion, or drive through Marriage, drive through ashes are not something I am willing to do. The elements we use—the bread, the wine, the rings, the ashes—these provide no sanctity in and of themselves they need to be sanctified by God—set apart for his holy use, and only received in conjunction with a penitent heart.

I’m not saying that the people who receive the ashes in the drive through do not know what it means, but I am saying that outside of confession, knowledge of the symbol doesn’t amount to much. So let us prepare our hearts and minds for the rewards of the sacrifice of Christ by bending the knee of our hearts toward their creator, and starting off this Lenten season with a smudge on our person. And then let us spend these forty days in joyful penitence as well prepare to experience anew the sacrifice of Christ. And let us do this with the knowledge that yes God does want us to search out the highways and byways for the lost, the least, and the last, but when we come to them, we bring them full salvation to them, not just a dirty forehead.

In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.