Thursday, 20 November 2014

Sermon on Phil 2

Sermon for Katcyriu Parish 
Kigali Rwanda
September 28th 2014
Text: Phil 2:1:13

In the United States we have a subject in school called Physical Education. It is a time in the day when all the children are gathered together to play sports and get some of their energy out. 

The children will be lined up and brought into a large gymnasium or out onto a field and given different sports to play.  Many times the games we play, like football (make kicking motion) require the children to be divided into two teams. 

The teacher will regularly select two children to be captains. These two children take turns picking the other children they want on their teams. Often they pick the fastest, strongest, most popular children first- and then there is one child who is picked absolutely last. No one wants to be that child, picked last! 

I remember when I was waiting to be selected I would puff up my chest (puff up chest) and I would try to look big and tough- the sort of person you want on your team! But I was not very coordinated- not very good at sports- and frequently I was one of the last children picked.

I wanted to project an image of being cool- of being strong. But this is not only something that happens to school children! This is something we do all of the time— we look around ourselves and try to see who is higher than who. Who is driving a car? Who is driving a nice car? Who has nice new shoes? We look around and determine that he is higher than her- or they are lower than me etc. This is the way the world works. We are all like children in gym class. 

The way that the World works. It is the spirit of this age and it finds its way into each and every one of our hearts. 

The Scriptures today tell us a story- a story about how God came to be with us. 

St. Paul writes that Christ- being in the very form, the very nature and substance of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped- something to be taken ahold of. 

Even though Christ was supremely powerful in unity of the Father and Holy Spirit- the same God- Christ humbled himself and became human. (Walk from high up on the right to down low in the middle of the congregation) 

We all feel the need to fill ourselves up- but the Scriptures tell us that Jesus Christ Emptied himself when he became a human. 

Not just a human being- he came in the form of a Slave. 

The King of Kings arrives to be with us and he is born in a barn surrounded by animals. 
The Lord of life itself takes on a mortal body- a body that can be bruised and cut and hurt. 

Jesus enters into this world not with the fanfare of the King- not Driving a fancy Land Cruiser but riding a donkey. 

The story we are told is that while we feel like we have to puff ourselves up- Jesus Emptied himself and became poor.  

Jesus did not come as the King he was- but made his dwelling among those who were picked last! 

Jesus was obedient to his Father and shows us what humility looks like. 

Jesus emptied himself of health so to take on sickness- Jesus empties himself of his Glory so that he might take on poverty- Jesus gives up his rightful place as King so that he might take on persecution from the government. 

And then- in the most shocking thing to ever happen on earth- Jesus gives up his own life to take on our death. And not just any death- no a dark- painful and humiliating death- Death on a Cross. 

There is no darkness Christ has not entered. There is no pain Christ has not felt. There is no weakness Jesus has not known. There is no poverty Jesus was to high to accept as his own there is no death that Jesus does not understand. 

They put his broken body in a hole in the ground and rolled a stone over it. The Strong Roman Empire and religious elite had won- so they thought. 

You see Prideful power that puffs us up on our own ability and our own strength seems to work at first. 

It is like drinking salt water. When you drink salt water - like from an ocean- the water tastes good at first. It makes you think that you are not thirsty for a little while. But in reality the salt in the water makes your body need more and more water. Eventually if someone keeps drinking salt water they will die of thirst and sickness. 

Pride and self-strength are like drinking Salt water. It makes your tongue feel good- it fools you into thinking that you have won when in fact you have lost everything. 

The mighty Rome drank salt water until it withered and died- as is the case with all who have pride and strength. Death comes for them and there is no one strong enough to resist death. 

But Christ what obedient to our Father in heaven and faced death on our behalf and just when it seemed that all hope was Lost God raised Jesus Up! Raised him up with a resurrected body because Jesus had overcome death- weakness-poverty and despair. 

And because of Christ’s obedience and ultimate humility God Exalts Jesus above all others- Jesus takes the body once broken to sit at the right hand of the father in Glory- So that at his name every knee will bow and tongue confess that he is Lord. 

What is this strange story? We have a God who conquers through dying? We have a God who shows the extent of his power by taking on weakness!  

We have a God who came and gave dignity to the poor because our king was poor. We have a Lord to who came and gave dignity to the weak because he too was weak and through his obedience he has conquered death and became the way for us to share in his Kingdom. 

And St. Paul tells us that we are to have the very same mind as  Christ Jesus our Lord. He asks us to join with Christ in taking on humility- not looking down on one neighbor and being jealous of another. Not puffing up but offering ourselves in love to one another. 

This does not mean poverty and pain are good in themselves- nor is there anything wrong with working hard to help you, your family and your community flourish! This passage does not mean we should not seek to grow healthy families and churches and communities. NO. What it does mean is that we are to recognize that it is God who sustains us- not our own strength. We are not to fool ourselves into thinking we are bigger and better than our other brothers and sisters in Christ.

I have an example for us:  Our Bishop Rwaje. He is not just the Bishop of Gasabo he is also the Archbishop of Rwanda- he is the pastor to the entire country. Here is a man with a high status- an important man. 

But our ++ Rwaje does not drive a big fancy car. He drives a little Rav 4. He is a man who is never to important to pick up a small child- or to spend time in prayer with anyone who needs it. He is a man of good humor who does not take himself too seriously. 

I work in the Gasabo Diocese offices- and we are rearranging the space. In doing this a very large room has become available to ++, so we told him he should take the large space and he refused- he wanted to stay in his little office in the back of the office. 

Friends here is a leader who is at heart a servant- one who has taken on the mind of Christ and lives not seeking selfish ambition but according to Christ’s own example and love. 

If our Lord could be a servant- so can we. We can learn new ways to love and serve one another because it is God’s own life in us that wills and works to his pleasure. 

And this will not be easy- it is very hard to not be self seeking- not to try to put ourselves above other people. Humility is the very heart of discipleship but it is very very difficult.  This is why Paul pleas with us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling- we must understand the overwhelming Grace of God in Christ Jesus and struggle every day to live into his self-giving life. 

This does not need to be shown in big ways- it is most often the little things in our life that make the biggest difference. Do you look for ways to serve your husband, wife, parents and siblings? Do you look for ways to serve and bless those who you work with? Jesus washed the disciples feet- are you willing to unpleasant things for others? 

A very old prayer that has helped Christians focus on Christ in humility is called the Jesus Prayer and it goes like this: 

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”  You can say it to yourself again and again when you are struggling with pride and selfish ambition. 

It comes from a parable from Luke 18: 

Luke 18:10-14
10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Can you say this with me? 
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. 
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. 

Homily on Matt 23

Homily on Matt 23
Nov. 2nd
All Saints Sunday

If you ask a non-Christian why they do not believe, more often than not they will tell you that Christians are a bunch of hypocrites and the Church is phony. They may very well have a colorful story to illustrate their point, highlighting the terrible behavior of one Christian or another-  or perhaps a whole group of Christians. There was a philosopher named Nietzsche who famously said that he would begin to believe in our redeemer if Christians began to look redeemed. And one no less virtuous than Ghandi said that though he drew heavily on the teaching of Jesus he found Christians to behave so badly that could never believe in Jesus.
         This country knows the anger and shame that comes from the Church’s broken and despicable history- from missionaries that create violent factions among the people they work with to crusades and even horrible genocide among Christians themselves!  Hypocrisy is a worm that eats to fruit of the Gospel from the inside out until it is rotten and inedible. How is the world to Taste and See that the Lord is good?

Today’s Scripture from Matthew 23 speaks to this issue- Jesus does not have much patience for the people of God being hypocrites.

So what is going on in this text? Where are we and who is Jesus talking to?
This passage follows the one we heard preached by Samuel last week and the Gospel from two weeks ago.  We are at the very end of Jesus’ ministry and find Jesus in the temple cornered by at least three groups of people- the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the Herodians.  Ever since he entered a few chapters back Jesus has been on the defensive- assailed with questions aimed to make him look bad. But when we get to chapter 23 Jesus has had enough and turns the tables on them- going on the offensive with all these groups at once- he wants to let them know what he thinks of the holiness they have been parading around.
Some historical background proves helpful for understanding what Jesus says in this passage.
         The Jewish people were very different from other people in the Roman Empire because of the strange manner of their lives. They wore odd clothing- refused to eat all kinds of animals (like pigs).  Now this was not just for fun- they did these things as physical signs of the covenant they made with God. Observing the covenant functioned like a wedding ring for Israel- the ring is a physical sign that reminds a husband or wife- along with anyone who sees them- of the special relationship they have to God and the form of life that it requires.
         Well these two groups, the Pharisees and the Sadducees  were very serious about making sure the laws were followed and because of this they created all of these extra rules to make absolutely certain to follow the commands. And they taught these extra rules to the people. So for instance- Jesus mentions that they are wearing big phylacteries. Those are leather boxes where you put pieces of scripture and bind them to your arm. It’s a way of following the commandment from Duet 11 to bind the law to your heart and to your hands. The tassels Jesus mentions here are a reference to these pieces of cloth they wore under their shirts in obedience to Numbers 15, which tells them to remember that they are to be holy as the Lord their God is holy.  
So these are physical reminders to be faithful to God- which is a Good thing! So what is going wrong?
So what does Jesus say? He says that the people should do what they say because they have spiritual authority- but not as they do.  The Pharisees are not breaking their own rules- so what Jesus means is that for all of these reminders- all these signs to help them be conscious of the Lord and the demands of being the Lord’s people- they still forget.
And what is worse they have turned what should have been signs that help to shape them into people of humility and submission to the Lord into means of glorifying themselves.  They wear these huge boxes on their arms and make sure that the tassels are so long that everyone can see them. When they go to feasts they take the best and most prominent seats. When they pray in the Temple they do so loudly so that all can know how holy they are. They are like someone who wears a wedding ring that they show off to everyone- all the while being unfaithful to their spouse.

Jesus in Matthew teaches his disciples to pray behind closed doors, to take the lowest seats at a banquet and to seek the core of the Law.  This core we recite every Sunday- To love the Lord and to Love Neighbor- on these says Jesus, hangs all the Law and the Prophets. And this is where Jesus finds these religious leaders most offensively wanting.  They follow the small commandments- binding a box to their hand but do not have this core of the law written on their hearts.  Later Jesus calls them whitewashed tombs- decorated and beautiful on the outside but full of dead and rotting flesh on the inside. Yikes!  They lay these heavy burdens on people- making them obey all these extra rules but do not love the people as the Law commands! They do nothing to ease their burden- which is why Jesus says “come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest!”
         These leaders are so close to being faithful disciples- and yet they have drifted so far in their hearts from what is most required of them- to love Justice, seek mercy and walk humbly with God. Instead they used these things to elevate themselves high above others and to show off.  They use titles that designate them as important people- Rabbi and Father- all the while abusing them.  Jesus- the true Messiah- tells them to stop doing these things- to stop twisting their actions and titles to abuse people.
         And what does Jesus teach us?  That all these physical signs are worthless? Not at all! We are given this table of bread and wine to be the very heart of our communion with Christ and we are brought into the household of God through physical water. So Jesus does not mean physical signs are bad.  Even the names he says not to use are an exaggeration- later in the Gospel he sends the disciples out as to be teachers of his commands and in this very passage Jesus tells the people to obey the commands of the Pharisees- though the far more important part of the law was one that found its way into your heart and not onto your outfit.  The final line from our reading today is one that cuts right to my bones- whoever exalts themselves will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.  
Jesus teaches us that our actions should match the condition of our heart- that our lives must match the faith we profess- with humility.

Jesus words strike particularly close to home for me because I am a religious leader- not only that but I wear a collar that sets me apart from other people.  This is an occasion for pride perhaps. In the USA most people just give me strange looks, but here in Rwanda I find that I am respected more when people see it. In England they call these dog collars- like something you put around the neck of a dog to keep them on a leash.  I really like that image- this collar is not something that glorifies me- it’s something that keeps me on God’s leash. I know that when I wear this I am under especially strong scrutiny from the world. Every move I make is watched and I am pulled into obedience like a dog on a lead.  It is important that pastors remember this! It is a physical sign that should remind us of humility and service- and whatever respect and influence it brings should be used to help those we serve. For example helping when our flock is in trouble with authorities or need attention at a hospital.
         And though most of us do not wear collars like this one- I can guarantee that people watch your life and know that you are a Christian. In fact, there may even be some level of respectability for being Anglican. After all, we have a number of high profile persons among us and we may take some pride in being one.  Know that people are watching how you live your life and let me tell you I think that the world desperately wants us to be good Christians. Even while they try to entice us into lifestyles and decisions that are not fitting for Christian life they desperately want to see a better way to live.  That is why they hate us for our hypocrisy so much- because many deep down are longing to find Goodness- Truth – and beauty and we like the Pharisees are supposed to show it to them- and when we don’t they feel their despair and fear even stronger.
         The single worst thing a non-believer can see is a Christian who live an arrogant- self-righteous life void of love or humility. It turns people away from the Church in droves. However, the single greatest thing they can see is a Christian who lives with love, integrity and humility- quick to admit when they are wrong and to forgive. Christians living lives of joy, peace and patience win the hearts of those who long so deeply for those things.
         Please hear me clearly! We are sinners- we are not going to be perfect anytime soon but we can grow in the core of the Gospel- led by the Christ who gave himself in love to us- in the humble form of a poor man who dies and rises again in Glory. We too can learn to be people of Love because of his love- we too can learn to be people of humility because of his humility.  So that even when we fail we turn with repentance. Such is the witness of disciples who show with their lives the disposition of their hearts.

Today is also All Saints Sunday- a day of the year when we remember people who are the very opposite of hypocrites- Saints. The lives of Saints show us what it looks like to live with our redeemed hearts and actions in harmony. They lived lives that show us the beauty of the greatest commandments. Have you ever seen or heard about a person’s life and become inspired or made more courageous because of it? I certainly have!  Today we are reminded that we are not alone- we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses that goes before us and even now prays for us! Sometimes in the midst of the darkest times the brightest lights are set ablaze.
         One of my favorite saints is an African who lived 1700 years ago. He grew up with a Christian mother but spent his youth behaving very badly- and after searching after all sorts of false religions and philosophies. He became an extremely powerful speaker and thinker and eventually had a dramatic conversion. Afterward he devoted his life to the church- becoming a bishop and defender of the faith.  His name is St. Augustine.  He was not perfect- in fact he lived a terrible life- but then because of the Gospel his whole life was transformed to match the work God had done to his heart.

May we too have hearts and lives transformed by God’s grace, so that we that those who do not know the Lord may taste and see that he is Good.

Sermon on the Parable of the Talents

Homily on Matt 25:13-30

The hour is getting dark now. Jesus knows that time draws near- that soon the night would fall on him and that this very night he would be taken from his followers and dragged off in chains.

In fact, this parable, along with the one from last week, and next weeks are given to the disciples immediately before the last supper, where Jesus gives us this holy meal of his body and blood.

So these parables about the end of the world- about judgment and preparation take on extra weight- they are the last desperate attempts of Jesus to prepare his disciples for his departure.

Before we get into this parable- I think it’s important to speak briefly to what parables are and how we should and shouldn’t read them.

First, Parables, like all portions of scripture, are never by themselves. They always are woven into a much larger story, the story being told in the Gospels and the grand story of God’s redemptive work in the world. You can’t just take one parable on its own- isolated from the bigger story- when you do that you are doomed to misunderstand what Jesus is teaching us.  We have to read this parable in light of what comes before and what goes after it.

Second, When Parables come in groups (which they most often do) you have to pay close attention to the ways they connect to each other. The parable of the 10 bridesmaids with oil lamps from last week matters for interpreting this text.

Third, Parables make illustrations and do not give direct moral teaching. Instead they are meant to grab our attention in a dramatic way.  Have you ever tried speaking to someone who has very poor hearing? You have to raise your voice, and sometimes have to wave your arms to illustrate a point.  We like these disciples are very hard of hearing- these parables are Jesus way of waving his arms to show us something we could not understand otherwise.

This parable of the talent has been misread so terribly so many times- sometimes in ways that oppose the clear message of Matthews Gospel.  So let me be very clear up front. 
This parable is not about how to invest your money.
 This parable is not a vindication that God rewards rich people who work hard.
This parable is not God saying high interest loans from banks is ok.

Like the parable of the oil lamps, Jesus is trying to tell us about how we are to live our lives before God in preparation for our final Judgment when he returns.
The story is simple enough. A lord is about to go away on a long journey (note the connection here with Jesus own departure) and he goes to his servants.  He looks them over, determining their ability and decides to leave his wealth with them to work with while he is gone.  The first servant he gives five talents to, the second two talents and the third just one talent.  Now to give you some perspective a talent of silver was worth something like 15-20 years wages for the average worker. So even the one talent is a huge amount to entrust someone with.

I imagine the three servants lining up next to each other- anxious to figure our what their master wanted from them. And then he comes out with these huge sums of money- and the third servant watches with horror as first two guys get dramatically more than he does.  He starts to sweat. The master is expecting me to produce the same amount as these other two guys without any of the resources! How unfair- these other guys have so much that they can take risks with the money but I just have this one talent and there is no way I am putting it out there where it could be lost and give the master a reason to punish me. I know he is just looking for ways to catch me doing something wrong! I won’t give him the chance, I’ll burry his money in the ground and give it back to him just the way he found it! That way I will have lost nothing!

But of course this course of action does not work out so well for the third Servant- The master is outraged that he did nothing to grow his estate- not even hire other people to do it by putting it in the bank! And so he is rejected and cast out, his talent given to the one who had ten.

This is a terrible end for this last servant (not unlike the bridesmaids who ran out of oil) - Jesus wants us to pay attention and not make this mistake!

But what is the sin of this third servant?  What is it that Jesus wants us to understand from this passage?  Jesus wants us to recognize the tremendous gifts we have received from the Lord and wants us to put everything we can offer to work for God’s kingdom so that when he returns we will have invested ourselves in what will not perish- in God’s Joy.

The sin of this last servant is two-fold. First, he thinks the Lord reaps where he does not sow- that is- demands things of us unjustly. He thinks God has not given him enough and will require too much from him.  But thinks this is all about him! Sure he knows the Master wants the money  back- but he is gripped by fear that the master will be upset with him and all his actions focus around saving his own skin- he is obsessed with protecting himself- not considering how he can make the Master’s estate grow. He buries the silver in the ground because that’s what he thinks best for him.

Now lets think about the other two servants. They get very different amounts of money and are entrusted with even more responsibility.  One makes five more talents and the other makes two more talents- but what happens? Does the first servant receive a greater reward? NO- no he does not! They both receive the very same reward- entrance into the Master’s Joy- into the riches of the estate they poured themselves into. The master didn’t look at the second servant and say- what’s wrong with you? The first guy made five more talents! No- God reaps where God sows- from each according to what they have been entrusted and rewards them equally for their efforts. They are not working for their own money! The first guy does not end up richer than the second.  They both hear words more valuable than any amount of silver- Well done my good and faithful servant.
How are we to hear those words? How are we to avoid the fate of the third servant?
It starts with the recognition that God has given us, all of us, tremendous gifts!  And these gifts are not valued the same way the world values them- money and power are not the most valuable talents God gives out. No the most valuable gifts God gives us are the gifts of Faith, Hope and Love. The Lord gives us our very lives- lives that bear the image of God that is of unimaginable value.  In addition to that each of you have tremendous things to offer- from musical gifts to kindness - financial resources to knowledge of language. You may not even know what talents you have yet. 
         But everything we have we can put to work- not for our own benefit alone. No- the first two servants didn’t work for their own wealth they worked for the master’s wealth- they were working for the Kingdom of God.  In the parable that immediately follows this one in Matt. 25 it becomes clear that working for God’s kingdom means working for a world where the poor are fed and the naked clothed.  John Chrysostom from the 4th Century writes this:
“Let us therefore, knowing these things, contribute whatever we have—wealth, diligence or care giving—for our neighbor’s advantage. For the talents here are each person’s abilities, whether in the way of protection, or in money, or in teaching or in whatever thing you have been given. Let no one say, “I have but one talent and can do nothing with it.” You are not poorer than the widow. You are not more uninstructed than Peter and John, who were both “unlearned and ignorant men.” Nevertheless, since they demonstrated zeal and did all things for the common good, they were received into heaven. For nothing is so pleasing to God as to live for the common advantage.
            For this end God gave us speech, and hands, and feet, and strength of body and mind and understanding, that we might use all these things both for our own salvation and for our neighbor’s advantage. Our speech not only is useful for hymns and thanksgiving, but it is profitable also for instruction and admonition. And if indeed we used it to this end, we should be imitating our Master.”

We are to work with all we have toward the growth of God’s kingdom.  And this means we take risks! When the first two servants put the money of the Master to work there was no guarantee that they would make so much money- they could have lost some!  We are called to take risks for God’s Kingdom- there is no guarantee that we will see immediate returns- but we invest our talents there because in the end the gifts and abilities we have are not ours to possess- to bury in the ground and play it safe.  God is not out to get you- waiting for a reason to condemn you! When we commit ourselves to working for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom God will forgive our mistakes, missteps and failures because we are seeking his Glory not our own.  If we try to possess our gifts rather than give them back in service to God we lose them.
Mother Teresa was a Catholic Nun in Calcutta, India. She was a very short woman- who took a vow of poverty and had virtually no possessions. She created a ministry there that cared for people who were sick, poor and dying- the least of these.  And she said something that has always stuck with me.  “You can never do great things. Only small things with great love.” 
         We don’t do great things- though great things may happen when we work for the Lord because of his Spirit. All we can do, like the two faithful servants in this parable, is use whatever has been given to Love God and Neighbor.
         We should not forget that this parable is about the end of the world- when Jesus returns to set the whole world right and bring his Kingdom to its fullness.  If you have lived your whole life investing not in the Kingdom of God, but in your own Glory- or worse yet in fear and complacency- the end of this age will not be a comfortable time for you! Everything you will have worked for- everything you loved will pass away and nothing will be left. But if instead you work for the Kingdom of God with all that you have despite struggles and temptations- then at the end of this age all that you have loved, all that you have given yourself to will not only remain but be magnified and expanded 100 fold. You will share in the bounty of the Master.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,
As it was in the Beginning, is Now and Will Be forever,