St. Nicholas

I love St. Nicholas.  I mean you have to love a guy that gives money so people can get out of slavery and also punch a heretic in the face during a Church Council.  Unfortunately, when most people think of St. Nicholas they think of the guy in the red suit.  How sad.

Not many people know the story of St. Nicholas slapping Arius in the ace during the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.  Here is a synopsis of the story from the website of the St. Nicholas Center:

In AD 325 Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, the very first ecumenical council. More than 300 bishops came from all over the Christian world to debate the nature of the Holy Trinity. It was one of the early church’s most intense theological questions. Arius, from Egypt, was teaching that Jesus the Son was not equal to God the Father. Arius forcefully argued his position at length. The bishops listened respectfully.

As Arius vigorously continued, Nicholas became more and more agitated. Finally, he could no longer bear what he believed was essential being attacked. The outraged Nicholas got up, crossed the room, and slapped Arius across the face! The bishops were shocked. It was unbelievable that a bishop would lose control and be so hotheaded in such a solemn assembly. They brought Nicholas to Constantine. Constantine said even though it was illegal for anyone to strike another in his presence, in this case, the bishops themselves must determine the punishment.

The bishops stripped Nicholas of his bishop’s garments, chained him, and threw him into jail. That would keep Nicholas away from the meeting. When the Council ended a final decision would be made about his future.

Nicholas was ashamed and prayed for forgiveness, though he did not waver in his belief. During the night, Jesus and Mary his Mother, appeared, asking, “Why are you in jail?” “Because of my love for you,” Nicholas replied. Jesus then gave the Book of the Gospels to Nicholas. Mary gave him an omophorion, so Nicholas would again be dressed as a bishop. Now at peace, Nicholas studied the Scriptures for the rest of the night.

When the jailer came in the morning, he found the chains loose on the floor and Nicholas dressed in bishop’s robes, quietly reading the Scriptures. When Constantine was told of this, the emperor asked that Nicholas be freed. Nicholas was then fully reinstated as the Bishop of Myra.

The Council of Nicaea agreed with Nicholas’ views, deciding the question against Arius. The work of the Council produced the Nicene Creed which to this day many Christians repeat weekly when they stand to say what they believe.

What I like about this story is that even though St. Nicholas was correct in his belief he showed repentance for his actions.  He lost his cool, and he never should have done that.  He was thrown into jail as a punishment where he found repentance.

This is a story that we all can grab on to for we have all done things we should not have and need to find reconciliation.  I am sure that none of our sins were this public, but they are sins none the less and we all need to be reconciled to each other and to God.

Use this time of the preparation for the Nativity of our Lord in the Flesh to reconcile yourself like St. Nicholas did.  Who knows, you might become a saint!

You Brood of Vipers

John that Baptist is an interesting character in the life of Jesus.  We do not know much about him other than he is a cousin to Jesus and was born a few months before him.  The only interactions we see between them is just before Jesus starting his public ministry when Jesus approaches John while he is baptizing people in the Jordan.  John is the one chosen who will announce that Jesus has come and points him out to Andrew who was one of John’s followers. John often runs afoul of authority, and we see this play itself out in the 3rd chapter of the Matthew’s Gospel.

John is teaching and preaching in the “wilderness” of Judea.  He is calling the people to repentance and quotes the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord; Make his paths straight.” He was attracting quite a crowd of people from the area, and this brought him to the attention of the authorities.  Individuals who are in power do not like to be challenged, and this is exactly what John was doing.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were coming out to see what was going on and John tested them by calling them a “Brood of Vipers.”  As you can imagine this did not sit too well with them, and they started to plot against him.

Jesus will use these same words against the same people in chapter 12 and chapter 23.  Jesus was always the hardest on those in religious leadership.  Jesus held the religious leaders to a much higher standard than other people.  Jesus never scolded anyone, well he came close with the woman at the well, but he dealt with people as people, except the religious leaders of his day. As much as John was calling the people to repentance, he was also calling the religious leaders to repentance.

Advent is a time for us to consider how we might be being called to reconcile not only with God but with other people.  The Advent season and the coming Christmas season is a great time to consider calling someone that we have been estranged from and repair that relationship.  It’s also a perfect time to improve your relationship with God.

The message of repentance that John was preaching in that desert are as necessary today as they were on that day.  There is no time like the present for reconciliation.

2nd Sunday of Advent ~ Peace

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For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. Isaiah 9:6-7

The theme of this 2nd week of Advent is that of Peace.  We hear the announcement of the coming of the one who will be called the Prince of Peace, the Mighty and Everlasting Parent of us all.  This peace will not come through war or violence but the establishment of justice and righteousness for all.  It is a reminder to us that we need to seek peace where ever we can find it and that peace begins with us.

I think we sometimes forget that Jesus came to bring peace to the world, peace that will pass all understanding.  We read in the 11th Chapter of Isaiah that the lion will lay down with the lamb and the Cow and bear will graze together in the pasture, in other words, natural enemies shall become friends.  This peace does not come about by mutual destruction but through love and understanding.

Peace is a spiritual discipline, and like all spiritual disciplines, it begins inside each of us.  I have used the image of the stone in the pond and the ripples moving out from it before, but it is also applicable to this idea of peace.  If we obtain peace within ourselves, within our homes, within our churches, then peace will spread out from us just like those ripples.

The 19th century Russian Monk Seraphim of Sarov is quoted as saying, “Acquire a peaceful spirit and then thousands of others around you will be saved.” Seraphim is speaking of our internal peace, peace within ourselves and he is reminding us that is we obtain this peace there is no end to what we can hope to accomplish for the Kingdom.

Giving Thanks

I truly love this time of year – it is in fact “the most wonderful time of the year.”  Wait, wait it is not time for Christmas songs just yet!  Anyway, I do love this time of giving thanks for all the blessings in our lives and yes, we all have blessings to be thankful for.

In the 12th chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke there is a story of a rich man whose land “brought forth plentifully” and he ran out of space to store all that he had.  So he thought about it and decided he needed to build a larger barn to store all that he had.  When he completed its construction he stepped back and said to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.”

Now at first glance this sounds like a good story and the man is wise for storing things that he might need in the future. However, the story does not end there. That night God came to him and said, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”  In other words that night the man died and all of his stores went to waste.

Now a clarification.  I am not insinuating that we should not be prepared, we should – we should always be prepared and there is nothing wrong with living a life that is comfortable, but this man went overboard.

Thanksgiving is a time for being thankful for what we have and the very next day, Black Friday, most Americans will be standing in line for the latest gadget that someone has convinced you that you need and will be the best way to express your love to someone.  We have bought into the notion that we need a bigger barn to store up all of our stuff in.

But what about the ones who have nothing?  You have read my words before about taking care of our neighbor and how important that is to our spiritual lives; in fact it is a command that we have to follow.  We do not know for sure, but we can infer from the story, that the man was not generous with his things and was not helping those in need.  He kept all that he had for himself and did not share his good fortune with others.  We also do not hear him giving thanks to God for the many blessings he received in his life.

The 4th century bishop and theologian Basil the Great worked in around the city he lived in trying to ease the pain of the less fortunate.  He created what was called a Basilum, a small monastic village with doctors and other tradesmen who would help those around them.  I guess you could say this was the first homeless shelter although by design it was to break the cycle of poverty rather than just provide a place to lay one’s head.  Basil was very hard on those around him who had much but did not share.

Basil said many things but the quote I remember most is this one, “When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”

This is what we need to think about and ponder in our own lives; I know I am going to ponder it.  Be thankful for what we have, live a comfortable life, but remember those around us who are less fortunate.

Listen!

Listen is the first word in the Rule that Benedict wrote for his monasteries.  He was encouraging his monks to spend time each and every day in active listening with God.  In the United Church of Christ, we proclaim with a loud voice that “God is still speaking,” and I believe this, but the question we have to ask is, are God’s people still listening?

Benedict’s rule was filled with practical advice on how to live life as a monastic and live in a community.  Part of the practical advice, or wisdom, is that listening is a full action of the entire body.  Benedict instructed his monks in the art of Lectio Devina, and yes it is an art.  This is the practice of praying with the Scriptures or letting the Scriptures speak to you.  But it takes time and concentration to learn.  But it is not a passive form of listening as it involves the entire body.

Hearing, or listening to God’s voice, takes priority over seeing.  I am a firm believer that Scripture should be heard and not just read.  In most of our churches, we have Bibles in the pews for the faithful to use.  We instruct them on the page they should turn to for the readings that they will hear read.  The faithful follow along, reading, and not listening.  Sure you hear the words being read, but you are not listening.  Scripture was meant to be heard not just read.  The art of Lectio Devina requires us to slow down and read, and reread Scripture, in fact, Benedict would suggest reading it out loud to ourselves.

If you believe that God is still speaking, then we have to keep listening and put ourselves in a position to hear that voice.  Spend some time this Advent season listening for God’s voice in your life.

St. Andrew the First-Called

Today the Christian world celebrates the Feast of St. Andrew the First Called of the Apostles. This is an interesting feast day for me since it brings two parts of my life together. St. Andrew is, of course, the patron of Scotland but he is also the patron of Romania.

Biblical accounts of St. Andrew have him being the first one that Jesus called to follow him. We learn that he then went off to his brother, St. Peter, and told Peter that he had found the messiah and to come and see for himself. Well we know the rest of the story. At the end of his life, St. Andrew was crucified on an “X” shaped Cross in the City of Patras on the Northern coast of the Peloponnese. Legend has it that St. Andrew asked to be crucified on the Saltire rather than the Latin cross because he did not deem himself worthy to be crucified the same way as Jesus had been.

The Official Position of the Romanian Orthodox Church is that St. Andrew came to the area around the Black Sea and converted the Daco-Romanians. Because of this St. Andrew has been called the Enlightener of the Romanians and remains one of the patrons of Romania.

Far more famous than his relationship to Romania or any other place is the St. Andrew’s patronage of Scotland. I find it interesting that this is the patronage that is far more well-known and he actually never set foot in Scotland!

The legend is that in 832 AD, Oengus II led the Pictish army against the Angels. The night before the battle he prayed that if granted victory in the battle he would name St. Andrew as the patron of Scotland. In the morning the clouds formed and “X” shape which emboldened Oengus and he was victorious in the battle and won the day. Oengus kept his word and proclaimed St. Andrew the Patron and Protector of Scotland. The Scottish flag depicts the white “X” against a blue background in honor of the vision of that day. The Scottish flag is commonly known as the Saltier.

St. Andrew’s connection with Scotland may have been reinforced following the Synod of Whitby, (664 AD) when the Celtic Church felt that Columba had been “outranked” by Peter and that Peter’s brother would make a higher ranking patron. The 1320 Declaration of Arbroath cites Scotland’s conversion to Christianity by Andrew, “the first to be an Apostle”.

Almighty God, who gave such grace to your apostle Andrew that he readily obeyed the call of your Son Jesus Christ, and brought his brother with him: Give us, we are called by your holy Word, grace to follow him without delay, and to bring those near to us into his gracious presence; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Episcopal Daily Office)

Lift Up Your Heads

“Fling wide the portals of your heart; make it a temple, set apart. From earthy use for heaven’s employ, adorned with prayer and love and joy. “Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates. Catherine Winkworth

The verse quoted above comes from the hymn Lift up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates, one of the few Advent songs in the Pilgrim Hymnal.  This is the second verse of this hymn that is based on Psalm 24 and sets the stage for what we should be trying to do throughout this season of Advent.

The verse challenges us to fling open our hearts and make room for the spiritual things that we should be welcoming in our lives.  We are to turn our hearts from earthly use to heavenly use which will, in turn, bring us love and joy.

It is not often that the theological themes of hymns are explored outside of an academic setting, but this hymn speaks directly to us as we start this season. This is a hymn about a change of heart and transformation of the person.

Although we should be striving to make this change all during the year, it is brought to the forefront of our spiritual eyes during this time of Advent.

Hope of Things to Come

A Sermon on Romans 13:11-14 and Matthew 24:36-44

Waiting, Watchfulness, Expectation, Longing, Preparation, Hope these are all words that we can use to describe the Season we are beginning today.  Today not only do we start a new Liturgical year in the Church but we start a period of hopeful expectation for the coming of the Christ Child.  We cannot run roughshod over this season to get to the good stuff at the end.  We cannot have the dinner without peeling the potatoes; we have to prepare.  The season of Advent is designed to do just that.

Our world is moving faster and faster each and every day.  With the click of a button, the words I am speaking now can be sent around the world in a Nano second.  I look at this as a good thing; it means that we can reach many many more people with our words of hope than we ever could before.  Harnessing the tools that we have at our disposal is what Jesus meant when he told us to go into ALL the world to spread his Good News message of Hope.

But there is also the downside to all of this, not only can we spread our message of hope in a Nanosecond others can spread their message of doom and gloom in the same amount of time.  But we cannot despair as our message is the greatest story ever told, but we cannot rush the preparation of that story, we need to slow down a little, and that is what Advent is for.

This season we begin today has all but disappeared off the calendar, we go right from Thanksgiving to Christmas, without stopping off at Advent ever for the briefest of times.  The Church provides for us these seasons for a reason, and we should not rush them.

The Scripture readings provided for us during this time allow us to settle our minds and our hearts and focus on the spiritual part of what is to come.  The focus should not be on the latest deal or how early I can get to the store so I can buy the most recent gadget that in a months’ time will be broken or cast aside for something new.  This is a period when the Church is saying slow down while the world tells us to speed up.  Just like the story of the rich man who asked Jesus what he needed to do to enter the Kingdom of heaven, there is nothing wrong with possessions if kept in their proper place.  If buying the next thing, or going to the latest party keeps us from the spiritual then they are not in their proper place.  There is no war on Christmas, but there is a war on Advent!

Each week a different family comes forward to the wreath and lights another candle.  The flame at the top of each of those candles, regardless of the color, reminds us that we are the light for the darkened world.  Just like we will do here on Christmas Eve, and we will also do during the Easter Season, the lighting of the candle is a constant reminder that we are the ones who need to bring that light out into the darkened world.  But we cannot do that if we have not prepared.

Each week of the Advent season present us with a different theme. Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace.  Boy can our community, our world even, use a little of each of those.  But Advent is not a season about changing the world; Advent is a season about our personal change, a reshuffling of our priorities to make each one of us a little more hopeful, loving, joyful, and peaceful.  Each of these things begins with each of us and spreads out from us just as a pebble is thrown in the water, and we watch as the circles flow out from it, these things, Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace spread from us as individuals and from us as a Church community.

This week our focus is on that of Hope.  We are a people of hope; we have to be!  Our hope comes from the promise that God loves each and every one of us, just as we are right here at this moment.  We feel the warmth of the heat the comes from the candles of our Advent Wreath, that is more than just a symbol, that heat is the love of God that is spread to each one of us and that we must spread to others.  We must have hope in this world that sometimes has no hope.  We have to be the positive ones in a world that has become cynical and downtrodden.

When I think of hope, I think of the character of Bob Cratchit from the Charles Dickens story a Christmas Carole.  Cratchit has nothing to be hopeful for.  He worked for, what only can be described as an awful man.  Mr. Scoodge had nothing in his life.  Everyone he knew and loved was gone, and he only looked at what was left as people who wanted something from them.  But there was faithful Bob Cratchit coming to work every day and returning home to his loving family.  Scrooge changed when he was faced not only with his past and present but with his future; he was able to change because he was offered hope, hope that if he did alter the future that he saw would be much different.

We do not have the luxury of Mr. Scroodge and his ability to time travel, we know what our past was but that does not have to determine our future nor the future of others, we can, and need to be, the ones who bring this idea of hope to others and that comes from all of us knowing that God loves us, and God forgives us.  No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. Those have to be more than words; we have to mean them with our whole heart.

We read in the Scripture today of the followers of Jesus waiting for the Second Coming.  While Jesus was alive, he told those following him that he was going to return.  The only thing was he did not tell them when.  Of course, they thought Jesus was going to return in their lifetime, well there have been many lifetimes since then, and well, no Jesus, or is there no Jesus?  Let’s come back to that.

During my lifetime there have been many who say that they know when Jesus is coming and each time they have been proven wrong.  Jesus tells us that he does not even know when he will return only God knows when that will happen.  These false prophets even go so far as to advise their followers to sell or give everything away so that they will be ready, and then, nothing.  How many souls have been damaged by these false prophets leading their flock down the wrong path?

But we have the responsibility to be Jesus in this world not in the future but right here and right now.  Very soon there will be all sorts of talk of the so-called “war on Christmas.”  We will be all consumed by coffee cups and what people say and point fingers and long for days of old.  But what if we turned our attention away from what the world wants to distract us with and we focused on being Jesus right here and right now?  What if when wished Happy Holidays we just say thank you, and perhaps return the gesture with our greeting.  What if when we go and buy overpriced coffee, we are just grateful for being able to afford that coffee in the first place and rather than getting all worked up by the color of the cup we put a little extra in the red kettle of the Salvation Army.  The world wants to distract us; the world wants us to focus on things of no consequence when we should be focused on being Christ.

Want to keep Christ in Christmas?  Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto other as you would have done unto you.  In other words be hopeful, be loving, be joyful, and be peaceful.  This is how we keep Christ in Christmas, and this is how we bring hope and light to the world.

First Sunday of Advent – Hope

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Isaiah 60:2

We begin this season with the call from the Prophet Isaiah that darkness shall cover the earth.  The prophet here is speaking of a spiritual darkness a time of turning away and a time when people will be bereft of all hope.  But as people of faith we know that this is not the end of the story and that the darkness with turn to light and that light will bring much joy.

The First Sunday of Advent focuses on the Old Testament Patriarchs and Prophets who were the ancestors of Jesus and who would announce his birth and ministry here on earth.  Their prophetic message was a message of hope and a message of light in a world that had gone dark to all things spiritual.

We need more prophets in the world today.  We need more prophets that will shout the good news that God loves all of creation and we all have a place in the world.  The prophets were persecuted for what they said but the message continued on.  Being a prophet requires courage and that courage comes from God.

I am praying for prophets as we begin this Advent/Christmas Season.

Let us pray:

O God, we thank you that Jesus brought hope into our world. By the good news of the Bible you are still bringing hope to the people. Help us to be ready to welcome Jesus Christ so that we may think good thoughts and do good deeds and so that we may be a people of hope in our world. Amen. (UCC Book of Worship)

Advent and Christmas Meditations 2016

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This Advent and Christmas Season I am undertaking a new writing project of short, daily meditations.  My goal is to provide a short, daily mediation based on scripture, a prayer, something from history, or just something I am thinking about all around the theme of Advent and the Christmas Season. My prayer is that these meditations will help you during this season of expectation, waiting, and preparation, for the coming of the Christ Child.

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I pray that the Advent and Christmas season may bring you much health, happiness, hope, and joy.