Sunday, February 18, 2018

Bishop Jack Iker's Message for Lent 2018



One of the contemporary heroes of orthodoxy among Anglican leaders is the Rt Rev’d Jack Iker, Third Bishop of Fort Worth. We continue to pray for Bishop Iker and his diocese as they witness to the Gospel and the Faith once delivered to the saints. The following is his Lent message for this year: 

The Pharisee said, “I thank thee, O God,
 that I am not like other men.”
 (Luke 18:11)

All of us have the tendency to compare ourselves to others – either favorably or unfavorably. It is a behavior that we learn at a very early age, and it remains with us as adults. It is a spirit of competition and rivalry. Am I smarter than he is? Am I more successful than she is? More popular, or better looking, or more whatever, than this or that person? Sometimes such comparisons lead to a sense of superiority – and sometimes to a feeling of inferiority. We’re better than some and worse than others.

This sort of comparison is what’s going on in the parable Jesus tells of the Pharisee and the tax collector, found in St. Luke 18:9-14. As the Pharisee prays in the temple, he looks down upon the sinful tax collector, praying at some distance away. He thanks God that he is more pious, more generous, and more obedient than other men are. He takes pride in himself, for he is better than others. But God is not impressed by his self-righteousness. Instead, God justifies the poor sinful man who recognizes his need for God’s forgiveness and mercy. “The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner!’” Jesus concludes the story saying, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Jesus reminds us of the clear biblical pattern: God lifts up the lowly and the humble, and He puts down the mighty and the proud.

What a contrast when you compare these two men who went to pray in the temple that day: One whose chest is puffed up with self-righteousness and pride, and the other who beats his breast with a sense of unworthiness and guilt. One who looks God straight in the eye and says, “I thank thee O God that I am not like other men – I’m special! I’m better!” And the other, eyes cast downward to the ground, who says simply, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Cross of ashesThe call of Lent is a reminder about comparisons. Ash Wednesday reminds us that rather than comparing ourselves to others, we are meant to compare ourselves to Jesus. He is the pattern and standard for our behavior and attitudes, for He is the perfect man, He is God Incarnate, and He alone is without sin. He is the one true model and example by which all other lives are measured. In Him, we see what God intends us to be like, for He is perfect love in action. Jesus is the measure for our self-evaluation and comparison. In Him we see what love looks like in interacting with others, and love is always the standard of God’s evaluation of you and me. 

In writing to the Church in Corinth, St. Paul is describing Jesus as he talks about the attributes of love. “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.” (I Cor. 13:4-6) That’s what Jesus is like – but what about us? How are we by comparison?

May God save us from smug self-righteousness that puffs up and makes us look down on others. May He give us humble and contrite hearts, that we may know His mercy and forgiveness. On this day of penitence, let us confess once again that we are too often the very opposite of the love we see in Jesus. For we are impatient and unkind; we are jealous and boastful; we have been arrogant and rude. We insist on our own way; we are irritable and resentful; we’ve rejoiced in the wrong and not in the right. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

The Lenten season that begins with Ash Wednesday is meant to be a time for self-examination, a time to take a spiritual self-inventory, not for the purpose of comparing ourselves to others, but to Jesus. It begins when we ask God to help us see ourselves, not as others may see us, but as God in His mercy and love sees us. We need God’s help to see ourselves as we really are, not as what we so often pretend to be. And of course, God knows us better than we know ourselves – for He is the one “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.”

But this is where the good news of the Gospel enters in: Though God knows our faults and failures, still He loves us and reaches out to us in mercy. In spite of our sin-full-ness, He forgives us and reconciles us to Himself, by the blood of Jesus on the cross, who died to save sinners, like you and me. He sees the potential for good that is within us and draws out the best in us by the inner working of His Holy Spirit, “who can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”  (Ephesians 3:20)

Let us pray.

Lord, during this season of Lent, make us humble and loving servants of your Kingdom. Help us to see the goodness in others and to love them as you love them. Take away from us pride and self-righteousness, and fill our hearts with a deeper love for Jesus and for others each day of our lives. Amen.



Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A crash course on the meaning of Lent



I have two things to share with you on this Ash Wednesday. The first is a REALLY good crash course on the meaning of Lent. Click on it. It goes for only a couple of minutes. But it is packed full of valuable insights.

The second is a brief reflection on Lent and the struggle we have to be real disciples of the Lord.

May you know the blessing of the Lord as you embark on Lent 2018.


THE CRASH COURSE



LENT AND OUR STRUGGLES
Life is so often a struggle. Part of that is the feeling of being overburdened - by our circumstances, by the results of poor decisions we have made, by the evil actions of others, and by the consequences of our own sin. 

When we struggle it is a blessing to know the strength, the protection, the joy and even the peace that Jesus gives us. And, of course, that is such a wonderful part of the Gospel. So when we are overwhelmed by our circumstances, and Ash Wednesday preachers encourage us to "embrace afresh the struggle towards holiness" we are sometimes tempted to roll our eyes. Our struggles are already overwhelming - why do we need more? 

I'll tell you why. In our baptism we signed up to a lifelong struggle against sin, the world and the devil. It's there in black and white in the order of service, reflecting what we read in the Bible. We became not only "members of Christ's flock", but also his "soldiers" engaged (on his side) in a spiritual struggle. Part of that is how we wrestle with the evil within us - an aspect of the ongoing renewal of our minds that is part and parcel of our transfiguration and transformation.

In the language of the Church, Lent is a "healing time", and as such it sometimes involves serious spiritual surgery - which like other forms of surgery can be really painful. But the Lord invites us to take seriously this "spiritual checkup" and come to terms with where we really are in our relationship with him and with the communities in which he has placed us, so as to experience afresh the power and wonder of our baptism in the great celebration of Easter. 

If we follow through with the Scripture readings set for the Lent season, we will find ourselves accompanying some of the great women and men of our Jewish/ Christian story who in spite of their sins, their failures and their struggles learned to walk with God. What God did in their lives, he's doing in ours. Sometimes he soothes us and consoles us. Other times he gets serious with his scalpel. He knows what he is doing, and all he asks of us is to trust him more, by embracing the spiritual struggle to be more like him.

John Wesley had more than his fair share of spiritual and emotional anguish. But he wrote these powerful words to encourage his preachers to be real disciples of Jesus. 

"The denying ourselves and the taking up our cross, in the full extent of the expression, is not a thing of small concern: It is not expedient only, as are some of the circumstantials of religion; but it is absolutely, indispensably necessary, either to our becoming or continuing his disciples. It is absolutely necessary, in the very nature of the thing, to our coming after him and following him; insomuch that, as far as we do not practise it, we are not his disciples. If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of him, but of other masters. If we do not take up our cross daily, we do not come after him, but after the world, or the prince of the world, or our own fleshly mind. If we are not walking in the way of the cross, we are not following him; we are not treading in his steps; but going back from, or at least wide of, him . . . Meditate upon [self denial] when you are in secret: Ponder it in your heart! Take care not only to understand it throughly, but to remember it to your lives' end! Cry unto the Strong for strength, that you may no sooner understand, than enter upon the practice of it. Delay not the time, but practise it immediately, from this very hour! Practise it universally, on every one of the thousand occasions which will occur in all circumstances of life! Practise it daily, without intermission, from the hour you first set your hand to the plough, and enduring therein to the end, till your spirit returns to God!"

- from John Wesley's sermon "Self Denial"




Sunday, February 11, 2018

Jesus touches the Leper and heals him



Today’s Gospel (Mark 1:40-45) is about Jesus reaching out his hand and touching a leper. 

In spite of the fact that we know of leper colonies in recent history, we often gloss over passages like this without really being impacted as we should.

We know that the leprosy spoken of was much wider than present-day leprosy. The term covered a range of contagious skin diseases, and it was regarded as the ultimate impurity. St Gregory of Nazianzus (329-374) tells us how things were. He says that leprosy ate away the flesh and bones to the extent that eventually the sufferers were unrecognizable. To identify themselves, they would say, “I am the child of that man; that woman there is my mother; my name is so and so; you were once my close friend.”

Gregory goes on to say: “They can no longer make themselves recognizable by their features, by what was formerly characteristic of their face. Gnawed by the disease, they have lost their fortune, their parents, even their bodies . . . A mother would like to embrace her child, but she dreads the flesh of that child as she dreads an enemy.” 

It was against the law for lepers to go into the cities, to use ordinary roads or to touch creeks, lakes and wells that others were likely to use. Leviticus 13:45-46 was still taken seriously by everyone! 

Gregory reminds us that what Jesus did for the leper in today’s Gospel would have caused a chill to run down the spines of his congregation. Deeply moved with love and compassion, he stretched out his hand, touched the leper, and healed him. (Touching the man with leprosy was completely unacceptable within that culture. Not only did Jesus risk contamination, he also "broke the law" by ignoring the boundary between the "mainstream" and those who no longer belonged.)

Of course, the loveliest thing is that Jesus didn’t see a leper at all. He saw one of God’s dear children in desperate need, and by stretching out his hand and touching the man, he released a torrent of healing love into his life.

In today’s second reading (1 Corinthians 10:31 - 11:1) the apostle Paul urges us to imitate Christ. That must include touching those whose lives are hurting and need healing.

So, throughout its history, the Church, for all of its faults (which admittedly are many!), has cared for the sick and dying in a way that has helped them know dignity and love "from conception to natural death." And not just in the sacramental and spiritual aspects of the healing ministry: it was the Church that first established hospitals and hospices!

But, in spite of this, and in spite of all we read in the Gospels, it is sadly not unusual to hear of church people (and others, too) punishing their children for not being "up to scratch" by pushing them away, out of their lives.

Practising Christians must get across to their children - and others - that however wayward they might be, and whatever mistakes they might have made, and wherever they are on their faith journey, they are deeply loved with an everlasting love, and that no situation exists where healing cannot happen. The hand of Jesus is never out of reach. Church leaders also need to take this on board, especially those who, like some of the religious leaders in the time of Jesus, tend to be highly judgmental of others who have messed up their lives (i.e. as if we haven't ALL done that in one way or another!). 

Whenever Jesus came across the troubled, the abandoned, the sick, and those whose lives had been ruined even by their own sinfulness and bad decisions, he was moved, not by disgust, not by a compulsion to restore “order” for its own sake, but by compassion; and he reached out and touched them with his healing love. All who allowed him to touch their lives received a new beginning.

What a wonderful message of hope and redemption. Jesus is the same, yesterday, today and forever!


Friday, February 2, 2018

Father Stanton's Candlemas Sermon



Elsewhere on ths blog is the story of Father Arthur Stanton, who was for fifty years a curate at St. Albans, Holborn, London. He was also a greatly loved eccentric who combined the fulness of the Catholic faith with evangelical fervour. He is still remembered as wonderful priest, powerful preacher and caring pastor. He died at the age of seventy-four in March 1913. Father Stanton was once asked what he hoped might be carved on his tombstone. His answer was simple yet profound: “He preached Jesus and only Jesus.” 

The following is taken from Arthur Stanton, a Memoir, by G.W.E. Russell, published in 1917 (pages 134-137). It is an eyewitness report of Father Stanton’s sermon at the Candlemas High Mass in 1873:

“Father Stanton . . . gave out his text, which was from Malachi iii., part of the Scripture appointed for the Epistle of the Festival -  ‘The Lord Whom ye seek shall suddenly come to His Temple.’ He dwelt on the peculiar character of the Festival under its double aspect of the Purification of ‘our Blessed Lady,’ and the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple. It was, he said, like a last look at Christmas, over which was beginning to be cast the dark shadow of the Passion. The curtain was lifted for one moment and the spectacle showed us the power of Christian heroism. We saw our sweet and blessed Lady, carrying in her arms her Divine Son. It was, as he had said, a last lingering glance at Christmas, and a spectacle dear to every Catholic heart, that Mother with that Child at her breast. To-day she is passing, with St. Joseph, the foster-father, through the streets of Jerusalem. There are the dark shadows of the houses, and the glare of the Eastern sunshine, and the passers-by going to and fro. How often has she come before to the same place! Now, though a mother, she is ‘spotless as the driven snow.’ Father Stanton cleverly pressed this image into his service (- the snow fell heavily that day in London). 

“What thoughts must have been in her mind as she held in her arms her Son, the Everlasting God, the Prince of Peace! Yes, she bore the Eternal Son, as she ascended those steps. 

“In the Temple, how simple was the scene! An old man takes the Child, and a thrill of joy passes through his heart. He had waited for the Consolation of Israel. He speaks a few words;and then a woman stricken in years comes in. She utters her prophecy. She recognizes the Lord of lords in the Child. The offering is made, the purification is over, and they leave. Night closes, and the Temple-doors are shut. The Lord had suddenly come to His Temple. He Whom they yearned for had come. Heaven and earth had met together; God and man had met. The glory of the latter House had exceeded that of the former. The latter outshone its predecessor. The glory of the Temples had come. Only two persons recognized it. It had come - and gone. 

“The great thought of this festival is the superhuman manifestation of God to those who watch for Him. He was not recognized by the scribe who knew the law; by the Sanhedrim, the rulers, the learned, or the mighty. Two old people who had long been waiting were the only ones who knew Him. That Babe Who was set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever. Those who saw Him were ‘full of the Holy Ghost.’ To them it was revealed that they should see the Lord’s Christ; and a light greater than that of the sun came to their hearts. That old man saw what the wise could not see. He took up the Lord of life in his arms; and he felt that now he could depart in peace, for he had seen the Lord’s salvation. 

“‘Dear friends,’ said Father Stanton, ‘this realization of Jesus Christ is far beyond all learning, art, or science. There is given to those who seek it, a light above that of the sun. Christ communicates Himself in His Divine Personality as well as Essence. 

“ ‘Religion is unsatisfactory unless we can thus have personal intimacy with Christ. If we have but heard of Him through men and books. He only exerts a secondary power on us. Our conception of Him merely amounts to a moral certainty, as with any other great hero we read of in history. We have seen Him only through the shadow of ideas. We have not taken Him in our arms and gazed on Him with ineffable joy. 

“ ‘There is, you know it well, a special light, transcendent and transluminous. The converted man will say, “ I have read, and heard, and argued laboriously about Christ, but some day there came to me, at the comer of the street, or at my own fireside, or during some sermon, a mystic certainty about Him. The scales dropped from my eyes. I saw my Lord, as I had never seen Him before. I felt the power of salvation. I went back again to my books, and, as I read the old pages, a new light flashed upon me. New arguments came which I had never seen before; and Faith, got from that mystic light, confirmed them. I never can deny this, for to do so would be to deny the secret of my life.” 

“ ‘No one can say that Jesus is the Christ, but by the Holy Ghost. You may say you think so; the Child might be God. But to see it with the light of the superhuman day is another thing. Far different to know that the Lord Whom you have looked for has suddenly come to His Temple. Then you may say  -  

‘Oh! my sweet Jesus, come to me 
My longing heart’s desire ; 
With tears of love I’ve wept for Thee, 
Thee doth my soul require. 

‘A thousand times I’ve yearned for Thee 
Jesu ! when wilt Thou come ? 
When will Thy Presence gladden me. 
And make in me a home?‘ 

‘If the Revelation of Christ is not so, if it depends on knowledge or reading, where is the Sacred Democracy of the Faith? It would be an oligarchy of genius. How could the little child make the Sign of the Cross? How could the poor man be lifted up from the dunghill? Jesus Christ Himself seemed to burst into enthusiasm when He thought of this, saying: “I thank Thee, O Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth, that Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.” 

“ ‘Of course, the great question is. Have all these people conscious communion with God; this mystic knowledge of things about which we hear so much and see so little? Yes. Wherever God has created life, He has given certain powers, going out beyond the organism of the life itself. Plants have powers which seem to trench on animalism. The vine throws out its tendrils for support, and roots pierce down to a congenial soil. Animals show powers which seem beyond instinct. We speak of the sagacity of the dog and the cunning of the fox. So in the higher life of man, there are strange instincts. There are impressions we cannot account for; there are moments when we seem to stand out beyond ourselves. We feel intelligences within us which we cannot explain - such as prognostications and presentiments. 

“‘When God makes His faithful ones partakers of Himself, He gives them a certainty far greater than that which is arrived at by logic and science. We can see this in the lives of the Saints, in the annals of the Church. People lead lives of extraordinary faith, which neither they nor you can account for. “By the Grace of God I am what I am,” is all they can say. 

“‘But, you will still ask, Is it likely I shall ever feel like this? I have heard of conscious conversion and intercourse with God, but it seems far above my head. I never felt it, though I have practised religion for years. I cannot put my hand on a particular day of my life, and say, “On that day I became converted.” How is it I cannot do as others? Do not be distressed. Go on waiting for the Consolation of Israel. Do you not see that they in the Temple had been doing so? That old man had been promised that he should see the Lord’s Christ. He waited patiently, “full of the Holy Ghost,” and at last the Lord suddenly came to His Temple. He did depart in peace. 

‘”So, too, that old woman; she had long fasted and prayed. Day and night, Scripture says, she had waited for the Consolation. It had not come, but day after day, and night after night she still went on — still fasted and prayed. “In eternity time struck the hour,” and Jesus Christ came. She had not waited in vain; and henceforth she could talk of nothing else to those others who were waiting too. And have you not felt this? You groan and pray to see God: to press Him to your heart and feel Him yours. You want to grasp what lies behind all your Prayers, Communions, and Confessions. You want religion to be a personal affection for Christ, something you can never let go. It shall come to you: when or how I cannot tell; but it shall come. Perhaps it may be at the end of your life, when the shadows of this world pass away, and the morning breaks over the everlasting hills. You shall see the King in His beauty. Whom you had tried to follow at such a distance off. Then will you say, “O God, Thou art my God. Jesus Christ, Thou didst come to earth for me.” And you will be able to add, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace: for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.” ‘ “