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Strength, Power, and Might

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, November 13, 2011, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.   Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.   For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.   Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.  (Eph. 6:10-13) 

          What a wonderful thing it is to be strong!   When I was a boy, I went to see Paul Anderson who was billed as the strongest man in the world.  Some of his accomplishments were listed in Guinness Book of World Records.      I saw Paul Anderson in 1967, I think, and he performed all kinds of weightlifting feats, and then afterword preached a wonderful sermon on proofs of the Resurrection of Christ.  He was not only the world’s strongest man, but also an active witness for Christ.

We see weightlifters in the Olympics and wonder how they could get that strong.  Physical strength is a great blessing, and you don’t know what a blessing it is until you lose it.   Strength is necessary for so much of what we do.   We couldn’t go to work without strength.  We couldn’t engage in athletic competitions without strength.   Think of the various occupations that require great strength, such as construction workers, roofers, roughnecks, and pipefitters.

When we think of people who need great physical strength, soldiers come to mind.  When Paul thinks of the spiritual strength we need, it was only natural to think of soldiers.  The Christian is often portrayed in Scripture as a soldier.     We emphasize this aspect of the Christian life in our baptismal service.   The priest says,

We receive this Child (or person) into the congregation of Christ’s flock; and do sign him with the sign of the Cross, in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end. Amen.

When we are baptized, we are enlisted in the army of the Lord.

There are many kinds of soldiers in the world, but the Christian soldier requires more strength than any other person, for as St. Paul writes, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood.”   We are fighting against principalities and powers.  We are wrestling with spiritual wickedness in high places.  In other words, the Christian is fighting against the forces of hell itself.   Looking at the powerful enemies we face, the apostle Paul looks at the Christian and says, “Be strong.”

Have you ever had someone tell you, “Be strong”?  Most of the time, don’t you hate it when people tell you that?   Usually people say that to you when you are facing some kind of trial or difficulty in your life.   You are dealing with grief,  you are facing a surgery and you are scared, or you have an illness, and it is weighing you down and people say rather flippantly, “Well, you have to be strong.”   You want to reply, “Yes, and I’d like to see you be strong if you were going through what I’m going through.”  You want to say, “I know I have to be strong.  I want to be strong, but the question is, ‘How can I be strong in the face of this difficulty’?”  When we are facing the great battles of life, and when we are facing the great temptations in life, how are we to be strong, especially during those times when you feel your weakest?

This command, “to be strong,” comes to many of God’s people throughout Scripture.   When Joshua was about to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land, God told him,

Be strong and of a good courage: for unto this people shalt thou divide for an inheritance the land, which I sware unto their fathers to give them.  Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper whithersoever thou goest.   This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success. Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the LORD thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.  (Joshua 1:6-9)

Three times in those 4 verses, the Lord tells Joshua, “Be strong.”   When we think of soldiers and great military leaders in the Bible, we most often think of Joshua.   He was the one who led the people of Israel into the Promised Land.   He was the one who led the people into battle against insurmountable forces.   Perhaps, as he stood on the borders of the Promised Land, he began to wonder, “Can I do this?  Can I really lead these people into this land where there are so many powerful enemies?”  Perhaps he was having doubts.   Why else would the Lord tell him three times, “Be strong”? He must have needed the encouragement.  God may have been saying, “Yes, there are great battles ahead, great enemies to face, but you must be strong.”

The Lord says the same thing to us.   He tells us that we have many battles to face.   We have many spiritual enemies who want to destroy our souls.  They are going to come against us like a flood.   We are going to be tempted to disobey the Lord, the temptations are going to be strong, and we are going to feel as though we are powerless to resist.   We are going to face trials in our lives,  and when those trials come, these forces of hell are going to tempt us to doubt the love and mercy of God, perhaps to even doubt his very existence.   Then, one day, we are going to face death.  We may as well get used to it.   The Christian life is one battle after the other.   There will never be a time when we can put down our swords and take off our armor. We are going to get tired in the conflict, but the Lord comes to us and says, “Be strong.”

This command that God gave to Joshua to be strong is one that keeps being repeated in Scripture.   In the book of Joshua, there is the story of how Joshua captured those five kings hiding in the cave of Makkedah, and we are told Joshua “called for all the men of Israel, and said unto the captains of the men of war which went with him, Come near, put your feet upon the necks of these kings. And they came near, and put their feet upon the necks of them.   And Joshua said unto them, Fear not, nor be dismayed, be strong and of good courage: for thus shall the LORD do to all your enemies against whom ye fight” (Joshua 10:24-25).   You see that Joshua is telling his men the same thing that God had told him:  “Be strong and of good courage.”   If you are, you will be able to put your feet on the necks of all your enemies.

In the book of I Chronicles, David is giving his charge to Solomon to build the temple, the house of the Lord, and he uses these words again that God spoke to Joshua:   “Now, my son, the LORD be with thee; and prosper thou, and build the house of the LORD thy God, as he hath said of thee.  Only the LORD give thee wisdom and understanding, and give thee charge concerning Israel, that thou mayest keep the law of the LORD thy God.   Then shalt thou prosper, if thou takest heed to fulfil the statutes and judgments which the LORD charged Moses with concerning Israel: be strong, and of good courage; dread not, nor be dismayed”  (I Chron. 22:11-13) .   Then,in chapter 28, David speaks again to Solomon, and we read, “And David said to Solomon his son, Be strong and of good courage, and do it: fear not, nor be dismayed: for the LORD God, even my God, will be with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee, until thou hast finished all the work for the service of the house of the LORD” (I Chron. 28:20).

In the New Testament, we have this same command, “Be strong.”  We have it here in Ephesians 6, and we read it again in I Cor. 16:13, where St. Paul writes, “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong.”  Paul tells Timothy, “Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.  And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.  Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (II Tim. 2:1-3).   We need strength if we are going to bear the difficulties a soldier must face.

On this past Friday, we celebrated Veteran’s Day, and we gave thanks for all the people who have served their country, and who are serving our country.   Some gave their lives in various wars to preserve our freedoms.   Some survived and live on.   But whether they lived or died, the one thing they had in common was that they had to endure hardness.   It’s not easy being a soldier.   My wife and I were watching a program the other night that described some of the living conditions that soldiers and sailors have to endure.   I don’t think I could endure three days on one of those ships, much less three months.   Because of Tom Brokaw’s book, we now often refer to that WWII generation as “the greatest generation.”   They knew how to endure hardness.   They knew how to be strong.  I don’t know what kind of generation the people of the future will call us.  We may be regarded as “the weakest generation,” because we have been so pampered that we don’t know how to endure hardness.

It is difficult for us to be strong.  Yet,  the Christian is called upon to face life’s toughest battles, and, like the wimps we often are, we say, “I can’t endure this.  I could handle anything but this.”  Still, the command still comes to us, “Be strong.”

How can we be strong in life’s most trying moments?  There are some people who just seem to have a natural ability to be able to face anything.  But usually, no matter how much a person may have this natural fortitude, things often arise where our natural abilities, or our natural strength of mind, fail us.  In these spiritual battles we face, we have no natural strength to be able to endure these things.  You make a great mistake if you think that you can face the forces of hell with your own will power.  When these forces of spiritual wickedness come at us with temptations, doubts, fears, we cannot fight them in our own strength.  They are simply too powerful for us.   But St. Paul gives us the key to victory in this verse:  “Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.”   The first key to being strong in the spiritual battle is to realize how weak you are and how dependent you are upon the might and power of God.  You can have strength, and you can have might, but to face these battles, it must be his strength and his might.

Three words are used in that short verse that give us the hope of victory in all our spiritual battles:  strength, power, and might.   But strength, power, and might come from the Lord.  If we have his strength, power and might, there is no force we cannot conquer, no trial we cannot endure, and no temptation we cannot subdue.

How do we obtain this strength, this power, this might?   If you are a Christian, it is already at your disposal.    St. Peter writes, “According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue” (II Peter 1:3).    We have already have all things we need to live a godly life, so we already have strength, power, and might, but we don’t access these resources that God has bestowed upon us.  Let’s take a man who is a real couch potato.   He does nothing but sit all day and watch sitcoms and sporting events.  Then, he complains about how weak he is, and how he has shortness of breath and tires so quickly.   He is probably weak because of his inactivity.  If he got  off the couch and worked out, he would find he was getting stronger day by day

Christians complain that they are weak, but are they?  The strength, the power, the might are there at our disposal.  We simply refuse to believe it is there.   Yet, hasn’t God given us evidence throughout our lives that it is there.   Many of you have been through very trying and difficult times, and you probably said,  “I don’t have the strength to get through this.”   But you did.  Wasn’t that the strength, the power, and the might of God working in you, showing you that you could do things that you thought were impossible?

How do we access this strength, power, and might? God has given us all the means of grace to help us acquire these resources.  The first, of course, is prayer.   Prayer is a recognition that we are dependent on God.   Prayer is an expression of real humility, for it is an admission, “I cannot face this on my own.”  It is an incredible moment in a Christian’s life when he fully realizes how dependent he is on God.   Many people seem to never realize it, but for many, there comes that moment when you go to your knees and confess, “Lord, I  cannot endure these struggles unless you give me strength.” Then, that wonderful, miraculous thing does happen:—strength is given.

Then,  the word of God is a means of grace to strengthen us.  If you want strength, power, and might, you must immerse yourself in Scripture, for faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.   As you absorb God’s word into your heart and mind, your faith is increased.  It is by faith that we access this strength, power, and might.   It is there for us, but we need the faith to believe it, and that faith is increased as we study the word of God.   Remember how St. Paul describes Abraham’s faith.   God made to him a promise that  seemed to be impossible  to fulfill.  God promised him that he would only have a son, but also that he would become the father of many nations.   St. Paul describes Abraham’s faith in this manner:  “And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb:   He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God;  And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform” (Rom. 4:19-21).     This is the faith we must have.   We must be strong in faith, believing the promises of God, and when we truly believe them, we will  have strength, power, and might,  and we will not stagger, even during the onslaught of our mightiest enemies.

Then, there is this sacrament of Holy Communion to strengthen us.   For us, it is more than a memorial.   We really expect, when we partake of these elements, that strength, power, and might will be imparted to us.   There is no one time experience whereby we are given all the strength, power, and might that we will need for the rest of our lives.   It is given to us as we need it, and it is communicated to us through the normal use of the means of grace:  worship, preaching, Bible study, prayer, and the sacraments.  We are here on this day to worship God, but we are also here to receive strength, power, and might.

Yes, we face great and powerful enemies, but we must be strong in the Lord.   In II Chronicles  32 we have the story of how the king of Assyria, Sennacherib,  was about to conquer Judah and Jerusalem when Hezekiah was king.   The Assyrians had the greatest military might in the world at that time.   Their cruelty was legendary, and the whole world was afraid of them, but  Hezekiah goes to the people and he says, “Be strong and courageous, be not afraid nor dismayed for the king of Assyria, nor for all the multitude that is with him: for there be more with us than with him:  With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the LORD our God to help us, and to fight our battles. And the people rested themselves upon the words of Hezekiah king of Judah” (II Chron. 32:7-8).  There we find the key to strength, power, and might.   The military might of Jerusalem was no match for the Assyrians, but Hezekiah says, “There be more with us than with him.”  The Lord is with us, and will fight our battles.   No matter what battles we face, always remember that God is greater, far more powerful than any force that comes against you.   If you stand in his strength, you cannot be defeated.   We are told that the people rested themselves upon the words of Hezekiah.   Isn’t that beautiful?   Oh, that we could do the same.   We have a whole book of promises telling us this same truth over and over.   No matter what you are facing, God is with you.  God will give you strength.  He will fight your battles.   If we only had faith to believe it to be so, we could rest on his word and find peace, knowing that we will have the strength, power, and might to face whatever might come at us in this life, for it is the strength, power, and might of God himself.   Amen.

 

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Strengthening the Inner Man

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, October 9, 2011, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named,  That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man.  (Eph. 3:14-16) 

During this time of year, every Saturday and Sunday, we get to see some athletes in action who are pretty amazing physical specimens.  When we see some of these football players we are overwhelmed by their size.   If you have an opportunity to actually meet some of these offensive linemen, you feel that you are standing next to a giant of a man.   Some of the other players may not be that large, but they have incredible muscles, and we hear tales of how much they can bench press.  In an outward sense, they are very powerful men.  Yet, every year it seems that we hear more and more stories of how these boys and men who have all this incredible physical strength do not have much moral strength.  We hear of some of them being involved in thefts, losing their tempers and battering their wives or girlfriends, or being arrested for DUI.    While they are incredibly strong on the outside, some of them don’t seem to be very strong on the inside.  They do not seem to have much strength in the way of goodness and virtue.

In the writings of St. Paul, several times we find him referring to this difference between the inward man and the outward man.  In this passage from his epistle to the Ephesians, he prays that they would be strengthened by the Holy Spirit in the inner man.  In Scripture, there is an outward man and an inner man.  That outward man is what we would think of as the body.  As we have observed, that outward person can be very strong, or it can be very weak.  We all know people who are extremely healthy.  Then, there are those who because of accidents, illnesses, or old age, have become quite weak in the outward man.  As we go through Scripture, we often find that people who are strong in the outward man are not always strong in the inner man.  Take Samson, for example.  Certainly, there was no one stronger in terms of the outward man, but inwardly, what a weakling he often proved to be, unable to control his passions, his anger, and his lusts.  On the other hand, we have someone like the apostle Paul, who seems not to have been a very impressive physical specimen.  He said that other people thought that his outward presence was weak and contemptible.    Knowing all the beatings and other forms of abuse he had experienced, St. Paul probably looked pretty weak.  If he had an eye disease, as some Bible scholars think, he may have even had a facial deformity that was not pleasant to look upon.    Though he may have been weak on the outside, what strength he had inwardly!   He had the strength to continue to go on all those missionary journeys, spreading the gospel of Christ around the world at great cost to his physical health, being in prisons, suffering beating, and floating in the sea after a shipwreck.  But he kept on going for the cause of Christ.  What inner strength he displayed!

As I said, the outward man refers to the body.   I would include in this description of the outward man the brain, the mind, or the intellect.   As we have noticed throughout our lives, some people, because of genetic blessing, or just through intense study, have minds that are very strong and vigorous.  There is more to the inward man than just our thoughts.  The inward main is something spiritual, but the brain is still part of the body.  The brain can become weak and sick.  People can have strokes and their minds never be what they were before.  People can have Alzheimer’s disease, and it is terrible to watch them come to the place where they no longer recognize us, and we really no longer recognize them because of the changes that take place in their personalities.  Yet, people can have strong intellects, and, at the same time, be very weak in a moral and spiritual sense.  We often say that Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived, and his writings do demonstrate great wisdom.  But anybody who thinks he can handle 300 wives and 400 concubines is also demonstrating some severe weakness in wisdom.  We can include the brain as part of this outward man that can be very strong in some ways, and yet not prevent us from some very serious moral failings.

In II Cor. 4:16, St. Paul writes, “though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.”  There again is this distinction between the outward man and the inward man.  This outward man is described as perishing.    Whether we realize it or not, all of us are perishing in this outward man.  There is something within us, the aging process, and it is leading us toward that time when we are going to perish.  When sickness and old age comes along, that sense of the outward man perishing becomes more pronounced.    Bodily organs begin to fail, weakness begins to set in, muscles just aren’t as strong as they used to be, and these brains of ours just don’t seem to function as they once did—we are not able to learn things as fast as we once were, and we become forgetful.  Paul was right when he said that the outward man is perishing, and it is inevitable.

Nevertheless, he told the Corinthians that the inward man is being renewed day.  He told the Ephesians that he was praying that the Holy Spirit would strengthen them in the inner man.  What is the inner man that must be strengthened and renewed?  The inner man, as I said, is more than the inner thoughts and feelings of a person.  The inner man is that new person that has been created in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Christians are new creations in Christ Jesus.  We are given a new heart, a new mind, a new spirit, an inner person that can love God and serve God and have fellowship with God.  It is this inner man that needs to be strengthened and renewed day by day.

You may not realize it at the present time, but you need this inner man, and you need this inner man to be strong.  It is this inner man that will help you during your times of temptation to say, “No.”  It is this inner man that receives the comforts of God when you are sick, bereaved, or facing tragedy in your life.  It is this inner man that is instructed, led, and guided by the Holy Spirit when you are facing difficult choices and decisions in your life.    The great advantage of being a Christian is that when all these things happen to you, you have this inner man to look to and rely upon.   One of the saddest moments in life for many people is that whenever they confront these terrible moments in life, they have no inner man.    They don’t have this person living within that can be comforted and guided during those awful moments.    Sometimes, even the Christian finds that though he has this inner man, he has not been nourishing it, strengthening it, and when these trials come, they find this inner man to be very weak.    For example, when temptations come, if the inner man has not been nourished, the inner man is not strong enough to overcome the desires of the flesh.  Remember how St. Paul put it in Romans 7: “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:   But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:22-23) . There again is that term “inward man,” and we can see that Paul says he delights in the law of God after the inward man.  That inward man has been placed in us by God himself, and as such, it delights in the law of God.  This inward man, placed in us by God, wants to obey God.  But there is something else present with us.  There is sin which still resides in us.  In Galatians 5:17, the apostle writes, “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.”  There is this constant battle going on between the flesh and spirit, between our sinful nature and the inner man, and sometimes, the flesh wins.  We do the things we don’t want to do.  Deep down inside there is this inner man, this true self created by God that wants to do what is right in the sight of God.  But this inner man needs to be strengthened.

St. Paul tells these Ephesian Christians that he is praying for them that the Holy Spirit would strengthen them in the inner man.  How does this strengthening take place?  Do we just sit around and wait for it to happen.    No, once again, we must use all the means of grace at our disposal, and the Holy Spirit uses those means to strengthen us.  Just as we use means such as exercise and the right food to nourish these outward bodies, we need to use those things God has given us to strengthen the inner man.  We must study the Scriptures.  We must pray a great deal, praying specifically that the Holy Spirit would strengthen the inner man.  We need to attend worship and the preaching of God’s word.  We need the sacrament of Holy Communion.  We pray that as we take this Holy Communion that we will be “made one body with Christ, that he may dwell in us and we in him.”   This is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ to preserve us body and soul to everlasting life.  The Holy Spirit uses all these means of grace to strengthen the inner man.

Let me say a special word of encouragement to our young people.   Start strengthening this inner man now!  You are going to need him, and you are going to need him to be strong.  It is a terrible thing to wake up one day, facing a temptation, a trial, a sickness, or a tragedy and realize that you have such a weak inner man to face these challenges.  You know the old saying by Mickey Mantle, “If I knew I’d live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”  The same thing is true of the inner man.  If you live long enough, you are going to need a strong inner man, and you will wish that you had been spending your time strengthening it.

Thanks be to God, abundant strength for the inner man is available if you will only spend the time and effort to access it, for Paul prays that God “would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man.”  Where do you get this strength for the inner man?  It is true that you get this strength from the Holy Spirit, but notice how St. Paul describes this source of strength.  St. Paul prays that God would grant this strength “according to the riches of his glory.”  Just think of all the trials and testing you will face.  You are going to need a great deal of strength.  But look to heaven and picture there a huge treasure chest filled with all the strength you need, described here as “the riches of his glory.”  That’s a lot of strength, isn’t it?  How much strength do you need?  All of that strength comes flowing to us from God’s abundant riches of strength. Do you need to be strengthened in the inner man?    Look to God right now and see how glorious he is.  He is glorious in strength and power.  Now, ask him for his strength.  Ask him, pray to him earnestly, and he will give the strength in the inner man that you need.  He has great riches of strength to share with you.

The wonderful thing about this inner strengthening is that it can continue throughout life.  I read to you a moment ago a passage from II Cor. 4, where Paul writes, “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.”  It is so sad that this outward man has to perish.  As we get older, we look in the mirror and see more evidence that the outward man is perishing.  We try so hard to keep the outward man from perishing, but no amount of money, no amount of good eating, and no amount of exercise can put it off forever.  The outward man is perishing.  There are all kinds of theories about why we age.  There are biological theories and genetic theories, and from time to time researchers say that they have come up with ways to slow it down.  Perhaps we will find ways to slow down the aging process in the future, but eventually the outward man perishes, and we all know that it is happening to each of us as we sit here now.  But Paul says that the inward man is being renewed day by day.  What would you think if you could say, “My body is being renewed every day?  I’m not getting older.  I’m getting younger”?  In a spiritual sense, that is to be true of the Christian.  Inwardly, we are not wearing out.  We are being renewed every day.  Bob Dylan wrote a song, later made more popular by The Byrds, where he says, “Oh, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”  The Christian can have that kind of outlook.  The Christian can say, “Every day, my outlook on life, my hope for the future, is getting brighter and brighter.”  Paul could say, “When you look at me, you just see the outward man.  You just see that I’m getting older and how I’m suffering all the results of years of persecution.  But you don’t see the inward man, how I’m being sustained, refreshed, rejuvenated, and this inner man will be sustained until that day when I am in heaven with energy, freshness, and youthful innocence, even better than that which Adam experienced in the Garden of Eden.”

What is the purpose of all this renewing?  Why does the Holy Spirit strengthen the inner man?  Why is the inward man being renewed day by day?  In this same chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul tells us why God strengthens the inner man:  “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;  And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God (Eph. 3:17-19). All this strengthening of the inner man is designed to show us the love of Christ, to reveal to us the love of Christ.  No matter what we are going through in this life, the inner man is strengthened to look beyond all this and see that love of God which passes knowledge, and when you comprehend that love, you are filled with all the fullness of God.    Let us look now to the riches of his glory and pray that we might be strengthened in the inner man to know the love of Christ which renews us day by day.  Amen.

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Purify Yourself

Purify Yourself

“And every man that hath this hope in him purifies himself, even as he is pure.”

I John 3:3

A Sermon preached on Sunday, February 12, 2011 by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D., at St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

(click here to listen to the audio recording of this sermon)

Text for this sermon pending

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We Are Not Shadow Boxing

“Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.”

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

A Sermon preached on Sunday, February 19, 2011 by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D., at St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

(click here to listen to the audio recording of this sermon)

Text for this sermon pending

 

Video of the 1973 Joe Frazier/George Foreman Fight

Video of the George Foreman/Muhammad Ali Fight

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Worthy to Wear White

A Sermon by S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.

Preached on Sunday, November 1, 2009

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, LA

Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy (Rev. 3:4).

Last week at our Youth Sunday School, we were having a discussion about the meaning of All Saints’ Day, and I was explaining to the young people why we wear white at this special time of the year.  I also explained that I also wear a white alb every Sunday, even if it is not All Saints’.  As I was describing the meaning of wearing white, I said that white represented purity of life.  When I said that, one of our young people said, “Wow!  That’s saying a lot about yourself.”     When she said that, it may me not ever want to put on the white alb again, because if it does indeed stand for purity of life, which one of us could ever wear the white alb in good conscience?

When we read verses like Rev. 3:4, “Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy,” it confuses us a little.  After all, isn’t the whole point of the Bible, the whole thrust of the gospel, to show us that we are not worthy to wear white?  Don’t we emphasize over and over that we are not worthy of any of the blessings that God has ever given to us?  Don’t we constantly cry out with Jacob, “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant…” (Gen. 32:10).  We are like the centurion who told our Lord Jesus Christ, “I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof” (Matt. 8:8).  Each Sunday morning, before we take Holy Communion, we say, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.”   We say with John the Baptist that we are not worthy to even unloose the latchet of our Lord’s sandals.  Whenever we baptize a child, such as we did a couple of weeks ago, I present the child with a white garment and challenge him to bring it unstained to the judgment seat of Christ.  How could we possibly go through our lives and hope to arrive at the judgment seat of Christ with an unstained garment?  Whenever we think of all the sins that we have committed, doesn’t it seem that our garment will be so dirty and soiled that there won’t be a single speck of white showing through?

Yet, when we read the descriptions of Christians, both in this world and in the world to come, we find them described as wearing a white garment, which does indeed represent purity of life.    This passage in Rev. 3:4 says that there were some people there in Sardis who had not defiled their garments.    Then, we read  that those who have gone on to heaven are clothed in white garments.  “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment” (Rev. 3:5).  “And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.” (Rev. 4:4).  “After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands” (Rev. 7:9).  “And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean” (Rev. 19:14).  Thus, on All Saints’ it is appropriate to wear white since the saints are described as wearing it.

Still, knowing our own sinfulness, how is it that we ever get a white robe when we are so unworthy of wearing it?      First, though it is true that we are guilty of innumerable sins, the Christian’s sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ.  For our closing hymn this morning we are going to sing, “Who are these like stars appearing.”  The inspiration for that song comes from Rev. 7:13-14, “And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?  And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  If we have white robes, it is because our robes have been washed in the blood of Christ.  If you were to dip a robe in blood, you might expect that it would come out red, but in God’s universe, when you wash your dirty robe in red blood, it comes out white as snow.  As we read in Isaiah 1:18, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”  It is true that our sins are many, but the promise of Scripture in I John is, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.   If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:7-9).    It is true that we are unworthy to wear the white robe, but we have been made worthy by what Christ did on the cross.  He shed his blood to wash us clean, so that our robes would be white, and that we might walk in heaven with him forever, in a robe as pure and white as that of his own, because any righteousness we have, any purity we have, comes from him, and him alone.  So, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, if you are placing your faith and trust in him, you are in fact wearing a white robe.  When you see us each Sunday wearing these white robes that symbolize purity, always see them as white, because they have been washed in the blood of Christ.

But there is another sense in which the Christian is worthy to wear white.  He is worthy to wear white because he lives a life that is worthy of a Christian.    Notice carefully what I said.  I didn’t say that we are worthy to wear white because we are sinless.  I said that the Christian is worthy to wear the white robe because he lives a life that is worthy of a Christian. This is what St. Paul meant in Colossian 1:9-11, when he wrote, “For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding;  That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God;  Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness.”  Notice how Paul says that the Christian can walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing.  It doesn’t mean that the Christian is sinless, but it does mean that his life is characterized by obedience, by holiness, by a zeal and determination to please God in all things.   When we are fruitful in every good work, we are walking worthy of the Lord.   St. Paul said in Ephesians 4:1, “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called.”  You have been called to Christ.  You have been called to bear the name of Christ.  Now, walk worthy of that calling.  This is why the Lord gives us his Holy Spirit, so that we might be “strengthened with all might,” given the power to walk in obedience to the commandments of God.  In one of our readings for today, we read from one of the Apocryphyal books, The Wisdom of Solomon.  As you know, in the Reformed Episcopal Church,  we do not consider such books to be part of the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God and cannot use them to establish any doctrine, but we can use them as valuable tools of instruction in morals.  In the Wisdom of Solomon 3, verse 5, we are told that God proved those who have gone on to heaven.  He tested them and found them worthy of himself.  This is what happens to in the course of our Christian lives.  We go through many trials and tribulations, but through them all, we walk worthy of the Lord who has called us.  This is what our Lord meant when he said that there were people at Sardis who had not defiled their garments.  He didn’t mean that they were perfectly sinless, but it did mean that they had not departed from the faith.  The great sin at the church in Sardis was that they were pretending to be spiritually alive, going through the rituals and the motions, but they were in fact dead spiritually.  But there were some at Sardis, though not perfect, who nevertheless, were spiritually alive and were living lives that demonstrated that they were alive.

Though the Christian is not sinless, it can be said of him that, overall, his life is characterized by godliness and holiness.  We read of Zacharias and Elizabeth, “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Luke 1:6).  Does that mean that Zacharias and Elizabeth never sinned?  Of course not.  But it does mean that overall, their lives were characterized by obedience.  They walked worthy of the Lord to all pleasing.

The Christian’s worthiness to wear the robe is two-fold.  His robes have been washed in the blood of the lamb, and he lives a life that corresponds to the sacrifice that Christ made on his behalf, because Christ himself has given us his strength, a strength in the inner man, that enables us to walk worthy of the calling by which we are called.  “They shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy.”  How could they be worthy?  They are worthy because of what Christ has done for them and in them.

This morning as we gaze into heaven and experience the wonderful communion of saints, as I say, “Lift up your hearts,” and we are aware that we are worshiping now with all the saints on earth and all the saints in heaven, we should be a aware that they are wearing white.  By the eye of faith, see them now, “Clad in robes of purest whiteness,/Robes whose luster ne’er shall fade.”  But then, wonder of wonders, take a look at yourself, and by the eye of faith, see that you are also clothed in a glorious white garment, and fall upon your knees confessing your unworthiness to wear it, but at the same time, rejoicing that by his death, resurrection, and glorious ascension, Christ has made you worthy.  Amen.

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Lies We Tell Ourselves

A Sermon

Preached on August 23, 2009

By the Rev. Dr. S. Randall Toms at St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:  Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.  The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.  I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.  And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.  (St. Luke 18:9-14)

I was reading an article a couple of months ago about a study that began back in the 1930s of some Harvard students that followed them throughout their lives down to the present time, trying to determine the things that made them happy or depressed, whether they felt that they had had a good life or not.  One of the interesting things that the study revealed was how people’s perceptions about themselves changes over the course of their lives, and how the stories we tell about certain events in our lives change over time.  For example, in 1946, when these men were asked about their experiences in World II, 34% reported that they had seen actual combat.  When they asked them these same questions 40 years later, 40% reported that they had seen combat.  In 1946, 25% of them said that had actually killed an enemy soldier.  Forty years later, only 14% said that they had actually killed an enemy.  Why did their stories change over the years?  It seems that we change the stories about ourselves in order to make ourselves look better, either in our own eyes, or in the eyes of others, depending perhaps even on how the culture around us changes.  Most of you know how I like to tell about my glory days on the basketball court.  After reading this article, I began to wonder if I really did all the things I said I did.  By the time I’m 70, who knows what my stories may be like?

A few years ago I was at a family reunion and we were sitting around reminiscing about old times.  We were talking about an annual event that we have in our family and the way some people worked so hard to make it a success.  One of my relatives began to talk about how she had worked so hard every year to cook and clean to make everything turn out well.  And everybody in the family was looking around at one another, because none of us could recall that she had ever lifted a finger to help.  We wondered how she could lie like that, but in her own mind, perhaps she wasn’t lying.  She had created this fiction about herself and she really believed it.

One of the New York Times Bestsellers from a few years ago was a book entitled, Water for Elephants.  It is a novel about life in the circus, back in the 1920s and 1930s.  But the story is told from today by a man, now in his 90s, who is in a nursing home.  He was in the circus most of his life.  There is another old man in the nursing home who also claims to have been in the circus, but the man who was actually in the circus can tell that the other man is lying, and it makes him so angry when this other man starts talking about his days in the circus.  One day he tells one of the nurses how the other man is lying, and the nurse says, “He’s not really lying.  It is common among elderly people that they create a past that they wish had been true, and eventually, they come to believe that it is true.

This same Harvard study that I mentioned earlier, at one point, sent to these men questionnaires and answers that they had filled out in their sophomore days at college concerning who they were, their beliefs, their ambitions, and so forth.  One of the men sent back his packet and said that it was obvious that they had mixed up his file with someone else because he could have never answered those questions in that way.  But he had.  We change so much over the years, at least in the way we see ourselves, and when we are confronted with what we were really like back then, it is difficult for us to believe.

It is difficult for us to believe what we once were.  It is difficult for us to believe what we are, so we often create a fiction about ourselves.  Some psychologist refer to this as one of our many defense mechanisms that we employ in order to keep from seeing ourselves as we really are, because the truth is just too painful to face.

We have an example of this ability to see ourselves as we really are in our gospel reading for today.  The Pharisee sees himself as a holy and righteous man.  He says that he fasts twice a week, and he is a tither, he gives God 10% of everything that comes to him.  So, he is very proud of himself.  Furthermore, he is not an adulterer, not an extortioner, not unjust, and certainly not a dishonest man like this tax collector who is standing nearby.  He is a very religious man.  But unfortunately, his religion has only blinded him to what he really is.  Though the Pharisee thought of himself very highly, you will remember that our Lord Jesus Christ did not view the Pharisees generally in very favorable light.  Remember our Lord’s description of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.  For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.   But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,  And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi….   Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.  Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.  Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.  Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. (Matt. 23:1-7, 14-15, 23-28)

Yes, it was true that they fasted and prayed, but they fasted and prayed so that men would see them and think how pious and holy they were.  They put on a great show of being holy, they were very religious on the outside, but on the inside, they were full of hatred and prejudice.  They had all kinds of lists of rules and regulations for people to follow, but they had forgotten about justice, mercy, and faith.  So, Jesus said that they were straining at gnats and swallowing camels.  Much like the current controversy in Judaism concerning whether gelatin can be eaten within a milk product, since gelatin is an animal product and it is contrary to kosher law to eat meat with milk.  In Jesus’ day, they had minute regulations about what you could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath day, but if someone was in need, they might not help them because it might be a violation of one of their Sabbath laws.

It seems that they have created a fiction about themselves.  They took great pride in being holy, but Jesus said they stole from widows, they were guilty of extortion.  They had such a sight of themselves as being holy that they couldn’t see these glaring faults and inconsistencies in their own lives.  Sadly, we often use our religion to blind ourselves to what we really are.  Like the Pharisees, we think about all the good things we do and ignore all that is wrong in our lives.  And we create these fictions about ourselves.    I have spent all my life in churches, been a preacher for nearly all my life, and I have known Pharisees of all shapes and sizes.  I have been a Pharisee myself at many points in my life.  Like the Pharisees, we make all kinds of rules and regulations for ourselves and think that if we keep those, we are holy.  We give all our attention to things like whether we should drink or smoke, whether we should wear make-up, jewelry, or sleeveless dresses, and on and on the lists go that Christians have concocted over the years.  We think that if we live by these lists, we are holy, and yet these very same people do not know how to control their tempers, they gossip and hurt other people with their tongues, they are filled with jealousy and envy, have mean and critical spirits, but they are very holy because they don’t go to movies.  That is straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.  But such rules help us to create this fiction about ourselves that we are very holy when we are the opposite.

But let us look at the tax collector on the other hand.  He creates no fictions, has no illusions about himself.  He will not even look up toward heaven, too ashamed to lift his eyes in the direction of a holy God.    Whereas the Pharisee had convinced himself that he was a righteous man, the tax collector knows that he is not.  And in great sorrow, he beats himself upon his breast, and says, God be merciful to me, the sinner.”  And Jesus says that it is this man, who leaves the temple and goes home justified, righteous in the sight of God.  This man, the man who recognizes that he is a sinner, is the one that God looks upon as being righteous.  Whereas, the person who does not see himself as a sinner, the man who thinks that he is righteous in the sight of God, is condemned.  Can you say with the tax collector, with all honesty, God be merciful to me, a sinner.  Is that the posture you take when you come to a worship service such as this—the position of humility, bowing your head in reverence and humility, just pleading that God would be merciful to you, because you are a sinner?  It is difficult to take a good look at ourselves, without all the fictions we have created, without all the defense mechanisms we have erected in order to shield ourselves from that sight, but it is the only way of salvation.

Everything in our liturgy is designed to make you come to God in that spirit, without the fictions you may have created about how good and righteous you are, so that you might see yourself as a sinner.    We start out by praying, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid….”  We begin our services with the acknowledgment that we cannot hide what we really are from God.  In our Morning Prayer service, we begin, “Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us, in sundry places, to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloak them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart.”  What was the Pharisee doing? He was dissembling.  He was deceitfully hiding himself from what he truly was.  He was cloaking his sin, trying to hide his sin, by living up to a few man-made rules and regulations.  Our liturgy is calculated to prevent us from cloaking and dissembling, but like the tax collector, confess what we are with a humble, lowly, and penitent heart.    Although you can’t see all of my actions during the common service since my back is turned, I think that most of you know that when I come to the line, “And although we are unworthy, throughout our manifold sins, to offer unto thee, any sacrifice,” I strike my breast three times, and I am doing that as your priest, on your behalf to indicate what great sorrow we feel for our sins, for our unworthiness to present anything to God.  And then, of course, in the prayer of humble access, we pray,  We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.  We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.”  And then, after that, we come to partake of this Holy Sacrament, where we confess over and over again, I am without hope, except through the death of Jesus Christ in my place.  I am so sinful and so unworthy to be in the presence of  God, that the only way I could have been cleansed, was for the Son of God to die for me.  As we take the bread and drink the cup, we are saying, with the tax collector, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”

People might wonder why there is so much emphasis in our prayer book, so much stress in  our liturgy on sin, unworthiness, and our need for mercy.  The reason is, This man went this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.           It is only those who acknowledge their sinfulness toward God and their need for mercy who are accepted by him.  Thus, in our services you hear us sing constantly, “Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us.  O Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.”  Why do you hear that so often in our services?  Because this was the cry of the tax collector who went to his house justified.  The way to find peace, joy, and happiness, is not through hiding the truth about ourselves and lying to ourselves, but through acknowledging ourselves as sinners, without hope, except through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

Amen.

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The Attitude of Humility

A Sermon preached on October 4, 2009
by the Rev. Dr. S. Randall Toms
St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

And they could not answer him again to these things.  And he put forth a parable to those which were bidden, when he marked how they chose out the chief rooms; saying unto them,   When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him; And he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, Give this man place; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room. But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee.   For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.  (Luke 14:6-11)

Many Christians around the world will be celebrating today as the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.  Francis has to be one of the most popular of Christian saints, honored and revered even by many Christians outside the Roman Catholic Church.  When people think of St. Francis, they often think of him as the patron saint of animals, since he had such a tremendous love for all of nature, referring all things in creation as brother and sister–brother sun, sister moon, brother world, brother wind, etc.  Even at the Episcopal school that my grandchildren attend, they will have a blessing of animals this week, as will many churches, in honor of St. Francis and his love for animals.  How many homes do you pass, even in Baton Rouge, that have a bird-feeder, statue, or a fountain, depicting St. Francis.  For some, Francis is the great worker of miracles and the person who received the stigmata.  There are so many legends that have cropped up around the life of St. Francis, it is very difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, though, I would have to say, in the case of Francis, even the legends and fictions often serve as useful parables.

The one thing that does seem to be certain about the life of Francis of Assisi is that he did become a living embodiment of the principle set forth by our Lord in our Gospel reading for today:  “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”  This statement comes at the conclusion of a parable told which describes a rather comical situation.  Suppose a person goes to a feast, convinced of his own importance, and thinks that he deserves the most prestigious seat.  Back in these days, as is often the case now, seating arrangements at banquets are very important.  In the days of our Lord Jesus, the closer you sat to the most important person there, the more you were looked upon as an important person yourself.  But let’s suppose you were to walk into a banquet, thinking you are certainly one of the most important people there, and you seat yourself right next to the most honored guest.  How embarrassing it would be then for someone to walk up to you and say, “I’m sorry, but someone much more important than you has come in.  Would you please go find another place?”  What a humiliating experience that would be! What Jesus is teaching us is that we should never think more highly of ourselves than we should.  No matter what we may accomplish in this world, there are always going to be people who are greater than we are.  Instead, always take the place of humility.  In the end, it will be the humble who will be exalted.

Francis of Assisi is one of those people who decided to put that principle into action.  Born to wealthy parents, Francis was a person who loved to dress in fine clothes and enjoy fun and games with the sons of other noblemen.  He was someone who wanted drink his fill of pleasure and have great honors bestowed upon him.  But through a series of events, Francis came to see that the pleasures and honors of the world were vanity.  He experienced a dramatic conversion from his life of pleasure and glory-seeking, and became concerned for the poor, the sick, even lepers.  He gave away all his belongings and embraced poverty, always seeking to be the least of all.

Down through the centuries since his death in 1226, the life of Francis has been an inspiration to others to forsake everything for the cause of Christ.  I like to watch movies about the life of Francis.  I will admit that Franco Zefferelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon is laughable in some parts.  In that film we see Francis as a kind of hippie saint, complete with music of Donovan.  Nevertheless, the film does show how Francis wanted to associate with the poor, those that not many people, not even in the church, wanted to love and help.  But I prefer the 1961 film, Francis of Assisi with Bradform Dillman in the title role.  One of the interesting things about that film is that the part of Clare is played by a young actress named Dolores Hart.  Dolores Hart had starred in movies such as Loving You (1957) with Elvis Presley.  She also appeared in such movies as Where the Boys Are (1961) and Come Fly with Me (1963).  She was so pretty that many people hailed her as the next Grace Kelly.  But in 1963, breaking off an engagement with a very wealthy man, she gave it all up and entered a convent, and has been a nun ever since.  Like Francis, she no longer saw a need to exalt herself in the eyes of the world.  She was willing to become small, even forgotten.

Not every Christian is called upon to embrace abject poverty the way that Francis of Assisi did.  Not every Christian is called upon to enter a convent live and live away from the world.  As a matter of fact, a Christian might become very famous in politics, the arts, business or any other vocation.  But no matter how many honors the world bestows upon the Christian, he always has this humble opinion that he is a sinner saved by the grace of God.  I suppose that the Apostle Paul was the most famous of all the apostles, even during his own lifetime, but he always thought of himself as the chief of sinners, the least of the apostles, and less than the least of all the saints.  The Scriptures always command us to maintain this posture of humility.  As St. Paul tells us in Phil. 2:3, “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.”  This is the attitude that the Christian must have of himself.  No matter how wealthy, no matter how famous, no matter how powerful, he must always think of himself as the least of all, always considering others better than himself.  It is this humble of opinion of himself that enables the Christian to take on the role of the servant, never considering himself to be too good to minister to those who are in need.

You remember the time when disciples are arguing about who was the greatest.  Jesus told them, “And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.  And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors.   But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.   For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth”  (Luke 22:24-27).  All this is taking place as our Lord is instituting the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  Here is the Son of God, explaining to them how he is about to die on the cross, and they are arguing about who is the greatest.  Jesus tells them that they are missing the point.  In his kingdom, the person who serves is the greatest, because even HE is among them as one who serves.  He came into this world, not to be served, but to serve, serve in the greatest way a person can serve, by giving his life a ransom for many.  St. Paul put it like this:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.   (Phil. 2:5-11)

Our Lord, though he was the eternal son of God, made himself of no reputation.  He was willing to be treated as a common criminal and allowed himself to be executed as a blasphemer.  He was despised and rejected of men and ridiculed by those in high places.  This was his service for us.  He did all of this so that you and I could be forgiven of our sins and have fellowship with him forever.

In our youth Bible studies on Sunday evenings, we have been studying that catechism question that states that when we were baptized, we vowed, through our sponsors to renounce “the pomps and vanity of this wicked world.” We have tried to understand the meaning of “pomps”, a word that our young people don’t use anymore, not even in terms of “pomp and circumstance.”  We have seen that “pomp” is ostentatious display, putting ourselves on display in such a way as to suggest that we are better than other people.  Whenever we see someone behaving in this manner, we say that they are “pompous,” that is, having an exaggerated sense of their own self-importance.   The parable before us this morning is a warning against being pompous.  Instead, the Christian must always be willing to take on the form of a servant, even as his master did.  We are told that just before Francis of Assisi died, he said, “A man is what he is in the sight of God and no more.”  No matter what other people might think of you, no matter what honors they may feel you to be worthy of, what really counts is what you are in the sight of God.  In God’s sight, the greatest are those who humble themselves.

Amen.

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