Difficult conversations

Many times in life we are faced with the challenge of facing up to reality. This could mean confronting a friend about an adulterous affair in which they are engaged. It could be a child or spouse who. is abusing alcohol or drugs. Nobody likes such conversations, and yet they are necessary if we love those around us who are in pain or engaged in self-destructive behaviors. You have likely been part of these painful confrontations. I know I have.

As a financial advisor, and one who offers comprehensive financial planning to my clients, we develop plans and strategies that include planning for college education expenses, accumulating assets for retirement, retirement income distribution plans, Social Security maximization strategies, estate planning, and so on. But perhaps the most important planning–and the single area that can most adversely impact a financial plan if not addressed–is long-term care planning. With continuing advancements in medical technology Americans are living longer. Life expectancy for a male born in 1900, for example, was 46.3 years; by 1950, male life expectancy had been extended to 65.6 years! Men and women born a decade later, in 1960, have life expectancies of 66.6 and 73.1 years respectively. By 2010 those numbers had increased to 76.2 years for males and 81 years for females. Taking a look at life expectancies for males and females who have already attained age 65 in 2017 (the most recent year for which data is available from the Centers for Disease Control) it is estimated that males will live an additional 18.1 years and females an additional 20.6 years. Consider that these numbers reported by the CDC (available here: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/2018/004.pdf) are averages, so some will attain and some will exceed the life expectancies reported.

A saying in the retirement planning community is that retirement has three phases: “go-go, slow-go, and no-go.” The “go-go” retirement years are the younger, more vibrant retirement years, where the retiree still is relatively healthy and able to actively enjoy retirement. Those years are followed by the “slow-go” years, during which time a health event or adverse medical condition has impeded the ability of the retiree to do some of the things he or she enjoyed just a few years earlier. Maybe they can play tennis only once or twice a week in the slow-go years. Or maybe they can’t play tennis at all. And then what follow are the “no-go” retirement years, when the retiree is essentially homebound due to declining health, and during this stage of retirement we find increasing health care costs as skilled nursing home or skilled in-home care is required. An AARP Fact Sheet published in March 2017, “Long-term Support and Services” states, “As the US population ages, the number of people needing LTSS will rise. On average, 52 percent of people who turn 65 today will develop a severe disability that will require LTSS at some point. The average duration of need, over a lifetime, is about two years.” Women, with longer life expectancies, have a greater need for LTSS than do men–58% to 47%. If there is any “good news” in the AARP report it is that only 14% of those who need LTSS will need those services for 5 years or more. The AARP fact sheet can be accessed here: https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2017-01/Fact%20Sheet%20Long-Term%20Support%20and%20Services.pdf

And I haven’t even addressed cost yet. Let me add a personal story. Both of my parents died well before their CDC life expectancies. Dad died in August 2010 when he was 72, and Mom followed just five months later in January 2011, and she was 69. Mom had three bouts with non-Hodgkins lymphoma beginning in 1994, but when she died, her cancer was in remission. What killed Mom was Alzheimer’s disease. Dad died of esophageal cancer, a rather swift and nasty demise. Diagnosed in January 2010, Dad was in hospice care for only a couple weeks before he passed away in August 2010. It was the stress and strain of trying to serve as Mom’s primary care-giver that I fervently believe compromised Dad’s immune system. Dad lived a vibrant, active lifestyle–hiked the Appalachian Trail, was a regular at the local gym doing spin classes. But as he juggled working full-time as a stockbroker, and enjoying his recreational activities including heading up his college 50th reunion celebration in 2009–Dad also took on responsibility for caring for my mostly homebound (and bed-bound) mother. The dining room downstairs off the kitchen was converted into her bedroom. Dad fed and bathed Mom, and literally changed her diapers. He did eventually find some in-home help, but the person who Dad brought into the house was not a professionally, and sadly she was literally stealing items form our home. This, all the while, as Dad not only paid the aide for her services but he also was helping pay for her college education.

After Dad’s diagnosis with cancer and the intense treatments of chemotherapy and radiation, which really only served to weaken Dad, he determined that Mom needed skilled care for her Alzheimer’s. So Dad arranged for Mom’s transfer from home to a local Alzheimer’s home. And now here’s where I will address the financial cost. $7000 a month. And this was in New Jersey over a decade ago. Seven grand a month to pay for skilled Alzheimer’s care.

Every financial plan MUST MUST include a plan for long-term care and end of life. Too many people with whom I meet tell me, “I’ll just move in with my kids.” If that is your plan–and it is a plan–the first question I ask is, “are your kids aware of this?” Do they have any idea what they are in for? Very few of us are trained at providing skilled care, especially when it comes to caring for our declining spouse or parents. My dad went from hale-and-hearty to hospice as the stress of caring for his wife, my mother, ultimately contributed to his death at age 72. And then me and my sister juggled caring for our mother–and the demands of our jobs and children–as she further declined and moved ultimately from the Alzheimer’s facility to hospice care before her death in January 2011. It is imperative that parents and their adult children have the difficult conversation about how declining parents will be cared for. And please, please try and understand how difficult it is to care for a spouse or parent who is suffering with Alzheimer’s or dementia, for example; this is not just something you somehow “fit-in” to your existing life. Caring for an aging, declining spouse or parent will become your life. And will likely shorten your life. If I can be of any help in facilitating the difficult conversation please feel free to contact me.

Five reasons to know your EFC BEFORE applying to college

The other day I was on the phone with a client whose son had just received the blessed news that he had been accepted Early Decision to the college of his choice and to the program he dearly wants to study. Hoorah! The client is divorced from her first husband (and her son’s father) and they have a contentious relationship at best. But now they have to work together to pay for the considerable expenses of sending their son to the expense private college he dearly wants to attend. Our challenge now is to make sure the money is there to pay for college (and with my client, the money is there, thankfully). But what does the college offer in. terms of financial aid, and what do they expect the family to pay?

Too many people think that your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is something that you worry about when you apply for financial aid. But if you’re a family with high school students thinking about college, it’s definitely a term you should become familiar with immediately. Why? Because what you don’t know about your EFC can hurt you long before you even start to fill out college application forms.

Your EFC is the number colleges will use to calculate your need for financial aid. You should estimate your EFC before your student’s sophomore year to take advantage of all possible opportunities for reducing it. Ultimately, with some exceptions, most people won’t be able to do a lot to significantly reduce their EFC, no matter how unrealistic.

However, the biggest reason to know your EFC doesn’t have to do with your ability to change it. In fact, knowing your EFC before you apply to colleges can do more to cut the cost of college than just about any private scholarship you might win. Knowing your EFC means that you can apply to schools most likely to meet your financial needs.

If you don’t know your EFC then:

1. You won’t know the minimum you’ll be expected to pay for college.

Very few colleges are willing or able to meet all students’ financial need. Knowing this minimum early on can prevent the problems of being accepted into a “dream” school that you can’t afford. Parents should make sure their teens understand that if a college doesn’t provide enough financial aid, they simply won’t be able to afford to attend.

2. You won’t know if a college net price calculator is meeting your need.

A lot of people will use the net price calculators at a college website but the calculators don’t have to display your estimated EFC. However, many will provide the required estimated net price after gift aid as well as an estimated total cost of attendance that includes loans. Knowing your EFC will allow you to estimate what percentage of your need is going to be met through gift aid versus self-help aid.

3. You won’t know that your EFC is high and fail to apply to any schools that offer merit aid.

If you have a high EFC which you know that you can’t possibly pay, you can ensure an adequate number of schools likely to offer merit (non-need based) aid end up on any final college list. You will also want to include some that you can afford regardless of the financial aid. These are often referred to as “financial safety schools.” In fact, it would be a good idea to avoid “reach” schools altogether.

4. You won’t know that your EFC is low and only apply to schools that often gap students.

As stated earlier, few schools can meet 100% of financial need. And many of the remaining schools are likely to distribute need-based aid in proportion to the desirability of the student. In such situations, even if students aren’t “gapped” in their financial aid award, they’ll find their financial aid award consists of a majority of loans rather than grants. The truth is that some schools will come much closer to meeting the financial need of students with low EFCs than others.

5. You won’t know if you should focus on applying to colleges using the Federal or Institutional Methodology.

There are around 200 schools that use the College Board’s PROFILE financial aid application to calculate their own institutional methodology independent of the EFC generated when applying for federal financial aid. There are some major differences between the two methodologies. Depending on a family’s financial situation, their EFC can be dramatically different at schools that use the PROFILE institutional methodology than those that don’t.

With my professional assistance, you can be prepared for college funding, confident in your college choice, and on the road to a secure financial future. If you need a college funding gameplan for your family, give me a call at 803-547-7788, or email me at William.feus@grayrockfinancialplanning.com. As a Certified College Funding Specialists I will help you plan for the future and save on your expenses.

Stewardship as a vital act of worship

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For those who might be visiting my blog for the first time, some background. I grew up in the Church, The Episcopal Church specifically (although for the record I was baptized in a Lutheran Church, but since baptism is a universal sacrament, one is not “bound” to a specific denomination in baptism; one is baptized into Christ’s One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church). After graduating college, my initial plan was to go to law school, but having worked as a paralegal for a few years with some large law firms, I had discovered that, at least in the litigation departments in which I worked, there was more an emphasis on billable hours as opposed to the “quest for truth and justice” my youthful idealism lead me to believe “the law” was all about. So in 1993, following in my father’s footsteps, I entered the financial services industry as a registered representative with A.G. Edwards and Sons. Edwards a the time was the 6th largest brokerage firm in America, the largest not headquartered on Wall Street. They were a family business, run by the descendants of Albert Galatin Edwards, in 1993 that was Benjamin F. Edwards III. Passing my NASD exams (Series 7 and 63) and completing the Edwards training program, I was off and running, My dad was a broker on Wall Street with Kidder, Peabody and Co,, the firm he started with after graduating college in 1959. He had built a successful practice and was an expert stock picker. Dad loved to dive deep into annual reports, loved reading corporate balance sheets and income statements. He was a disciple of Benjamin Graham and Warren Buffett, and would make one of the highlights of dad’s year was to make the pilgrimage to Omaha for the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in May. A few times I had to remind dad, as he would preach the gospel of value investing to me, the it was Jesus who died to save him, not Graham or Buffett.

In 1994 I convinced dad to leave Kidder and join me at A.G. Edwards in Princeton, NJ. Kidder had been bought and sold, was owned by GE in 1994, and dad did not very much like how the culture at Kidder had changed. Plus mom was battling cancer, and eliminating a two-hour round-trip commute to NYC would help mom and dad in mom’s cancer fight. So dad joined me at Edwards, and I was fortunate to work with him for a few years at Edwards. Until God got my attention. God really got my attention, upending my life. God, you see, is the ultimate disruptor, and while my plans might have been to continue working at Edwards, God’s plans were for me to enter the ordination process in The Episcopal Church. So in August 2001 I moved with my family into New York City and enrolled as a seminarian at The General Theological Seminary of The Episcopal Church. Three weeks after moving into the City I started classes on September 10, 2001. The next day was a glorious Tuesday, September 11, 2001. We lived a mile and a half from the World Trade Center when two fuel-laden jets struck the Twin Towers. Life was changed (again.)

After graduating seminary on 2004 I served congregations in New Jersey for eighty years as a priest, the last four years at a truly dysfunctional church that should have had yellow police tape around the exterior warning people not to enter this “crime scene.” It was a church that had been through a series of disasters involving alcoholic clergy, sexual misconduct, and a fire that destroyed the church building in the years prior to my arrival. So I served there for four years, tried to lead this scattered flock back to the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, but all along the way there was too much conflict, too much division, too much dysfunction (we even found that someone had hidden a small brass demon statuette in the parish library behind a bookshelf!). Crazy stuff. So after four years, I left the full-time exercise of my ordained ministry. We moved to South Carolina. Within a year of our move to the South, I was back again serving in the Church, at a small rural church in Chester, SC. They paid me what they could, which wasn’t a living wage. So in 2016, the Lord led me back to financial services.

So that’s a “little” background. In my practice now I work with individuals, families, and business owners helping them to align their faith and values with their financial plans and investments. And especially for Christians, it is vitally important that we understand that how we handle and manage the money God has entrusted to our care is a vital act of worship. We proceed from the understanding that God owns it all. Regarding Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit working through the apostle Paul wrote, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” God owns it all, even the money in our wallets, bank accounts, mutual funds, 401(k)s and so on. It is God’s money that we save and invest.

The Scriptures speak frequently about money and possessions. Over 2000 verses in the Bible address the issues of money and possessions. Why so many words or ink spilled about money and possessions. Because as sinful human beings one issue with which we all wrestle is idolatry. During the Exodus God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel, and in God’s directions to his chosen people He instructed Israel, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Well, for many, many people, money and possessions have essentially become gods. The accumulation of wealth and possessions for many Americans is their primary goal in life, the reason they get out of bed in the morning and head off to work. Yes, we say we’re doing it for our family so they can “have a better life,” but the reality is that we are trying accumulate as much money and as many things so that we win the never ending contest: He (or she) who dies with the most things, wins! And the altar at which we worship is the altar of the god mammon.

Jesus warned us about the idols of money and possessions. “No one can serve two masters,” our Lord warns, “for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money (Matthew 6:24).” Put another way, using the words of Bob Dylan, “it might be the devil, or it might be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” So we are faced with a challenge: who (or what) is our god? Who are you going to serve?

For anyone I’d encourage choosing serving the Lord. God has provided us with everything we need, and with our wealth, we are called to care for and provide for our families AND be a blessing to others. In his letter to his protege Timothy the apostle Paul wrote, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life (1 Timothy 6:17-19). Americans are rich people. We might not think so, but if you travel outside our country and visit Third World countries, for example, you will see even how the relatively poor in America are rich in comparison to the residents of Malawi, for example, or Haiti. Our challenge is management or stewardship of what God has entrusted to our care. Do we live for ourselves alone, storing up wealth for ourselves, or do we heed the call of Jesus to love our neighbors as we love ourselves?

Additionally, when we invest our money–or rather, when we invest God’s money–do we do so in such as way as to glorify God? Or are we focused solely on generating above-average returns at whatever cost? Working with clients I help them uncover or discover what they own in their portfolios. Is Mr. Client a devout Christian opposed to abortion? Is his portfolio invested in companies that manufacture abortiofacient drugs? Or did his mother die of lung cancer after years of smoking–and his portfolio holdings include tobacco product manufacturers? As stockholders, you see, we are owners of such companies, not just customers. We therefore are responsible as owners for the products our companies manufacture and distribute. And do those products glorify God? Do they create blessing, or do they impede human flourishing. One mutual fund company that does a great job of promoting faith-based investing has as their tagline, “Investing that makes the world rejoice.” It’s a great tagline. Its also investing that honors God.

How we handle our wealth and possessions–sorry, God’s wealth and God’s possessions–are a vital act of worship. God cares deeply about how we steward the resources He has entrusted to our care, which includes money and possessions but also the entirety of God’s Creation, including the earth and each other. I encourage you to consider that God owns all that you have and all that you are. Live your life in such a way that you bring God glory, and that YOU make the world rejoice.

Longevity planning

We live in uncertain times. We live in unprecedented times. You have likely heard those sentiments expressed hundreds of times if you, like me, watch television at all. In the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, as our lives have become more uncertain by virtue of this health care crisis bringing our economy to almost a complete halt—the April 2020 unemployment report revealed payrolls reduced by 14.7 million Americans—one thijng has not changed: the need for comprehensive financial planning. And while so much of the focus of financial planning is on college funding, for example, or accumulating assets for retirement, another key component is longevity planning.

As a population we are living longer. I met recently with a 64-year-old gentleman whose grandfather was alive and in good health at age 103! I have another client who recently returned from her parents’ 76th wedding anniversary celebration! A 65-year old today can expect to live another 17 years but many are living far longer than that. The fastest growing age group is the group over age 85. When the social security system was initially put into place, it was set up as a safety net for those few people who lived much beyond age 65. Now there are people who are drawing from the Social Security system for almost as many years as they paid into it.

So how do we plan for living a long life? Obviously we need to have our finances in order. The greatest fear of many retirees is outliving their assets. Many are dependent on investment income to supplement Social Security earnings to meet their day-to-day expenses. Most people are reluctant to tap into their principal, wanting to preserve it at all costs. They want to preserve the income stream but they also want to preserve the principal so they have something to leave to their children, grandchildren, or favorite charity.

One of the greatest risks to a portfolio is that of an extended care need. And the likelihood of needing care increases with increased age. The older we are, the more likely we are to develop conditions that may require us to have assistance with day- to -day activities such as bathing, dressing, getting in and out of a chair. The need for assistance can be due to things like severe arthritis, emphysema, cardiac problems, or even an accident. It may also be due to conditions such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s. It may simply be due to growing old and more frail or developing dementia. Of those over age 85, fifty percent have some level of dementia. Remember, this is the fastest growing age group in our country!

Planning for a long life must include planning for disability or incapacity. Have you given this any thought? If you were unable to care for yourself, what would you do? Would your spouse be able to care for you? What if your spouse were to pass away before you? What if your spouse was the one who needed care? Would you be able, physically, emotionally, and financially to provide the necessary care?

Have you spoken with your children about your preferences if you need care? Many of us have living wills and other documents that may say we don’t want to be kept alive by artificial means. The chronic conditions that were mentioned earlier—arthritis, cardiac problems, emphysema, Alzheimer’s disease, do not require life support. These are not situations where you are given the choice of “pulling the plug”. You could live with these conditions for many years, still enjoying many activities and relationships while needing assistance on a daily basis.

I hear people say, “My children will take care of me”. What does that mean in your family? Does that mean that they will move in with you or have you move in with them and their family? Does that mean that they will provide hands-on care such as bathing you? Or does it mean that they will provide for you financially?

As part of your planning, it’s important first of all to acknowledge that living a long life is a near certainty, that the longer we live the more likely we are to need some type of day to day assistance; that Medicare, Medicaid, and the Veteran’s Administration do not provide for the type of care that we are most likely to need. The care most likely to be needed is having someone come into our own home to provide assistance.

It’s then important to acknowledge that an extended care situation will have a tremendous impact on your family. What would the impact be on your child’s life if they become responsible for your care twenty-four hours a day? Think about the impact even if they provide care only eight hours a day. What does that do to their family time? To their career? To their other responsibilities and commitments? What would it mean to them financially?

I firmly believe that spouses and children will do all they can to provide care but it can be very difficult. They will do the right thing. But having a plan in place can help them in this new role as caregiver.

So, for your planning, make your loved ones aware of your care preferences. Do you want to stay in this area if you need care or would you prefer move to another part of the country where you have family or friends? Would you want to move in with your children or, like many, do you not want to be a burden to your family members? Do you want to receive care at home for as long as possible or would you prefer to be in a setting such as an assisted living facility where there are other people around, there is help as needed, and there are a variety of social activities planned?

If care is needed, how will you pay for it? Have you considered investigating long-term care insurance as an option to provide the financing for extended care services? Many people are unaware that long term care policies will pay for a caregiver to come into your home to provide care there. Many people are also unaware that they can insure for a portion of the cost if they feel that they can afford to pay the remaining portion of the cost of care.

Do a favor for yourself and for your loved ones. Have a plan for the eventuality of needing care. Let people know your desires. Set up the financial resources. Let your family know what resources are available either in the form of assets or insurance to pay for your care. Then, enjoy the peace of mind that comes from good planning and get out there and enjoy the years that you’ve been given!

Don’t jeopardize your retirement with student loans!

A growing number of older Americans have student loan debt as they near or enter retirement. Compared to younger borrowers, borrowers ages 50 and older actually have considerably higher rates of default on federal student loans. For those who are in default on student loans, this debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy (except under extremely rare circumstances) and their Social Security benefits may be reduced to repay this debt.

Under the Treasury Offset Program, the Departments of Education and Treasury coordinate to withhold a portion of an individual’s Social Security retirement or disability benefit to pay off their outstanding federal student loan debt; this process is known as “administrative offset.”

In fact, about 114,000 student loan borrowers over 50 years of age are now losing a portion of their Social Security benefits due to an old student loan, according to the Government Accountability Office. Furthermore, the number of borrowers over age 65 facing this predicament has increased by a shocking 540% over the last decade.

While a student loan is active, the government provides federal loan borrowers with a variety of options to avoid defaulting on their loans. However, once a borrower defaults, Uncle Sam has incredible powers to collect on the debt, including garnishing Social Security benefits. To make matters worse, this overdue debt becomes so costly that more than 70% of the $1.1 billion now collected through Social Security benefits is applied only to fees and interest on these student loans, leaving the principal balance forever due.  And when you consider that for 20% of retirees Social Security represents their only source of retirement income–garnishment for loan repayment can have dire consequences in retirement.

As college time approaches and students become excited to choose their dream college, families must also be aware of their out-of-pocket costs, especially if they need to borrow money for the student to attend their dream college. You cannot bankrupt loans for education, period. Therefore, before families sign the bottom line of the admissions application, they should take the time to discuss the process of college planning with a Certified College Funding Specialist (CCFS®). As Benjamin Franklin once said: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The report released by the Government Accountability Office is available here.

If you need a college funding gameplan for your family, give me a call at 803-547-7788. Working together, I

may be able to save your family considerable money on your college expenses and reduce your student loan borrowing costs.

achievement cap celebration ceremony

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Welcome back!

I regularly listen to The John Batchelor Show at night to help fall asleep.  John’s show is broadcast from New York City and originates on WABC 770 AM, live from 9pm to 1am.  I’ve listened to his show for many, many years, beginning when I lived up in the North and pastored a church in New Jersey.  John’s a Princeton grad, and has a Master of Divinity degree from Union Seminary in NYC.  If memory serves, his wife is a Methodist pastor.  So this is a plug for John’s show–he always has an outstanding assortment of guests with a regular cast who add wonderful flavor to his programs.  Anyhow, as a regular listener to John’s program has been costly (be forewarned) as so many of his guests are authors whose books I’ve felt compelled to purchase.  John’s interests parallel many of mine–history, space exploration, to just name a few.

Now, why do I mention John’s program?  In part because of the somewhat eclectic nature of John’s show–and what now will be the somewhat eclectic nature of this blog.  Most of my prior posts were from my time as a full-time pastor in The Episcopal Church.  And just as I sensed God called me to that particular ministry as priest and pastor in local congregations, so I also sense that that ministry–parish priest–was prelude to the ministry to which I am called now: Christian financial advisor.

After graduating college in 1992, my plan was to go to law school.  I had worked as a paralegal in New York City as I was working toward my undergraduate degree, and for most of that time the carrot that was so enticing at the end of the stick was becoming a lawyer.  I worked full-time as a paralegal, and went to college (The New School for Social Research) full-time at night and on weekends.  It was grueling, to be sure, but my goal was law school, passing the bar, and working as a lawyer.  But after graduating college in 1992, my passion for becoming a lawyer (due in large part to having worked with lawyers for a few years by this point) had waned.  And so in 1993 I left the legal profession and became a financial advisor with A.G. Edwards and Sons in Princeton, NJ.

A.G. Edwards at the time was the sixth largest brokerage firm in America, the largest not headquartered on Wall Street.  My dad had been a stockbroker with Kidder, Peabody and Co., primarily on Wall Street since his graduation from Lehigh University in 1959; my Uncle Dick, too, was a financial advisor in upstate New York.  So the path for me to go into financial services had already been laid for me…if I wanted to follow it.  And in 1993 I determined I would.  So I joined A.G. Edwards (dad recommended Edwards) and studied like crazy for my Series 7 and 63 exams and became a broker with A.G. Edwards.

Fast-forward a few years to 1998.  My wife Kim and I had been married eight years and we had a three-year old daughter, Sarah. We were living in New Jersey, and, long-story short, Kim recommended sometime around Easter 1998 that we return to church.  Hadn’t been a regular church-goer for years by this point–Christmas and Easter, yes, but otherwise, Sundays were otherwise occupied with non-church activities.  But Kim thought it a good idea for Sarah to grow up going to Sunday school and such, and I thought it a good opportunity to network and meet some more affluent folks who could benefit from my financial guidance.  Well, at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ, God turned my world upside-down.  St. Bart’s had been the church where I spent the first decade of my life, the church where my parents wed in 1963, where my dad had served on the vestry (lay leadership board), and where my grandfather had also worshiped and served as a lay leader.  And within a year of being back at St. Bart’s, God had really taken me by the nape of the neck and set me in a new direction:  ordination in The Episcopal Church.

By the summer of 2001 I had been through the ordination process to the extent that I had been approved to go to seminary.  But there was another big step I had to take.  In 1994 I had convinced my dad to leave Kidder, Peabody and join me at A.G. Edwards.  This didn’t take a whole lot of convincing for a couple reasons.  First, my mother had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and would be undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments, and so she would be leaning on me and my dad pretty heavily for support.  Second, Kidder, Peabody had been bought by General Electric, and so the culture of Kidder was changing dramatically–and dad wasn’t crazy about the changes.  So he joined me at Edwards, and we enjoyed a good working relationship, father and son, financial advisors.  But God–the transcendental disruptor, as C.S. Lewis referred to the Almighty–was calling me to seminary and ordination.  While dad was aware of the profound changes in my life, he didn’t know about the next step I felt called to make.  So I told dad one day, “I think God is calling me to seminary.”  Dad’s response: “Why would you want to deal with people’s sh*t that way?”

Truth was, as a financial advisor, for most of the people I worked with in the advisor/client relationship their money was the most important sh*t in their lives.  So as a pastor I figured I’d just be exchanging one pile for another.  And that is pretty much how it was, except that, truth be told again, church dynamics can be as dysfunctional as any found in secular work, including Wall Street.  I could tell you stories…

So I served full-time in New Jersey as a pastor and priest for eight years in two congregations, the last four in a congregation that was the picture of dysfunction.  It was a church that should have had yellow crime scene tape around it warning trespassers to KEEP OUT!  After four years in that parish, I needed a break, so we moved to South Carolina, I enrolled in a graduate program in secondary education, completed that…and went back to the church!  Part of the issue was there was a very thin market for social studies teachers in their late ’40s unwilling to relocate.  While serving a small Episcopal church in Chester, SC, I sensed God nudging me again–and my wife played no small role in that nudging.  She had discovered this company called Thrivent Financial, an “organization of Christians” who served Christians, primarily as an insurance company but also offering other financial services.  Why couldn’t I merge my two vocations?  I could use my skills as a pastor and my experience as a financial advisor, serving the Christian community!  No need to keep my light under a bushel–let it shine!  In September 2016 I became a financial associate with Thrivent, a position I held until July 2019, when I took the next big plunge…launching my own independent Registered Investment Advisory firm, Gray Rock Financial Planning & Consulting Inc.

That’s a bit about my background.  I hold certifications in Long-term Care planning and College Education Funding in addition to the FINRA Series 66 (I’ve also passed the Series 7 and 63, but for state registered RIAs those licenses are not relevant to my practice.)  I’m also working on my CFP® designation through Bryant University to better serve my clients.

Two Easters (1 Cor. 15)

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Sunday schoolOn Easter you often find people in church who are not normally at church on other Sundays.  One consequence is that then a greater burden is placed on the Sunday School teachers.  Where normally they are accustomed to teaching four or five students, they might find on Easter double that number or more.  The lessons, which are welcoming and accessible for young people to begin with, are further, well, “dummied-down.”  One teacher began her Sunday School class by asking the children what was special about Easter.  Hands shot up around the classroom.  “Easter means I get to spend time with my grandma and grandpa,” one child exclaimed.  Another responded, “Easter is special because the Easter bunny brings me a a basket filled with candy!”  Okay, the teacher was thinking, the children are opening up and excited to share, but she still had not heard the answer she was hoping for.  Then another child replied, “Easter is the day when Jesus rose from the dead and came out of his tomb.”  Phew, the teacher thought, somebody gets it!  But then the child continued, “But if he sees his shadow he goes back in and we have winter for another 6 weeks!”

Oh, well.  At least she got half the answer right.  After what Jesus had been through, his shadow would be the last thing that would scare him back into the grave.

The proclamation of the Church on this day is a cry of victory:  Alleluia, Christ is Risen!  The Lord is Risen indeed!  Alleluia!  Yes, within the context of our worship, we can shout “Alleluia!” again.  For forty days we have gone without “alleluias” in our worship, burying that word not literally in the ground but perhaps keeping it hidden in our hearts.  We are a community that loves to rejoice in the victory of our Lord—the many ways God cares for us and the encouragement we get from serving others in Christ’s Name.  Alleluia flows easily and lovingly from our lips in our worship; but during the season of Lent, we tuck that joyous word away.  Back on Ash Wednesday, the Church invited you “to the
observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and
meditating on God’s holy Word.”  Those are the actions and spiritual disciplines that characterize Lent, but in reality they should be part of our daily lives during the season of Easter that begins today and everyday.   When, for example, should we not be engaged in self-examination, repentance, prayer, self-denial, and spending time reading and meditating on the Word of God? (You will note I left out fasting, only because I know after our worship today we will be feasting!)  But for forty days we had put away our blessed “alleluia” as our Lenten worship bore a more somber tone.

The last week in Lent is Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday.  The Church comes together to worship on those days that mark the last week of our Lord’s earthly life and His Passion.  “It is finished,” Jesus said on the cross before he breathed his last and gave up his Spirit.  Jesus died.  That is how Holy Week ends, with Jesus dead and his body placed in a tomb.  He had been humiliated, his movement, it seemed, defeated.  His followers were despondent and confused and feared for their lives.  As the dead body of Christ was removed from the Cross and buried in the tomb offered by Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy Jerusalemite, it really all seemed like it was over.  Hope, it seems, had died with Jesus.  But there were clues, perhaps, that things were not as dire as they might have seemed.  Jesus had been humiliated and beaten and indeed killed; but in what followed there were signs that somehow his death was different. First of all, consider that for the vast majority of others who had been crucified by the Romans that those bodies were not buried, but were burned to ashes in the garbage pit known as Gehenna, also outside the walls of Jerusalem.  There was also the fulfilment of Scripture:  first, that none of Jesus’s bones had been broken—a fulfillment of Psalm 22; and the fact that Jesus’s body was being placed in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.  Jesus’s body would indeed, in fulfillment of Isaiah 52, “they made…his tomb with the rich.”  His dead body was cared for as if he were a king or a nobleman; Luke records that Nicodemus—he of the encounter with Jesus in John 3—brought about 100 pounds of spices and aloes with which to anoint the body of Jesus, which would also be wrapped in a linen cloth.  Even though he died as a criminal, humiliated, in how his body was handled after his death we see the love and care of those who followed him.

Sunday, the first day of the week.  The Jewish calendar works differently than ours. Sunday would begin when the sun went down on Saturday.  Luke records Jesus teaching his disciples about himself—the Son of Man— “He will be handed over to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again.”  And then Luke adds, “But the disciples understood none of these things, and the meaning of this statement was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said.”  Now, this was not the first time Jesus spoke about his death and resurrection; he did the same just prior to his Transfiguration in Luke 9.  Each time, however, the disciples failed to understand what Jesus was talking about.

For the followers of Jesus those events were happening NOW.  Jesus had been handed over to the Gentiles on Thursday and Friday, had been mocked and mistreated and spat upon, and had been killed.  Did they hope for what would happen next?  Had they remembered what Jesus had said about the third day?  Had they even understood what that meant?

Frankly, do we understand what that means?

Jesus had been humiliated, but would now be both vindicated and exalted.  Remember that Jesus was the sacrifice for sins, but not his own sins, but our sins.  Jesus is the Paschal lamb, the one sacrificed to redeem humanity from sin.  Jesus died in our place.  In his flesh he bore our sins; by his stripes we are healed.  And it is a fact that his human body had died.

Luke records that early on Sunday morning the women who were followers of Jesus went to the tomb to attend to Jesus’s body in the tomb.  The tomb had been sealed by a large stone rolled to close the opening to the tomb, and the seal of Pontius Pilate had been placed on the tomb to ensure that nobody would try and steal the body.  The Jewish authorities feared that someone might come and steal the body of Jesus and then falsely claim that he had risen from the dead.  Matthew adds the detail that Roman guards were also posted at the tomb as added security.  The women arrive at the tomb with the spices they would use to refresh the body of Jesus—Jewish burial practice was that the body was placed in a tomb until it decomposed, and then the bones would be taken and placed in a bone-box for final burial.  Until the body decomposed, the body would be anointed with spices and aloes to just help combat the offensive odor given off by a decomposing body.  This was the third day, and the women could expect things might be a bit smelly in the tomb as Jesus’ flesh rotted away.  And they must have assumed someone would help them to roll the stone away.

garden-tomb2But this was all a moot point, because when they arrived at the tomb the stone had been rolled away, the body of Jesus was gone, and they were, Luke adds, “perplexed.”  I bet they were.  Two men in dazzling white appear, and the women are terrified.  The men in white tell the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

It had all happened as Jesus had said.  Exactly.  Indeed, the OT prophesies had also been fulfilled.  Exactly.  Jesus had died, but was alive again.  But this was not just simply the matter of a dead man coming back to life—that would be a resuscitation. Resuscitations are awesome!  Think on the story of Lazarus.  When Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb and gave him his life back, his sisters Martha and Mary were overjoyed—to say nothing of how great Lazarus must have felt to have been alive again!  And Jesus had done the same for the Widow of Nain’s son, and Jairus’s daughter.  They were dead, and Jesus spoke the word, touched them, and they were alive again.  But those were resuscitations.  Lazarus would die again; same for Jairus’s daughter and the widow’s son.  They were given their lives back for a time, but they would face death again.

Not so for Jesus.  Jesus, in his full humanity, had died.  But Jesus, the God-man, now raised from the dead, raised to new life by the Father, would never die again.  Jesus the man had died on the cross, bearing our sins; Jesus, the divine Son of God, was alive. On Easter Jesus had been resurrected, bodily, physically—and there is a world of difference between resurrection and resuscitation.  It is impossible that death could hold Jesus.  Impossible.

The testimony and indeed the faith of the church is much more than just a missing body and and an empty tomb.  The faith of the church is based on people who witnessed, who heard, saw, sat with, ate with the risen Jesus.  People touched him.  He was alive again.  The late John Stott put it this way:  We live, we die; Jesus dies, and then lives.  Our hope is that, if we are in Christ, then we die, and then also live.

Now the resurrection in and of itself is an amazing thing. It demonstrates the power of God over everything, even death.  The resurrection proclaims that evil is defeated b God, Satan is put to flight, and that indeed in the end love does win!  But the promise of the resurrection extends beyond Jesus.  Our celebration of Easter is much more than a liturgical ticker-tape parade in which we cheer Jesus for having been raised from the dead!  The further promise of Easter is found in what the Holy Spirit would reveal to the followers of Jesus after the resurrection.  Jesus, as Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, is the “first fruits of those who have died.”  This idea of first fruits is grounded in the OT, specifically in the book of Leviticus.  Before the Israelites harvested their crops they were to bring a representative sample—the first fruits—to the priests as an offering to the Lord.  Having given the first fruits as an offering to God the Israelites could then fully harvest their crops.  But the first fruits came, well, first.  This is Paul’s point.  Jesus’s resurrection was the first fruits of a larger harvest—the larger harvest being the resurrection of all the believing dead.

Bottom line, then, is this:  as Jesus has been raised from the dead, so too will we, if we believe in Him.  Paul makes that point a few verses later.  For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.  Sin and death came into this world through the disobedience of Adam.  We all, everyone of us, still are burdened by sin, and sin came into the world through Adam. In Christ, however, what was lost is restored.  In Christ the sin of Adam is atoned for; Christ died for the sins of Adam and his offspring, which is you and me.  As we all taste death in Adam, we will all be made alive in Christ: Christ first, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.  The resurrection is the restoration of how things were prior to the rebellion in the Garden of Eden.  Christ has been raised from the dead; and so will we when he returns again, date and time unknown.

Alleluia, Christ is risen; the Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!  Alleluia, also, that one day we too will rise!  Theologian Eric Sauer wrote this, and I find it particularly powerful: “The present age is Easter time.  It begins with the resurrection of the Redeemer and ends with the resurrection of the redeemed.  Between lies the spiritual resurrection of those called into life through Christ.  So we live between two Easters, and in the power of the first Easter we go to meet the last Easter.”  The tomb is empty, praise God because Jesus was raised from the dead.  And Jesus could never go back to the tomb.  Death could not hold him then, and never ever will.  This is the Gospel; it is great news.  But beloved, consider this, too: that promise of resurrection life, eternal life, is ours, too.  Because Christ is the first fruits of a greater harvest.  We live between two Easters.  We bask in the glow of the first, and wait with expectation for the second.  Amen.

Good Friday?

PassionOTChrist_4001PyxurzGood Friday.  For most of my life the name, Good Friday, was a total mystery to me. Why is this day, when Jesus died a horrible death—an innocent man, a sweet, kind, gentle man, the Prince of Peace—why do we call the day that he was executed, crucified, Good Friday.  What exactly, I would think, is good about this.  The image itself, if you really meditate on it, is startlingly offensive.  Artists over the years have tried to capture the ghastly scene of Jesus nailed to a cross between two criminals, nails in his hands or wrists and through his feet.  But even those artists most often try and spare us of the true brutality of the scene by painting the crucified Christ still clothed in a loin cloth.  No, friends, the brutality of this scene is not fully considered unless we realize that to further humiliate the condemned the Romans stripped the crucified bare.  The full image of Jesus on the cross is a naked Jesus, broken, bruised, and bleeding.   A crown of sharp thorns not gently placed on his head by Roman soldiers, but placed hard on his head, the sharp thorns digging into his flesh.  His back torn by lashes from a Roman whip, by the time Jesus got to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, he was almost dead.  This explains partly why he died so quickly on the cross; he had lost a lot of blood in addition to being weakened by sheer exhaustion.  Remember that Jesus had been carrying the emotional burden of the cross for a long while.  On the night before he died, on Thursday night, after having shared the Passover with his disciples, Jesus went into the garden at Gethsemane to pray to His Father in heaven.  As it turns out Jesus was hoping, it seems, for one last reprieve. Like so many condemned men in our time, Jesus was hoping for an eleventh-hour reprieve, a reversal of his death sentence.  He prayed to God, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.”  Take this cup of suffering from me, Jesus asked; but even in his moment of desperation, he still knew obedience: “yet not my will but yours be done.”  As awful and as painful as the next day might be—as much as Jesus might have wanted another way out—he remained obedient to the plan and purposes of God, a plan and a purpose to which Jesus had agreed long ago.

Luke tells us of the great anxiety our Lord experienced: “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”  Luke is describing hematohidrosis, a rare medical condition brought on by extreme anxiety.  We must always remember that while Jesus is fully divine, very God of very God as we assert in the Nicene Creed, he is also fully human.  He experienced the full range of human emotions and experiences—love, sadness, hunger, satisfaction, surprise, and indeed fear.  As a human being, he knew what it was like to be afraid and anxious; we know Jesus cried at the death of his friend Lazarus.  As God, too, Jesus knew what it meant to love, to weep, to feel loss, to want so badly the best for your people and watch in sadness as they pursued the wrong thing or worshiped false idols and gods.  And following his arrest in the garden, and the sham of a trial before the Jewish council and Pontius Pilate, Jesus would feel the wrath of both man and God.  He would feel the wrath of man, who since creation had sought equality with God, and now, with the Son of God exposed and vulnerable, had the chance, finally, to confront God directly, to challenge God in the flesh, to accuse God unjustly, and to kill God.  Isaiah had prophesied this centuries before when he wrote “he was despised and rejected.”  But it was not only the wrath of men that Jesus faced; it was also the wrath of God.  This is for me the hardest part to understand—why God poured out his wrath on his only Son?  God would pour out his wrath on his Son Whom He loved.  Looking again at the text from Isaiah:  Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.

This is what Jesus had clearly in mind when he prayed in the garden, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; but not my will but yours be done.”

The pain caused Jesus great anxiety, but this was more than just physical pain.  The greater pain was not physical but spiritual.  Even as Jesus hung on the cross, and even as he felt the surging, burning pain in his wrists each time he tried to draw in air to breathe, that pain was nothing compared to the pain which was the crushing pain Isiah described.  The spiritual pain was what caused Jesus to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?” That spiritual pain was the consequence of Jesus being the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

You see, this is where all the history of Israel and indeed of the whole world comes to a head, in the Cross of Christ.  And this was all God’s plan of salvation from before the foundation of the world.  The Jews at Passover would look back to the blood that saved them from God’s wrath while they were still in Egypt—back all those years to a different place and time when God had saved the Hebrews from his judgment on Egypt if they had smeared the blood of the slaughtered lamb on their doorposts.  Every year since, the Jews had celebrated God’s providence and salvation in the ritual of the Passover Seder, and they feasted on the lamb who was slain as a symbol of God’s faithfulness and protection.  And for centuries the Jews had gone to the Temple every year to offer the blood of slaughtered animals as they sought God’s forgiveness for their sins.  But these sacrifices of animals had to be repeated throughout one’s lifetime, because, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews notes, “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.”  The shed blood of animals offered a temporary salve to the greater problem of repeated, ongoing human sin.  The solution to the problem of human sin is found only in the sacrifice of a human being; but more than that, one who is not only fully human but also fully God.  The letter to the Hebrews continues “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

Listen again to those words:  But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.  Jewish history—human history—was all building to this point, to this wooden cross outside the walls of Jerusalem on which Jesus was dying.

The cry of dereliction from the Cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—was not the cry of a man condemned and judged by God for what he had done.  Not at all.  The cry of our Savior was because he was bearing OUR SINS on the cross.  It was God’s plan, Jesus’s choice, to lay down his life in our service…and then take up that life again.  Repeatedly throughout his ministry he had told his disciples that he would be betrayed into the hands of sinners and killed and rise again.  He would be the sacrificial lamb, the one without blemish, who would face the judgment of God and receive the punishment we deserved.  The cry of dereliction from Jesus’ lips was the result of the enormity of human sins, past, present, and future, laid on him as he hung on the Cross.  It is impossible for us to imagine that mountain of sin laid on Jesus—all the lies, deceptions, adulterous affairs, murders, rapes, holocausts, wars, lynchings and on and on throughout human history.  These were what Jesus bore on the cross.  The spiritual pain was separation from God in that moment as Jesus the sin-bearer received our just judgment.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

OJ-PhotoMost everyone over the age of 30 remembers the OJ Simpson trial.  I remember where I was and what I was doing on the night OJ was in the white Bronco as his world was crashing around him and he was facing arrest and a trial and possible imprisonment.  And I remember clearly where I was and what I was doing when the criminal trial had come to its conclusion, and the jury read the verdict that OJ was not guilty.  I will never forget the look of both disbelief and profound relief on OJ’s face.  As the years have passed many, many people have speculated whether or not OJ received the verdict he deserved.  But that moment, when OJ was declared not guilty, is forever etched in my memory.

Well, we are a lot like OJ.  We, too, have received a verdict in our favor.  Each one of us is born in sin, and we know the presence of sin in our lives daily.  Each one of us struggles to be “the best we can be,” which really means being the best God created us to be.  God created each one of us to reflect His glory, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  It is hard to do that.  Sin, remember, includes not only those things we have done but also those things we have not done.  It is pursuing our own will at the expense of God’s will.  It is the big things and the little.  We earned God’s judgment; we had a debt that could not be paid.  We are debtors whose sin debt far exceeds our ability to repay.

And then there is Jesus.  Jesus was in every way like we are yet without sin.  Jesus had no idea what it was like to sin, never knew the shame or the guilt from having acted wickedly or had failed to honor God with his substance and his being.  Jesus tells us that through is gift, his sacrifice, he will pay out debt.  And Jesus paid it all, obediently, yes, according to the plan and purposes of God; and lovingly, “because God so loved the world that He gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).

Isaiah:  But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

Paul:  For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Why is this Good Friday?  One word:  agape.  Love and sacrifice.  Because, through the sacrifice of Christ, through his divine condescension, “because he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross”; because Jesus loves us so deeply that he took our sin and in return gave us his righteousness.  It is Good Friday because Jesus loves us, exchanges our sin for his righteousness, claims us as his own, sets us free from bondage to sin and eternal death.  We are set free.  The sacrifice of Christ welcomes us back home, into God’s loving arms; because “in Christ Jesus you who were once far off but have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13).  That’s why it’s Good Friday.  Amen.

A father’s love (Luke 15)

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return-prodigal-sonLast summer, I took my son Will to New York City for a vacation.  It’s great father-son time, and we do it at least once every year.  It’s always a great trip.  But last summer, we had a bit of added excitement.  As we usually do, we get tickets to go see the Yankees play up at Yankee Stadium.  We had great seats, right behind home plate.  And it was a great game. After the game, since we had taken the subway uptown to Yankee Stadium we would head back downtown to the Princeton Club, where we were staying.  New York is blessed to have a really outstanding public transportation system, but when you have 45,000 people trying to make their way home after a game, and a considerable number of those taking the subway, things get pretty crowded.  First you have to push your way through a mass of humanity just to get through the gates to the subway station, and from there, through the turnstiles, and then to the subway platform.  It was so crowded that night that quite literally the crowd just moved you along—we were like one large mass of humanity!  Will and I kept close, however; even though he was only 15 at the time, he is pretty savvy when it comes to navigating his way through New York—but I did not want to press my luck on that night.  So we make our way together down to the platform.  The next phase of our mission is to go from the platform onto a subway train.  As the cars arrive, they quickly fill up with passengers, and so I tell Will as the trains arrive that we should move further down the platform to the trains that are less crowded.  And I assume that both Will hears me, and that he is following me as I make my way down the platform.  Never assume, friends.  You know what it does, and I’ll leave it at that.  So I think that both Will and I are stepping onto the same train.  And the subway doors close behind me.  And I notice Will is not with me.

The Princeton Club is in Manhattan, about five miles from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, as the crow flies.  Not really that far, but we’re not flying like crows.  We’re travelling underground, at night, from the Bronx—infamous for its violence, gangs, drugs, crime—to Manhattan.  I’m scared.  I’m wondering where the heck is Will?!  So I begin just looking around the very crowded subway car in which I’m standing, and I don’t see him anywhere.  When we were standing on the subway platform we had been speaking with some other people, one of whom was stood about 6’5’, so I think maybe Will is with him?  Don’t spot him on my car.  I’m thinking now what my plan is—if I can’t find Will, I’ll have to go to the NYPD and enlist their help.  My mind is swimming with thoughts, both hopeful and fearful.  Will knows where the Princeton Club is, and he knows the subway system really well, and maybe he’ll find a cop who might help him.  Maybe he’ll know which subway stop to get off at and have the presence of mind to wait for me there.  I’m just thinking there must be a way out of this mess.  But I am also planning for the worst case scenario, like how do I tell my wife.  “Hey, we had a great time at the game, the Yankees won, but I lost Will.”  Not the kind of phone call I can even imagine making.

So the train continues to rumble downtown, stopping along the way, letting passengers off, taking a few on.  As the crowd thins on the train, I’m better able to move about and look for Will.  I walk through my car, Will is nowhere, and head to the next car.  Look around, don’t see Will, move on to the next car, which is still really crowded.  I’m sweating bullets at this point—and then I see his hand raised high in the air, waving to me!  Thank God!  And he is with that 6’5”, who had spotted me and told Will to wave.

It was a terrifying experience.  I honestly thought that my son was gone.  When we were reunited, I just hugged him, and thanked God again.

Jesus told a parable that we read today about a father who had two sons.  We know this story as the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  It could also be called the Parable of the Two Lost Sons.  But the central figure in this parable is not the younger son, nor the older son, but the father.  Jesus is putting on display for the scribes and Pharisees to whom he is speaking the powerful, awesome, unconditional love of God the Father.  What Jesus shares in this parable is some of the most shocking and powerful teaching ever to come from his lips.

A crowd is with Jesus, a crowd composed of his followers, included among them “tax collectors and sinners.”  These are the people to whom Jesus is drawn, and they are drawn to Jesus.  Tax collectors and “sinners,” a rather broad term that likely includes those who were not meticulous in obeying Mosaic Law.  In the eyes of the Pharisees and scribes, a sinner was anyone who did not practice their religion as they thought they should.  Sinners, in that sense, included anyone who had fallen short of the religious standard established by the Pharisees.

The Pharisees grumble about Jesus: “Look at that one,” they sneer, “this man receives sinners and…eats with them.”  In the culture of that time, to sit down and dine with someone meant that you were expressing solidarity with them, and to say that he “eats” with them indicates that this is not a past activity, but one in which Jesus still engaged.  How could this man claim to be God if he welcomes sinners into this presence?  It was here that the Pharisees totally misread Jesus.  It wasn’t that Jesus was affirming sin by welcoming “sinners” into his presence, but rather that he was calling all sinners to Him so that they might be saved.

Jesus hears the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisees and tells them three parables that deal with the restoration of the lost.  First Jesus tells them the parable of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, followed by the parable of the lost coin.  In both cases, something of value—a sheep, a coin—had been lost, and then found, and in the finding and restoration there was great rejoicing.  These are two brief parables that set the stage for the third parable—the Prodigal Son.

“There was a man who had two sons,” Jesus begins.  The younger is a rebel. He has been chafing at living under his father’s rules at home, and has come to a point in his life where he just wants to strike out on his own.  As is so often the case in families then and now, birth order helps to shape the attitudes of children.  Frequently—but not always—the older child is the responsible, obedient, compliant one, who follows the rules, obeys his parents.  The younger child is the one who pushes the envelope more, is a bit more of a challenge for mom and dad, a freer spirit who wants to live life his or her own way.  That is what Jesus is describing here.  So the younger son asks that he might receive his share of the family estate NOW!  Jewish law at that time structured estates so that the older son, upon the death of the father, would receive the larger share of the estate, and the younger sons smaller shares.  But, then as now, almost all the time estates were divided after the death of the parent or father.  There were rare instances in Jewish culture where a father might give a child or children their share of the estate prior to death, but those were rare instances.

But this is more than just an issue about wealth.  In essence what the younger son is saying to the father is “I can’t wait for you to die.”  The younger son wants what the father has—but he doesn’t want the father.  The fact that the father is still alive stands in the way of the younger son getting what he wants—freedom!  And money!  “Father,” he says, “give me what’s coming to me from your estate.”

The father does what the younger son asks.

Taking his inheritance the younger son wastes no time in leaving his father and older brother.    Jesus tells us, “the younger son…took a journey into a far country and there he squandered his property in reckless living.”  I used to live in a sea-side town that had a somewhat robust fishing business, and I remember some of the fisherman who were not really good at managing their money.  They would be paid on a Friday, cash their check, and then drink away their earnings that night, waking up Saturday morning not only with a hangover but with an empty wallet.  I imagine the younger son was much the same way.  His pockets filled with money, he was the life of the party, picking up tabs he could ill afford.  One day he must have reached for his wallet, and it was empty.  No money, no job, and now a famine. Wicked combination.  Can’t go back home because he thinks he has burned that bridge.  So he takes a loathsome job feeding pigs.  About as low as it gets for a Jew—recall that pigs are an unclean animal according to Jewish ritual and purity laws.    Living in a foreign land, flat broke, estranged, and unclean.

At some point while he is feeding the pigs, he begins to yearn for home. He thinks back on the good old days, a comfy bed, good food.  Home.  And he even begins to crave the food he’s feeding to the pigs.  But when he yearns for home he is acutely aware of the reality he has constructed.  He believes he has shattered his relationship with his father to such a degree that he has even lost the right to be called his father’s son.  Maybe he can head back home, but not as a son, but as a hired hand.  Then, at least, he’ll be fed with the rest of the workers.  Maybe, just maybe, he can begin to earn his way back into the father’s household.

He had to go home.  The younger son, poor and hungry, was now a broken man.  He had to go home, had to face his father again, had to fall on his knees and beg forgiveness.  Take me back as one of your hired men.

I shared earlier the experience of being a father who though he had lost his son.  Awful and terrifying.  I know to a certain extent the broken heart of a father who believes that his son is lost, gone.  But I also know what it feels like to be the younger son, who takes an inheritance—understood as what God in his generosity gives us every day for the primary purpose of serving and glorifying Him—and has squandered it in reckless, selfish living.  I’ve been there, as a younger man, out with my friends, staying out way to late, spending way too much money, waking up with hangover and an empty wallet in a strange place.  Friends, as bad as those experiences are, I firmly believe God uses them to break us and to form us.  God forms us all differently.  For some of us, we are like the elder son. We never wander astray, we are devoted and faithful to the father all our lives.  And the truth is that the older son, as is seen in this parable, is also lost, separated from the father.  He refuses to join his brother and his father at the feast.  His alienation from the father is the result of his obedience, his perfect following of the father’s rules.  He believes his relative goodness has put the father in his debt.  He does not love the father, only what he can get from the father.  And he will get what he wants from the father not because of love, but because he has been so good, so perfect, that he deserves to be blessed.  He expects to be blessed because of his performance.  But others of us are the younger son, the rebel, the wanderer, the ones who want to do it our way.  We don’t want the father, only what we can get from the father.

The younger son begins the long journey home.  While he was still a long way off, Jesus says, “his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”  While the younger son had written off his father, the father had never given up on the son.  Did he wonder if he was dead and gone?  Yes, he did.  But as with any parent, until you have evidence that your child is indeed truly gone, you hold out hope.  This father always held in his heart hope that the son would return.  And he did.  Spotting him off in the distance, the father hitches up his garments and runs out to the son.  This was not the typical action of a Jewish man, to hike up his garments and run like a school-boy down the road.  But that is how great the father’s love is for the son.  With his father’s arms around his neck, the son speaks up, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Those words—they are a confession of sin. The father’s actions that follow indicate forgiveness and restoration.

The father really does not respond directly to the son.  His next words are directed to the servant:  Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

And they began to celebrate.

Last Sunday Jesus taught about the importance of repentance.  We are to live lives of repentance and faith—that is what we offer to God.  We are to repent, to paraphrase another saint, until the day we die.  We seek God’s forgiveness, we repent of our sins, and we trust in God.  And God is always faithful.  God is always willing to forgive us.  We might act as the younger son, live lives of dissolute living and recklessness.  God is always willing to forgive.  Always.  The image Jesus gives us of the father running out to meet his wayward son—the very son who basically said, “Old Man, I wish you were dead!”—is how God loves us.  God loves us although we might shake our fists in his face; God loves us in spite of our brokenness, of the wrecks we might make of our lives.  King David in Psalm 51 wrote, “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”  When we come to God in our brokenness, on our knees, God is there to embrace us and draw us to himself.  Prodigal is defined as “wastefully or recklessly extravagant; lavishly abundant.”  Indeed, the younger son had lived wastefully; but the true prodigal is God.  God loves in a recklessly extravagant fashion, and is lavishly abundant in his love for us.  Jesus offended the Pharisees because of how he dined with and accepted sinners.  They were angered at how Jesus loved and loves the unlovable.  We behave as Pharisees, too, when we set boundaries around whom we deem worthy of God’s love.  Our Lord is our prodigal—the one who loves us recklessly, extravagantly, abundantly, and eternally.  We were lost, and now we’re found.  This is grace, brothers and sisters, amazing grace.  Amen.

Nicomdemus, the night stalker (John 3)

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002-kolchak-the-night-stalker-theredlistWhen I was a kid my favorite TV show was Kolchak: The Night Stalker.  Darin McGavin played Carl Kolchak, a reporter for a fictional Chicago newspaper who, much to the chagrin and disbelief of his editor, would investigate things that “went bump in the night.”  Kolchak would investigate reports of the bizarre and other-worldly—vampires, werewolves, zombies, and witches—just some of the “freaks” who would come out at night.  For Kolchak that old adage that “nothing good happens after midnight” certainly was true—except that it was the zombies and other night creatures who helped him earn a living!

Most people retain even through adulthood a fear of the dark.  Ever walk down a dark street at night alone…and hear footsteps behind you?  Your pulse quickens, and perhaps your pace does, too.  Your mind starts to race—who’s that behind me?  Worse, your mind might begin to play tricks on you, or a wicked game of worst case scenario.  “Okay, if this guy jumps me, here’s what I’ll do…”  We’ve all been there.

One of the scariest movies I ever saw was the Blair Witch Project.  It is a peculiar film because it’s not violent or gory; but what I found scary about this movie was that there was a realistic edge to it.  It played on two basic fears: of being lost, and of being lost in the dark.

In the gospel according to John light and darkness are very important themes.  Right there in the opening chapter John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”  John is referring to Jesus as the eternal Word of God, through whom all things were made; that Jesus also illuminates the world in a spiritual sense, leading men from darkness, death, despair into the light, which is life and truth.  If our fears are of being lost and in darkness, then it is the light of Christ that is our guide.

In the third chapter of John’s Gospel we read of a man named Nicodemus who comes to visit Jesus.  Nicodemus is one of the ruling Jewish elite in Jerusalem—he is a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin (the ruling religious body), and a very highly regarded religious teacher or theologian.  Jesus public ministry was just beginning to make an impact in Israel, and so Nicodemus decides that he’s going to go and have a chat with this Jesus.  Now, remember our gospel from last Sunday when Jesus upset things in the Temple as he chased out the merchants and moneychangers.  So when I say Jesus was having an impact, this also means that Jesus was making enemies—the Sanhedrin among them.  The motivation for Nicodemus’ visit is shrouded in mystery.  Was it simply that Nicodemus wanted to learn more about Jesus?  Was he going to gather more information on this itinerant rabbi and then report back to the Sanhedrin?  Or was it something more?  Did Nicodemus feel compelled for personal reasons to go and sit down with Jesus?  We don’t know for sure.  What we do know is that Nicodemus went to visit Jesus under cover of darkness.  This was a covert operation.

Nicodemus is quite courteous and revealing when he engages Jesus.  Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.  Nicodemus is speaking not just for himself, but in using we is speaking as one of the Sanhedrin; they seem to acknowledge that Jesus has come from God because of the signs that he has done.  Jesus’ response to Nicodemus, and to the Sanhedrin, is to tell him that unless one is born-again, or born from above—the Greek word can mean both—that one can not see nor enter the Kingdom of God.

Now, Nicodemus’ response is quite typical of the legalist mindset of the Pharisee/Sanhedrin sect.  They saw things in terms of fulfilling the letter of the Jewish ritual and ceremonial laws, all 613 of them.  What mattered primarily were these two things: following the law and being born into the right family.  Genealogies were so important to Jews in the time of Jesus—one reason why two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, open with genealogies of Jesus, to show his bloodline.  So when Jesus tells Nicodemus that the only way into the kingdom of God is by being born again or born from above, Nicodemus just doesn’t get it.  For him it’s all about genealogy and law.  So he responds to Jesus, “How can a man, when old, be born a second time?  What, can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”  For all his education and his knowledge of the Scriptures and the law, Nicodemus displays a tremendous ignorance of the power of God—Jesus responds to Nicodemus, “are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”  Jesus is telling Nicodemus that one must undergo both a physical and a spiritual birth—and Nicodemus just can’t get his arms around those concepts.  He’s stuck in a spiritual darkness.

And so, to help Nicodemus out, Jesus simplifies his Gospel to 26 words:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him will not die, but will have eternal life.”

How could it be this simple?  For Nicodemus there were 613 laws, and sacrifices, and rituals, and things clean and unclean, and Sabbath observances and pilgrimages and grain offerings and rules and rules and bloodlines and more rules.  But what he hears from Jesus is not about a God who is a harsh judge who requires the blood of sheep and goats but rather one who loves, who gives.

For all the mystery that surrounds why Nicodemus went to visit Jesus—why at night, for what reasons and so on, this much we can ascertain: this nocturnal conversation changed Nicodemus forever.  We will encounter Nicodemus two more times in the Bible: the first time is when he urges the Sanhedrin not to be too quick to judge Jesus, and then later still when, on Good Friday, when Nicodemus and another member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, remove the dead Jesus from the cross and lay him in a tomb.  Nicodemus risked all—his reputation, his profession, his family, indeed his life, all because of a nocturnal conversation.  That was his movement from darkness to light.

And here we are, the fourth Sunday in Lent, 200X.  Two thousand years distant from that meeting between Nicodemus and Jesus.  There are people here who have worshipped in this church their whole lives—were baptized, confirmed, and married here; you’ve served this parish in so many different ways, on vestries, as wardens, altar guild, choir, confirmation classes—you name it.  You’ve poured yourself into this church, you’ve done it all.  The funny thing is, Nicodemus had done all those things too.  He knew his religion inside and out.  But when Jesus confronted him with a simple and profound restatement of who God is and what it means to be loved by God—it was news to Nicodemus.  His whole life the most elementary essence of the Good News of salvation had slipped through his fingers like sand.  What do I have to do to gain eternal life?  What about my sins—will they be forgiven?  What if I have doubts?

I’ve been there with you, and as your pastor and priest, I am with you.  We did an exercise yesterday when a group of us were in Trenton with the Bishop.  Bishop Councell asked us to reflect and share on when in our lives God had moved from being a word to something more.  For me, it was a process that reached a zenith on one particular day, December 14, 1997, and I’ve been basking in the warmth of that light ever since—God moved from being a word or an abstract concept to a person, Jesus Christ, and I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit, and still experience his presence.  In that process and in that moment both my heart and my head were overwhelmed by the loving presence of Christ.  God not only made sense intellectually but also experientially.  John 3:16 became not just some passage from Scripture, but a message to and for me, as if I were in Nicodemus’ sandals that night 2000 years ago.

For God so loves me that he gave his only Son so that I may believe in Him and have eternal life  

Martin Luther referred to John 3:16 as the gospel in miniature.  Max Lucado in his book titled 3:16: The Numbers of Hope simplifies it further:

He loves. He gave. We believe. We live.

We need not stumble around in the darkness; we need not make our spiritual or religious lives any more complicated than what Jesus has already told us. So if you haven’t already, I encourage you, in the darkness or in the light, to slip into Nicodemus’ sandals, and to hear your Savior say to you:   For God so loves YOU that he gave his only Son so that YOU may believe in Him and have eternal life.  Amen.