Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sermon - 5th Sunday after Pentecost

"And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem, And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him. And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them. And they went to another village. And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God." - St. Luke 19.51-62

It is perhaps unfortunate that in the ordering of the books of the New Testament that the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, which is also authored by Luke, are separated by the Gospel of John. It is as a result easy to overlook the fact that the two are a unity. The Gospel of Luke tells of the life and work of our Lord Jesus beginning in Galilee in what is today far northern Israel and ending on Calvary outside of Jerusalem. In the Gospel lesson this morning, we get a snippet of this movement from the provincial Galilee to the urban religious center Jerusalem in the enigmatic phrase: "he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem." The Acts of the Apostles opens with the ascension of our Lord and his command to his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes: He tells them, "you shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, and in Samaria and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8). In the succeeding narratives in the book of Acts his apostles are witness to him beginning in Jerusalem, and then the surrounding region of Judea and then to Samaria, kind of like concentric circles in increasingly large geographic areas. Finally, we learn in the later chapters of Acts of Saul of Tarsus who is miraculously converted and renamed Paul. He becomes an Apostle to the Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire. There is, thus, a movement inward to Jerusalem in the Gospel of Luke and a movement outward in the Acts of the Apostles. What is the point of this important facet to these two books? Well, it says that the central event of both of them is contained in the death and resurrection of our Lord. Everything in the Gospel account is leading up this sacrificial death and the miraculous resurrection. Everything in Acts is pointing back to this one event. A passing study of the Apostles sermons in Acts will evidence this point.
The cross truly is the center point of history on which the whole history of the human race, even the creation, hinges. It is through this event that we should, as a lens, see the world and all of our relationships. Through the cross, we see God's purpose for the world, both in judgement for its sin and rebellion against his gracious rule but also God's design to redeem the best of the human spirit and to save us. Through the cross, we see that we should love others even when they are not lovable or when we believe they deserve judgment. The cross constantly before us reminds us that our Lord Jesus shed his precious blood for us knowing that we still would be unfaithful and rebellious against him. We in turn treat others with the same unmerited kindness and love. It is the cross that is the center of all human history. The hopes and fears of all the years are found in our Lord Jesus and in his most important action, his sacrificial death.
Now we are in a position to understand more clearly what the Evangelist is saying in this enigmatic phrase, "he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem." We've seen what that phrase means in the context of Luke and Acts, and what it means for us, namely, that we should strive to see all our life and the world around us through the lens of the cross. This is the center of all. Religious people don't like to hear that because the cross is outside of us. Religious people like spirituality and the search for the divine spark within which is ultimately searching for a god like one's self. The cross tells us that none of our religious efforts, none of our attempts at spirituality have any real meaning or significance in light of the one sacrifice of the Master. The heavy price of our sins has already been paid in full, and we are in no position to try and buy ourselves out: we can only make assent to this awesome work.
In his sermon last week, Deacon Easter spoke of the modern tendency to draw sentimental portraits of our Lord Jesus. We want him to bless the children and heal the sick, but we don't want him to talk about carrying a cross and we certainly don't want him to turn over the money changers tables and fashion a whip to drive them out of the temple. Now we need to be careful on this point that, as he made clear, we don't exclude either part of the full portrait of our Lord, and we also need to take care that we do not in the end give Jesus two masks, one as the stern master and the other as the loving shepherd. He is one Christ who brings both a word of judgment and a word of grace for human sin. With all this talk about the cross, what I'm not saying is that Jesus is just the easy shepherd or the docile parent who merely overlooks our sins. The cross doesn't take sin lightly, but rather shows how costly its grace is through our Lord's costly death.
Further in the Gospel lesson today we see this same tension that Deacon Easter pointed out. Our Lord first rebukes the disciples for wanting to cast down judgement on a Samaritan village, saying that he has not come to destroy men's lives but to save them. The "gentle" Jesus. Following this, we have a slew of what are typically called the "difficult sayings of Jesus." Preachers love to teach classes and explain away these sayings. "The Son of Man has no where to lay his head"; "Let the dead bury the dead", and "No man, having put his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God." It might make us doubt his earlier assertion that he has come to save lives not destroy them, when we learn that our Lord expects that, to be his disciple will mean we never feel at home on earth, we will follow him first most even putting him before our family, and we will be his disciples without wavering or relenting. Is he truly come to save lives when he seems to infringe so drastically on the ordinary lives of his followers?
A neglected skill in understanding the Bible is relating parts to parts. We might understand verses on their own, but there is a depth and a profoundity to be found in seeing how verses relate to verses, chapters to chapters and even books to books. Proficiency at this skill evinces the artistry behind the various texts of Scripture. And our reading from Luke is no different. It is no mistake on the part of the author that these two contrasting passages follow one another. In fact, these two contrasting passages help develop the significance of one another. Jesus says "let the dead bury their dead" and "no man having put his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God." Our Lord suggests that the customary order of this world may not be in line with God's design. In our Sunday morning adult education class, we've talked about the calendar of saints in the Book of Common Prayer, and the virgins of the early church commemorated on various dates. The virgins forsook the conventional design on their lives as young women--having an ordinary, ordered family with a husband and children, sometimes at great cost of alienation from family and society--and committed themselves wholly to following our Lord. Clearly this type of celibacy is a special calling, but it shows the other-worldly dimensions of Christianity, the same ones that our Lord is highlighting in the latter part of our passage.
In the first part of the passage, when the disciples ask if they should command fire to down from heaven upon a village, I don't think our Lord's response is simply saying he wants to preserve biological life for its own sake. Rather, the end of life, closes the door to repentance, and perhaps, he wishes to preserve this opportunity for repentance for those Samaritans. Might I suggest that the lives he has come to save are those that will be directed to his counter cultural world-view, those who when they receive the call to serve him will not look back.
Our lives are more than food, clothing and shelter and they are even more than the complex biological processes in our bodies. Rather, our life, as St. Paul says, is hid with Christ in God. And if we are to save that true life, we must lose our life here. We must be willing to sacrifice conventions, our own standing in society and sometimes even our respectability among our family in following our Lord Jesus and bearing witness to him. This is a great price to pay, but in doing so, we will find this true life, the one our Lord came to save with his precious blood.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Artistic Failure

B and I were recently asked to be godparents to a little boy in the parish named Christian. Christian Augustino. His parents are second generation Italian. We have become fairly close friends with this family since we settled here in Oklahoma.

In my opinion, it is really quite impossible to figure what to give an infant for his baptism. Either one gives something far beyond his ability to use and appreciate--a Bible, Book of Common Prayer, some other classic of Christian literature--gifts more suited to confirmation, or one resorts to decorative gifts that typically range from ghastly to pedestrian at best.

The one gift I know I received at my baptism was actually quite a good one. It was from my godfather, the late dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in Albuquerque, John Haverland. It is a framed prayer written in calligraphy and in the shape of a cross. The prayer is the birthday prayer from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (interestingly altered from the 1928 BCP by the removal of the petition, 'keeping him unspotted from the world"). This hung in my room for years as a child, and then for a number of years was in a box. A few years ago I found it and have hung it at our various residences since then. I like the dated 80s gold-flecked frame (which required regluing recently because the joints started to separate) and the mysterious water stain on the left edge. I think there is something profound about how I say this prayer many Sunday mornings as part of a parish tradition to give a blessing for those who have a birthday or anniversary within the week.

After reflecting on the long term quality of this gift, I decided to put my amateur calligraphy skills to the test, attempting to copy the one I'd received. So here are the results. The professional one is shown first followed by my best effort.

It was fun trying to imitate the calligraphy, using an ink pen and the well that B gave for Christmas a few years ago. But the results were far more lacklustre that I was prepared to accept. In our time a difficult problem presents itself to non-professional artists and all efforts at creativity: the advances of recording technology, printing, and assembly-line manufacturing have made perfection and precise uniformity seemingly attainable. Amateurs shy away from playing music because recorded music lacks imperfections, even though this perfection is entirely an illusion of multi-track recording and over dubbing. I don't say this by way of excuse for my own failures artistically, but to point out that the type of craft and art I'm interested in--that is, useful art made by an amateur--is arrested in a number of ways by this illusory perfection that characterizes most music and popular art.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sermon - 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

"But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught [it], but by the revelation of Jesus Christ. For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers. But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called [me] by his grace, To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother. Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not. Afterwards I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia; And was unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ: But they had heard only, That he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed. And they glorified God in me." - Galatians 1:11-24

I would like to talk to you today about the Epistle we've just heard. Scholars today contend that St. Paul's letter to the Galatians is one of his earliest letters. It was probably composed in the 50s, about 20 years after our Lord’s resurrection. In this letter, Paul addresses a foreign teaching that has infiltrated the churches in Galatia. Galatia was a region in what in ancient times was called Asia, present day Turkey. It is in the Northwest region of that country near the Black Sea. Paul had been a missionary to the Christians in this region and had proclaimed that both Jews and Gentiles are saved by God's free, unmerited grace. This central message of the Gospel is truly liberating, knowing that we are loved and forgiven in the free grace of our Lord Jesus. It has drawn countless sinners to their knees. It provoked John Newton to compose 'Amazing Grace.' It caused St. Paul to say that he counted all things before Christ was revealed to him as loss. Another aspect of the Gospel, however, is that we find difficulty in receiving it. We want to help ourselves; we want to pull ourselves up by our boot straps; we want to believe and say with conviction that God helps those who help themselves. Our flesh chafes against the idea that, as one of the traditional collects says, ‘we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.’ It was the philosopher Immanuel Kant who was thought to have delivered the death blow to the traditional understanding of Christ's atonement. He contended that it is demeaning to humanity to say that they cannot help themselves. And yet, isn't our helplessness self-evident in our lives? when we try to overcome the addiction or save the marriage or resist a besetting temptation on our own strength, we always fail, and despite our best efforts, we end up feeling worse about ourselves: we feel guilty for our failure and guilty for abandoning our resolve so quickly and so easily. But when we throw up our hands and say we have no ability to fix the situation, then the door is opened to God's grace and restoration.
Now the foreign teachers who had come to the Galatian churches in Paul's absence were of Jewish background, as Paul of course also was, but contrary to Paul's message of free grace and unconditional mercy, they said to the Gentile converts, "Jesus was a Jew, if you want to be a follower of Jesus the Christ, a Jew, then you need to be circumcised and live according to the Law of Moses." Perhaps they also indicted Paul for not having been appointed an Apostle in the manner that the other twelve had. "Can he really be an Apostle if he never spent time with Jesus while he was on earth?" It is fascinating to think about human nature in this situation. Even though the Galatian converts had heard the message of free grace and had accepted it joyfully, the idea that they could be accepted by God through circumcision and the works of the law was tremendously attractive to them; it confirmed their false instinct that God only helps those who help themselves. In fact the human heart finds an irresistible temptation in the idea that self-help might work after all.
In the passage read from the Epistle, Paul defends his apostleship and the means by which he received the message of the Gospel. It was not taught him by one the Apostles or by one of the disciples of the Apostles. Jesus Christ was revealed 'in him,' verse sixteen. Now this phrase 'in him' is a bit unusual. We would expect him to say ‘to’ him. As in Jesus was revealed to him. It might make sense to say that Jesus Christ was revealed in Paul by his preaching to others. But I think what he describes here is a life-transforming event, a revelation not only to his eyes--the blinding light on the road to Damascus--or to his ears--the voice of Jesus asking, why do you persecute me?--but Jesus was revealed in his heart; not only was Paul’s physical state altered with temporary blindness by that encounter of our Lord on the road to Damascus but his inward person was radically altered.
In the end, we too must affirm that the Gospel, the message of free grace for all those who put their trust in our Lord Jesus, is not man-given. It is not something devised by man to make us feel better about ourselves. Christianity's object is not about having an improved self-esteem but about knowing and receiving the costly love of God, a love that was poured out on the Cross with our Lord's precious blood. This message of God coming down to help us subverts all our best intentions to help ourselves, and in this way it bears the mark of its divine origin. The pride of man's heart could never have devised such a thing as the Gospel. Just look at all of the religions of the world. They all have some beauty and truth in them, but in the final estimation, they all--including a distorted Christianity like that preached to the Galatians--amount to man's ascent up to God rather than God's descent to man in the man Christ Jesus.
Central to the Christian life is learning how to live as those who are freely forgiven and loved. The churches love to talk about this message of free grace, and then, once that has been received, to pile on all these ordinances of do's and don’t’s. They make the proverb go like this: God helps those who, after they have been helped by him, help themselves. The truth is we are all like the dead man in the Gospel. We are dead in our sins and trespasses, but have risen to new life. A new life that is profoundly different than the old life with its rules and laws. In this new life we are not bound by the works of the law but are given a righteousness through our faith in Christ. Elsewhere St. Paul describes the old life and the grace we are given for the new with these vivid words from the Epistle to Titus: "For we ourselves. . . were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, [and] hating one another. But after the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy, he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour" (Titus 3:3-6). May we learn faithfully, live truly and believe steadfastly this truth of God's free grace and love and may this 'abundance' which has been shed on us in Christ be all our sustenance, our very life, this day.