Ash Wednesday

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by Fr. Karl Dietze

Mark 2:13-22

And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:16-17

Table fellowship was of great importance in the ancient world.  Who you ate with spoke volumes about who you were.  The righteous would only share a meal with those who were righteous.  So when Jesus ate with the unworthy and unrighteous, the religious leaders were both perplexed and disapproving.  So they asked Jesus’ disciples what He was doing.  Why was He associating with them?  What they didn’t understand was that they, too, were part of them: unworthy and unrighteous.

Isn’t that part of what being “religious” does to us?  It blinds our eyes to the reality of who we truly are and what we really need.  Religiousness leads us to believe that we are righteous in our own strength.  Religiousness leads us to believe that we are acceptable to God, or at least more acceptable than them.

We can spend a great deal of time and energy trying to convince those around us that we have it all put together in life, that we are successful human beings – even in spiritual things.  We work hard making sure that what people see of our lives looks good and respectable.  We may even work so hard at it that we begin to believe it, too.  But no matter how hard we work at it, we will never be able to cover up what is really going on inside us, in our hearts.

Those who believe that they are righteous in their own strength, that they are truly acceptable to God to the core of their being, are unable to hear Jesus’ call.  Jesus came to call sinners, to call those who are willing to admit that their hearts are sick with sin, and that when you strip away the external acts, they need help.  Only those who recognize they are sick are willing to come to Jesus to be healed.

The season of Lent invites us to examine our sin-sick hearts and come to Jesus for healing.  It is not a season to become more “religious” by taking on practices that only make us feel more self-righteous.  Instead, it is a season to take on practices that show us just how much we need Jesus to make us whole.

The liturgy of Ash Wednesday is a powerful call to us sinners.  As the service begins, we are invited to a season of repentance and self-examination which begins with the imposition of ashes, which reminds us that we are all mortal and will one day stand before Jesus to give an account for our lives.  That isn’t meant to cause fear, but it is a reminder that we cannot put off until tomorrow the readiness that we are called to today.  With the Litany of Penitence, then, we begin the examination of our hearts.

The service ends, though, with the meal of Holy Communion.  Even as we acknowledge our sinfulness, Jesus once again invites us to the table, to not only dine with Him, but to feast upon His healing and saving grace in the sacrament.  And so as we come to the table, we pray we “do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in you abundant and great mercies…that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood…”

Fr. Karl ministers at Trinity Anglican Church

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Entering into Life

Advent 2017

December 22

Mark 9:33-end

“And if you hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.”  Mark 9:43-44

Hyperbole, over-exaggeration, was a typical style of Jewish communication, and Jesus used it here not to advocate self-mutilation, but to call His followers to the ruthless removal of sin.  Paul was getting at the same thing when he writes to the Corinthians and tells them, “No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Cor. 9:27).

This brings us back to the consideration of the relationship between the body and the heart when it comes to avoiding sin.

Paul addresses just that in his letter to the Romans.  Paul teaches us that sin, the impulse to live apart from and against God, is like a systemic disease that infects every human being.  Even though Jesus has set us free from the grip of sin through His death and resurrection, sin still dwells in us, and it will until we die.  When we put our faith in Jesus, though, we begin the lifelong process of sanctification wherein the Holy Spirit cleanses us from sin.

So what are we to do?  “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (Rom. 6:19).  The more we “cut off” the sinful desires of the flesh and offer our whole selves to the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit, the more we will become like Jesus.

I would suggest that we actually consider imaginatively offering each part of our body to God’s service.  Imagine cutting off that part’s participation in things that do not please God.  Imagine offering that part’s active service to God.  For example, imagine the tongue being physically held from hurtful words and gossip and instead speaking life and blessing to those in our lives.

I would also suggest we pay attention to Jesus’ mention of our motivation.  There is certainly a negative motivation mentioned here, namely avoiding the punishment of separation from God.  But I think Jesus’ emphasis really is meant to fall on the positive motivation, the greatness of what we stand to gain: entering into life! When we consider all we stand to gain, we are more willing to sacrifice the momentary fulfillment of bodily desires.

One of the struggles I think we often have in this regard, though, is that we don’t really cultivate our vision of what we stand to gain.  We don’t want to sacrifice the fulfillment of our appetites in part because our hearts are set on them and not on our eternal home.  That doesn’t mean that engage in some kind of spiritual-delayed-gratification scheme – pain now for gain later.  What it means is that if we love Jesus now, then we should long to be with Him face to face in our heavenly home, and that longing should be powerful motivation to cut off and starve our bodily appetites.

We need to cultivate our vision of heaven and all that stands in store for us.  Read the glorious scenes of worship around the throne in Revelation (5, 7, 21, 22).  Meditate on images of the Kingdom from Isaiah (9, 11, 65).  But above all else, cultivate your vision of Jesus, and grow in your appreciation of His infinite and unstoppable love for you.  As you do, you will cultivate your longing for Him and your motivation to offer your whole self to Him.

Beyond Sin Management

Advent 2017

December 18

Mark 7:1-23

“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?  What comes out of a person is what defiles him.  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil tings come from within, and they defile a person.” Mark 7:18-19, 21-23

Jesus was addressing the issue of ritual defilement, being in the state of being unclean, as a result of eating unclean foods.  The Pharisees were scrupulous in avoiding foods that were unclean, and it was indicative of their whole approach to spirituality.  Theirs was a religion of maintaining outward appearances, of looking good on the outside.  They thought that by avoiding certain foods and behaviors, they would be acceptable to God, all the while harboring all sorts of evil and hatred in their hearts.

Jesus, though, tells us that if you want to behave properly, you not only need to watch what you do, you need to attend to your heart.

Many people engage in what some refer to as sin management.  It’s a lot like weight management – you don’t eat what you really want.  If you’ve ever tried that kind of weight management, you know that it rarely produces lasting change.  Why?  Because you still want to eat all the food that has caused the problem.  To enjoy lasting change, you have to change your desires, and that means attending to the loves of the heart.

There are three things that strike me here.

First, on this side of eternity, we will never fully cleanse our hearts.  It is only the Holy Spirit who is able to cleanse our false loves and cultivate within us a true love for God, and that process (called sanctification) takes a lifetime.  The heart is filled with beauty, but it is also a place of mysterious darkness, and we would do well to remember that this process of cleansing our hearts will take a lifetime of patience and hard work.

Second, we need to look beyond sin management to cooperate with the Spirit’s work in our hearts.  How do we do that?  At its simplest, we engage in spiritual disciplines that keep our hearts open and connected to Jesus: Bible reading, prayer, fellowship, mission, and ministry.  We engage in these activities not in a rote manner or trying to earn God’s approval, but as a means to foster our relationship with the Living Lord.  As we do, we open ourselves more fully to the Holy Spirit’s cleansing work in our hearts.

Third, we need to be mindful of what we are putting in our hearts.  True, Jesus did say that food doesn’t go into the heart, but into the stomach, but because of the way God made us, what we do with our bodies and minds does impact our hearts.  What we watch and look at on TV and the internet, what we listen to on the radio and in conversation, where we allow our mind to linger, the activities we involve our bodies in – these all impact our hearts.  There is a vital connection between the heart, the mind, and the body.

Sin management doesn’t get us very far as we seek to be ready for Jesus.  Cardiac care does.  How are you tending your heart?

Do Not Fear

Advent 2017

December 13

Mark 5:21-end

“Do not fear, only believe.” Mark 5:36b

One of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry was healing.  In yesterday’s reading, Jesus healed a man spiritually by casting out a demon, and in today’s reading He physically heals two women, one older and one younger.

The older woman had an issue of blood that had lasted twelve years and she had spent everything she had seeking a cure.  To have an issue of blood was both physically and socially devastating.  The consistent loss of blood would be physically tiring to live with and care for.  It would also render her unclean and limit her ability to have contact with other people.  Her struggle had left her broken, tired, hopeless and alone.  To have that kind of struggle for twelve years is a terrible burden.

Have you ever been the older woman?  Seeking relief, maybe even for years, and finding none?  Feeling helpless, hopeless, and alone? Feeling like you’ve tried everything, but nothing worked?

But she also had faith.  She went to Jesus to merely touch the hem of His robe.  She believed His power was so great that she only needed a touch.  And she was right!  Such is the power of Jesus that but a touch renders us whole.  The challenge for most of us is that we don’t often experience that kind of power.  Why?  While there is no simple answer to that, it ultimately comes down to trusting that He knows both what we are going through and what we need.

More often, I think we experience Jesus’ power the way the young girl did: unexpectedly and at the behest of another.  She was dead.  She wasn’t asking for anything.  In fact, it was her father, Jairus, asking for her healing as she was at the point of death.  Not only that, but thanks to the delay brought on by the older woman, he was forced to trust that Jesus could heal the dead.

Does that sound familiar?  He sought Jesus out for healing, but it didn’t work out the way he wanted.  His daughter died.

But Jesus said, “Do not fear, only believe.”  Standing in the face of death, of difficulty we cannot overcome, do not fear, only believe that Jesus has power over both life and death.  What a word to cling to in life: do not fear, only believe.

Jesus did answer Jairus’ request for his daughter, but not without asking Jairus to trust Him.  Isn’t that so often the case?  We want quick and easy responses that don’t require a deep faith, but Jesus withholds the answer precisely in order to cultivate within us a deep faith.  It seems that we are called to only believe in His love and power in order to overcome fear and anxiety.

And isn’t it also so often the case that Jesus answers our prayers for others, but seems silent in response to our prayers for ourselves?  Why is that?  Perhaps it is that we were not created to live this life alone, that we are created to need both God and neighbor.  Perhaps there is something very good about receiving help.  If Jesus answered every one of our prayers for ourselves without our ever needing to turn to another for help, we would almost undoubtedly try to live this life without ever having to need or trust anyone else.  But when we open ourselves to others, when we admit our needs, when we ask for help, not only do we see the power of Jesus, but we find companions on the way.

Where are you seeking healing from Jesus?  Perhaps He is calling you to touch the hem of His robe.  Perhaps He is calling you to open yourself to asking others to pray for you.  But without a doubt, He is calling you not to fear, but only believe in His love and power.

The Church as Family

Advent 2017

December 8, 2017

Mark 3:13-end

“And he answered them, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:35

It is difficult to emphasize how staggering these words were to Jesus’ hearers.  In the ancient Mediterranean world, family was everything.  Your family was the place where one was supposed to find connection, protection, identity, and answers to the most important questions of life.  You lived to bless and further the life of the family.  Within the family, the most important bond of life was the sibling bond of brothers and sisters. Siblings always had your back.  They would never leave, forsake, or betray you; they would lay their lives down for you.

Joseph Hellerman, a New Testament scholar, notes that the ancient world was in a transition that left people feeling disconnected and disenfranchised, lonely and anxious, desperate for meaning and identity.  The church, he points out, was offering the world the opportunity to be a part of an incredible family, one marked by love and composed of brothers and sisters who belonged to the Lord of the universe.  One of the reasons the church grew in the ancient world was that it offered a real and loving family.  The family of the church was a powerful and attractive thing.

The church is meant to be that kind of family.  We work and live to bless the family and further the family mission.  We find our identity in the family.  We make our decisions in the family and for the sake of the family.  We grow up in the family and take on the family likeness as we are shaped by the fellowship of the family.

Is that how we treat life in the family of the church?  Do we treat the church as a product to be consumed when we are in the mood for it or in need of it?  Or do we see the church as the family of God, the place where we find connection, protection, identity, and the answers to all the most important questions of life?  Do we live to bless and further our own purposes, or the life of the family of the church?

We are meant to live as family, as brothers and sisters in Christ. That means that we are to love, forgive, encourage, protect and build one another.  We are to give of our lives to the family to build it up and further the mission and work of the church.

This is a time of year that is for many, even in the family of the church, a lonely time.  In a season when so many turn their eyes inward toward their families, the lonely yearn to be brought in.  This is a time of year when the family of the church has a wonderful opportunity to show beautiful love by making sure that none of our brothers and sisters feel alone.  As you look around, are there brothers and sisters you can show the love of family?

The Call of Advent

Advent 2017

December 4, 2017

Mark 1:1-20

“And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’  And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Mark 1:17-18

The call of Advent is the call to be ready for the Second Coming of Jesus.  Every Sunday we proclaim the heart of our faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.  Advent simply brings that third clause into bold focus.  Christ will come again.  As we make our way through the readings of this season, we would do well to ask ourselves if we are ready to stand before Him and how we can use this season to be better prepared to do so.

Mark’s gospel moves quickly to the call of discipleship.  The singular call to every one of us who call Jesus Savior and Lord is simply this: follow me.  To be a disciple of Jesus is to follow Jesus, and discipleship is simply the life of following Jesus.

Perhaps the question this passage raises is this: what did Andrew and Peter understand Jesus to be saying when He called them to follow?

It is important to note at this point that Peter and Andrew have most likely heard Jesus speak and teach already.  They are aware of His radical and urgent message: the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel.  As this message fell upon their ears, it was the proclamation that the whole of history was being forever changed.  This gospel, literally this good news, was the declaration that something incredibly good, something that changes everything, has happened.  But to Peter and Andrew, indeed to any Jew, it was not only the message that everything had changed, but that it had done so in fulfillment of God’s promises through the prophets and that more promises were yet to be fulfilled.  God is faithful to keep His promises in the past, the present, and in the future.

So when Jesus invited these first disciples to follow Him, they heard an invitation to follow the true Rabbi into the radically new life of the long promised Kingdom of God.

And what is the result of following Jesus?  First, we will join in His Kingdom work.  The concept of “fishers of men” is more than a cute play on words arising out of the situation at hand.  In prophetic imagery, God Himself is the fisher of men separating those who belong to Him from those who reject Him.  Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom will divide people.  There are those who will accept Him as Lord and Savior and those who will refuse to do so.  It is no surprise that wherever Jesus went, people had strong reactions to Him, both for and against.  To be fishers of men, then, is to join in Jesus’ work of proclaiming and demonstrating the Kingdom.

But notice the exact phrasing of Jesus: I will make you become.  Jesus invites them into a process where He will make them like Himself.  Jesus is the fisher of men, and He will make His followers become fishers of men.  What an incredible invitation!  To follow Jesus as a disciple is to embark upon a lifelong journey of being transformed to become like Him and to join in His Kingdom work!

But in order to get there, we must, like Peter and Andrew, drop our nets.  Their nets were literally their lives – their family work.  But we could also more broadly understand them as those things that catch and snare us and keep us from following Jesus.

As Advent begins, Jesus brings us back to the singular call upon our lives: follow me.  We are invited, then, to consider the quality of our following, the health of our discipleship.  Are we following in a way that leads us deeper into Jesus’ work and our own transformation?  What nets might we need to drop to further His work in our lives?

How to Foster Harmony

meaningful-advent

December 16

Read Mark 9:33-50

“If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”   Mark 9:35

This is in some ways one of the saddest, yet funniest, scenes in Mark’s gospel in my opinion.  The disciples are following Jesus to Jerusalem, where He will die on a cross.  Jesus has been telling them that He did not come to build a Kingdom of worldly power, glory and wealth, but that, instead, He would die on the cross and that anyone who wants to be a part of His Kingdom needs to follow in that same manner of life.

So what were the disciples talking about on the road to the cross?  They were arguing “about who was the greatest.”  Talk about not getting it!

The force of Jesus’ teaching is pretty clear.  If you want worldly power, glory, and greatness, then Jesus isn’t for you.  Jesus shows us the way to true greatness through the cross.  The kind of greatness God wants for us, and even for Himself, is that greatness that comes through serving others.

Paul put it this way to the Philippians.  “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…” (Phil 2:5-7).  It is God’s nature to pour Himself out in love, and our attitude should be the same.  If that isn’t a wonderful lens through which to view the celebration of Christmas, I don’t know what is!

But let’s take this a bit further.  Do you see what happens when we seek glory for ourselves?  Or when we want to be served?  Or when we stand on our rights and what we deserve?  Arguing.  Strife.  Discord.

Service, though, leads to unity, harmony, peace, and healing.  Serving leads to beauty.

As a pastor, I know that many families do not enjoy holiday gatherings because they are marked by arguing, strife, and discord.  Maybe it isn’t your family, but your workplace.  Or your school.  Or your neighborhood.  We’ve all got a group like that.  When we take the attitude of serving – giving instead of getting – we foster unity, harmony, peace, and healing.

Something profound changes when look at our spouse and ask ourselves how we can serve them.  Or when we look at our children and ask what we can do to make them more like Jesus.  Or when we look at our neighborhood and ask how we can make it a better place to live.  Something profound happens when we look at our marriages, our families, our workplaces, our schools, and our neighborhoods as a place to serve in love.

Serve up some beauty in this holy season!  Foster unity, harmony, peace and healing as you give yourself to others.