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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sept. 26: Final Retribution: Heaven or Hell?

"The love of money is the root of all evils." Everyone has heard this saying (although some incorrectly shorten it to "Money is the root of all evil") but not so many know that it was originally written by St. Paul to Timothy, his "son in the faith".

In our Gospel lesson this Sunday, we considered a parable of Jesus that graphically shows us the outcome of an "in money we trust" attitude -- Luke 16:19-31, the story of Lazarus and the rich man.

Jesus was instructing his disciples about money and some Pharisees were listening and scoffing. Luke characterizes them as "lovers of money" and records Jesus' response to them: "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight." (Luke 16:15) Jesus then goes on to tell the story of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man at whose gate he lay.

The story goes like this: A rich man, wearing the best clothes of purple and fine linen, feasted sumptuously every day. Lazarus, a beggar covered with sores, lay at the rich man's gate desiring to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table as dogs licked his sores.

One day Lazarus died and was carried by angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and woke up in hell. Looking up he could see Lazarus and Abraham far away and, calling to Abraham, he asks him to send Lazarus down to cool his mouth with some water.

Abraham reminds the rich man that he got all his good things while he was on the earth, whereas Lazarus had gotten only evil things, and now their situations were reversed. The rich man then begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his five brothers, but Abraham says that even if someone were to rise from the dead, the rich man's brothers would not be convinced.

We know this is a parable rather than a literal description of heaven and hell because we know that eternal life in heaven isn't dependent on our deeds, but on our acceptance of the unmerited favor of God. Deeds, however, are a reliable gauge of how we stand in our spiritual life. "Our resources and gifts are for the purpose of loving God and our neighbors," explained Fr. David. We are, like Abraham, "blessed to be a blessing".

We also need to be sensitive to the context: Jesus was talking to two audiences at once. To the Pharisees, he was telling a story about values under the Law, while at the same time he was preparing his disciples for a harder truth about their future.

Fr. David pointed out that the parable has three themes. First, how we fare on earth determines how we fare in the afterlife. Second, God will balance and make things right. Third, every person has a choice.

First theme: In the parable, Abraham tells the rich man that he had his good things while he was on the earth. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus warned people to be careful where they were taking their rewards. In the Sermon on the Mount, he said, "...when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have their reward in full." (Matthew 6:5) By denying himself nothing, the rich man chose the part of his eternal life that would be the easiest, and that was the part that was the shortest -- his life on earth.

Second theme: "God isn't interested in our intentions -- we know the way good intentions pave, and that's the way to hell," Fr. David said. "God is interested in our actions. Do we love God with our whole hearts and our neighbor as ourself? It's on these actions that our final retribution will be based."

He pointed out that the rich man recognized Lazarus in the afterlife and even called him by name. One can easily imagine the rich man believing he was being kind to Lazarus by allowing the beggar to lie at his door and forage in his rubbish, and even perhaps by saying hello to him as he came and went from his fine house. The rich man certainly fits with the unrighteous Jesus speaks of in Matthew 25, who are told at the judgment that they failed to give the Lord food, drink, clothing or help and they respond, "Lord, when did we see you (in these situations) and not help you?" Respectors of persons to the very last breath, just like this rich man who apparently saw himself as Lazarus' benefactor.

"Even in the most dire circumstance of waking up in hell, the rich man's thoughts still revolve around himself," Fr. David continued. "He didn't lift a finger to help Lazarus on earth, but expects Lazarus to come down to hell and put a finger of water on his tongue, to cool it. Just as Sartre would later describe it, the rich man feels his needs and wants are more real and legitimate than anyone else's -- that he's the only person with a full thought life and everyone else is lesser. He even argues with Abraham, patriarch of all the Jews, about what Abraham should be doing for him. The sad truth here is that people will continue to justify themselves even in the face of final retribution."

Third theme: "Is life like the old advertising slogan -- 'You only go around once, so go for the gusto'? Should we really 'look out for Number One'? Who is 'Number One' in our lives?" The rich man thought he'd be judged on the basis of his social status ("Whoever dies with the most toys, wins.") and when he found out that the standards were much different, he begged Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his five brothers before they made the same mistake.

Abraham's response, that if the rich man's family didn't heed the warnings they already had from the Law and the prophets, then they wouldn't heed anyone who would rise from the dead, was Jesus' way of preparing his disciples for their own lives after his resurrection and ascension. That his chosen people, represented that day by the Pharisees, would in large measure fail to heed even the message he would provide as the firstfruits of eternal life.

In summing up, Fr. David quoted theologian John Piper: "If during our time on earth we pursue things instead of God, then earth will be the extent of our heaven and eternity our hell. But if during our time on earth God is our treasure, then earth will be the extent of our hell and eternity our heaven."

Let us always keep before us the One who came back from the grave to show us the way to heaven. "Blessed be the Lord, who daily loads us with benefits. Selah." (Psalm 68:19)

Notes: Parish annual meeting is Sunday, Nov. 14.... We're developing program topics and lessons for congregant-led after-service discussions during our coffee hour. More information to follow.

How's your religious knowledge?

Making headlines today: if you want an accurate answer on questions about religion, ask an atheist.

That's what The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has concluded after surveying over 3,000 Americans of all faiths and no faith. Atheists and Mormons scored highest on the survey; Protestants, not so much. How about you? Click this post's title to read the full analysis of their findings, and click here to take a sample quiz of 15 questions from the full 32-question survey.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Thought for the Day: September 27, 2010

"Suffering. It’s the one thing that will enable you and me to grow."

So says the author of a recent blog post on Internetmonk.com called "Spiritual Formation: The Plain, Hard Truth." The Bible gives numerous examples of suffering which ultimately lead to great benefits, spiritual and otherwise. There are times when it seems as if God is hiding from us, and we suffer all the more because of it. But if we pass through those difficult times with Christ, and thus sharing in His sufferings, we will come out having grown spiritually.

Check out the article at:

"Spiritual Formation: The Plain, Hard Truth."

Friday, September 17, 2010

Sept. 12: God's perfect patience and mercy are meant to reach us

On this day we remembered in prayer those who lost their lives nine years ago in the deadliest terrorist attack on our soil, offering continued prayers for their family members and friends.

Fr. David began his sermon by pointing out how often the Bible presents stories of rescue and sacrifice -- two in the day's Gospel reading alone, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin found in Luke 15:1-10.

"Among the lasting memories of 9/11 are the heroic stories of self-sacrifice, for example the heroes aboard United 93, and of rescue, such as we saw in the brave response of New York's firefighters and police.

"In the Bible, Jesus is God's rescue worker. In our second reading (I Timothy 1:12-17), Paul makes this plain when he writes: 'The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.'

"You know, when Paul calls himself 'foremost of sinners', we have to wonder if that's an act of pride or of humble faith. What do we know about Paul before his conversion on the Damascus road, when he was still called Saul?

"We know that Saul was pedigreed in Judaism and very proud. In our reading passage he lays claim to being a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent aggressor, and also that he was ignorant in his unbelief.

"How was Saul a blasphemer? Well, primarily, it was because he took upon himself the job of speaking for God rather than letting God be God -- something like 'healers' who blame the afflicted when healing fails to occur or false prophets with their 'listen to me; I have the answers' attitudes.

"Saul was a blasphemer because he thought by killing the followers of Christ he could stop things from changing, even though the change was ordained by God. He was full of arrogance and pride.

"Saul was also a persecutor and aggressor, zealous to avenge what he saw as Christians' defiling of God's honor. He presided at stonings where people were being killed for no other reason than belief in Christ, and he was proud of it and proud of the honor he received from those casting the stones.

"Spiritually, it was the same as if he was a tormentor of Christ's at the crucifixion. Saul stood and watched as St. Stephen, just before giving up his life, repeated the words of Christ: 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them,' (Acts 7:59) and yet he was not troubled and was happy to receive the tribute of the mob afterward.

"In his own defense, Paul writes that at the time he 'acted ignorantly in unbelief'. So this begs a question, which is whether we can blame people for vigorously doing wrong if they believe they're doing right? We can, because at heart this wrong comes from turning to one's own way versus stopping and asking God the right thing to do.

"Fortunately for Saul, and for us, and even for our enemies, the Lord has perfect patience. He sees goodness in us when it isn't apparent and gives mercy when we least deserve it. How close was Saul to blaspheming the Holy Spirit, and how merciful was God toward him to stop him in his tracks and transform his life?

"If Saul could be forgiven for having no faith, for being arrogant, cruel, and merciless, how much more forgiveness is available even to our enemies, and how does God's patience and mercy affect our own feelings toward everyone around us?

"How can we offer forgiveness and mercy to each other and even to those we don't like at all, recognizing that the Lord is still seeking all who are lost? Governor Bradford of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, upon seeing prisoners going off to jail, famously said, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' We're works in progress -- God isn't finished with us yet, but we can be encouraged by Saul's miraculous transformation into St. Paul through the perfect patience and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ. Praise the Lord!"

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Off message?

A few days ago in The New York Times, a blog post called "Mystery and Evidence" by Tim Crane opined:
When Christians express their belief that "Christ has risen", for example, they should not be taken as making a factual claim, but as expressing their commitment to what Wittgenstein called a certain "form of life," a way of seeing significance in the world, a moral and practical outlook which is worlds away from scientific explanation. (Bolding

What the... what? I mean, I'd agree when we make the claim we aren't trying to explain the event scientifically, since one of the many things Christ did in addition to justifying us to God Perfect and Eternal was to break the shell of human knowledge and show us, as Shakespeare so perfectly said, "There are more things in heaven and earth... than are dreamt of in your philosophy." But that doesn't change the fact that a huge percentage of Christians -- those who are orthodox -- are, indeed, making a factual claim when they say "Christ has risen."

When we fail to make it plain that this is, in fact, our claim -- when we stop placing emphasis on "Christ the firstfruits" of our eternal life in resurrected bodies perfect and outside the laws of physics, then we are reduced to discussing the relative merits of ethical systems -- are we correct in emphasizing that evil thoughts are the same as deeds, or are Jews correct that only deeds count? Which faith's rules of behavior do we like best? A paltry portion indeed compared to what God has actually prepared for us.

And more to the point, there's little in a discussion of ethics that can possibly captivate non-believers. The atheists claim "you don't need God to be good," and aside from the quibble that you can't be good 24/7 with or without God, any thinking person can go right down that road with them. The only problem being it's not the road that leads to factual eternal life.

It's imperative to be unequivocal in affirming the factual content of our belief, even when the facts stretch the boundaries of what we think we know. We don't need to get wound up in internal discussions such as that between Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong and the Rt. Reverend Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in which Spong accused Williams of pretending to believe in the resurrection and Williams responding that he's really more conservative.

On the other hand it really isn't new news, is it? Even among the earliest Christians there was waffling and stumbling in this matter, according to St. Paul:

"How say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? ... For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: and if Christ be not raised, then your faith is in vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also who have fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable." (I Corinthians 15:12, 16-19)

Let's do our best not to waffle or stumble when proclaiming the fact of Christ's bodily resurrection. Let's not cave before the demands or ridicule of those who adhere to the limited subset of human knowledge we call science. Yes, the resurrection is a "mystery" -- the Bible even says so. But it's also an awesome fact.