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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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“Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”

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

 

The Feast of the Annunciation is popularly called “Lady Day”, although it is a feast of our Lord.  The date derives from an ancient idea, that you died on the day of your conception.  Through figuring, early Christians thought that Christ died on March 25th, which meant His incarnation took place on March 25th.  This led to December 25th as His birthday and to June 24th as the date of the conception and death of St. John Baptist.  Despite early medieval attempts to move the feast outside of Lent, the original date prevailed.

From 1066 to 1752, the English held March 25th as New Year’s Day.  Blessed Richard Hooker in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity during Elizabethan times wrote, “We begin therefore our ecclesiastical year with the glorious annunciation of his birth by angelical embassage.”  For nearly 700 years, New Year’s Day was today.  Can you imagine?

 

Our Lady was a woman amongst men, poor amongst powerful, young amongst those wizened in years, and unmarried amongst married.  She was faithful, but she was the least of the Jews.  And yet, through her faithfulness and obedience to God, she becomes the greatest of all people, men or women, who have ever lived who were not God Incarnate.

St. Gabriel tells her that God has “highly favored” her amongst all other people.  You see, God heaps blessings on those the world despises.  We see with the eyes of this world, of this culture, and yet God despises our order and our values except insofar as they conform to him.  God blesses those whom he finds worthy and not those whom the world bathes with awards, treasure, and honor.  “Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.” says Christ.  And again He says, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”  And in the Old Testament, Isaiah lv.9:  “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

St. Mary’s response in great faith made her in the Holy Ghost a vessel through which God the Father poured God the Son into the world.  The Blessed Virgin, though a creature, though our sister through Adam and Eve, became a vital and critically important part of God’s salvation of all the world and all mankind.  We owe a great debt of thanks to her, but she gave it all up to God, and she would have us give it all up to God.  When we submit ourselves to our loving and almighty God, the greatest things in Heaven and Earth can happen.  Again and again, we see in Sacred Scripture God raising up men and women to fulfill his righteous will amongst us.  Since we are created in God’s image and redeemed by God’s Son, we are important.  As obedient to God’s will, we act vitally important.

 

The Blessed Virgin’s obedience did not lead to happiness unbounded.  Remember her mourning at the Cross?  Remember St. Simeon in St. Luke ii.35 prophesying, “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also”?  She gave birth, not in the inn, but in the stables.  They could only afford the sacrifice of the poor when they presented Christ to the Temple.  She and Joseph fled with Christ to Egypt to save His life.  She saw the priests and scribes conspire to kill Him.  And yes, she was there at Pentecost as well.  She lived a blessed life, but she lived neither a sumptuous or easy life.

We think that God’s blessing will bring prosperity and joy, but often God’s blessing brings hard, difficult, and painful work.  Death and suffering accompany us on the journey Godward.

Those with easy lives might think they have gotten away with a well-lived life, when they have done nothing.  Those who have faced an uphill battle through trial and tribulation may cry out for a rest, but may indeed have won a crown.

And note that heavenly visits inspire fear and wonder.  We want to see an angel to comfort us and to strengthen our faith, but indeed we may cower in fear upon the sight of one.  We pray for divine guidance, but find that truly divine guidance will lead us into danger and out of worldly prosperity.  Our simple earthly minds cannot fathom nor comprehend the immense and profound wonder that a heavenly being such as St. Gabriel would have upon us.

Never doubt the courage of the Virgin when she placed herself into God’s hands during the visit by the angel.  Such an overwhelming and scary experience for a young woman!  But perhaps this is what our Lord meant when He said that we had to become as little children to enter into the Kingdom of God.  He would have us remain innocent and open to fantastic experience, not hardened and jaded like we had earned every year of our life through hard work and bitter disappointment.

And if anything can happen, then what is next?  Probably not what we expect.  The faithful Christian should have a heart like St. Mary, open to the unbelievable possibilities of Almighty God, our Heavenly Father.  We must truly believe that the Holy Ghost can do all things.  We must truly believe that Christ is one of us and lived a life amongst us.  We must believe in miracles and goodness and holiness and not insist upon having things our way.

 

As we are all brothers of Christ through adoption, and since we enter into eternal life through Christ, so we may faithfully and truly say that the Blessed Virgin Mary is the mother of us all.  Christ saying to St. John from the Cross, “behold your mother”, and saying to his mother from the Cross, “behold your son”, is the symbol of this truth.

Moreover, St. Mary had the Lord inside of her just as the Messiah was within Israel, and Christ came forth from His mother just as out of Israel the Messiah came forth.

As the Blessed Virgin Mary is our mother and as she is a type of Israel, so she is a type of Holy Church.  Through our mother Holy Church, we are birthed into new life.  Thus Christians may call St. Mary our mother as well.  It is as St. Mary as mother of us who through obedience allowed salvation into the world through Christ flips the work of Eve, who though mother of us all, allowed sin into the world through Adam.

 

In the lady parts of our Lady, God the Son became Incarnate Body and Blood, anticipating and prefiguring how this bread and wine shall become the Body and Blood of Christ for us to eat and drink on God’s altar in just a few minutes.  St. John Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb when he encountered our Lord Jesus in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  So we bow and kneel before Christ in His Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.  And the Blessed Virgin helped make it happen.

If you love Jesus, you have to love His mama, for He certainly did.  If you would love like Christ loves, you would love the Blessed Virgin Mary.  But if somehow you love the Blessed Virgin more than Christ, she would be the first one to correct you and point you to her Son, for she followed Him, and obeyed Him, and was there at the Cross and on Pentecost.

 

The Blessed Virgin Mary shows us that God chooses the weak of this world, shows us that following God can be costly, and shows us that she is our mother as well as our sister.  But most importantly, the Blessed Virgin is the model for Christian discipleship.

“Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” This is the model of the humble and faithful Christian’s prayer, placing himself under God’s will.

Father Massey Shepherd said that St. Mary is the “perfect example of a humble acceptance of God’s favor and a ready and trusting obedience to His will.  Here, indeed, one witnesses in purest form the self-giving response of a human life to the redeeming purpose of God.”

St. Mary is told she will be the mother of the Son of the Highest, and yet she makes no grand claims.  She calls herself handmaiden, a servant, chosen by another.  How often does God give us something small and we claim something big?  How often do we boast of our station or wealth or knowledge or capabilities when it all came from our good God and we earned so very little of it?  Give God the glory!  We should learn from her.

And then she wishes that God’s will be done, foreshadowing Christ’s teaching of that in his prayer, “Thy will be done.”  The Blessed Virgin teaches us how to behave before our Lord God.  She is the prototypical Christian, our mother by example if our sister by birth.

St. Mary’s “yes”, as well as our “yes”, is only the beginning of a marvelous and gracious journey of faith.  In the Gospel and the mission of the Church, each moment opens with opportunities to follow Christ, obey God, and spread the Gospel.  Like St. Mary, our obedience to God should form our essential identity in Christ.

What St. Mary started at home one day by emptying herself to God before St. Gabriel culminated in Christ emptying Himself on the hard wood of the Cross that dark day upon the hilltop.  We empty ourselves for God, not negotiating and wheedling with him about what pet trifles we might keep.  Jesus says in St. Luke’s Gospel, “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

We surrender all to God.  We obey God.  We follow God.  We empty ourselves for God.  God is all we have, for we and all we have come from him.

 

“Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”

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

 

 

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