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“Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in. Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee. Trust ye in the Lord for ever: for in the Lord JEHOVAH is everlasting strength: The way of the just is uprightness: thou, most upright, dost weigh the path of the just.”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

“Asking God to Bless America”

We believe God has blessed America.  We ask God to bless America.  But what is blessing?  A good definition of blessing is “the authoritative pronouncement of God’s favour.”  As priest and pastor of this parish, I bless my people every Sunday.  But that does not mean that Holy Ghost power shoots forth from my fingers into the souls of those sitting in these pews.  I do not possess superpowers, much less holy superpowers.  However, I can authoritatively pronounce God’s favour unto his people.  Unmerited favour of God, the grace of God, comes from God alone.  I do not have deep wells and caverns of God’s grace stored inside of me waiting to pour forth upon the blessed company of all faithful people.  I cannot dig deep or pull grace from the ether to splash upon God’s elect.

And neither can anybody else.  A blessing must come from the one who blesses, and no one can produce God’s favor except for the Lord Almighty.  Although I am authorized by Christ’s Body the Church to give God’s blessing, it does not come from me.  My authority is bound to faithfulness in Christ.  That is, if you come to me planning to commit murder, and ask me to bless your planned assassination, then any blessing I give will only be my own, for I cannot pronounce the blessing of Almighty God upon something which he expressly condemns in his Holy Scriptures.

If we think this all the way through, we might find ourselves getting a bit uncomfortable.  If blessings only come from God, and if only things which conform to God’s revelation to us can be blessed, then what do we think we are doing when we ask God to bless America?

Listen to what that great man, commanding general, Founding Father, and first president George Washington said about God and our country:

“I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my country can inspire, since there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”

“The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.”  God’s blessing cannot be expected on a country that ignores what “rules of order and right” God has established.

Isaiah said in the first lesson:  “The way of the just is uprightness: thou, most upright, dost weigh the path of the just.”  God will keep in perfect peace the nation whose mind is focused on him, which trusts in him, which follows the way of righteousness.  And God is the judge of this – “thou, most upright, dost weigh the path of the just.”

God blesses that which conforms itself to God.  God blesses the man and the woman who come together in holy matrimony according to the way which he has blessed.  God blesses the state which punishes the guilty and protects the innocent.  God blesses the businessman who practices Godly virtues in his conduct of business.

You can only get wet if you stand out in the rain.  Hiding under a shelter won’t get you wet.  You have got to go out where the water is, for in the things of God, you can’t bring the water to you.  You cannot bring God’s blessing to you, for God is stronger than you.  You must acknowledge your weakness and humbly go to God.  He is pouring out his grace every single day, and he wants you to get soaking wet with his blessing.  But you must stop fighting against God and follow him in the ways which he has blessed.

Now this is where I get uncomfortable, for I love America.  My ancestors crossed this river into Georgia over two hundred years ago, after the Revolution.  I love America for the freedom I have to preach the Gospel, to live in peace with my wife, to associate with those whom I want, to speak freely, and generally to practice virtue unmolested.  I love America for the vast beautiful lands, communities of loving and generous people, and the beacon of hope she is to so many foreigners who have not had the opportunity to live in freedom and justice in their own lands.

But I am concerned about America when I consider freedom and justice in our land.  We can argue and debate about the state of the nation until the cows come home, but God only blesses those who follow “the way of righteousness”.

We think that America is the city on a hill, a new Israel, a country blessed from the start by our Lord God Almighty.  But there have been many nations in the long, long history of man.  They have their ups and downs.  Many have been wiped off the map.  We have been a blessed nation; it is true.  But we do not deserve God’s blessing.  God gives his blessing to those who follow him.  And to continue to be blessed by God, we must continue to follow him.

In Washington’s words, “there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness;”  If we wish to remain happy, we must, as nation, keep exercising virtue and turn away from vice.  We must embrace righteousness, and turn away from wickedness.  We must embrace justice, and turn away from injustice.

My dear friends in God, I ask you today if you as a citizen of this country help our country exercise Godly virtue, or do you impede it?  Do you obey the law?  Do you pay your taxes?  Do you encourage others in virtue?  Do you treat your neighbor justly?  Do you vote and participate in your social and civic duties so that you build up and not tear down?  Do you pray for our country, for justice, and for our government officials?

It is easy to bemoan the sad state to which things have fallen.  It is also easy to live our lives wrapped up in our own business, ignoring the world around us.  But the Lord calls us not only to behave ourselves but to take responsibility for our neighbors.  Loving our neighbors is not only a spiritual duty but a civic one as well.  If we want our neighbor’s grandchildren to grow old in the fair and free land which George Washington worked so very hard to win and build for us, we need to look after our nation and country as well as our own business.

At the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a man asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of country did they have.  Franklin quipped:  “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

If you value this nation, then we must work and pray together so that we may keep it.

 

“Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in. Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee. Trust ye in the Lord for ever: for in the Lord JEHOVAH is everlasting strength: The way of the just is uprightness: thou, most upright, dost weigh the path of the just.”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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“And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

“Can’t Get Saved Till You Know You Need Saving”

At the end of today’s Gospel, the rich man asks Abraham to save his brothers.  Though he suffers torment for his neglectful life, he genuinely loves his brothers.  He doesn’t want them to suffer his hellish fate.  So from across the great gulf, the rich man asks Abraham to send the comforted Lazarus back to warn his brothers of the torment that awaits them unless they turn from their wicked ways.

“Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”

Since our Lord Christ is the one telling this story, and since He is the first of all men died and rose from the dead into everlasting life, we can read this and assume He means Himself.  That is, if the wicked do not heed the Law and the prophets, then they will not heed the Son of God rising from the dead.

Christ has not come as a warning, but as a solution to the hitherto intractable problem of sin and death in our world.  The Law of Moses and the prophets of Israel show the way to holiness and good behavior to the nation of Israel and unto the whole world.  But people have not heeded their calls to righteousness.  People instead continue living lives of selfishness and sin.  People would rather feel pleasant sensations than face the objective hard reality of goodness and truth.  We would rather feel good with our friends and family than face the truth of our relationship with Christ.

Each of us who has lived into maturity has faced the choice whether to live inside of loving-kindness or live outside of loving-kindness.  Each of us has faced the decision of whether or not to follow our baser instincts rather than do the right thing.  The easier route is almost always the wrong route.  The wide inclusive way is almost always the way to brokenness and selfishness.

Christians may find this appeal to the Law and the prophets reminds us of the warning of St. Paul in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”

But the relationship between law and faith is not truly one of contradiction.  We read in St. James:  “wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?”  After all, he reasons, “The devils also believe and tremble.”

So how can it be that if the brothers heed not Moses and the prophets neither will they be persuaded if one rose from the dead?  Why does Christ tell such a great story to end it with this teaching?  How can Moses and the prophets matter so much to the good people of metropolitan Augusta today?

 

The beginning of the answer lies in that great Summary of the Law recited here all but one Sunday a month:

“THOU shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

We need to get right with God; we need to get right with our fellow man.  St. Paul writes in that same epistle:  “…behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”

The next clue is the basic kerygma, or preaching message, of the New Testament:  Christ is God who came down among us, died for us, rose again from the dead, and saved us all from sin and death.

Without that operative bit, “rose again from the dead”, we cannot be saved.  That jump from Christ’s death to our salvation in His Resurrection from the dead is only possible for those who operate within some kind of goodness told of in the law and the prophets, the kind of goodness which depends upon (“hangs”) all the law and the prophets.

This is because one of the most important parts of the Law of Moses for us is to quicken our sense of sin.  As St. Paul says in Romans:

“What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.”

If we do not think that good things are good, then we also do not think that bad things are bad.  If Christ came to save us from our sins, the burden of these ultimately bad things which separate us from God, and we do not think separation from God is ultimately bad, then we see no need for Christ to save us.  We think that we do not need Christ, His Church, and His Sacraments because we misperceive the world around us.  That is, we hold tight the lie that we do not need saving.  Thus, we do not need a savior.

This is most obviously true with those who hold that nothing means anything, or nihilists.  Some atheists fall into this category.  Also, Buddhists are resistant to faith in Christ because they believe – and theirs too is a leap of faith – that pain is an illusion and death is not a real thing.  If pain and death are not actual problems, then you do not need actual relief from them, and you do not need the Great Physician of our souls.

Part of the proclamation of the Gospel which we Anglicans have tried to be too polite to preach is that things are bad, death is a real problem, all that we do to try to accommodate ourselves to pain and death is wrong-headed, and we need saving.  We would rather keep our position in society than appear ridiculous, speak against the culture, and risk losing it.  We would rather participate in the sins of others by concealing them, defending them, or simply remaining silent.  This is not the Gospel of Christ.  This is what Christ preached against and would save us from.

Instead, we must loudly and openly acknowledge the wrongness – the sinfulness – of the flesh, the world, and the devil.  We should live such lives of goodness that others find us to stand out from this world of sin, pain, sickness, and death.  Our words and our actions should prick the consciences of those around us.  Others should find us uncomfortable yet fascinating to be around.  Others should be constantly surprised that we do not act as others act.  Others should find themselves drawn to how we behave, to how we love them.  We should be beacons in the darkness, candles on candlesticks, not under bushels.

I guarantee you that if we practice this, it will draw negative attention to us.  Is this too high an honor to render to Christ?  When persecutors spill the blood of martyrs, is this unfortunate?  Or is this their greatest glory?  Is it not rather the greatest sermon their souls could sing forth?  Their ultimate declaration that they follow the ways of their good God no matter what the cost?  Their ultimate declaration that they will not be persuaded by the ways of sin, disease, pestilence, murder, and death?  Rejection by the world is our treasure!

Dear children of God, we must show the loving-kindness of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost forth in our lives.  We must love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our minds.  We must love our neighbor as ourselves.  We must show forth the light of Christ in this broken world so that God the Holy Ghost can prick the consciences of those who lie wallowing in the despair of sin and death who are waiting – just waiting – for the hour of their deliverance to come.

The goodness and holiness which others see in us greatly affects what the Holy Ghost can do in the hearts of men.  Every wicked and selfish act we commit takes those closest to us further from Christ.

Will you instead dare to tell forth the Good News of Christ in your actions and in your love?

 

“And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

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