Sunday, December 19, 2010

Advent 3 Sermon - Humble Worship

In the fantastic film Indian Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy has to find the Holy Grail. In order to do so he must pass three traps of extreme cunning and danger. The secret to passing the first trap is the sacred verse given him by his father, "Only the penitent man shall pass". Indy makes it through by realize that a penitent man is humble before God and kneel's (thus avoiding the spinning slicing blades of death).
In this sermon from the Third Sunday of Advent we look at preparing ourselves for worship through being humble. The Rite 1 liturgy is steeped in language and prayers which leads and causes the worshipper to be place in a position of humbleness before God.

Indeed, one can not go through this service and say the things we say and do the things we do, and in all honesty not have a stance of humility and need before God. This stands in opposition to our natural propensity which is that of God owing us our due, or that we are inherently worthy of God's kindness and attention.

Instead, the heartbeat of Anglican prayer is summed up in the Prayer of Humble Access: "We do not presume to come to this Thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in Thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy Table; but Thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy..."

You see, God, in all his glory and power and wonder, humbled and emptied himself and came to the earth as a human baby. Not a baby in a palace in fine linen, but a baby in a food trough. What then, does humility look like for us?

C.S. Lewis points out that true humility is not an athletic person pretending to be clumsy, nor an intelligent person pretending to be dumb (because such pretending is falsehood, and thus can not be truly humble). Instead, he argues that true humility is the one who comes before God and does not look left or right. True humility stands before God 'as is', not as-we-are-relative-to-someone-else.
The humble person is the one who recognizes their unworthy nature and their utter need of God's mercy and kindness. The humble person does not presume anything, but simply trusts in the promise of Jesus, that he came to seek and to save the lost. That he came not for the righteous nor the healthy, but for the sinner and the sick.
Like a football lineman who prepares for every snap of the football by getting in a three-point-stance, true worshippers prepare to come before their Lord through a heart filled with humbleness.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Picture Says A Thousand Words

I usually get a lot of emails containing 'inspiriational' messages, stories, and headlines. Some are funny, some are milquetoast, most are not worth the time it takes to read them. During this Season of Advent and Christmas I tend to get even more inspiring emails. That's why I was extremely relieved when my buddy sent me the following picture with the caption: "You really know you've screwed up when...". This has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas, but I love Batman and ironic boneheadedness, and this picture captures both with spectacular simplicity. Sorry Jack, your Joker was just soooo 1989. Heath, RIP.

Sort of the equivalent of asking Sean Connory to sign a picture of Roger Moore. In the fan's defense, the actors in question wore makeup for the film - very confusing! The picture illustrates the sort of fuzzy, muddled thinking which is so pervasive. It might go something like this: "I like Jack Nicholson, and I know he played the Joker. Here is a picture of the Joker. Therefore the actor in the picture must be Jack Nicholson." The sequence of logic is sound, the premises on which it is based are severely flawed.
This is all assuming, of course, that the fan in question is an idiot. He very well may have done this on purpose, in which case I would tip my hat for bravery in incurring the wrath (or at the very least, scorn) of Mr. Jack "Remember-that-I-was-in-The Shining" Nicholson.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advent 2 Sermon - Matters of the Heart

Continuing in our Advent Season, this sermon of the Second Sunday of Advent takes a look at the central concept of the heart - in life, in worship, in love and obedience to God.

When the Scriptures talk about the heart, and when our prayer book uses "heart" or "heartily" (we heartily thank thee...) what are they referring to? Not merely the cardiac muscle in our chests that pumps blood, but rather the heart is the core of who we are. If I say, I love you with all of my heart, I mean that I love you with all that I am and have, to the very core of my being. This is the heart of a person, and out of the heart flows the drive of our desires, the impetus for our thoughts, and the motive of our actions. "Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks" - Jesus (Matthew 12:34-35).

The Bible consistently teaches that a person's heart is naturally not good, but instead is corrupted and inherently selfish. While humans are created in God's image, they are Fallen and sinful, and need redeeming. Without God's intervention people's hearts are:

  • such that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually (Genesis 6:5)

  • deceitful above all things and desperately sick (Jeremiah 17:9)

  • corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good, not even one (Psalm 14:1-3)

  • the source of evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander (Matthew 15:18-20)

(See also: Genesis 8:21; 1 Kings 8:46; Proverbs 20:9; Romans 1:21, 3:23; 1 John 1:8-10)

What you and I need is a new heart. What Christians have, for millenia, called regeneration, and what Jesus called, being born anew (or born from above, or born again). From a new heart flows love, obedience, generosity, forgiveness, and peace. This transformed life is characterized by what St. Paul called the fruit of the Spirit.

But here's the catch: in this life the transformation of heart and mind and soul and body is not complete. We are reckoned (logizomai: imputed) righteous through faith in Jesus, and while our hearts are regenerate, there is still the sinful nature present. Thus for the faithful Christian, being born again is not the end of the battle against the selfish corruption of the heart, but rather the beginning!

This is where our liturgy speaks. It understands the corrupt heart and the power of God to forgive and justify. Those who wrote our prayers understood that the Christian life is first and foremost one of repentance, because it is in repenting that we are kept honest about our own shortcomings, weaknesses, and sin, and also kept focused on the completed work of Jesus Christ for our salvation. Remember, Jesus came to seek and save that which is lost, he came for the sinner not the righteous, for the sick, not the healthy.

The language of our Rite 1 liturgy is full of "heart" language. No less than 13 times do we express the term "heart" or "heartily": Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open...cleanse the thoughts of our hearts...we are heartily sorry for these our misdoings...lift up your hearts...we heartily thank thee...keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God...

Ours is worship not merely of the mind (cerebral) or of the eye (asthetic) but of the heart. If you come to church in worship and God does not do something to your heart, then what are we doing here!? Know this:

What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.

Our worship this Advent, and truly year round, is intended by the Holy Spirit to work on our hearts.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Feast of St. Nicholas

Yesterday was December 6th, as date so many of us are familiar with, or at least are whether we realize it or not. For me it marks the anniversary of my ordination (pause for applause...), but it is also St. Nicholas' Day. That's right, we celebrate and remember jolly old Saint Nick on December 6th. Ironically, most people end up celebrating Saint Nick on December 25th (to be read with biting cynicism). It's unfortunate that this remarkable man is so overlooked as he ought to be regarded, and unfortunate that our culture has gladly made Christmas more about him than about Jesus Christ - a fact of which I'm sure would cause the real St. Nicholas to roll in his grave. But what do we know about this man? How did he go from St. Nicholas to Santa Claus? Nicholas was born to wealthy Christian parents in Asia Minor in the third century (c. 270 AD), and became the Bishop of Myra. Myra was a harbor city on the Mediterannean coast. He is mostly regarded in the Greek Orthodox Church as the patron saint of sailors and fisherman, and is credited with being in attendence at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. One story surrounding his sainthood involves the miraculous increase of a shipment of wheat which he convinced imperial sailors to offload at Myra. He died on December 6th, 343 AD, and so his feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death. Many stories and legends surround this interesting man, perhaps the most important one for us in the US has to do with his gift-giving to children. While there are a variety of versions, there are two that particularly lend influence to the Western tradition of Father Christmas. One story invovles an evil butcher who murders three children during a severe famine, but Nicholas sees through the butcher's treachery and miraculously resurrects the murdered children from the barrel containing their remains. The second story involves a poor man's three daughters, who cannot afford to marry and face a life of prostitution. Nicholas, wishing not to expose the family's predicament, goes to their home at night and leaves three bags of gold coins for the daughters to get married. In a variation on this story, he drops the coins down the chimney. If this is starting to sound familiar, it should. These saintly legends form the backdrop for our modern, American Santa Claus. It is interesting to note that in 1087, Myra was under seige from invading Muslim armies, and Italian sailors transferred (or stole, depending on whose side of the story you take!) Nicholas' remains to protect them and interred them in a church in Bari in southern Italy. Nicholas' notoriety spread from there along with his patronage of giving gifts to children. The Dutch called him Sinterklaas, from which we derive the name Santa Claus (Santa=Saint; Claus is a truncation of Nicholas). I find the transformation over the years of Nicholas into Santa Claus to be both fascinating and saddening. I truly loathe the gluttonous debacle that Christmas has become in our country. Although, I suppose department stores wouldn't have sales at midnight on THANKSGIVING (!) if they thought no one would show up. But they do. In droves. Pathologically feeding our insatiable desire to buy, and justifying it by claiming 'good will' and 'the Christmas spirit'. The real Nicholas gave because of his love for the greatest gift of all, the Son of God given to humanity. Some say his inspiration for giving came from the wise men who brought gifts to the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12). So here's the rub: do we give at Chrsitmas because we simply love to buy things, or do we give because we love the Son of God who was given to us? St. Nicholas vs. Santa Claus...there kahn bee only wan (in best Christopher Lambert voice).