Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Augustine on Holy Week

From the Office of Readings (taken from Augustine):

It is a great thing that we are promised by the Lord; but far greater is what has already been done for us, and that which we now commemorate....

He had no power of himself to die for us: he had to take from us our mortal flesh... Of ourselves we had no power to live, nor did he of himself have the power to die. Accordingly, he effected a wonderful exchange with us, through mutual sharing: we gave him the power to die, he will give us the power to live.

He loved us so much that, sinless himself, he suffered for us sinners the punishment we deserved for our sins. How then can he fail to give us the reward we deserve for our righteousness, for he is the source of righteousness?

Brethren, let us then fearlessly acknowledge, and even openly proclaim, that Christ was crucified for us; let us confess it, not in fear but in joy, not in shame but in glory.

The apostle Paul said, Let me not boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday

On this Palm Sunday, let's take instruction from the Office of Readings by Andrew of Crete:

Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to receive the Word at his coming, and God, whom no limits can contain, will be within us.

Hosanna in the highest!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Yet More from Augustine on Prayer

From the morning's Office of Readings from Augustine (Commentary on the Psalms):

....when we speak with God in prayer we do not separate the Son from him, and when the body of the Son prays it does not separate its head from itself: it is the one Savior of his body, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who prays for us and in us and is himself the object of our prayers. He prays for us as our priest, he prays in us as our head, he is the object of our prayers as our God. Let us then recognize both our voice in his, and his voice in ours.

We pray to him as God, he prays for us as a servant. In the first case he is the Creator, in the second a creature. Himself unchanged, he took to himself our created nature in order to change it, and made us one man with himself, head and body. We pray then to him, through him, in him, and we speak along with him and he along with us.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Come and Die

I preached a Lenten sermon today on "Going to Jerusalem." Jesus went there to die and he calls those who would follow him to the same. There can be no resurrection and glory apart from the cross. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die."

Friday, March 19, 2010

2nd Fiddle in a 1st String World

Today is the feast day honoring Joseph, the man who was entrusted to help raise Jesus as a child. I wrote a short sermon about Joseph twenty years ago and I'm reproducing it here....


John Irving is the author of the novel, A Prayer For Owen Meany. Owen Meany is developed in the story as a Christ-figure. Perhaps more interesting to me was the minor development of the story teller (the novel is written in first person) as a Joseph. That one made me think.

Have you thought much about Joseph? The story-teller in John Irving's book was once cast in the church's Christmas drama as Joseph. This was his assessment: "What an uninspiring role it is; to be Joseph –– that hapless follower, that stand-in, that guy along for the ride." Is that a fair judgment on Joseph? Is he only a "filler?" Could anyone have stood in with Mary at the manger?

One line of thought would say yes. I mean, what did Joseph have to do with things? Mary was the one who carried the Child, and it was God himself who was the Father. All Joseph had to do was be a lackey. Isn't that right?

It would seem so according to my wife's response to this subject when I had told her my Christmas message one year would focus on Joseph. She immediately thought of the Old Testament character and assumed I would do some obscure prophetic development. It is easy to overlook Joseph in the Christmas story. Joseph must be a flunky.

That is not right according to Matthew's story. Before everything else, Joseph was "a righteous man." Even in a minor role, Joseph had to be God's man to have a part in the greatest drama of history. Otherwise, the pressures would have been too much.

And what were those pressures? One would have been sexual. It seems most men today cannot even wait until marriage to bed their partners; Joseph went ahead with the marriage, "but he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son" (v25). Joseph was a real husband, and he paid a price to take Mary as his wife. And even though he marries her, the marriage never did consummate in sexual union.

An even greater pressure was the ridicule he must have endured by those who thought Mary's pregnancy was what it naturally seemed. It was as though Joseph was a flunky. In the eyes of those looking on, Joseph was a man who needed to settle for "used goods." Today’s Christians are so caught up in the glory of the Christmas story that it is easy to forget Jesus was born under the cloud of a scandal.

So what kind of person does it take to be a Joseph? It takes someone who is so committed to God and His ways that it does not matter if his or her lot in life is in some non-glorious role. There is a story that someone once asked a famous conductor what the most difficult instrument in the orchestra was. His answer said more about human nature than musical instruments; his answer was, "Second fiddle, because everyone always wants the solo.... to be first chair.... to carry the melody."

If you think about that, it's true. We live in a "first-string" world. Dads want their sons to be on the starting line-up in little league. We want our children to be in the top ten per cent academically. The culture sends the clear message that success comes to the most beautiful and well-dressed.

But when you think it through, beyond the ten per cent of the people who get the glory, there is another ninety per cent of people who will never be in the elite group. What is there for them (or should I not say "us")? What does God have for second string people in a first string world? One answer to that question comes when we look to Joseph.

Abraham Lincoln once said, "Common-looking people are the best in the world: that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them." That obviously is not an authority equal to the Scriptures, but if you are feeling that you are only ordinary, then consider what God did with a man who was willing to play a role even less than ordinary to all onlookers.

And how did Joseph handle this seemingly inglorious task? What does it take to be a Joseph? Well, it takes more than John Irving puts into his character's understanding. It takes far more than being a hapless follower, a stand-in, a guy along for the ride. That is because no one needs to be second string on God's team.

All it takes to be a player in God's drama.... a starter on His team, is the key thing we find in Joseph: "he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded" (v24). There is a simple word for that –– obedience. Obedience is what God is looking for in those who would be His people; He wants a heart that will say second string in the world's eyes is fine if that is where His plans and pleasure can be done.

For Joseph, obedience meant God had the right man to be the support for bringing His Son into the world. For you and me, obedience can mean God has someone to be a loving care-giver, to teach a class, to serve in the nursery, to be a witness at work or in our neighborhoods.

All it takes for you and me to be a Joseph is to have that same heart of obedience. It may look "second-string" to a watching world, but God does things His own way. And one of the great truths in Christian history is that God needs and uses people like Joseph –– people like you and me.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Good Rule?

I've been thinking about a personal discipline practiced by the senior pastor who did a lot to mentor me thirty years ago. He would not spend more time watching TV than he spent in personal biblical reflection and prayer plus corporate worship.

So, if he was in church services a total of three hours per week and spent an hour per day in personal devotion, he would not watch more than 10 hours per week watching TV.

What if all Christians in our society embraced that standard? I think personal spiritual practices would grow and TV time would shrink (big time).

And I think our churches would be renewed!!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Follow-up Lenten Thought

Guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus! [Our] enemy prowls like a lion seeking those whom he can devour. What are you watching? What are you listening to? Where are you going? What kinds of people influence you? How often do you "pull away" to be with Jesus? Is anything more important than that? How we live from day to day is the answer to that question!

A Lenten Examination

Lent is meant to help us focus on the difficult task of dying to self in order to follow Jesus more closely so that we grow in holiness. This week I read the following from St Leo the Great:

If any wish to find out whether God dwells in them, let them investigate with a sincere examination the depths of their own hearts. Let them wisely ask how they can resist pride with humility, how they can struggle against ill will with benevolence, how they might not be taken in by the tongues of flatterers, and how they might take pleasure in the successes of others. Let them ask whether they do not want to "return evil for evil," and whether they prefer to forget injuries and let them go unavenged rather than to lose the image and likeness of their Creator....

Since we know, then, dearly beloved, that "God is love" and "works all things in everyone," pursue love in such a way that the hearts of all believers everywhere might flow together into a single desire for chaste love. May passing and empty things not take hold of us. Let us strive with a constant desire toward those things that will always remain.

What a great Lenten examination!

Sunday, March 7, 2010


Psalm prayer from the Morning Office:

Lord, extolled in the heights by angelic powers, you are also praised by all earth's creatures, each in its own way. With all the splendor of heavenly worship, you still delight in such tokens of love as earth can offer. May heaven and earth together acclaim you as King; may the praise that is sung in heaven resound in the heart of every creature on earth.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

God Comes To Us In Different Ways

This morning's Office of Readings included a section from St. Irenaeus. I was intrigued with his observation:

He who stands in need of no one gave communion with himself to those who need him. Like an architect he outlined the plan of salvation to those who sought to please him.... To those who were restless in the desert he gave a law perfectly suited to them. To those who entered the land of prosperity he gave a worthy inheritance. He killed the fatted calf for those who turned to him as Father, and clothed them with the finest garment. In so many ways he was training the human race to take part in the harmonious song of salvation.
....He kept calling them to what was primary by means of what was secondary, that is, through foreshadowings to the reality, through things of time to the things of eternity, through things of the flesh to the things of the Spirit, through earthly things to the heavenly things.

I am particularly aware of how different Christians understand and express their salvation. Some emphasize their "experience" while others are careful to give an explicit theological construct; still others speak of their sacramental foundation. Far too often Christians from differing traditions are not kind with each other simply because they do not hear familiar language. I am reminded of the fanciful story of the the two formerly blind men who had been healed by Jesus. Their paths crossed one day, and upon sharing their respective stories, got into an argument. You will remember, Jesus healed one merely by speaking the word whereas he used paste from dirt and spit applied to the other man's eyes. In their passionate confrontation with each other, each was persuaded it was not Jesus who had healed the other because he used a different form.

The Gospel tells us that one day the disciples saw someone who was not part of "their crowd" acting in Jesus' name. They were ready to call fire down on the outsiders. Jesus said, "If they are not against us, they are for us."

Let's be careful how we respond to others who, while using very different language of salvation, still proclaim Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, to be the Savior of the world.

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