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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Lent, Faith, and Persistence

2nd Sunday in Lent 2015
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
March 1st, 2015

Mat 15:22 :  “And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.”

Our Gospel selection casts our Lord in a familiar light. We see him in his traditional role of itinerant preacher, traveling from place to place. In this case, we are told, ”Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon.”[1] Thus, the Light departed from the Jews and was manifested to us Gentiles, in a figurative way, as Christ journeyed and preached in Tyre of Phoenicia and Sidon, a city not very far from Syria.[2] As so often happened in His journeys, an opportunity arose in which He manifested forth His glory, from which we are to derive some edification.

Our Gospel selection for the day is one of glory and of puzzlement.  Why? It is glorious in that Jesus heals a woman’s daughter, miraculously, from a distance. In that, it reminds us of the healing of the centurion’s servant in Mat. 8:13, that also occurred from far away, and that of the healing of the nobleman’s son, in John 4:49.

All of these marvelous happenings came about because Jesus spoke with authority, causing the evil influences to flee away. Just as Christ spoke Creation into existence, in this instance we see Him speaking health and healing. In the same manner, He will speak again at the Last Day, when he will separate the faithful from those who have enshrined their own gods in their hearts and have rejected Him. That will be a fateful and decisive speech, as it will be the final act in the play we call life on Earth.

Recalling Shakespeare’s lines from “As You Like It”, the character Jacques says:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.[3]

In this case, the chief actors in the Gospel scene are Our Lord and the Canaanite woman, with the Disciples playing a supporting role. What a fascinating and instructive scene it is! As we have mentioned, this gospel is glorious, but also puzzling for a number of reasons.  On the surface, chief among these must be the curious reply he made to the Canaanite woman, as well as his overall indifference to her. We marvel at it because, on the surface, it seems so totally out of Jesus’ character.

As the story unfolds, it doesn’t seem likely that Christ gives her even scant notice. In fact, at first He totally ignores her. This continues to the point where even His disciples beseech Him to send her away, for they are obviously piqued at her persistence and importunity. One commentator took this as a positive sign, as in “Send her away with a blessing, but just send her away.”[4]  Perhaps, but this may be too rosy a view.  We believe that they just wanted to be rid of her.

Yet she couldn’t just give up and leave. Similar to the blind beggar of Luke 23, who had so much need that he cried out the more, so it is with this woman. We parents know how terrible a thing it is when our children are sick or injured.  How much worse if your child was “grievously vexed” by a demon?  Would not all of us earnestly seek all avenues of relief?

Yet, Christ seems to rebuff even his own disciples, when he says,I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”[5] At first glance, it would seem that his actions, His very being where He was physically, belied His speech.  Yet, that is not for us to debate.  We know that Christ was sent primarily to the Jews and that we Gentiles are “grafted” into the tree of life by proxy, as it were.  For this, we give thanks and praise.

The woman’s faith is such that she kneels at Jesus’ feet. She worships him and simply says, “Lord, help me.” Despite her obvious faith and humility, Christ tests her further by telling her: “It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs.”[6] In short, the blessings of the covenant family are not for those outside the vail of grace.  This is a stinging and seemingly harsh rebuke. In effect, Christ asks, “Why should I consider you, a stranger and a member of an outcast nation, to receive any blessing from my hand?”

Her response is both clever and humble.  She turns our Lord’s statement around in this respect: instead of allowing herself to be considered as one of a pack of wild, hungry dogs, she equates herself to one of the household  pets, to whom one might slip a morsel under the table.  She does this by saying: “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table.”[7] Just as our pets depend on us for daily food and even for an occasional treat slipped under the table, so she acknowledges and includes herself under the Lordship of Christ.

By any account, it is an amazing declaration.  Christ now turns to her and says, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt.
And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.”[8]  His testing done, Christ makes the pronouncement of healing and blessing.

This wonderful passage, as glorious at it is, raises our questions as well as our wonder. How could Christ act this way?  How could He be so seemingly callous?  What can we learn from this? Most importantly, what is the lesson we can glean from this passage?

First, was Jesus really ignoring the woman?  Did He hear the words of His disciples “to send her away, for she crieth after us?”

For answer, let us ask ourselves one question…is this type of behavior typical of Christ?  He was both perfect God and Man and as such, perfectly consistent in both natures, simultaneously.  If God’s nature is that of perfect love, which we believe and accept, does not this mean that His “ears”, so to speak, are always open to our pleas? Would not this mean that such a heartfelt appeal as that of the Canaanite woman could not be rejected or even ignored? Thus, we believe, one must reject the idea that Christ was dismissive or even remotely hard-hearted. It is inconsistent with His very nature. This not being the case, He must have had some other motive. 

Let us consider this. Was He testing her faith?  Was He seeing if this Canaanite woman would subject herself to the superior spiritual position of the Jew? Was he, in short, calling on her to persist in faith?  Very possibly this was the case.  Turning to John Calvin, he thought that God Himself was calling the woman into a closer relationship with Him through this situation. [9] In effect, her persistence was itself God-given, as a way not only to heal her daughter, but also to have her embrace a new spiritual reality in her life. Thus, Christ tested her in order to draw her closer to Him.

How often do we confront God through difficulty! Or rather, how often does He confront us with His absolute Sovereignty and unlimited Mercy through difficulty? Through difficulty, through trials, and through tribulations, we learn of both these divine and mysterious qualities.  If we allow ourselves to be led and instructed by the Spirit of God, we become teachable by God. After being tempered by the Holy Spirit, we may at last come to that point where we, like the Canaanite woman, allow ourselves to be subsumed into the mysterious and omnipotent Will of God.  It is at this point that we may bow our heads and say, “Thy Will be done”; even if that Will is difficult for us at that time.  Even though we don’t understand, we submit ourselves to it, even giving thanks for it, as hard as that may be.

The question is, through persistence and faith, will we be like this person, who allowed herself to be caught up by, enveloped, and ultimately rewarded by the Omnipotent, yet Merciful Will of God?  Will we respond like her and persist in our journey towards holiness?  In short, will we enjoy the fruits of being in the covenant family?

This is our choice, this Lent. Let us respond to the circumstances and experiences of Lent to draw closer to God.  Let us acknowledge our state as those spiritually dependent souls who are unable to live well without Him. Let us take this opportunity to shed our spiritual and emotional “baggage” in order that we may grow closer to Him.  Finally, let us allow ourselves to be rewarded with the wonderful presence of God, daily, in our lives.

This is our opportunity.  Now is the accepted time for penitence, for growth, and for reward.      AMEN

[1] Matt 15:21
[2] Henry, Matthew, Commentary on Matthew 15:21
[3] Shakespeare, William,  “As You Like It”, Act 2, Scene 7,
[4] Henry, Matthew, Commentary on Matthew 15
[5] Matt. 15:24
[6] Matt 15:26
[7] Ibid 15:27
[8] Matt 15:28
[9] op.cit.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Grace, Favor and Our Response

1st Sunday in Lent 2015
Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
F eb. 22, 2015

From the Epistle selection for the day from the Holy Communion lectionary, we read in 2 Corinthians 6:1: “We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain.” 

With this scripture in mind, what is grace?  It is something all of us speak of, maybe without grasping the whole meaning of it, if that is possible. In my own case, the term came up one year at the family dinner table, as my parents debated its meaning.  At the time, being young and somewhat rebellious, I thought it complete nonsense.  That is, why should anyone spend valuable time discussing such a nebulous thing? Grace? What is grace? 

Well, looking back on that conversation, now many, many years in the past, I am struck by my foolishness and what’s more, my sheer spiritual deadness at the time. In simple terms, I just didn’t “get it.”  In fact, my obstinacy really had the savor of death about it, rather than the sweet-smelling savor of Christ.  As I look back on it, I have to say that there are some benefits of age. One of them is to marvel how foolish one was when young.

What then, is grace? One source gives us these definitions:
  • Divine love and protection bestowed freely on people.
  • The state of being protected or sanctified by the favor of God.
  • An excellence or power granted by God.[1]
Another source says that “Grace in this (Christian) context is something that is God-given, made possible only by Jesus Christ and none other. It is God's gift of salvation granted to sinners for their salvation”.  Also: “The Christian teaching is that grace is unmerited mercy that God gave to us by sending his son to die on a cross, to give us eternal salvation.”[2]
Grace is certainly all of these things.  It seems that St. Paul has a particular concern that this excellence, this power, and this favor granted by God is not  received in vain, or said another way, wasted.  To emphasize his point, the apostle Paul paraphrases a line from the 48th chapter of Isaiah when he says,” I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succoured thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”

The concept of grace is clear in this passage, as he speaks about the help, succor, and salvation of God extended to His people. Thus, we learn from this that God  helps us, loves us and cares deeply for us. How should we respond?

Let’s look at two examples of our response to grace from the Holy Scriptures.  First, in the Epistle selection appointed for this Sunday, St. Paul speaks of his positive response to grace.  This can be summarized in his toleration of sufferings, stripes, imprisonments, tumults, and labors.  In a less violent way, he has fasted, been pure, taken knowledge by the Holy Ghost, expressed genuine love, and has spoken the word of truth.  Also, he has known the power of God, has taken up the armor of righteousness, has had both honor and dishonor given to him, and has even been accused of being a deceiver.  Finally, although chastened, he still lives and though he experiences sorrow, he can always rejoice.  He is poor, yet he dispenses riches to many.  He has nothing, yet he possesses all things.

If this is not a complete response to grace, then what is?  He has seen and felt the worst the world has put upon him, yet he is joyful. Paul has allowed grace to fill him completely, even to the point that he withstands all of these things. 

On the other hand, we also have a negative example of the response to grace given us from the First Lesson from Isaiah appointed for Ash Wednesday.  Here, we may see the concern of St. Paul coming to light.  Isaiah 58 clearly shows us how the favored people of God have responded to grace. Here we have the Chosen People of God, who are the very ones who received the Law and Prophets, acting in a way that does not bring them favor in the eyes of God.  Isaiah speaks of a people who act as if they truly delight in knowing God and following his laws. The people act as if they want to approach God and be his people.  Evidently, they work very hard at it by fasting, worshipping and sacrificing.  Yet they wonder why God seems to take no notice of all their religiosity.  All of their effort in looking holy seems to be for nothing.

Indeed. The prophet tells us the whole affair is a sham.  They fast, not to heard by God or be acknowledged by Him, but for contention and strife.  Fasting actually gives them pleasure because they can feel holy and self-righteous while doing it.  All of their religion is to look good before God, while they do what they want to do. The New American Standard translation makes this very clear as it says:  Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire, and drive hard all your workers.” They are tough, demanding employers who ask too much of their employees. Also, keep in mind that many Israelites also prayed to pagan gods and goddesses while they were performing Temple worship.

To top it off, this is not the fast God had in mind.  Outward manifestations of holiness and self-imposed physical afflictions are not what God wanted from his people.  Instead, he wanted a fast from unrighteousness and from wickedness.  He wanted his people to be truly righteous, fair, and just to all. They should not oppress those who work for them, and they should not deceive those with whom they do business.  They should be true and generous to those who need help and should freely give to those in need.  If they do these things, the Israelites would be the people in whom God delights.

On this first Sunday in Lent, we can take a lesson from both these passages.  They can help shape our Lenten experience and help us determine our own response to grace.  Will we have the positive response to grace like St. Paul’s? Will our response to God’s call be one of joy unfeigned and of the knowledge of God’s ever-present help?  Will we take this Lent to use God’s grace in a constructive and edifying manner?  That is, will we be better for it after this Lenten season?  Or, will we in some way emulate the ancient Jews, by engaging in outward worship while resisting real, inward change?  God forbid.

God forbid that this Lent be anything else but a time of somber spiritual refreshment.  Let our souls and beings be flooded with our positive response to grace, so much so that we are the better people for having gone through it. Unlike the sinners of old, let us use our worship time together to build each other up, while experiencing great spiritual refreshment ourselves.  There is no better time, and there certainly is no better place to do this.

In Christ, we are the new, chosen people of God.  Let our response to His grace be always praiseworthy to Him, and edifying to us in this blessed and holy season of Lent.

2 Corinthians 6:1-2: “We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain.  2 (For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succoured thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.)”

Glory be to God the Father, and to God the Son and to God the Holy Ghost, now and forever.   AMEN

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Appearance vs. Reality- Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday 2015

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
February 18 2015

Matthew 6:16   16”Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
Ah, here we are in the season of Lent.  One can see it as a beautiful, somber time of reflection and prayer, where one prepares one’s heart for the coming Resurrection season, or one can see it as that slightly annoying time that precedes Easter.  Or, one can simply ignore Lent altogether, which is what many, many people do.  That is, if they even recognize that Lent is happening.  After all, outside of the historic churches, Lent may be an endangered species.
Let us pose a couple of questions.  Why could one see Lent as that slightly unpleasant, slightly annoying time before Easter?  If so, if one simply ignores it, does that make it better?  Let’s tackle the first question before we proceed to the second. 
Consider this: Lent is that special season where those who are spiritually aware may feel a special call, a “tug”, if you will, in their spirits. That is, our Lord uses this season, in the framework of the Church, to make us aware that something special is about to happen, both in the outward season of Lent, and in the quiet, interior recesses of our souls.  If one responds in an affirmative fashion, through worship, through prayer, and through meditation, as well as some exterior exercises in holiness, such as fasting or abstinence, this season can be especially beneficial.  If, on the other hand, and this is where the spiritual discomfort comes in, if one chooses to ignore the call, other, less positive experiences occur.  The Spirit calls us to respond to Him, Again, when we do, the positive gifts of the Spirit begin to grow in us…  That is, gifts such as love, joy, peace, patience, godliness, humility, and self-control begin to grow in us.
On the other hand, when we ignore the Spirit, or completely reject His call in our lives, other, less wonderful things begin to happen to us.  Most of us are familiar with that vague feeling that we should be doing something, at various times in our lives.  God send us this special feeling of “dis-ease” if you will, as a means to call us to Him. If we are spiritually mature, we are able to recognize this for what it is: a gracious, if somewhat stern call for the fellowship our soul needs.  If we are not spiritually alive, we are simply aware of a vague sense of uneasiness, or unsettled-ness.  Think of this: some people live their entire lives in this condition, and may not even be aware of what they need.  Another way of looking at this comes from St. Francis of Assisi, who once remarked that every man has a God-sized hole in his soul; one which only God can fill.  It is our prayer that all of us have filled this hole with His Holy Presence.  It is also our prayer that we can help those who haven’t filled it to do so. Obviously, we do that by offering them the comfort and the fellowship of the Church.
Let’s consider the second question. What happens if we committed Christians ignore Lent, or just fail to observe it?  Yes, we too will feel that sense of unease, as God continues to call us closer to Him. That is, we will feel something lacking in our souls until we consent to open our hearts and souls to Him. Recently, we had a conversation with a priestly associate of mine and we shared a similar commonality.  That simply was a desire to attend church on the Sabbath, even if it weren’t our vocation.  He and I shared a common “pull” to attend Divine Service, with the corresponding sense of loss to our week if we didn’t, for some reason, make it.  This priest would venture to surmise that most people in this room have a similar godly tug to come to church.  If so, how blessed are we? We are very blessed indeed.
Thus, perhaps we can draw a conclusion that, similarly, if we fail to observe Lent, we will arrive at Easter somewhat empty-handed.  By this we mean that our Easter observance will not have the same abundance of joy that it could have had.  A famous English epigram states, “What we achieve too easily, we esteem too lightly.”  What a true statement!
Now, not that we have to earn our Easter through Lenten exercises, but a proper response to God’s call simply heightens our anticipation of the blessed event and creates in us a truer appreciation of the upcoming Easter joy…
Let’s look at this in terms of today Gospel selection.  Christ tells us, (Matthew 6:16-18) “Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”  17 But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;  18 That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.”    Obviously, this passage refers to those who do engage in religious exercises, but for the wrong reasons.  Rather than seeking the spiritual fruit inherent in such godly work, they seek a more immediate, vain, and earthly reward: the approbation of men. Christ tells them plainly: they have their reward.  If they seek the reward of men, they shall have it, but they forfeit the less obvious, but more lasting spiritual reward their Heavenly Father has for them.  As usual, if one seeks to shortcut God, or to choose Satan’s counterfeits, one loses out on the more permanent and real benefits of God.
Christ goes on to tell us (Matthew 6:19-21) 1” Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:  20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:  21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Usually this passage is construed to mean material treasures that one accumulates at the expense of heavenly things.  This is a good and instructive way to interpret this passage, of course. But today, we want to consider this passage in light of forfeiting spiritual treasures for the ephemeral, earthly praise of men. Thus, when Our Lord speaks of earthly treasures, let us consider the praise and recognition of men vs. this heavenly blessing.
Lest one think this is just too nebulous to be of value, let us consider the very real earthly fruit that the love of praise can engender.  Here, we are simply speaking of the dangers of parading our faith before men, not for the greater glory of God, but for our own self-satisfaction or self-gratification.  Of course, aside from the impure motive from which this is derived, is the very real spiritual trap set by our Enemy below.  He will exploit this to spawn that most hideous of sins, pride. As we aware, pride is one of the chief sins, having led to Lucifer’s expulsion from Heaven and his subsequent renaming as Satan.
It, pride, is one of our chief spiritual enemies as well.  We know this because pride is such a creator of hypocrisy.  This, as we all know, is the chief charge our opponents and the enemies of Christianity level at us.  Let us seek, in Christ’s name, to avoid this sin at all costs and as much as we possibly can to deny our adversaries any ammunition.
Thus, we enjoin you, beloved, to seek the highest and the best Lent you can achieve.  This may involve giving up something in honor of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for us.  It certainly means a higher level of devotion in our daily prayers.  This Lent, we urge you to use the Lectionary morning and evening to derive the most out of your private time with God.  We urge you to have a conscious awareness of the enhanced spiritual climate of Lent and how you can participate in it, even in the quiet chambers of your own inner being.  Finally, we urge you to lay up for yourselves spiritual and heavenly treasures, so that you can fully appreciate the approaching joys of Easter.
Lent is here.  It is a somber, yet quietly joyful time of recognition of our need for
God. It is a time of spiritual growth and spiritual preparation.  It is a time in which we can reap great benefits to ourselves and for those around us, as we lay up for ourselves the eternal, lasting joys of Heaven.
Matthew 6:21” For where your treasure is there will your heart be also.”