Weekly Rector's Notes

Prophets are difficult.  In the Bible prophets are a regular part of the story of God’s people. They are usually hard, mean, and difficult.

Prophets are hard. They are shaped on the anvil of God’s word. They are called to speak for God, usually about things people don’t want to hear and at times when they don’t want to listen. 

That makes them mean. My children used to tell me I was being mean when I was just being honest about something difficult. “This is your fault.” “You need to not do this. If you do, then this is what is going to happen.”

Many parents, including me sometimes, do not want to tell their children hard truths. We softball. We even end up lying a little when we avoid the hard things in life with our children. They do things they cannot do and must be told. They have to change their behavior.

But the prophets, if they are honest, tell us the things we would rather avoid. Many people are self-proclaimed prophets, and the Bible is not kind about them. God hates those who decide to talk for God without actually hearing the word from him.

Before a child is born, a whole lot of things have to be done. Cribs, blankets, onesies, decisions, doctor’s appointments, family notifications, paint, clothes, and family. Did I mention family?
 
As we prepare for Christ coming, we have just a couple of weeks to prepare our hearts. How do we begin? 
 
We have several opportunities listed below to help make a good beginning. Join us as we prepare for our king in swaddling clothes.
 
 
 
-daniel+


 

Gratitude, Grace, and Giving 

Thanksgiving in my family always meant my grandmother’s house, dining room table and sideboard filled with turkey, dressing, and casseroles. It was the natural accumulation of recipes, love, and traditions.

Over the years, we got to be more thoughtful about what we were doing, and we added in prayers and naming reasons we were thankful that year.

The first thanksgiving was named in what would become the United States in 1619 by Anglican men who had arrived at Berkeley Plantation southwest of Richmond, Virginia, to settle and begin to clear land for the women and children who would follow them. They marked their arrival by setting aside December 4 as an annual day of thanksgiving. And they probably fasted rather than feasted.

Thanksgiving easily becomes gluttony and football. My memories after the meal are of the men of my mom’s family tossed onto chairs and sofas watching afternoon pigskin and recovering.

But is that what we want to be? Is that our way of being the people we intend to be?

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” -Matthew 28:18-20

Are you tired of immature people ruining the reputation of the church? Or have you ever realized that you are immature?

We are to study who Jesus was and is and then be like him to other people. The job of the church, of you and me, is to make disciples of Jesus. A disciple sounds special, but it just means follower or student. It does involve the whole life, but it is really simple.

The journey begins in getting to Know Jesus through study and experience. Then we can Love Christ in worship and prayer. Then we can Serve Christ here and around the world.

Knowing Christ takes time. It takes time to not just read or hear what he said, but to put that in context and see how other members of his Body (the church) apply it.

It takes time to integrate what we know into our desires and actions. For me, I have heard and read Jesus and Paul’s admonition to honor one another hundreds of times, but never heard or preached a word about it. Then one day I realized how much we all hunger to be known and recognized when someone I knew grieved having not been recognized for her work. Her grief led to a despair that was only cured by the loving words of encouragement of friends in Bible Study.

Conductivity. Did you know that gold is a fantastic electricity conductor? Or silver? But we often use copper, which is fine, because it is good enough. Actually it has several good properties. But if you want the best, pure silver or gold.

Gratitude is spiritual silver. It allows grace to flow from God through you to others easily and naturally. Think about it. A parent who is filled with gratitude is more likely to bestow grace on his children. A boss who is grateful is way more likely to be merciful to his workers, praising freely, and paying generously.

Are you a grateful person?

The church used to have the United Thank Offering for decades. Though it has died out in most places, it was a program that gave every member a blue box that to be used as a place to put offerings whenever you were moved by gratitude.

They were meant for change really, and mostly they were given to Sunday School kids, but they became a teaching symbol for many Episcopalians of something fundamental to stewardship as a way of life.

Gratitude for what God has done is fundamental to proper relationship to God, each other, and the world.

One of the religious lawyers came near and heard the Sadducees disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” -Mark 12:28-30

This may be the first commandment or the most fundamental, but it is also the hardest and the easiest.

What is required is just a change of heart, a metanoia. I love me okay, but I have to work at others. You may not love your self at all and find others a breeze. All of us struggle somewhere in this three-sided commandment.

The church recognizes this and keeps a storehouse of practices to help us grow into the kind of people who can keep these commands.We call these spiritual practices because they make us available to the Holy Spirit.

Among the most central is giving, both faithfully and generously.

Generous giving is usually the easier of the two. Our hearts are tugged by some situation or called to action by a grand vision, and we give with enthusiasm even happiness.

The Bible is the single most important book to Christians. As Episcopalians, we are Christians, yet many of us never read the Bible. I suspect that the reason is simple, unfamiliarity. Professional commentators do not make this better, including me.

I often assume that the words I use are helpful to understand, because they are the words that I have come to understand, like the word “mantle,” which I often use in the phrase “to put on the mantle of Christ.” This phrase is one I picked up somewhere, though I cannot remember where or when. It is used in the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, but I cannot remember taking it from there.

The phrase refers to putting on the outer garment of Christ or the responsibility. The word mantle comes from an English word for the Irish garment worn my simple Irish farmers when the English were more genteel. It was an outer garment worn over a inner tunic, much like in the Bible. So the word was borrowed into the interpretation of the Bible.

The outer garment, mantle or cloak, was typically worn for years at a time back before Madison Avenue convinced us to change it up for the minor god of fashion. That outer garment became associated with your identity and role. If you found a cloak lying in your little Palestinian village, you would likely know who it belonged to because of familiarity.

To put on the mantle of Christ then is to put on his identity and role, but it sounds less daunting than that.

There is a long tradition of comparing the Church to a ship on the seas. If we are a ship then Christ Church of the Ascension is suddenly in smooth and open seas with good winds.

For the last three years I have been your rector, and we have been in a rebuilding phase of the ship of Christ Church from within, restaffing, fixing financial reporting and practices, and getting the budget into the black in the process. It has been a process, like all building that involves a lot of work that isn’t visible and more people than is obvious. (This is where I thank Vestries and Staff Members).

Now, as our staffing is coming back to normal, our financial foundation is relaid, and the budget is getting back to stable, my job is changing. When I wrote that last week, it was not a throw away line. It was reality and hope.

Realistically all jobs evolve as work situations change, and with new people and positions in the office, life is changing here. Coordination takes more than just checking my phone as we are rearranging space and calendars, and it will take time for all the dust to settle.

. . . and the Rev. Timothy Watt has come just in time! We are grateful to have Tim with us as we seek to know, love, and serve Christ together. He will be preaching this week and becoming a regular part of the rota as we move forward. His wife Tanya is completing her Master of Divinity degree this year in Virginia.

My role as rector will continue to evolve as we enter into new levels of staffing and ministry. Tim will be leading youth and regularly serving in liturgy to begin with, and his role will grow and settle as he gets on his feet in our parish. But for us and the Very Rev. Rebecca McClain, we are all here as servants and pastors.

The role of priest is both servant to God and servant to a community. As servants of God we adhere to a calling to be, as baptized Christians, faithful to God’s Word, our vows, and the worship and discipline of the church. We read, learn, and teach from the Bible and tradition, maintain professional standards and codes, and lead worship faithfully to form disciples of Christ. As servants to the community, our service is lived in leadership, teaching, and pastoral work.

A pastor is a shepherd. We tend the flock. Pastoral work can often be seen as only caring for the sick or distressed, but it is rooted in whole community care and leadership. We work to call the community, gather, and lead in the direction set by God in Christ. We also care for the wounded and sick, make sure that you are being fed (in Word and Sacrament), and that we are all unified in mind, spirit, and purpose, as much as that is up to us.

Tonight we will have a huge event on the campus of Christ Church. We get to host the three bishop candidates for the Bishop of Arizona. We will gather to hear them answer questions about their view of their vocation, their life of faith, and views of the local and national and international church.

This will be my third time through the Bishop election process here, in Western Michigan, and now here again. I want to share with you that while there are many difficulties in the process to be worked around and solved, the process in my experience has always been one that is soaked in prayer, the work of the Holy Spirit, and passion for the good of the church and the world.

As you come tonight, we get to join in listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit in the voices of these three candidates. We also get the additional opportunity to host our diocese here at home. The work of hospitality is one of the few direct commands of Jesus, and it is one where we can display what we believe the church to be and what we hope for our diocese.

Join us in this moment.

Part II

The stranger represents the possibility of the perception of the presence of God. God is always present, and in our stories is revealed to be present in the stranger only after involvement. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus is present because of his being, but he is revealed only after the blessing in the context of the disciples’ hospitality.

This means something devastating about our lives: God is waiting to bless you. God is waiting for you to notice, to respond to, open your heart and home to the stranger.

Jesus’ word, logic, teaching, was consistent. We were created to be God’s image, sons and daughters, put on the earth to tend or steward the creation and each other, bringing release to the captive and freedom to the oppressed, and binding up the broken hearted. We cannot be that if we do not recognize God in those around us.

We cannot enter the Kingdom of God as long as we are caught up in the world of the flesh. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God,” in biblical idiom. The world of flesh is the self caught up in the base needs of biology, gratifying our perceived needs for sex, safety, and desires. We see rivals, victims, and lovers where we should see brothers and sisters.

The Way of Christ

The Rev. Daniel P. Richards 

Baptism

Our life in faith begins in baptism. The church has taught for two millennia that an ontological change happens in our baptism, that we are no longer a creature separated from God, but through death and rebirth in Christ we are made new, and so is the world that we live in.

This teaching is no longer cool, because we believe strongly in the goodness of people who are not baptized, even who are not Christian. We also know of terrible people who have been baptized! So how can we still make this claim with any seriousness?

First off, baptism is our outward and visible sign of the death and birth as a new creation into Christ. But, even at that, it is still an act of new birth. We must "grow into the full stature of Christ." We are not born fully grown physically or spiritually.

Secondly, once we are baptized, we have citizenship in the Rule of God, but we may still choose to live in God's will or way. We may also continue to sin willfully, but that does not negate the power of baptism, only our refusal of the grace of new life.

We must grow up as little Christ's. As the church, we must bring up Christians in our life of worship, study, and recreation of the world. We see this clearly in bringing up children, but even for adults we may hide our immaturity, but we still desperately need to grow into life in Christ and his community.

The primary tools of our tradition are liturgical worship centered on the sacraments and daily offices, personal prayer, Bible study, and acts of charity and justice. The emphasis placed in each of these areas will vary from other Christian traditions, and these areas listed do not exhaust the tools of God or the church. Some other tools of formation may include rules of life, meditation or contemplation, ecstatic prayer, fasting, poverty, pilgrimage. In my life, I would add parenting and marriage as tools that God has used in my own maturing process.

But these tools are just the ways we live out our life as baptized members of the Body of Christ. Baptism is our birth and identity; from it and its promises flow our vocations and ministries in life and the church.

Jesus was in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, when he turned to one of the minor themes that always confused Peter. “When you are in the market place, greet the people you don’t know. Say hello to the stranger, the orphan, the widow.” Peter murmured and made a note to ask the master why this ridiculous turn. The law held no such command, and it violated common sense.

Who knows what the stranger is doing, plotting, planning, whose side he’s on, how pure she is, what her intentions are? Common sense says, Greet those who matter or who might. Stay where it is safe and honorable. The marketplace is no place to get friendly.

We forget the dangers of the past, safely ensconced in the florescent lights and white tiles of the mall or the supermarket, how the market represented a place of familiarity and danger. People gathered from fields and towns together to buy and barter and sell. A place unregulated by mall cops and set prices. Traveling can only hint in our age of law and order at how unsafe a space could be for commerce.

Yet, it is here that Jesus tells his students to greet strangers. The motif doesn’t end there. His followers will take that theme into their homes and along lonely roads. The saints and writers listed above are no complete list of the tales of wayfarers at the door or beggars along the way.

Unlike tales of warning, such as Beauty and the Beast, these tales were mostly of shifted perception and let to gifts and sacrifices for the stranger rather than curses. In these moments of gifts and roadside hospitality, the stranger is not merely the recipient of greeting, but rather Christ himself come to call the disciple to a different way of life.

A dark night and a difficult choice about letting in the unwanted unknown person in rags. Eventually, the stranger is revealed to be Christ, and the protagonist is changed.

Dallas Willard is one my theological influences. He is difficult to read for some people, but for years his work just felt irrelevant to me. I was asked to go back and teach on one of his books by a friend a decade ago and found a mentor in working out knots I had been trying to untie in my own thinking for years.

Dallas is wonderfully precise in his language. He was a philosophy professor, primarily at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and a Baptist pastor and thinker. He transcended Southern Baptist thought as he centered his work around two primary questions.

How do we become the kind of person Jesus calls us to be?

What is life like in the Kingdom of God?

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