The before and the
after.

Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed, ” when the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.

Jonah is on the job! Well, really, finally he is doing what he was asked to do.

Today is a story of the before, the present, and the after. The story of Jonah is so well known that we can almost recite it from heart.

Jonah, a well know prophet, was asked to go to Nineveh. He was to go into enemy territory, and tell people who had no faith or belief in the One true God that He was going to destroy the city for its sinfulness. Jonah figured he was doomed, he’d end up another dead prophet. So, Jonah ran it the opposite direction. More than run, Jonah immunized himself against God’s voice – so much so that he slept through the storm God sent to redirect him. This is the before.

Each of us has a before.

Sometimes, our before is a place we have been for a long time. It is something we want to get out of. Sometimes, our before is just a moment ago. We know we aren’t where we should be and we want to be different. We want to wake up. Sometimes, like Jonah we have a longstanding before in God’s presence. Even if we knew God and carried out His will, listened to His voice, we fall back into our before. Sometimes we immunize ourselves to God’s voice. When any of this happens, God sends His voice. He urges us, calls to us. If we stay stubborn, God sends the storm. He tries to wake us up. Sometimes He send friends – as with Jonah when his shipmates had to wake him up.

God’s call finally woke Jonah up, He decided to respond, to wake up. He decided, after days of reflection, to carry out the Lord’s will. He called out to God and said: What I have vowed I will pay: deliverance is from the LORD.

Those words need to be our now. If we are in a bad place, and have come here for the first time ever, for the first time in a long time, or if we have been here for a long time, yet feel numb and cold, we need to wake up, respond, and get on the job.

The Apostles had a before. Simon and his brother Andrew… were fishermen. James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John… were in a boat mending their nets. Then they heard Jesus call. Some slipped away completely. Others fell back, fell asleep until they were woken-up. They were not unlike us, but did great things because they laid aside their before for Jesus’ now and after.

We are called to set aside our before. To realize we are freed from before so to live consistent with Jesus’ call to us – now and ever after.

I want to
join.

The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body; God raised the Lord and will also raise us by His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one Spirit with Him.

St. Paul teaches a beautiful reality today. As members of the Church, we are no longer alone or apart. We are joined to Jesus.

This is not a joining like a membership in a club or with our local automobile association. Those things are optional. If we have a club membership, we can go and partake in club activities if we feel like it. We can adjust our club participation to suit our needs. If we joined the local AAA or other automobile association, we can call them if we need them or are in trouble. We might even take advantage of club discounts if we think of it. Otherwise we can simply ignore the association; file our membership in the back of our minds. But, if we have joined ourselves to Jesus we no longer have options. We have to be all-in.

Paul points out that being part of Jesus is about being all-in. We are intimately joined to Him. What He has, will be ours. Who He is, we will become. His inheritance is our inheritance. If we are one with Him.

The Christian community – made up of each of us – is called to a new way of life; Christian living must show our membership in Jesus in ways that others can imitate. We must be so attractive, so Jesus like – love filled, gracious, peaceable, service oriented, sacrificing, and dedicated – that those who are seeking Jesus find Him. That those who are our fellow disciples grow deeper in their union with Jesus. All because of us.

We are called to completely orient our lives in a way that is in communion with Christ. This means we must make a giant change. We have to fully understand that our lives are not ours. Our bodies, minds, souls, desires, wishes, present and future do not belong to us – they belong to Jesus. We have to give up on ourselves to fully live our union with Jesus – our membership in Him.

This joining is not easy, nor does it happen overnight. If it did, every baptism would result in perfect Jesus-like people. Rather, our membership in Jesus is a process of becoming – and Paul is reminding us of what we must become to really be part of Jesus.

We hear of those who decided to walk with Jesus – they said, ‘I want to join.’ They walked with Him, listened to Him, prayed with Him – lived at His side yet still had to grow in their membership. That should give us courage.

To be really complete and all-in we must seek the Holy Spirit’s help and reach for the fully aligned life. With the Spirit’s help, we become, grow, draw others to Jesus and share in glory.

Radical
revolution.

“And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’”

Belonging to a Church, really belonging, being a member and letting people know that one is a part of that church community is a very radical statement. Believe it or not, that makes us revolutionaries. Why so? Because it involves doing, teaching, proclaiming, and acknowledging revolutionary things.

In part, our revolution is a doing revolution. It means carrying out the tasks our Master, Jesus gave us. It is indeed feeding, welcoming, clothing, caring for, and visiting our brothers and sisters in need. That even more so today. Do those things. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.

Our world certainly places a value on being generous and doing good things, but falsely claims that such works are some kind of natural instinct. Where did it come from? Who knows? People just do good, because, well they do good. They may even attribute the doing of good things to political leadership.

In part, our revolution is a teaching revolution. In rejecting such notions, we call the world to understand the source of all the good we have. Our revolution is about having a full, informed, and factual knowledge of what God has done for us. The good we do, the structures of civil society had a source, and it wasn’t people’s natural goodness. The rules of a good and generous life, the call to self-sacrifice came from the example, life, and teachings of Jesus Christ. He is the source and the fulfillment of all good. Without His life, humanity would devolve, perhaps not into complete anarchy, but into a disorder that brings us to the disaster of everlasting death. Teach that truth. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.

In part, our revolution is a proclaiming revolution. The world has its stories of the time. The world urges us to talk about certain things and to shut up about others. We must like those things the world and its talking heads approve of and keep the God stuff to ourselves. The world would say, faith is fine in the walls of your home and the walls of your church – but not in public spaces or ‘polite conversation.’ The teaching of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church to this day are anachronistic (outdated and obsolete). Yet we know that the teachings of Jesus are the only sure way to everlasting life. The guidance and laws of the Church are the living path to complete life. Proclaim the reality of God and the life of His Church in every place and time without fear. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.

Finally, and most completely, our revolution is about the Kingdom of God and Jesus as our only Lord and King. That is the most radical thing ever! It means that nothing else takes precedence, nothing else is important. The Kingdom is a sole goal and all we do, teach, and proclaim is about building the kingdom and getting to the kingdom. No other leader, no political system, no thing, no person can be our king but Jesus. To be counted among the sheep, to make it, is to seek first the kingdom of God.

Investing
rightly.

“A man going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one– to each according to his ability. Then he went away.”

In case anyone might have missed it, the past two weeks have focused on getting ready and being prepared. Prepared for what? It is about preparing for wise investing, that is that carrying out of the obligations God has entrusted to us.

Given the time of year and the immanent celebration of Thanksgiving, we might take Jesus teaching on talents as a time to discuss investing in our church. We could turn this day into a discussion of money stewardship and emphasize generosity. While Jesus’ parable deals with stewardship, it is about a different kind of investing.

For the past few weeks we have heard Jesus talk about the end times. Jesus has been encouraging us to prepare for his Second Coming. Today, we do not hear a ‘Let’s get ready for Jesus’ coming parable, but are asked to look back – what have we accomplished after we had prepared.

St. Matthew’s is writing in the late first century when the church was struggling with Jesus’ delayed return. This retelling of Jesus’ parable reminded his people and us that we have been entrusted with great treasure, we have been prepared, and that we will now be held accountable for how we have invested.

In this parable, the man going on a journey represents Jesus. His going on a journey represents His ascension. The servants represent Christians who are awaiting Jesus’ Second Coming. The talents represent the blessings God has bestowed on us. The man’s return represents Jesus’ Second Coming. The master’s assessment of the faithfulness – the investment of the servants – represents Jesus’ assessment of us at the end of time.

Jesus has entrusted His property to us – His word and the building of His kingdom. He has treated us as individuals, allocating resources in accord with each of our abilities. He neither insults the most able servant among us with trivial responsibilities nor overwhelms the least able servant in the community with impossible tasks.

The parable indeed celebrates active, forward-leaning, risk-taking, involved-in-the-world, where-the-rubber-hits-the-road investment of our preparation.

The master does return, and will settle accounts with us. This will be the time for accountability. Jesus will ask us to show what we have done for Him, for the kingdom. If we have taken our church time, our prayer time, our scripture time, and our fellowship, all in preparation, and have invested it wisely, if we have taken risks, sweated the details, and have remained while others have hidden, we will be rewarded greatly.

As in the parable, the Lord rewards the servants who have invested in four ways: He gives each investing servant equal treatment even though each servant returns different amounts; He will pronounce us as ‘good and faithful.’ Nothing feels better than words of praise given by God; He will give us increased responsibility—a promotion; and He will say, “Enter into My joy.” This is what the faithful Christian can expect to hear when Christ comes again.

As John Shedd observed, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are for.” So, we must not live in fear, prepare and bury what we have learned. We must invest rightly and build for His return.

Being
prepared.

Jesus told his disciples this parable: “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps.”

As we worshiped last Sunday our brothers and sisters in Christ, men, women, and children, were being killed in Texas as they came together to worship God and declare their faith in Jesus. They held their lamps up brightly, filled with the oil of faith, ready to meet the Lord.

Many of us grew up in a time when coming to church was considered a light thing. Maybe our parents or grandparents had faced persecution as faithful National Church members, but not us so much. That was in the past. But, as is said, everything old is new again…

Today’s lesson from Jesus dispels the myth of faith as a casual endeavor. Jesus tells us, ‘always be at the ready,’ with our lamps prepared and with an extra stock of oil at hand. We do not know the day or the hour.

Prepared lamps and extra stocks of oil are not just about coming to church on a chilly Sunday morning. It is not about waiting for a moment to come someday. It is about actively preparing and living out our faith. If we are not watchful, if we are not making ourselves more and more ready, if we are not becoming more and more – like unto the Lord – what use is there to even having a lamp?

Violence, tragedy, and suffering are a raw truth. This truth is visited more and more upon Christians. From martyrs in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa to homegrown terrorists right here, to media, hate groups, and government casting people of faith as silly, backward, and ignorant, we might be tempted to extinguish our lamps, pour out our oil, and sit in the dark. Ssssshhhhh, be careful, snuff out the lamps, someone might see us. Is that who we are?

St. Paul tells the Thessalonians: do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. Wise words about how we are to face the challenges of our time. The followers of Jesus, the faithful, will not allow their lamps to even grow dim. Don’t tone it down! Rather, illuminate this dark time, cast a bright glow not just inside the walls of this church, neighborhood, or city – but across this world. Let our light not only glow outward, but also illumine us inwardly. Do not grieve, offer hope.

Let us picture our lamps at the ready, held up before us. Feel the warmth – it is the warmth of faith. See the glowing faces, they are the face of Jesus in the world. See the light before us, calling the people of our neighborhood, city, and the world to come to Jesus – the only way. The faithful: wise, prepared, ready.

Getting
ready.

“The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Church dedicates the month of November to remembrance and prayer. This month, we recall our faithful departed and offer up prayer for their benefit on their journey to heaven. But what about us?

Unfortunately, in this day and age, we have forgotten or have lost the notion of humility. In the past, no one thought that a person who had died simply floated off into heaven. It’s a nice notion, but far from the truth. The Church rightly teaches that such thinking is false and destructive. Yet now, everyone, regardless of their life or their faith goes to heaven. This is a human invention, and not of God.

In the early Church, such notions were declared a heresy. It is the heresy of universalism – no matter what you do or believe, you get to heaven. God has no requirements, Jesus taught nothing, we are good enough no matter what we do. No faith in Jesus – no matter. Heresy is a belief or opinion contrary to God’s revealed truth and universalism is a prime heresy, especially today.

Universalism teaches that we have no need to put our faith in Jesus or to be humble before God. We have no need of following Jesus’ teaching. When Jesus told us the He is the Way – He was either lying or kidding. Let’s be real – He is either the Way or what we do here is foolishness; Christianity is just a waste of energy.

We are here to call to mind and to integrate the fact that none of us is worthy of instant entrance into heaven. Our organizer, Bishop Hodur himself offered prayers and supplications for the departed. He spoke of “a life of torture, limitless pain, doubt, loneliness, and remorse” for those who have wasted the opportunities given, “who have trampled God’s gifts.” He noted that “Spiritual death is our own doing.” No universalism there.

This month we should especially focus on prayer to God for salvation from such a death – that we be sanctified and remain faithful.

We have something to rightly fear if we do not follow God’s way, if we let anything come between us and the praise, worship, and dedication rightly due God. If we fail to put faith in Jesus and set aside God’s Church and its teachings – we are in trouble. Time is short.

Jesus calls all to a spirit of humility. He calls us to recognize our unworthiness. He commands us to faith, servanthood, and humility. He destroys false notions, this one or that one will reach heaven because of what they are, not who they are. Let us recognize that it IS who we are that counts, our call to humility: Lord, I am not worthy… If we declare our faith and live those words, we will be exalted.

I will see
and hear.

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

We have reflected on this gospel reading throughout Ordinary Time as it is read during Matins before Holy Mass. Who do we consider a neighbor? Really at the heart of the question, who matters? Jesus quickly answers the questioner: God matters and each and every person matters.

Doesn’t it make us happy and comforted to know that God thinks we all matter? So many try to draw circles around people, those inside, those outside. The good versus the bad, those like me and everyone else. Our lesson – once again, everyone matters.

Setting aside the view of others, and the labels they place, we also have to be careful about how we view ourselves. Sometimes, and likely all too frequently, we are our own worst enemy. We forget our inherent dignity – the goodness of our creation. The fact that God has his laser focus of care on us. We think ourselves less than worthy. Oh, I failed, I’m not good enough, I didn’t meet expectations, I don’t pray, read scripture, reflect on God enough, I sin too much, I fall over and over into habits that are harmful to myself and others. It’s easy to come up with a list of our own shortcomings because we forget God’s view.

God sees, hears and knows everything. Nothing is hidden from Him. Does He see where we fall short – sure. Yet, He doesn’t take his gaze from us. When we fully grasp and understand that His eyes are on us, His care is over us, His love and His Son’s sacrifice were for each of us, then we will allow Him to declare our value, and we will see that each and every person matters in the same way.

God does not operate like man. His thoughts and ways surpass that of man. They are way higher. Knowing how God is, we need to step up to see and hear as He does, to live valuing and counting ourselves and all people as those who matter.

We face challenges in this world, the naysayers, the put downers. We may even put ourselves down. As His people, we need to confront that head on with God’s truth, with the fact that He sees and hears and wants it different, “I will surely hear. I will hear; for I am compassionate.

Indeed, our compassionate God sees and hears. No division or label (even our self-labeling) can last before Him. We all matter. Let us take up God’s great commandment, let us live it loving Him and everyone. To live like He does, to be men and women with God’s vision.

How do you
say it.

We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers, unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ, before our God and Father, knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God, how you were chosen. For our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.

I was looking at a list of songs about love – I must have been in one of my romantic moods. From Stevie Wonders’ I Just Called To Say I Love You to Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You, song writers and poets have crafted thousands of ways to say, ‘I love you.’ Hallmark makes money on helping people say, ‘I love you.’

Today, St. Paul in writing to the Church at Thessalonica, opens with a lovely introduction full of thankfulness for the people of the Church. He commends the Thessalonians prayerfulness, their work for the faith which is a labor of love, and their endurance in the face of persecutions. He calls the people of the Thessalonian Church the ‘loved of God.’ He remembers how the gospel, God’s word, came to them. It wasn’t merely by hearing, but in a powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

When did we ‘receive the word?’ When was the Holy spirit poured out on us? This question has lots of opportunities for good storytelling: I remember that day at Kurs Youth Camp, at our Biennial Youth Convocation, at a Mission and Evangelism conference, at Synod, on a quiet hillside, at a time of crisis, during an unexpected encounter, or one Sunday in church. In that moment, we joined the loved of God.

In joining the loved of God, we accept the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We recognize that He clothes us as He clothed the Thessalonians. We too are clothed with His gifts. He looks to us to be the new prayerful, the new workers for the faith, new laborers of love, the strong and enduring for the sake of the kingdom.

We often think that the Epistles of the first century marked something extraordinary – and we would be right in thinking that. We would however be wrong in thinking that the people, the loved of God of the first century were the last of the line. Indeed, they were the first.

Now we stand in their place, and hopefully we are not just standing. We, from Schenectady, Albany, Troy, Saratoga like the Thessalonians have been chosen to live out the gifts of the Spirit. Our receiving of the word is made evident by our work of faith and labor of love. The word in us is shown in the way we say, ‘I love you’ and help others to do so. We may do it in music, we may do it in poetry, but most of all we must do it in prayer, word, and power.

Let’s get
dressed.

But when the king came in to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. The king said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’

John Wooden was a basketball player and later head basketball coach at the University of California at Los Angeles. He won ten national championships His teams won a record 88 consecutive games. He had his choice of players. The players UCLA recruited were the best of the best, having been part of winning successful teams. When these star players showed up for the first day of practice, Coach Wooden sat them down and very patiently taught them how to put on their socks and shoes. He got down to basics, telling them that if they get their socks on wrong, with a crease or fold in the wrong place, it would harm the team. He taught them to double tie their shoes so that they could play on, not leaving their team without their presence.

As Christians, we need to get down to basics, and Jesus reminds us of that today. We have to take time to remind ourselves of basic Christian responsibilities, to prepare ourselves so we show up well presented at the King’s feast. Let’s cover a few of the ways we should prepare ourselves.

In the early Church, some believers thought that one of the gifts of the Spirit, the ability to speak in tongues, was particularly special. They often flaunted that ability and saw it as a point of pride. St. Paul was quick to correct them. He criticized them because their everyday words were ruining the unity that Christians ought to have. He said: “Some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you. Your meetings do more harm than good.” It came down to this – they couldn’t control their own tongues. They used the words they knew from birth to gossip, slander, and to create disunity. What did the Spirit gift of speaking in tongues matter if they could not control their own tongue? No Spirit gift is more important than the Christian love and the respect they were to show for each other. We all are tempted especially when there are stresses, and we try to figure it all out. We continue to face the challenges the early Church faced. Getting ready, preparing for the King’s feast, includes our dressing our thoughts and words in love.

Several years ago, someone close to me contracted cancer. He ended up losing one of his lungs. It reminds me of the end of 2011, we were on our last lung in this parish. We had little to nothing to sustain this parish but for a few months to a year. I had asked one thing only – that we make a great act of faith and put our trust and belief in God, that He would provide. We did, and we did it together. It happened, God moved many hearts and caused miracles to happen. We did no extra fundraisers. Yet our coffers were filled and we invested in many things – spending more than we had in years we ended up with more in the jar. The oil did not run out, the jar of flour was filled. The man who ended up losing a lung met that challenge with perseverance, joy, and faith. So too we who are preparing for the King’s feast. We are called to act with faith above all else, to wear and show trust in God and His provision. A grain of faith dresses us for the King’s sumptuous feast.

Like the Acts Church, we are all learning to dress. We are all in the process of getting ready so that we may be welcomed at the King’s feast. Those members of the Acts Church did not always agree. Like those at the feast, they were rich and poor, people of every background and color, yet they overcame by sacrifice, in communal worship, fellowship, joy even in challenges. Setting aside all we arrive ready for the King.

It is about
understanding.

And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” And he said to them, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them. 

Gaining understanding, seeing what God is doing and what our relationship is toward Him are the things Jesus fought for His entire life. He wanted us to see family as more than a functional organization that does stuff together, but as the model of the kingdom. Family is designed to be a peek into what the eternal kingdom will look like.

Jesus and his parents had been at the festival for at least seven days. They spent their time growing in relationship to their community (the model of church), to each other (the domestic church) and most of all, toward God (their eternal Father source of family). They were living out church.

We know how it is when we get caught up in something great. We don’t want to leave. So it was for Jesus. In the Temple precincts, Jesus had it all. He has the fullness of family all in one place. He didn’t want to leave. He was having an excellent time. He wants us to feel and live this way too – right now.

Jesus wants to share the fullness of family relationship with us. He wants us to gain insight, to understand and see beyond the ordinary and look to the extraordinary greatness of life that is the Christian family – the family centered on and living in Him. He wants us to revel in the family of God and to never want to leave.

God is all about family. He designed us and the world around us to mirror family life in heaven. “Let us make man in our image.” He wants us to be moved to such an extent that we want family. He wants us to stay, not just with Him, but with each other in family. He ministered to and built family to provide a life example – this is how it is supposed to be.

Jesus taught His disciples to refer to His Father as their Father. He asked the crowds – who is my mother, brothers, and sisters? It is those who understand and live in family relationship with Him and His Father. He wants us to remain, to stay in family love.

God’s family is built upon all the things Jesus taught – the example He gave us – one of dedication, worship, sacrifice, and love. God wants us to understand His great desire – that we are family and are to live that way.

As we once again renew and take up life as the kingdom family, let us remember the example of the Acts Church – people living as one – living, sacrificing, praying, and worshiping – really getting it, never wanting to leave.