Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Happy Place

A Happy Place
Mt. Hermon

Seventh after Trinity

Psalter: Psalm 133 (KJV)

1Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!
2 It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments;
3 As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore.

When my wife is stressed, she may close her eyes, and say, “I need to go to a happy place.” She pictures herself alone on an isolated beach where she feels the warm sun and gentle breeze, watches the ocean, and hears the waves breaking on the beach. I note that I never make it into these pictures.

Most can imagine happy scenes - a mountainside, a meadow, a Thanksgiving table, a baseball park. David thought of happy scenes when wrote Psalm 133.

1. Pictures of Unity. David compares the unity of
   God’s people to two happy scenes from the life of

  1. Aaron’s Ordination

He goes back to the scene of the ordination of Israel’s first High Priest, Aaron.  In preparation a perfumer mixed a holy anointing oil, a mixture of myrrh, cinnamon, aromatic cane, caccia, and olive oil. Aaron was bathed and dressed in the High Priest’s vestments. They put a special turban on his head and a crown over it.  Then Moses poured the holy oil over Aaron’s head. It flowed down over his beard and clothes.  It was a joyful occasion, the ordination of the High Priest, who would preside over Israel’s worship, offer sacrifices, oversee the the Tabernacle, and represent the people before God. The impressive ceremony included the delightful smell of holy oil. A very pleasant memory in Israel’s history.
b.  The Dews of Hermon

Mt. Hermon is at the extreme northern border of
Israel and consists of three peaks, the  highest of
which is over 9000 feet above sea level. Hermon
gets winter and spring snows and the top is snow
covered most of the year. (Today it has a ski
resort.) Hermon is very important in this dry part of
the world because of  how much precipitation it
receives. Below the snow line is an important area
for  vineyards and timber. Streams and rivers
formed by the melting snow unite to form the
Jordan Rivwe. The dews of Mt Hermon contribute to
the verdancy of the whole land. Those snow
capped peaks and the water flowing down from
them was a beautiful sight and refreshing thought.

David compares the beauty of the unity of God’s people to two happy scenes, the ordination of Aaron and the dews of Mt. Hermon.

2. Beauty of Unity

We can imagine David watching as members of the tribes of Israel made their way up to the tabernacle on  Mt. Zion in Jerusalem to worship the Lord and thinking to himself, “What a happy and beautiful thing to see!”

This was a recent development. David had been born in the days of the judges of Israel when Israel was not united under a godly king, but everyone did what was right in his own eyes. They were vulnerable to their enemies and sometimes fought among themselves. Then Saul became the first king of all Israel, but worship remained a hit or miss affair, with no central place to make sacrifices, celebrate the festivals, and unite in the worship of God. After Saul’s death, there was civil war, with those still loyal to Saul and those loyal to David battling for control. It took 7 ½ years for David to unify the nation and establish his capital in Jerusalem. It took longer before he was able to move the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem and place it in the tabernacle.

Now he watched the pilgrims from all over the land coming to worship the Lord and thought how good God had been to him and the people to give unity - a unity most clearly expressed and experienced in the worship of the Lord on Mt. Zion. He wrote this Psalm to celebrate  unity - a Psalm that was sung by future pilgrims as they traveled to Jerusalem.

It is a Psalm that  is ours to say or sing with greater meaning because our unity is broader than Israel’s. Israel’s unity was of twelve Jewish tribes; our is of Jews and Gentiles, and “all sorts and conditions of men.”  “For he (Christ)  himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father ” (Eph. 2:14,18).  Our unity is not in a mortal and earthly High Priest and King, but in Jesus Christ, who having made the once-for-all sacrifice for our sins, ascended to heaven to present that sacrifice to God, to take his place of authority at the Father’s right hand , and to pour out the Holy Spirit of unity on his church. “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…” (Hebrews 10:12).

In Christ there is no east or west,
in him nor north or south,
but one great brotherhood of love
throughout the whole wide earth.

The most beautiful expression and most powerful experience of unity for us is when we gather in worship. Every aspect of worship is essential to our experience of unity -  the hymns, the confession of sins and absolution, the reading and preaching of God’s Word, and the celebration of the Holy Supper. In the Eucharist we eat one bread and drink from one cup because we are one people in Christ. We acknowledge we all are sinners who receive forgiveness through the one sacrifice of Jesus. As we commune with him, we commune with one another and declare our unity.

Our hope is that anyone who  observes our communing should say, “How good and pleasant it is to see these brothers and sisters living together in unity through Jesus.  It’s as beautiful as a bowl of spring
flowers, as refreshing as a mountain stream, as delightful as an evening with good food and good friends.”

3. Maintenance of Unity

Unity is beautiful but not easy and never to be taken for granted. God joins us in marriage, but we must preserve it; in a similar way the Spirit creates unity but we must maintain it  in the bond of peace.

In the church at Philippi there were two good women named Euodia and Synteche (Philippians 4:2,3).  They were sincere Christians whose “names,” Paul said, “are in the book of life.” They were also hard workers who “labored side by side with me in the gospel” and “my fellow workers.”

But something had happened. They had fallen out with each other. Perhaps they did not speak if they could avoid it. The congregation may have noticed their lack of harmony. There was tension in the air when they had to be together. People were feeling pressure to take a side. Church unity was threatened and at a very bad time, for the church had opponents and believers were suffering for Christ.

What were the problems between them? Paul does not tell us but we can be sure that the differences were not over vital doctrine or morals. These must have been the kinds of differences that are common.

Perhaps they had a personality conflicts. Some are extroverts, some introverts; some optimists, some pessimists, some laid back, some hard-driving;  some tightwads, some free spenders; some precise, some muddled.  

Or, perhaps it had to do with different ways of doing things. My wife believes in the theory of handling a pieces of paper once; I believe in putting them in stacks and coming back to them later.  Different ways of doing things creates stress between people.

Or it may have been differences of opinion. People have all sorts of opinions about politics, education, economics, health, art, music. People feel very strongly about these things, and they can fall out about things where no Biblical truth is at stake.

Paul asks them to agree in the Lord, but that does not mean they will come to say or do things the same. He tells them to have one mind, which is the mind that is theirs in Christ Jesus - who did not stand on his reputation or rights, but humbled himself to become a man and servant, willing to go to death to serve his Father and to serve us.

We have a lot stake in our unity. God commands his blessing and life evermore to dwell among his unified people. Do you like to visit a home where there is tension and conflict? Probably not. God doesn’t either. He delights in the harmony and unity and visits them bringing with him gifts of blessing and life.  

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

What Would Robert E. Lee Do?

A Question I Sometimes Ask Myself

Down in my adopted home state of Mississippi they're
having a big fight about the Mississippi State Flag which incorporates the Battle Flag of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. The Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, Philip Gunn, the two United States Senators, Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, and other state leaders have called for the elimination of the Battle Flag from the Mississippi State Flag. Others, such as Governor Phil Bryant and Lt. Governor Tate Reeves, have pointed out that Mississippians in a 2001 referendum overwhelmingly voted to retain the present Flag and that it would be up to the voters to decide if any change is made. Still others, prominent among them, State Senators Chris McDaniel and Melanie Sojourner, who consider themselves the embodiment of "true conservativism", have said in effect, "Never!" 

This is where I ask my question, "What would Robert E. Lee do?" One of the more fractious followers of the two intransigent Senators has invoked Lee to take his stand against Northerners, Democrats, and spineless Republicans. The problem with this kind of stuff is that all we know about Lee tells us that Lee would have no sympathy whatsoever with such imposition of his portrait on the Battle Flag. 

Lee was and is the epitome of a gentleman, one characteristic of whom he eloquently described:

The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman. The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly — the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light. The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He cannot only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.
Lee opposed secession, though his unwillingness to take up arms against his state and his sense of duty to defend her led him to resign his United States Army Commission and enter the service of the State of Virginia:
I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honour for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labour, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It is intended for 'perpetual Union,' so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution, or the consent of all the people in convention assembled. It is idle to talk of secession: anarchy would have been established, and not a government. … Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me. I shall mourn for my country and for the welfare and progress of mankind. If the Union is dissolved and the Government disrupted, I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people, and, save in defense will draw my sword on none.
After the War, Lee counseled moderation, acceptance, and reconciliation:
The questions which for years were in dispute between the State and General Government, and which unhappily were not decided by the dictates of reason, but referred to the decision of war, having been decided against us, it is the part of wisdom to acquiesce in the result, and of candor to recognize the fact. 
I think it wisest not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered. 
Madam, don't bring up your sons to detest the United States government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.

So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.

The interests of the State are therefore the same as those of the United States. Its prosperity will rise or fall with the welfare of the country. The duty of its citizens, then, appears to me too plain to admit of doubt. All should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war, and to restore the blessings of peace. They should remain, if possible, in the country; promote harmony and good feeling; qualify themselves to vote; and elect to the State and general Legislatures wise and patriotic men, who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country, and the healing of all dissensions. I have invariably recommended this course since the cessation of hostilities, and have endeavored to practice it myself.
So, I come to ask about the Mississippi State Flag, "What would Lee do?" I think there can be little doubt, given what we know about his character and the things he both counseled and practiced after the War, that Lee would say, "Change it. Take the Battle Flag (of the Army of Northern Virginia) off it." 

Lee's counsel would be formed by his desire to see the hostilities within the nation put away and the disunion healed. He would have counseled removal of the Battle Flag in the interests of national reconciliation and unity. That much we can surmise from what Lee wrote.

But, I think it is not unduly speculative to think that, if Lee could give us his counsel now, he would counsel
removal of the Battle Flag for other reasons: (1) The Battle Flag unfortunately has been so co-opted by racists and those who have sought to stir sectional hostility and resistance to equality of rights that it is no longer a symbol of the courage and heroism of those who fought under it. (2) When a black citizen of Mississippi sees that Battle Flag corner of the Mississippi Flag, he or she sees a symbol of slavery, the KKK, Jim Crow laws, the Dixiecrat Party, Mississippi politicians such as Theo Bilbo, John Bell Williams, and Ross Barnett, unequal opportunity, denial of voting rights, and all the worst things about Mississippi. I do not much see those things, but it is undeniable that black people do - and that it's understandable. (3) The purpose of a state flag is to provoke pride and loyalty and to symbolize the unity of the state. All citizens should be able to salute a flag and feel a sense of attachment to the state it represents. Not quite 40% of the population of Mississippi is black and practically none of them find the Mississippi State Flag a symbol of unity. My guess is that is also true of whites who, either as Southerners share the values of General Lee, or who don't care about the War and the reasons it was fought and, therefore, feel no need to have the Battle Flag on the State Flag. 

There is an unverified Lee quote that does sound like the man, and which, whether he said it or not, aptly summarizes what I think he would counsel about the Battle Flag: "Fold it up and put it away."

But a disturbing thought intrudes. I think of black
evangelical and reformed men such as Jemar Tisby, co-founder of the Reformed African American Network and newly appointed Director of the African American Leadership Initiative at Reformed Theological Seminary. I think of the things that have been said in connection with discussion of the resolution on racial reconciliation introduced at this year's PCA General Assembly. They can correct me if I am wrong, but I think they would say, "Never inform your decisions by asking, 'What would Robert E. Lee do?' Not only does the Flag need to go; Lee needs to go. He was a traitor to his country, and he fought to keep blacks enslaved. He was not a honorable man. He is no example. Furl the flag, and put it away. Free yourselves of this man who that has no place among America's heroes. Forget about Lee."  

In other words, I think there is no satisfying of such men - if you have any sense of attachment to your ancestors, as I do to Francisco Moreno, Jr. who died at Shiloh; if you have any sympathy for the position of the Southern states in the dispute that was settled (mind you, it was and is settled) on the battlefields; if you are deeply stirred at the graves of Lee and Jackson and from the Southern battle line on the fateful day in Gettysburg; if Southern soldiers are your boyhood and adult heroes and even now inform your sense of courage and honor. 

The Memphis City Council has voted unanimously to exhume the bodies of General Nathan Bedford Forrest (whom Shelby Foote said was one of two genuises of the War, Lincoln being the other) and to remove and sell his statue. Nevermind that he was converted to Christ and showed respect for black people and sought racial reconciliation:
I believe I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to elevate every man, to depress none. 
I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going. I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office... I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. 
When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together.
They all must be dug up - Lee, Jackson, Davis, every one of them. And we who have considered them heroes must say, "I denounce you."

No. Not I. It would not be honorable. 

    Monday, July 13, 2015

    You've Got a Friend, Or Do You?

    Sweet Baby James and Me

    A friend had some bad news for me. As we talked, he made it clear where he stood, "If you think I'm going to the wall with you, you're wrong." As it turned out, he was a member of the firing squad. If I did not know it before, I knew then, that you never know who your friends are till you are in trouble - till you and/or your cause are unpopular, till it costs to be your friend. Then you may be singing, "You've gotta walk that lonesome valley, you've gotta walk it by yourself."

    The wise man knew what the depression era song says: "Nobody knows you when you're down and out":
    The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends (Proverbs 14:24).
     Wealth brings many new friends, but a poor man is deserted by his friends" (19:4). 
    Many seek the favor of a generous man, and everyone is a friend to a man who gives gifts. All a poor man's brothers hate him; how much more do his friends go far from him! He pursues them with words, but does not have them (19:6,7).
    Who your friends are may have a lot to do with your circumstances. 

    If ever there were a true friend, it was our Lord, who had for his disciples the love than which none is greater. But though he would lay down his life for them, their friendship to him failed in his time of greatest need, first not being able even to watch and pray with him in his distress, then to a man deserting him, and Peter even denying he so much as knew him. 

    There is another kind of friendship, however:
     A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity (17:7).
    Better one constant friend than an entourage of lesser friends: 
    A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother" (18:24).
    The proof is in the adversity. 

    But the question of who our true friends are is one that, like the question of who your neighbor is, needs to be turned on its head. You never know who you are a friend to till your friend is in trouble, till your friend needs you, till your friend becomes unpopular, till all have deserted, and you are still there.

    We want to know who our real friends are, but to whom are we real friends? 

    What friends would we go to the wall with or for? Or, to think of more likely scenarios: Who are the friends with whom we would not just begin the journey but walk with all the way through the valley of the shadow of death? What friends would we stick with if they became overcome by a fault or entangled with the sin that so easily besets? Which friends would we abandon if loyalty to them could hurt a cause we believe or threaten the success of our ministry? What friends would we be seen with if it were embarrassing? Or, it cost us acceptance with those whose acceptance we want? With whom would we be friends if there was not a thing they could give us? 

    One thing I have observed since my ordination in 1973
    is that ecclesiastial politics and true friendship are incompatible. The former sooner or later will divorce the latter. Which makes Harry Trueman's statement about Washington aprapos to ecclesiastical bodies: "If you want a friend, get a dog." However, given my experience with my dog, I'm doubtful you can count on a dog. But then, thinking about my response when he embarrasses me in public, I'm not much a friend to Murphy either.


    Sunday, July 12, 2015

    A Day for Big Macs and Milkshakes

    A Day for Big Macs and Milkshakes

    Sixth after Trinity

    Old Testament: Nehemiah 8:1-12 (KJV)

    1 And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel.
    2 And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month.
    3 And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.
    4 And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, and Shema, and Anaiah, and Urijah, and Hilkiah, and Maaseiah, on his right hand; and on his left hand, Pedaiah, and Mishael, and Malchiah, and Hashum, and Hashbadana, Zechariah, and Meshullam.
    5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up:
    6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
    7 Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place.
    8 So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.
    9 And Nehemiah, which is the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law.
    10 Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
    11 So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved.
    12 And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.

    One idea among many about proper diet is that we should eat foods low in fat and sugar. Let a husband, whose wife feeds that, go on a trip and and there’s a good chance he’ll get in line at McDonald’s for a Big Mac and milkshake.

    It’s really hard to celebrate with low fat and sugar foods. Celery and carrot sticks are not celebration fare. Nehemiah 8 tells us about a day when the priests told God’s people to go home and celebrate with fat meat and sweet drinks.

    1. Reading God’s Word

    a. Background

    God moves the hearts of rulers to fulfill his purposes. In 538 King Cyrus decreed that Jews exiled in Babylon could go home to Judah. A first wave returned. Life was hard, and resources were limited, so they built an altar but did not rebuild the Temple. However, the Temple was most important for it was necessary for the worship of the Lord. God used the preaching of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah and the leadership of the governor Zerubbabel and priest Joshua for a great building campaign. By 516 the Temple was complete.

    A half century later in 458 a priest named Ezra, who had been born in Babylon, went to Judah to teach people the law. He has some success instituting reforms, but there was much still needed for the physical and spiritual welfare of the people. About 445 Nehemiah came as governor. Immediately he saw what must be his first priority. Almost 100 years after exiles began to return, the city walls still had not been rebuilt. With Nehemiah’s energetic leadership the walls got rebuilt within a few months. The people were now safer.

    b. Book

    Then it was time to shift to the spiritual welfare of the people. That is the background for Nehemiah 8. On a designated day the people gathered near the Water Gate. The crowd was inclusive - men, women, and all who could understand. They called for Ezra to bring the Bible, the Book of the Law of Moses. This Book was not just a book of Moses. It was God’s Word, for the LORD had commanded it. When we read the Bible we should always remember that whether it is a Psalm of David, the Proverbs of Solomon, the prophecy of Isaiah, the Gospel of St. Mark, or a letter of Paul, it is God’s Word to us. When we read the Lessons the reader reminds us that this is “The Word of the Lord,” or, “The Gospel of the Lord.”

    c. Priests

    Ezra and the other priests did two things with the Book:

    First, they read it. Whether it was all five Books of Moses, or a part, a great amount was read, for they read from early morning till noon. In some churches that gather great numbers, you will hear very little Scripture read, sometimes only a verse. It’s not that way with Anglicanism. Today we had three readings, a Psalm and the Old and New Testament Lessons, plus other portions of Scripture that are included in the Liturgy. When we celebrate Holy Communion, there are four Lessons.

    Stephen Neill in his book Anglicanism tells us that Thomas Cranmer said the Anglican Church is “the greatest Bible-reading Church in the world.” He had and the other Reformers “fell in love with the Bible.” He believed that it was “the living word of God to every man” and that when people were exposed to the Bible it would “make its way into their hearts and consciences.” (Neill, p. 54). Alan Jacobs in his The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography says that Cranmer wanted to assure that everyone understood the plan of salvation, and that “the first requirement of that understanding was the reading of Scripture.” (Jacobs, pp. 16,17).

    Second, they explained it. The priests “caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.” The Word of God comes to us in two ways in worship - the reading and the preaching of the Word. The first business of preaching is to explain the Bible so that people can understand what it says. One of the great problems Cranmer faced in England was that the church’s priests were not competent preachers. So he composed a Book of Homilies on essential subjects to be read in the churches. But how much better it is to have pastors who can and will study the Bible till they understand it and then compose homilies to enable particular congregations to understand what the Bible says and what it tells them to believe and do.

    2. Receiving God’s Word

    As Ezra and the priests read and interpreted the Word of God the people received it in five ways.

    First, they listened. “The ears of all the people were attentive to unto the Book of the Law.”
    There is no blessing in the mere reading of the Word of God by a lector. The Bible is not magic as though grace were given by being in room in which Scripture is read. People have to hear, which puts a great responsibility on those of us who read to read distinctly and loudly enough for people to hear.

    But, if lectors must read so that people can understand, those who listen must give pay close attention, seeking to comprehend the words that are read - “to hear them, read, mark, and inwardly digest them.” In Cranmer’s day people could only listen, as the only access most had to the Bible in print was the copy in every church that was chained down. But we have our Bibles. I think it helps us when we can simultaneously hear and read the Bible in one translation so that the Word enters by through the ear gate and the eye gate. Whether we practice that or not, the responsibility of each hearer is to listen attentively, striving to understand.

    Second, they reverenced. When Ezra opened the Book, the people stood up. I know it makes me sound old to say this (which, of course, I am!), but I was taught that when an adult woman or any person older than you entered a room, you should immediately stand up. It was a physical act of respect. That is why the people stood when Ezra opened the Book.

    They also bowed and worshiped the Lord with their faces toward the ground. American protocol is that the President is not supposed to bow to any foreign head of state. The reason is that bowing is a sign of submission, an act acknowledging superior dignity and authority. When the Jewish people bowed as Ezra read, they were submitting themselves to God’s authority as he spoke through his Word.

    It is not so much the particular posture that matters. The quick guide to Anglican worship is that we “stand to sing, sit to listen, and bow to pray” which is fine. But, whatever our bodily actions, we reverence God’s Word by honoring it and submitting to it.

    Third, they praised. As Ezra prepared to read, he blessed the Lord, the Book’s Author. Blessing the Lord is not giving God a blessing he would not otherwise have, but acknowledging his greatness, goodness, and glory. The people responded, “Amen, Amen,” as they raised their hands raised upward to God. Many Christians think the “Amen” is roughly the same as saying, “The end.” But it means, “I confirm it,” or “I agree with it,” or “Let it be so.” It is one way we make our own what another person has said. When the people said, “Amen,” they showed their agreement with Ezra’s blessing of the Lord. When we read the Psalm, we respond, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.” When we hear the Old Testament or Epistle, we respond with, “Thanks be to God,” Before the Gospel, we say “Glory be to thee, O Lord,” and after the Gospel, “Praise be to thee, O Christ.”

    Fourth, they mourned. The initial reaction of the people as they heard the reading of God’s Word was to mourn and weep. Because they realized how far short they fell as a community, as families, and as individuals from what God said in his Word. They experienced conviction of their shortcomings and sins. This is a response to God’s Word that many churches and Christians know little or nothing about. In some churches the last thing desired is for people to feel bad. Joel Osteen, for example, says he preaches only positive sermons because he figures people already feel bad enough about themselves. I believe one possible reason that so little Scripture is read and some parts always avoided is that churches are afraid of people being uncomfortable. But, mourning for our communal, family, and personal sins is one healthy response to God’s Word.

    However, Nehemiah and Ezra told the people this was not the right response on this day. This holy day is not for mourning.

    Fifth, they partied. The right response was to go home and throw a party. This was a day to prepare fatty meats and sweet drinks, food appropriate for celebration. They needed to share so they everyone could celebrate.

    What were they supposed to celebrate? They celebrated that God spoke to them through the Scriptures. One of the worst things in a relationship is for one person to be uncommunicative. Communication is essential to a healthy relationship. In Scripture God speaks to us.

    They celebrated the story of God’s salvation, his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, his preservation of Israel through the more than 400 years in Egypt, and his intervention to deliver them from bondage - all of which is a wonderful picture of what God has done in Jesus Christ to save us from Satan, sin, and judgment.

    They celebrated the renewal of their relationship to God. Though they had neglected God’s Word and their relationship with him, he did not write them off. They were still his people; his covenant with them stood; he would renew his fellowship with them and blessings to them. Their reading of the Word, listening carefully to it, and understanding of it, enabled them to return to the Lord and renew their relationship with him.

    They had joy in God’s Word, God’s salvation, and their relationship with him. This joy would strengthen them to serve the Lord even in all their hardships. It’s much easier to serve the Lord with a smile in your heart than a grimace on your face.

    God still speaks through his Word. Listen. Understand. Rejoice. Go have a Big Mac and a milkshake.

    Sunday, July 5, 2015

    How to Live in a Hostile World

    How to Live in a Hostile World

    Fifth after Trinity

    Epistle: 1 Peter 3:8-15a

    8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly  love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.
    9 Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.
    10 For
    “Whoever desires to love life
        and see good days,
    let him keep his tongue from evil
        and his lips from speaking deceit;
    11 let him turn away from evil and do good;
        let him seek peace and pursue it.
    12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
        and his ears are open to their prayer.
    But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
    13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?
    14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled,
    15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy.

    When Nikita Khrushchev threatened, “We will bury you,” many Americans feared he was right. It was not uncommon for ministers to warn that if Khrushchev’s prophecy came true. Christians could face persecution for their faith. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and with it that fear. But many Christians are persecuted, as the brutal executions in the Middle East testify. How should Christians live in a hostile world? St. Peter tells us.

    1. Circumstances

    It will help us to know the circumstances of Peter’s writing this letter.

    Peter was in Rome. The Emperor was Nero, but he had not begun the intense persecution of Christians that followed the burning of the city.

    The readers are Gentile Christians. They lived in a region of Asia Minor which is modern Turkey. Peter calls them scattered exiles, not because they were  dispossessed from their homelands, but because heaven is the homeland of Christians.

    There was not a general persecution of Christians in the Empire, but there was sporadic and localized persecution which these  Christians were experiencing.
    This is not surprising. Jesus told his disciples the world would hate them as it hated him.

    Christians in the West have been spared the kinds of persecution faced by many Christians. We don’t fear having our country conquered by foreign power that could be hostile to Christianity. However, there are responsible Christian leaders who warn that churches and Christians could soon face significant restrictions on their freedoms of  speech and religion. Our Bishops are sufficiently disturbed to advise clergy not to act as agents of the state but only as priests in the conduct of weddings.

    Apart from such dangers there is no doubt that we live in an increasingly secularized culture, and sympathy for the historic Christian faith and morals is in steep decline. We have reasons to be concerned. The world is hostile to Christ and his people, and that hostility may be more severely expressed in both words spoken about and to Christians about Christians and the ways Christians are treated.

    How should we respond?

    2. Church

    Peter begins by telling us how to live together in the church: “All of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly  love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”

    This list of ways we should relate to one another is not a list of duties or rules that stand by themselves. Christ is the motivation, empowerment, and example of how Christians live together. Christ “ransomed” us by his “precious blood” (1:18,19), “bore our sins” (2:24) “suffered once for our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous”  (3:18). His love, mercy, and compassion transform how we treat each other.

    Peter tells us to have…

    ...unity of mind, which does not mean we have to
    think the say way about everything, politics for
    instance, but that we have one Lord, one faith, one
    baptism, one God and Father of us all. We are
    saved and made one body by the same gospel of

    ...sympathy, which means that instead of
    distancing ourselves from others in their sorrows
    and envying them in their joys, we share one
    another’s feelings, rejoicing and weeping together.

    ....brotherly love, which is the family love we have with one another as those born of the Spirit, adopted into the Father’s family, and acknowledged by Jesus as his little brothers and sisters.

    ...a tender heart, which is a heart that is not hard but filled with love and mercy toward one another.

    ...humility, which means we are not concerned about our status, reputation, rights, or power, but consider others better than ourselves.

    We need to be a healthy church with good relationships for two reasons: (1) Stress in the church as in the family either draws us together or drives us apart. When we cultivate these Christian qualities we will be able to stand together and support one another. (2) When we live as this kind of community, we give a powerful testimony to the world. Tertullian said that unbelievers said of Christians, “Look how they love one another and are ready to die for each other.”

    3. Contrast

    Peter has told us how to live as a church in a hostile world. Now he tells us how to live in the world itself.  There is a stark contrast between the way the world may respond to us and how we respond to the world.

    The world may do evil to us. Jezebel, a Baal worshiper. tried to kill the the Lord’s prophet Elijah. King Herod executed John the Baptist. Before he his conversion the Apostle Paul was a persecutor and violent oppressor of Christians. So it is today in Pakistan, Yemen, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and parts of Iraq and Syria.

    The world may revile us. Unbelieving Jews accused Jesus of being demon possessed and a blasphemer.  King Felix said Paul had lost his mind. Even we who say Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life may accused of intolerance. Christians who openly profess Christianity’s teaching about sexual morality can be accused of hate speech.

    What is our natural reaction when people do us evil and revile us? We get angry; we want to pay them back. But Peter tells us that should not repay evil with evil or reviling with reviling. Rather we should bless those who hurt and slander us. Not bless them in the evil they do, but we treat them with respect, show them mercy, and pray for and seek their salvation in Christ. The best revenge you can get on those who persecute you is to see them become Christians.

    Peter got that from Jesus:

    You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:43-45).

    St. Paul teaches us the same thing about how to live in a hostile environment:

    Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it  to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17-21).

    We are called to be blessed. We experience God’s blessing when, depending on his grace, we bless those who hate us. Peter tells us that this is what David tells us in Psalm 34:

    Whoever desires to love life
        and see good days,
    let him keep his tongue from evil
        and his lips from speaking deceit;
    let him turn away from evil and do good;
        let him seek peace and pursue it.
    For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
        and his ears are open to their prayer.
    But the face of the Lord is against those who do
    evil (3: 10-12).

    God called us to himself to bless us, and he blesses us as we respond to those who hate us as Jesus did.

    4. Confidence

    As we bless the world that hates us, we have confidence that as we are zealous for good works no harm will come to us. The best way to stay out of trouble with the world is to do what is right, such as being good citizens. But Peter is not promising us that we will always be safe from persecution if we do good works. He is telling us that God will so protect us that no eternal harm will come to us. God will save us from persecution and death or through persecution and death.

    If do are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, we are blessed along with all believers in history who have been persecuted for the loyalty to Christ. Jesus told us how to regard such persecution:

    Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11,12).

    When think about the possibilities of persecution, mild or severe, our natural response is fear. But Peter tells us not to fear those who persecute us or be troubled by by the things they threaten. Rather in our we should honor Christ our Lord as holy. We set him apart in our hearts as our Lord. We are loyal to him; we entrust ourselves to him; we are confident of that he will not leave or forsake us but will be with us through all we face in this life and bring us to the eternal safety of his heavenly kingdom.

    Polycarp, the Bishop Smyrna, was about to be martyred if he would renounce Christ as Lord, because in his heart he had set Christ apart as Lord, he replied: “Eighty-six years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” From death he entered glory and in glory he waits for the day when Christ will raise his people from the dead and vindicate them before the world.

    How do you live in a hostile world? Love each other. Bless your enemies. In your heart set Christ apart as Lord and entrust yourself to him.