Sunday, December 16, 2012

3rd Sunday in Advent - John the Baptist

The Collect.
O LORD Jesus Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee; Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit ever,* one God, world without end. Amen.

The Gospel. St. Matt. xi. 2.
NOW when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, and said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he whoso-ever shall not be offended in me. And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.

For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
The Gospel lessons for the next two Sundays focus on the ministry of John the Baptist. This morning I would like to talk about 1) who John Baptist was; 2) what was his ministry about; 3) and why his type of ministry is still significant today. John the Baptist holds a unique and important place in the economy of salvation, God's unfolding plan to draw mankind into fellowship with him. That plan existed in the Mind of God before the creation and will find its fulfillment in the perfect adoration and enjoyment of God in heaven. The Bible posits that the central turning point that history is the first coming of the Lord Jesus in the flesh. For the Christian, all history, sacred and even secular, is either a pointing forward to this man, or a looking backwards at him. There is something superlative about this man that becomes evident when we see his life and see it in the context of the history of humanity in general and the history of Israel in particular. For this reason, Pilate's declaration on Good Friday--'behold the man'--is pregnant with meaning—he says more than he understands. Jesus is the man, the perfection of our nature.
In the book of Revelation, Jesus says of himself, I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I like to say that he is also the Genesis to the Revelation. The whole Bible is a witness to this one. In the New Testament, this witness is direct and transparent. In the Old Testament, this witness is opaque and suggestive. John the Baptist comes at the end of all those who pointed forward in the Old Testament. He is the crown of the Old Testament prophets because he was able to point directly and tangibly to Jesus while the Old Testament communicated the mystery of the messiah's advent in images, symbols and visions. For example the prophet Ezekiel described a future state in which the people of God would be in perfect and unbroken fellowship with God. He conveyed this idea by describing an ideal and well-ordered temple, but the description of this temple is only in two dimensions—a fact that gives the reader pause. In the end, the description's artificiality suggests that this temple is really a symbol for the messiah Jesus who will establish the union of God and man in the temple of his own body. He is our fellowship with God. John the Baptist did not need to communicate the mystery of the messiah with images like that of Ezekiel. He simply had to point to the man. And that is precisely of what his ministry consisted.
There is an ongoing and immediate relevance of John the Baptist's ministry in the church today. For it is true that John prepared the way for the Word's first advent, but we also believe that Jesus will come again in a second advent to judge the quick and dead. Further there is a third advent, a third coming, that of the Word into our souls. Every time we have a conscious awareness of the holiness, mercy and love of our Lord Jesus, this advent occurs in our souls. Some times this advent takes a form like that of his cleansing of the temple; he makes us aware of the sin to which we are clinging and demands that we release it. Other times, he comes unto us like unto the Samaritan woman, restoring us to God by his gentle prodding. Still other times, he comes to us in order to send us out like his apostles so the love that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit may overflow to others.
The collect today suggest that there is still a John the Baptist-type ministry to be had, as the way is prepared for the Lord's return and for his coming into our souls. We entreat God with this petition: Grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight. The collect primarily has in mind ordained ministry—bishops, priests and deacons, but the ministry of the church does not belong solely to its ordained ministers. The ministry of the church does not belong to priests, anymore than the church itself belongs to a bishop or any other human being. We are all ministers of the church. That is why in the Anglican church there can be no such thing as a mass celebrated alone with just a priest, as is the practice in the Roman Church. Holy Communion is necessarily a corporate act—those present represent the entire church. It is critical that these prayers are yours even though they are said by one as our representative.
I would suggest that all of us then have a John the Baptist-type ministry to fulfill, as we prepare the way of the Lord for his coming into souls and his final return. I want to draw your attention to two points that Jesus makes about John the Baptist's ministry at the end of the the lesson: Jesus said “What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment?” Concisely put John was not a reed shaken by the wind nor a man clothed in soft clothing. A reed is a very lightweight plant; even a slight wind will point it in a different direction. Our Lord is saying that John stood firm amidst all the political, religious and social trends of his era. If people came to hear his message, it was not because he had anything particularly pleasant to say. His most frequent subject seemed to be repentance, literally changing your mind, which consists of turning away from sin and turning to God. In every period, there are always those who positively claim to hear the winds of change. Much of this so-called change belongs to the world of the trendy and ephemeral. In the 50's and 60's, there was a major change in the theological world with the death of God theology. These thinkers posited that a traditional belief in God was no longer tenable—they were understandably jaded by the horrors of the second world war. Death of God theologians advocated maintaining the form of Christian worship and practice while understanding the articles of the creed as metaphors and symbols. This was no small, minority movement, but one that found real traction in the Churches. However, by the time I went through seminary, death of God theology was rightly treated as an historic relic. Death of God theology had no future because frankly, who wants to go to church if it is all a fiction? The winds of change supposedly blow today as well. As Christians and like John the Baptist, we are called not to be weather vanes that simply point in whatever direction the wind blows. That does not mean fearing or rejecting all change, but having the wisdom to know the difference between the merely trendy and that which represents an unfolding of God's unchanging truth.
Secondly, John was also not clothed in soft clothing. We are told he wore a camel's hair garment and ate locusts and wild honey. In other words, John renounced the skewed values of this world, which place greater emphasis on material belongings than on love, joy and peace. It is entirely possible and even common for a man to have no love, no joy, no peace but abundant possessions and have a completely miserable life. The holiday culture around us provides no lack of opportunity to renounce the world's values in its base materialism. Dare I say that as Christians we need to fight a holy war on Christmas, that the war on Christmas might actually belong to us? By Christmas I don't of course mean the feast of the Nativity which is celebrated on the 25th but the torrent of consumerism that rages for two months. We all need to be reminded including myself that material goods will never alone bring us true and lasting happiness. Nor to our children. Further, mere accumulation usually brings greater unhappiness. The soul's food, the soul's delight is God. The Psalms remind us of this fact again and again. In closing listen to these verses from Psalms that speak of the basis human hunger for God and the contentment we may find in him. “My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh also longeth after thee, * in a barren and dry land where no water is.” (Ps.63); “The Lord shall feed me in a green pasture, * and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort.” (Ps.23); “thy loving-kindness is better than life itself.” (Ps.63); “My soul shall be satisfied, even as it were with marrow and fatness, * when my mouth praiseth thee with joyful lips.” (Ps.63); “Thou shalt show me the path of life: in thy presence is the fulness of joy, * and at thy right hand there is pleasure for evermore.” (Ps.16). 

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Abomination of Desolation

      S. Mark 13:14-23

Imagine for a moment that your world was turned upside down. Something occurred in your home town that was so catastrophic that you had only option and that was to leave. And in your departure, there was no time for packing or for good byes: you simply had to make an exit. In leaving, there would be many places hard to say goodbye to: your home, the place where perhaps you raised your children, your place of employment, and of course, your place of worship. The horror and sorrow of this scenario is only a fragment of that which our Lord foretells for the city of Jerusalem in today's Gospel lesson. The lesson begins with this mysterious reference to the 'abomination of desolation.' The phrase is an allusion to a prophecy in the book of Daniel about a figure who desecrates the temple of Jerusalem and sets himself up as god. Precisely this thing happened in 168 B.C., when Antiochus Epiphanes, a Gentile king, entered into the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem, set up an altar to Zeus, and sacrificed swine flesh. In the temple, only priests were permitted in the sacred precincts, only the Lord was to be worshiped and only clean animals were to be sacrificed. This was the utmost blasphemy and sacrilege. A similar series of events unfolded in the late 60s of the first century, a few decades after the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord. A popular political movement—the Zealots—rebelled against Roman rule. In response, the Romans brought the full force of their military might against Judea led by the future Ceasar Titus. Jerusalem was one of the final strongholds in the war, and in 70 A.D. Titus began a siege of that city. Famine and hunger soon reigned. The Romans allowed pilgrims into the city for major feasts like Passover, only to forbid them to leave afterwards to put further strain on food and water supplies. Those who abandoned the city were crucified in mass around the city walls. Finally in September of that year, the walls were breached, and Titus ordered his soldiers to destroy the city and temple. Contemporary accounts estimate that 1.1 million people died in the siege and that 100,000 were sold into slavery after the conquest. As with other military conquests in the ancient world, a defeat was interpreted to be a defeat of the losing sides' god. For the Romans, their religion, including of course Caesar worship, was vindicated. Most scholars believe that Jesus is predicting this downfall of Jerusalem in the passage before us. Reading the Jewish historian Josephus on these events makes one appreciate the strong statement of our Lord: “For in those days shall be affliction, such as was not from the beginning of the creation which God created unto this time, neither shall be.”

So why, you might ask, is this relevant? Our Lord's forecast of the attack on Judea and the siege of Jerusalem puts before us a pattern of life in this world. First of all, there are many institutions, social movements and people who set themselves up in opposition to God as gods demanding absolute obedience and obeisance. In this sense they are an abomination of desolation.  In their own ways, in the twentieth century both fascism and communism made these types of demands on people under whom their political power fell. There is a second important point here though: in times of chaos—whether political, religious or personal—the possibility of false messiahs is at its greatest, and the temptation to follow them is even greater.  According to our Lord, the advent of the abomination of desolation becomes the occasion for “false Christs and false prophets [to a]rise, and [to] shew signs and wonders, [in order to] seduce, if it were possible, even the elect.” This remains as true in our own day, as it was in the first century. Chaos provides an occasion for us to put our trust in people, institutions and social movements as the panaceas to our woes. No doubt, a good number were disappointed by the results of the latest election cycle. Whatever our reaction to the outcome of the election—if we are either disproportionately elated or devastated, it might an indication that we have put our trust in men to save our society. In the same way, some will greet the announcement of a new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby who purportedly has substantial skills in reconciliation, as the next great hope for healing the fissures of the Anglican Communion. Unquestionably we should hope, but where is our hope directed? If its ultimate object is God himself, then we are on solid ground, but so often, our hope is directed at everything but God. These remarkable words come from the recessional hymn to be sung this morning: “Mortal pride and earthly glory, Sword and crown betray our trust; / Though with care and toil we build them, tower and temple fall to dust.”

Trial and chaos in particular can tempt us to put our trust in temples and towers and in false messiahs. But with every trial, temptation and chaos we face in life there is always a corresponding and greater grace offered by God. The grace of trial and chaos is an invitation to greater trust in God. Rejecting faith in false messiahs, we can place hope and simple trust in the Lord of history, our Lord Jesus. It is the type of trust that the Psalmist describes with these moving words: “LORD, I am not high-minded; * I have no proud looks. / I do not exercise myself in great matters * which are too high for me. / But I refrain my soul, and keep it low, like as a child that is weaned from his mother: * yea, my soul is even as a weaned child.” This does not mean that we should be naïve or simplistic in our faith, but that we should trust in the Lord in everything, and in the midst of chaos, resist putting our trust in that which is not god, those endless and empty false messiahs.

I want to give you three examples of how this simple trust can be exercised. First, this simple trust is evident every time a child is baptized. We cannot of course see into the future of this child. We are not able to discern where or when this child will begin to live this faith as her own, although we know that such a moment must come; the fullness of baptism would be left unexpressed if this faith did not become that of the child. But we also cannot begin to see the ways in which the grace she receives today will be unfolded in her later life. This grace may remain hidden for years even as it operates in her life to keep her from the follies and sins of blind youth. Despite our ignorance about this future, in simple trust, faith and obedience, the child's parents and godparents and the church as a whole bring this child to be blessed and touched by the Lord. I like to think of baptism as a simple thank-you for what our Lord has already done for this child. His atonement for the sins of the whole world encompasses, embraces and removes even the sins—original and actual—of this child. What better image can be found for the Scriptural assertion that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”, than infant baptism, where it is not about what we bring to God—even a willful declaration to follow Jesus—but about what he has already done for us.

Today is pledge Sunday when we offer our pledges of good faith to God and to this church. A pledge and offering rightly made is another example of this simple trust and obedience. In Fr. Petley's sermon last Sunday, he spoke of how the widow gave freely to God without being hindered by the hypocrisy of the temple and clergy and without fretting about the institutional insanity that so-often characterizes the earthly church. It would be easy to be consumed and distracted by peripheral issues like these. It would also be easy to give a portion of what we have, and act as if the rest were ours to spend as we like. We often do this with time: here is the portion for God, here's one for my family, and now this one—always the biggest one—is mine. But the widow gives every thing to God, even her very living. The surrender we are called to “demands my soul, my life, my all.” The offering of our pledges today is an opportunity to turn away from trust in ourselves and trust in everything in this world that is exalted as god, to reject every false messiah, and to put our small faith and trust in God, to surrender once again to the Lord in love.

There is a further opportunity for surrender in making a faithful reception of Holy Communion. Recollect that the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would be the mother of the Son of God, the mother of God. The eternal Word takes flesh from this human mother, joining in himself finite human nature and infinite god-head. Did Mary make a selfish accounting of the situation, reckoning for example how she would be perceived for being an unwed mother? In this trial and stress, did she decide to trust in herself and false messiahs? No, her answer is one of simple trust and obedience; her response is one of complete surrender: behold the handmaiden of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word. In Holy Communion, we are invited to receive the Lord Jesus into our bodies and souls in imitation of Mary receiving the Lord. Will he find in us a dwelling like that of our Lady? A place where the response to the divine commission  is “be it done unto me according to thy word.” In the chaos and trials that you are facing in your life, will you set aside every trust in that which cannot save so that you can be open to the love and grace of God?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Becoming Blind & Lame for the Kingdom of God

                       Mark 9:38-48

In last week's Gospel, the disciples dispute with one another who is the greatest. They obviously do not understand the mission of our Lord and the kingdom of God. The kingdom is unlike earthy corporations and societies: it is not the forceful and powerful who are the first in the kingdom; rather, it is those who are like little children who belong to the kingdom. As Fr. Petley pointed out, to be a child of the kingdom does not mean to have the romanticized innocence of a child. Rather, a child is one who is wholly dependent for his needs on another; he is wholly vulnerable and has to trust in others for his security and protection. In the same way, the children of the kingdom recognize themselves as wholly dependent on God. They are those who know that they are unable to stand and carry on without God, and hence, they commend their lives in trust to the Lord.

In the passage before us today, once again we see the disciples thinking and acting in a way that is not at harmony with the work and mission of the kingdom. John comes to our Lord and reports that someone has been casting out devils in Jesus' name, and that someone is not among the twelve. John appears astounded that the mission of the kingdom could fall outside the work of the twelve. His report sounds narrow-minded and petty, and ultimately he is a figure of all those who cannot imagine the work of the kingdom outside of their own organizational structure. In the wider context of the Gospel, John is being further indicted because the evangelist has already shown a scene in which the disciples are unable to cast out a demon and have to ask Jesus for help. Now a stranger comes along, casting out demons, and John will have nothing of it.

We belong to a denomination that does not claim to be the sole representative of the Catholic Church, but it does claim to be part of the One Catholic Church throughout all times and places. Despite the fact that we don't think that we are the only true Christians, Episcopalians can still be rather negative and judgmental about other Christian denominations. Hopefully, our recent institutional feuding should give us a measure of humility about our obvious imperfections. But even before this conflict, we had good reason not to question that the Lord's work carries on even outside the structures we recognize. I am not trying to say that all denominations are equal or that we should not make value judgments about them. In fact, I believe there is something truly superlative in Anglicanism: our liturgical worship, our clarity on sin, grace and redemption, our tradition of common prayer, our commitment to the arts through the centuries in a belief that the beautiful points to God, even our emphasis on distinguishing essentials of the faith from non-essentials about which we can disagree. For all these reasons and more, I am and will continue to be an Anglican Christian. But that does not mean that we should imagine the mission of the kingdom of God as falling only within the boundaries of that with which we are familiar or with which we are comfortable. Rather, an attitude of humility and charity should pervade our attitude and conversation concerning other Christian denominations.

This is essentially what our Lord is telling us to do in the warning that follows in the succeeding verses of the lesson. He warns the disciples that “whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.” Who are the little ones? Surely they must be those who are outside the formal structure of the disciples but nevertheless have a place in the overall mission. We encounter little ones all the time. Their faith may appear to be simple or even simple-minded. Those of you who have attended one of my Bible studies know that I am a critic of the theology underlying the popular Left Behind series. Years ago, however, I knew a young woman at the Episcopal Summer Camp that I worked at for many years who had come to faith after reading some of those books. Yes, our Lord can even make use of those things that appear to us to be simplistic or feckless. If we are honest with ourselves the faith we have is small and simple in its own way. In fact, we would be well-advised to come to understand ourselves as little ones.

This is the purpose of the verses that follow that speak of cutting off one's hand and plucking out one's eye. Probably the first great theologian of the Christian church was a figure named Origen who lived and taught in Egypt and Palestine. Because he was such a pioneer in the field of theology, some of his ideas are strange and some were even later declared heretical. One of the things Origen is infamous for is his self-castration. He, of course, justified his action by quoting the present verses. Contemporary and later thinkers were unanimous in their condemnation of this line of thinking. Our Lord is not envisioning a literal amputation. The trajectory of Jesus' teaching is clear: a mere outward change is not effective in changing the heart. If you have a will to lust, even taking out that eye won't change your will. Even taking out both eyes will not suffice. So, what is our Lord telling us in this warning? I would argue that it is another way of saying that we must become children if we are to enter the kingdom of God. We must see ourselves as blind, as halt, as lame, if we are to enter the kingdom of God. And really this is not as hard as it seems. We all have our battle wounds from life: There was this person who hurt you were young. There was that failure that made you feel powerless and meaningless; there was that sin that left you feeling spiritually dead. Christian faith is not about outgrowing these things or even forgetting them. There is a whole school of Christian practice that tries to take the human personality and put a veneer of religiosity over it. This is falsely termed Christian holiness. Authentic Christianity is a call to be born again. A veneer will not do. What we must do is take all those experiences, all those shames, pains and sins and not cloaking any of them, we must offer them and ourselves to God in faith so that he can begin the work of new life in us. Recollect that in the 12 steps, which is a tremendous model of conversion, step 4—the step in which a fearless moral inventory is made—follows the step in which one's life is entrusted to God. Our past, even our sins, remain in the consciousness of Christian walking. As Christians we are to take everything we are, everything we have been or have done, and everything that we will be and do, and offer them to God in simple faith. You see, the blind, the halt, the maimed are those to whom the Gospel comes as good news of healing, deliverance, and freedom. For the smug, the arrogant and the self-sufficient, the Gospel appears irrelevant: I am already whole, already delivered, already free. These are the rich who like the camel will hardly go through the eye of a needle.

As I composed these remarks I couldn't help but think of a short story by the great Southern writer Flannery O’Connor. The story is called “Revelation.” It tells of one Mrs. Turpin, a polite and proper Southern lady, whose Christian religion ornaments her life in same way as her good manners. The story unfolds almost completely in a doctors office on an otherwise normal day. Mrs. Turpin passes the time in the waiting room with an interior monologue about the demerits of the company with which she is surrounded. In fact, only the necessity of going to the doctor could compel one to spend time with such riff-raff. Along the way, she sings along with the gospel songs on the radio and prays to Jesus, but she is always looking down on others. She even at one point thanks Jesus for not making her inferior like the poor and the blacks. The climax of the story comes as Mrs. Turpin has a revelation about herself and her view of the world, a view that cannot in the end square with the view of world which our Lord Jesus presents in the Gospel. In the closing lines of the story, O'Connor writes these words:
A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their life, and bands of black[s] [n-] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and [her husband], had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away (654, Library of America edition of Collected Works). 
Brothers and sisters are you ready to have your virtues burned away and to know yourselves as the maimed and blind who are fit for the kingdom of God?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Rap on Jeremiah

I have just begun teaching a nine month Bible study on one of my favorite books, Jeremiah. The prophet lived at a time of great political, social and religious upheaval, most notably the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 B.C. I find Jeremiah has much to say about our time, as we experience great cultural and social shifts in Western society. He answers the question--albeit in a nuanced and challenging way--of how does one live faithfully to God in a time of faithlessness and chaos? As anyone who has read Jeremiah can tell, it is far from chronological in its order, which can make it a challenge to comprehend. I've put together the following short poem, which includes all the critical names and dates to understand the immediate context of Jeremiah and hopefully make it meaning and message more apparent to our current challenges. I hope this silly poem might since ignite the curiosity of some readers to revisit this treasure of a book.

Jeremiah prophesied in 626,
When Josiah was trying the religion to fix.
Pharaoh Neco came out and put him down;
To Jehoiakim the son he gave the crown.
King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon
Made the two kings his own pawn.
Then Jehoiakim thought he had a plan,
Free the nation and rebel against the man.
Dying suddenly his son Joiachin
Was sent into exile with the rest of his kin.
This all happened in 597,
False hope ran high, as high as heaven.
Zedekiah the uncle became governor.
Jeremiah was then a frank messenger.
To an end it all came in 586,
When Nebuchadnezzar made Jerusalem sticks.
The land turned to chaos and murder and strife;
Jeremiah went to Egypt for the rest of his life.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A sermon on reality TV & conversion of the heart

Gospel Lesson:  St. Mark 7:1-23

One of the major trends in the reality tv movement of the past two decades has been the makeover show. The same storyline runs through virtually all of them. They start with a person, family or group who are somehow deficient or in need of real help; then enters the expert or experts at whatever difficulty they are facing; the right cure is applied. The conclusion of the show is meant to convey dramatic resolution as the subject has been transformed. These shows point to a fundamental human hunger for salvation. It is remarkable that there is a vestige of the Christian account of the salvation of sinners in the genre of the makeover show. Of course, the problem with these shows is the transformation and salvation offered is purely on the level of externals. A material or physical medicine is applied to what are mostly emotional and spiritual maladies. Take for example, one of my personal favorites for a number of years: Clean House. Each episode introduces a new family who is burdened by clutter. It is clear that many are suffering from more than just an inability to throw things out. But the experts arrive, sell everything at a garage sale, and transform the house from clutter to haven. But the emotional and spiritual issues that caused the chaos are often overlooked or minimized. You see, there is a relationship between one's external circumstances and one's internal state, and an external salve alone will not heal an internal problem.

This is precisely the point our Lord Jesus is making in todays Gospel lesson. The passage begins with a legal dispute brought by the Pharisees and scribes who were the authorities on the application of the law found in the Torah, the first books of the Bible. These Jewish leaders ask Jesus why his disciples do not wash their hands before they eat. It was not a question of sanitation but of ritual purity. You see, according to the traditions of the scribes, hands must be washed prior to eating. There are two problems with this: the first is that it is a very vigorous interpretation of the law. The custom of hand-washing was based on law of ritual washing for the priests prior to entering the temple and offering sacrifice. The tradition was trying to say that even eating a meal is sacred—not, of course, a bad sentiment—but on the other hand, to claim divine authority from the Torah for this custom was more than a stretch. A second and more important problem has to do with the nature of the inquiry made by the Pharisees and scribes. For Jesus it is evident that they are far more concerned with externals than than with internal considerations of motive, will and love. For our Lord it would be far too easy to fulfill all these external customs but have no love for God or for one's neighbor, and this, he says, is fundamentally hypocrisy. He quotes Isaiah as characterizing their hypocrisy: This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.

Our Lord is not saying that externals are bad or unnecessary. That would be bad news for us Episcopalians because externals are among the things we do best: good music, beautify liturgy, and well-ordered worship. But as we learn from our Lord's response to this line of questioning, we have to begin with internal and allow the external to be manifestation of that. In the discourse following he says, “There is nothing from outside a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.” He then goes on to list those evils that begin in the mind and in the will and are the source of defilement. By the way, ritual defilement, uncleanness or impurity are those thing that disrupt one's relationship with God meaning most importantly, if you were unclean, you could not enter the temple for worship. Our Lord touches the man with leprosy and is touched by the woman with the issue of blood—both leprosy and blood were causes of ritual defilement. This woman and the leper would have been like untouchables because the defilement was contractible—if one touched them one would be unclean. By touching them, Jesus shows that this notion of defilement is not to be worshiped above love for neighbor, but he also remarkably restores them to society at large and to temple worship and even to God. The point our Lord is making in this lesson is summarized very well in another discourse with the Pharisees where he says, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also” (Matthew 23:25-26).  Cleanse first that which is within.

Again, I do not think that Jesus is saying externals are unimportant. Later Christian thinking would come to the conclusion that ritual law had been superseded in the New Testament, but our Lord is not rejecting ritual law in our passage. He is saying that religion, if it is to be true, has to be first a religion of the heart. A religion of the heart then can become the basis for the externals of religion. Those externals then are a manifestation of the internal, religion of the heart. In fact, the external becomes the natural complement to the internal aspects of faith. This is something we already realize instinctively. There are many Protestant versions of Christianity where the religion of the heart never expresses itself externally: these tend to produce churches that market a highly subjective faith which results in chaos and volatility. A further complication is when the religion of the heart is not supported by external structure, it often depends on emotions to maintain itself; emotions inevitably turn and can cause spiritual shipwreck. The opposite extreme of well-ordered externals but an absence of internal religion is a temptation for the mainline and Catholic denominations, and this of course is the problem of the Pharisees and scribes. External religion isolated from internal faith results in a sterile and cold religion that we have all witnessed and perhaps even practiced. When our liturgy, traditions and worship become more real to us than the living presence of Christ, we are worshiping a pious myth rather than the living God.

In looking at our lives, we have to start with our hearts and not with externals. Consider this fact that flies in the face of our consumerist culture: material goods are rarely if ever transformative. I promise the desired thing will not bring lasting happiness or joy. Our Lord indicates that our hearts need to be clean if we to be ritually clean, that is, in right relationship with God. Consider again the fact that our hearts are the moral center of our person. St. Augustine said that before Adam and Eve ever ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree, before the serpent ever tempted Eve, Adam had a bad will, a will to sin. Sin is clothed in lots of forms: it can be blatant and uncloaked, it can appear in altruistic guise—after all if you are giving to the poor just to stroke your own ego, how do you think God reckons this act?—and sin can even appear in a religious guise. Think of the Pharisee who went up to temple only to pray to himself about how much superior he was to others. But the matter is even more stark: traditional theology says that if you have the will to sin but not the occasion to sin you are still guilty of the sin.

But how, you might ask, can we ever begin to change our own hearts? It is the heart that seems to be most out of our control. The prophet Jeremiah says of the heart: The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? And in the succeeding verse he answers his own question: I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins (17:9-10). It is God who knows our hearts and intentions, our wanderings even better than we do. But he also wills to change our hearts. The Lord speaks through the prophet Ezekiel, “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean. . . A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. (36.25-26). A changed heart is not something we can manufacture, it is something that only God can give us. I love this imagery: He can change our heart of stone for a heart of flesh. Again you might ask: how does he do this? What is it that can soften a stoney heart? Brothers and sisters, it is love. Love is the only thing that can transform the heart. Ezekiel prophecy finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Look at the cross, where God's love embraces all of our sin and brokenness. Even as our arms were crossed in antipathy to God, Jesus extends his arms in love. The love of God removes our stoney hearts and gives us a new heart of flesh. Isn't it self-evident that once we accept that we are wholly loved by God, we become free, free to love others not of obligation or self-interest but in the freedom of self-giving and self-sacrificial love, and thus, in our own small way, to be vessels of God's heart-changing love. As we come to this Altar, we remember once again the love of our Savior given in his precious Body and Blood. May we ever be nourished, renewed and transformed by this love given for each of us and indeed for the life of the world. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

An invocation for a men's civic supper club

Almighty God, the God of righteouness, of truth and of love, the author of peace and giver of every good gift. We thank you for the manifold blessings of this life: for true and unassuming friendship, for affectionate and loving family, and for a strong civic community. We give you thanks not only for the light but also for the darkness: for trial, tribulation and adversity which have called us out of ourselves and into the brotherhood of love. We give you thanks for sparing us from trial that we did not have strength to bear, for delivering us out of many present troubles, and for the hope of our final deliverance in your kingdom. We remember before you our nation. Deliver it from selfish ambition, idle sloth, vain strife and shallow materialism. As we turn to you and order our lives according to your Word, may the civic virtues of respect for authority, thriftiness and universal charity flourish. We pray to you for all young people. Infuse in them a passion for truth, save them from the sins of blind youth, and deliver them from the heedless pursuit of the pleasures of this life. Finally and above all, we give you thanks for the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ. In him, our elder brother, representative and head, the door of forgiveness and new life is always open. It is in his name that we pray. Amen.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A sermon on the occasion of a Baptism

[31] And again, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, he came unto the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis.[32] And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him. [33] And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; [34] And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. [35] And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain. [36] And he charged them that they should tell no man: but the more he charged them, so much the more a great deal they published it; [37] And were beyond measure astonished, saying, He hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.
                              - St. Mark 7:31-37

The Gospel lesson today relates our Lord's healing of a deaf and apparently mute man. In fact, the Greek word indicates that he could speak, but only with great difficulty—hence the translation in the King James, he had an impediment in his speech. The fact that he could speak tells us that he was not deaf from birth, but rather, his loss of hearing must have been from an accident or disease. In the beginning of our lesson, our Lord ventures into a predominately Gentile region: Tyre, Sidon and Decapolis, but we cannot say for certain that the deaf man was a Gentile as there were communities of Jews living in those areas. Note the important fact, that nowhere do we have a record of the deaf man asking to be healed. In fact, it seems to be on the impetus and initiative of the those who bring the deaf man to Jesus, that our Lord heals him. In nearly every healing Jesus performed, an individual had faith. In this case, as in several others, it does not appear to be the faith of the one healed but of those who bring the afflicted person. We have here a picture of the goodwill and pity our Lord has for broken and hurting people. There is much here that is true of our own lives. None of us came to faith in isolation. At a certain time—the fulness of time—our first encounter with the Lord was probably as a result of being brought to the Lord by someone else. Perhaps a mother, or a godparent or a mentor. We must remember that even the small faith we offer to God is not our own; it is the gift of God and it has been nurtured by others. If we understood this, then there would truly be no room to cast aspersions on the apparently unbelieving or the faithless.

In this Gospel narrative we have a picture of infant baptism. Allow me to explain. The faith needed for our Lord to work, as I've noted, is probably not the faith of the deaf man but of those who bring him to Jesus. If someone asked you how to become a Christian what answer would you give them? On the day of Pentecost, Peter gave this one. After our Lord's Ascension, Peter filled with the Holy Spirit preached to the crowds of Jesus the Messiah. Just a few months earlier, a similar crowd gathered for a Jewish feast had called for the crucifixion of Jesus, and now Peter tells them that this Jesus whom they crucified is Lord and Christ. The response of the crowd is immediate: “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Peter's answer is a wonderful summation of entry into the Christian life: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 2.37-38). Repent and be baptized. Christian initiation is twofold, repentance and baptism. Repentance itself is a twofold action: a turning away from sin and self and a turning to God in faith and obedience. From Peter's words, it is evident that baptism and faith go hand in hand. If you only had one or the other, that is, baptism or faith, one would have a truncated Christianity. Well, you might ask, how does an infant have faith when baptism is administered? The faith comes from those who bring the child to baptism to be touched by the Lord, just as those men brought the deaf man to the Lord to be touched by him. I think it would be a reasonable conclusion that the deaf man believed in Jesus after his healing. In the same way, parents, godparents and the local church are to nurture faith in baptized children so that the faith becomes that of the child and not only of those who brought the child to be baptized. And just as our faith is not a static reality but something that grows or diminishes as it is fed by prayer and the Scriptures so too baptism cannot be merely a past event. Fr. Bright likes to say that baptism is the greatest gift one will ever receive, and it takes one's whole life to open this gift, this ever-flowing fountain of grace. We are always in need of returning to those two great pillars of our initiation: repentance and baptism. These are not to be simply past events, but on-going realities.

I mentioned earlier that the condition of the deaf man indicated that he had a speech impediment. In fact, the Greek word used to describe this disability is nowhere else used in the New Testament. The evangelist probably employed this somewhat unusual word in order to allude to an Old Testament passage that has strong messianic overtones. Listen to this passage from Isaiah 35 as the prophet describes the work of the Lord: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall hear; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of stammerers shall be clear.” The tongue of stammerers. Notice the close verbal parallel between the last verse of the Gospel lesson and this passage from Isaiah. For Mark, it is evident that Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy. And, of course, Jesus quite literally healed the blind, the deaf and the lame. But Isaiah's prophecy and our Lord's ministry of healing have spiritual implications as well. According to the Bible, every one is a little bit blind, a little bit deaf, a little bit stammering in their speech. For this reason, our Lord says repeatedly, he who has ears to hear, let him hear. There are of course many reasons for this spiritual condition. One reason is out of sheer laziness in that we can and do live unexamined lives. Think of the person raised in one place who has no love for the geography of that place; in nearly all cases, he will have to leave home before he can see and appreciate the beauty that has always surrounded him.  Another cause of spiritual blindness is the fact of our creaturely limitations. We are born into certain epochs and ages, a certain society and culture. It is difficult to think about what is already assumed in one's culture. How many white Americans who lived at the formation of our nation and who were otherwise moral human beings did not recognize the immorality of owning another human being? It is very difficult to be objective about one's received culture and even family background. A third cause of our spiritual blindness is, of course, sin. Life, true life, is meant to be dynamic and growing, but sin is deadening and ossifies all that it comes into contact with. We easily fall into the cycle of transgression, guilt & shame, superficial repentance, and finally sin again. Before long, our senses are numbed to God and to the world around us. We cannot bear to hear the message of God's love; we cannot see the beautiful world he has given to us. I am convinced that the more we empirically examine the world around us the more we will see these conditions of being deaf, blind, lame and of stammering speech. Our Lord's ministry of healing evidences his pity for such as these.

Allow me now to read the sentences following in the passage from Isaiah: Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall hear; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of stammerers shall be clear, because water has broken forth in the wilderness and a gully in a thirsty land; the dry place shall turn into marshlands, and in the thirsty land there shall be a spring of water (NET LXX Isaiah 35:5-7). The message and promise of baptism is that water has broken forth in the wilderness. Our physical, emotional and spiritual infirmities are like a wilderness in which there seems to be no life sustaining water, and there is not as long as we are focused on my trial, my difficulty, my adversity. Our baptism is like a fountain that will never cease to flow. It is a fountain of grace in the wilderness of blindness and sin. Whether we are facing trials from outside or our own inner demons, we can always say—like Martin Luther when he was assailed by guilt—I am baptized. I am baptized. May we ever find our baptism to be a solace in trial and a well of grace. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Toy Dog

I've just finished this toy dog for my children. I won't share how long it took from start to finish since it is kind of embarrassing (lived in another house when I started it). Nevertheless, I'm pleased with how it turned out. The design comes from a vintage Playskool toy from the 50s or 60s. I used native Oklahoma cedar given to me by a friend so the project cost virtually nothing. . . about $1 for the metal studs for the ears and $1 for dollar store jump rope to use as the pull. All the pieces were turned on my lathe; afterwards I was able to make the ears and head by splitting off the rounded edges of my turning, planing those edges flat, and then using a coping saw to cut out their shapes. I had originally intended to mimic the color scheme of the original, but after I had made all the pieces, I decided the cedar looked so nice that I would just use a natural finish of sanding sealer & paste wax. As soon as I brought it in last night from the shed, I took pictures of it: the pictures reflect what it looks like before Isaiah gets his hands on it!

The Original Playskool Toy

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

'In any man be in Christ, he is a new creature', Trinitytide Sermon

Epistle Lesson: 2 Corinthians 5:14-21
Gospel Lesson: St. Mark 4:35-41 / St. Mark 5:1-20

The Gospel lesson begins with the rather ordinary phrase, “let us pass over unto the other side.” There is no foreshadowing of what is about to come upon their ship. It is as if he said, let’s grab a bite to eat or let’s go for a walk. Our lives too are characterized by the mundane, the ordinary, the quotidian details of life. But, of course, our lives also are seemingly interrupted by accidents and catastrophes. We never know what sort of wind, what sort of driving rain will come upon us unexpectedly. The disciples’ reaction to an accident of nature is fear. They believe their lives to be in jeopardy by a storm. Fear makes sense in a world of freak accidents and blind justice. In such a view, storms—both literal and figurative—are the playthings of chance, and we are all victims of a god who is more like a capricious child than a loving father. But God of the Bible is a loving Father. In the opening chapter of Genesis, God’s Spirit broods over the waters, transforming the chaos of the unformed world into an ordered and good creation. The Book of Psalms says—and this is unsettling for an Oklahoman—“Praise the LORD from the earth. . . Fire and hail, snow and vapours, * wind and storm, fulfilling his word” (148.7-8). Jesus teaches that his Father sends rain on the just and on the unjust; he makes his sun to rise on the good and on the evil. From the standpoint of faith there are no accidents. God is not asleep at the wheel in the storms of this life. Jesus chastens his disciples for their lack of faith. Now, what Jesus does not say is that we will always in all situations know and understand why something has befallen us. Or why we have come into the heart of a storm with our master seemingly asleep? As a man, I would like to know why hail hit our church and my home, but as a Christian, I have to trust that God is working everything together for his purposes, mysterious as they may seem to us. I can assure you that this view is much better than the alternative of seeing ourselves in a chaotic and purposeless world. My favorite image of God’s providence is that in this world, God’s good providence appears to us like the back of tapestry with unsightly knots and a rather chaotic pattern, but in the world to come, it will be as if that tapestry were turned around and we will understand how even the unexpected worked together in God’s great design. From the standpoint of this faith, we can trust that Jesus is in the storm with us, and he has power to deliver us because he is God. This passage puts before us one of the most compelling images of our Lord’s divine nature, as he calms the water and the storm in a way reminiscent of God as Creator in the book of Genesis. From the standpoint of faith, we can move from being victims of life’s storms to realizing that in Christ, we are children of God, children who know that nothing of this life—not even death—can separate them from his love. 

But we can see more about our lives. Yes, our outward lives are often assailed by storms. In fact, we seem to move from one storm to the next, and are in a relatively constant state of chaos. We know storms and catastrophes but there is also another power working in this world: the power of sin and spiritual evil. While outwardly we are assailed by storms, inwardly we are assaulted by our own inner demons: addiction, self-hatred, anger, greed, malice towards others. All these kill us and others. Notice in the second part of the Gospel lesson what the swine do when the demons from the possessed man are cast into their midst: “the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea. . . and [they were drowned] in the sea.” The demonic is self-destructive, as is sin. We think sin will make us happy or at least will not harm us, but on another cognitive level we are usually aware of how unhappy sin makes us and how sin robs us of spiritual joy. Clinging to that rage will kill you. Ask any doctor, and he will tell you that the stress of anger increases blood pressure and the rates of heart attack and stroke. Ask any Christian, and you will be told that anger roots out joy and peace. And yet in a kind of insanity we cling to that rage and anger. Addiction to alcohol or pornography will do the same thing: driving one to self-destruction. Part of the nature of sin is that it causes self-destruction. St. Augustine makes a profound statement on this point. In explaining what it means to love yourself in the command to love your neighbor as yourself, he says that to love yourself is to have compassion on yourself; to have compassion on yourself is simply not to sin because sin is that which kills us. Our Lord saves the disciples from storms, but he also delivers those who are afflicted by inner demons. In this miracle, the kingdom of God breaks into human existence. In the kingdom of God, there is liberation for the captive, freedom for the possessed, joy for those who are cast down by sorrow and despair. Listen to this beautiful succession of actions attributed to God in the Psalms: “He upholds the cause of the oppressed, and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. . . the Lord watches over the foreigner, and sustains the fatherless and the widow.”  Our Lord’s ministry is the manifestation of these works of God, exemplified in this miracle. Our Lord reveals God’s dominion over every spiritual evil in his coming kingdom. If our Lord delivers the man who cuts himself with stones, he will deliver you too from your self-destructive behavior. Your deliverance may not come overnight—the implication is that the man has been possessed for years—but seek the Lord in prayer of the heart, gather together in Christian fellowship, study in the Bible to hear God’s word to you—and your deliverance will come. As a young man out of university, I went through a period of debilitating depression; in a situation like this, it is so easy not to see beyond the present feelings, and to let the despair become the only thing that seems real. The God whom we worship, revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ, wants to deliver us from every demon, addiction and sin. We are his children, and our self-destructive behavior grieves him as much as a young person’s self-destructive behavior grieves his parents. 

Here is the good news. In the epistle lesson, Paul writes—in one of the most profound statements in any of his letters—that, “we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead” (2 Corinthians 5:14). Jesus died. He died in an ignoble, humiliating way. But remembering his death is not simply a recitation of a profound and moving tragedy. Rather, we believe and confess that he died as our representative and as the representative of all mankind. When he died, he took away the sting of death, and as our representative, we are freed from the fear of death. “one died; therefore all are dead.” Why is this so profound? Because the whole complex by which the world defines and divides humanity—male, female, white, black, rich, poor—has come crashing down in our Lord. Henceforth we know no man after the flesh, that is, we don’t think primary in terms of man, woman, white, African, or Jew. He is not saying that there are not real differences between men and women, Jews and gentiles, but that differences are of a secondary order when compared with the fact that all humans are those for whom Jesus died; in him, those distinctions that are the source of prejudice, oppression, violence and war are undone. The biggest difference between people is that there are those who know Jesus died for them and those who do not yet know this. All are brothers for whom Christ died. “If one died for all, then all are dead.” In that we have died with him, Paul can make the profound assertion—which words might have echoed the man delivered from a legion of demons: “if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” As a new creature, we do not need to fear the literal or figurative storms of this life because we trust that in the words of the Bible, “all things work together for the good of them who love God”. As a new creature, we are delivered from every spiritual and oppressive evil and have died to self-destroying sin to live a new life of spiritual joy and love. As a new creature, we know the gathering of Jesus Christ crosses political, ethnic and economic lines; in the kingdom of God, there can be, there is no “us and them,” only the brothers and sister of the one who died for all. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Trinity Sunday Sermon

Today is the Feast of the Holy Trinity. It is not the day in which the doctrine of the Trinity should be reduced to palpable images or figures. No doubt you've heard of the ice, liquid water, and water vapour image as a metaphor for the Trinity. In a children's book on the Trinity I came across this week, the author states that the Trinity is like an apple which has a peel, flesh, and core with seeds. But when we speak of the three persons of the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost—we are not speaking of different parts of God, or in the case of the water metaphor, of changing states or masks of God. One of the most helpful phrases on the doctrine of the Trinity comes from what is called the Athanasian Creed which historically, together with the Apostle's and Nicene creeds, was considered to be the basis of Christian confession. The Athanasian Creed states in part, “the Catholick Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons : nor dividing the Substance.” To confound the persons is to blur the distinctions between the three persons of the Trinity and their role in salvation history. That which makes them distinct is their relation to one another: the Son is begotten of the Father; the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. On the other hand, to divide the substance, is to emphasize the differences of the persons to such an extent that the result is a belief in three gods. The Tri-une God is one Lord, one Almighty, one Being that is not created, one Being that is eternal. This one phrase uproots most of the images of the Trinity that will be heard from pulpits today: “we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, Neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance.”

The purpose of the feast day becomes more when we consider where it falls in the course of the church year. The church year begins with Advent around the first of December. Advent anticipates the second and first comings of our Lord Jesus. His nativity is celebrated at the end of Advent with the 12 days of Christmas. Epiphany—the manifestation of Jesus as both God and man, especially to the wise men—follows in January and February. In the next season Lent, we recollect our Lord's temptation—in which he faced and overcame all the temptations common to man. The climax of Lent, of course, is Holy Week and the commemoration of our Lord's last days, his crucifixion and triumphant resurrection on Easter Day. Forty days after Easter Sunday, we remember that Jesus ascended into heaven where he intercedes for us and from where he sends his disciples the Spirit. Ten days later on Pentecost—last Sunday—the church gives thanks for the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and church. From Advent to Pentecost we remember the events by which we confess that God entered into history to save humanity from sin and death. The crown of these successive events is Trinity Sunday. Do we have Trinity Sunday now because we are turning from events to ideas or philosophy? Not at all. Trinity Sunday follows this yearly re-telling of salvation history in order to remind us that our belief in a Tri-une God is shaped and formed by God's self-revelation in these saving events. For example, we confess our Lord to be God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, because we are confronted by the reality of Jesus, a man, yes, but a man so unlike his contemporaries, so unlike us, that he stands out in the Gospel narratives—from birth to crucifixion to resurrection—as more than perfect man, being perfect God as well. Even the best of men do not claim to have power over spiritual evil, to heal and raise the dead and even to forgive sins. This man Jesus also claims that God is his Father in a way unique and exclusive to him. If untrue, this is the worst kind of arrogance or perhaps insanity, but if true, we have to reckon with this man, this perfect human who is also the only-begotten Son of God. We also confess the Holy Spirit to be the third person of the Trinity because we are confronted by the Holy Spirit. According to the Bible we know the invisible Spirit because we have a desire to love God and others and because we have a desire to do that which God commands. The Spirit leads us to Jesus, transforming us into disciples of Jesus. The Spirit can speak to us in a still small voice in our hearts or be manifested in powerful and dramatic ways as the book of Acts witnesses. All this leads one to conclude that the Spirit is not it, but thou, a personal presence even as Jesus was personally present with his disciples. So, you see, the doctrine of the Trinity is not really the speculation of philosophers who have discovered something new about God; the doctrine of the Trinity is the natural and logical result of reflecting on  the saving events we've commemorated over the past six months.

This begs the question: why does the doctrine of the Trinity matter? Isn't it enough simply to believe in God? A hymn that is often sung on Trinity Sunday is known as St. Patrick's Breastplate—it's hymn 268. The text traditionally attributed to St. Patrick is a statement of faith in God as a sure protector from all the evil that we encounter in this life. The words are a figurative breastplate for the Christian who devoutly recites them. The hymn opens with these words:
            I bind unto myself today
            The strong Name of the Trinity,
            By invocation of the same
            The Three in One and One in Three.
Each today, when we wake up, we do not know what will to happen to us. Some days, maybe even many days are predictable, but there are a lot of days that are filled with twists and turns, interruptions and accidents, at least from our limited perspective. Each day can often feel like an obstacle course. The conviction stated in St. Patrick's Breastplate is that we can face this obstacle course through the strong name of the Trinity, and here is where we come to the reason why the doctrine of the Trinity is so important. The doctrine of the Trinity is important and the Trinity is invoked in the Breastplate of St. Patrick because the doctrine of the Trinity, that God is a trinity of persons, Father, Son and Spirit, recalls for us the saving events wrought by the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that God the Father so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that Christ has given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that our Lord has ascended into heaven and has sent to us another Comforter to lead us into all truth and to bear witness with our spirit that we children of God. The Trinity is invoked in St. Patrick's Breastplate because we are to live our lives in the context of these saving events, our Lord's incarnation, baptism, and temptation, his passion, crucifixion and resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. We are to see the birth of a precious child in the context of the birth of God's son in a stable in Bethlehem. We are to see our awakening to the things of faith in the context of Jesus' baptism as he opens the way for our new, spiritual birth; we are to see our temptations and failures in the context of our Lord's temptation and his victory over that temptation, a victory that we share in, in as much as we belong to him. We are to see our death and mortality and the death of our loved ones in the light of the cross of our Lord Jesus, who by his death has taken away the sting of death. We are to see our hope for a future, greater life, in the context of our Lord's triumphant resurrection and his ultimate defeat over sin and death. It is, thus, no surprise that the second verse of the Breastplate continues with these words:
            I bind this today to me forever
            By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
            His baptism in Jordan river,
            His death on Cross for my salvation;
            His bursting from the spicèd tomb,
            His riding up the heavenly way,
            His coming at the day of doom
            I bind unto myself today.
The alternative to seeing our lives in the context of the saving events worked by the Holy Trinity is startling: without his blessed passion and precious death, without his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension, without the coming of the Holy Ghost, our lives become unmoored, a meaningless sequence of events that tend toward chaos, decay and destruction;  sorrow after sorrow we move from amusement to amusement in order to anesthetize our loneliness and spiritual emptiness. On the other hand, our lives find their true purpose and meaning in the life of the Trinity and in the light of the redeeming work of the Trinity. In our confession of the Trinity, we embrace and find our lives in the life of the Trinity and in the confidence of this faith in overcoming every trial, temptation and evil of this life.
            I bind unto myself the Name,
            The strong Name of the Trinity,
            By invocation of the same,
            The Three in One and One in Three.
            By Whom all nature hath creation,
            Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
            Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
            Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Maundy Thursday - Christ: The Sacrament of Love

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” – John 12.24

These words come out of the mouth of Jesus while in the temple, after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Some Greeks come to the disciples, expressing their desire to see Jesus. Perhaps, they had heard of his power, how he heals the sick and broken, how he claims to forgive sins. They may even have heard rumors that this Jesus is possibly the messiah, the promised king who would restore Israel and gather together God’s dispersed people. They are curious and they are attracted to his spiraling celebrity. In a similar way, later we learn that Herod wants to see Jesus so that he can see one of his miracles. The crowds are curious and, like a moth to a flame, are attracted by his fame.

We behave much the same way if we see a famous person, say, your favorite actor. I wonder what she is really like in person, you ask yourself? Should I say something to her, or should I pretend not to recognize her and just coolly say hello? And what would really impress us is if she behaved towards us as if we were friends. And then asked us what our favorite movie is in which she appeared, and obliged us with an impersonation of the character. In other words, we would love it if she would indulge our curiosity and glory in her fame. The same thing could be said if we saw an admired statesman, say Ronald Reagan. Except we might wish that he would give us some display of his superior eloquence and political power.

Jesus, of course, rejects the trappings of fame and the hunger of popular curiosity. In a way, he rejected these when he would not worship Satan, to gain all the kingdoms of the earth, when he would not cast himself off the pinnacle of the temple—a public religious house—thereby proving that he is God’s Son. He would not feed our hunger for miracles by turning stones into bread, and for the same reason, he tells many of those he heals not to spread what he has done. He rejects our curiosity and attraction to his fame. Why? Well, not for the usual reason that he wants to maintain his privacy. Rather, Jesus rejects human curiosity, the power of fame, the power of might, in order to proclaim something so fundamental that it is like the very air we breathe: He comes to proclaim love.

The disciples of Jesus approach him to arrange a meeting between the curious crowds and our Lord, and this is what he tells them, “The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” This temptation to embrace fame and power is just like the ones he had at the beginning of his ministry. Jesus will not oblige them in the way they wish because now is the time for him to be the seed that falls into the ground and dies. It is self-evident that the seed that does not die abides alone. How many interviews with celebrities evince the fact that even with the acquisition of fame and wealth, happiness and abiding love can remain elusive? How many great and powerful leaders have died having wealth and power but essentially alone? And their great empires soon turned to dust.

In the northern frontier of the eastern European country of Ukraine, there is a city by the name of Pripyat. It is a city like many others: there are streets and schools, homes and civic buildings, apartment buildings and even a ferris wheel. Only this city is not like other cities, for no one lives there. And even though the skyline is filled with modestly tall apartment buildings, not one is inhabited, and in fact, in the spring, streams of water run through many of the buildings. The other striking feature of the skyline is the amount of green that meets the eye. Abundant poplars fill out much of the space between the decaying buildings, their long, narrow shape bulging out of concrete parking lots and asphalt streets. Pripyat is the city of 50,000 that was evacuated permanently on April 27, 1986, a day after the Chernobyl accident in which an explosion at a nuclear plant sent a huge cloud of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Although the decaying city of Pripyat may have something to say about the wisdom of utilizing nuclear power, it has a much more important and powerful message: the things of this world fade, deteriorate, and die; even things that appear to have great permanency can have that permanency threatened in a day; most things that are thought of as permanent have a permanence that is illusory. Furthermore, fame and power are transitory; crowds are fickle and merciless, and power wanes, sometimes without explanation. But love alone abides. Love cannot be stolen. It cannot be corrupted by decay. True love is that which is freely given without any expectation of reward or reciprocation. This is the love that a mother gives when she puts her child’s needs and wants before her own. This is the love that Christians are commanded to give one another; they are told: seek not your own good but the good of others. This is the love that Jesus freely gave to us when, though he was rich, he became poor, taking our broken human nature upon himself, and, though not obliged to do so, declaring himself to be one of the family, our elder brother. This is the love Jesus gave when he offered up his life on the cross, as the one perfect, eternal sacrifice for sins and not for ours only but for sins of the whole world.

On this night, we gather to remember the last supper of our Lord Jesus before his arrest, and to remember that on this night he instituted the simple meal of bread and wine that is a feast of love. It is interesting that in John’s Gospel the institution of the Lord’s supper is not recorded, as in the other three Gospels. Instead, on that night, John records our Lord’s washing of the disciples’ feet, an act of service that symbolizes what Jesus will do for them on the cross in less than 24 hours. But John does not fail to mention this all important meal. You see, in John’s Gospel, the Last Supper, the institution of Holy Communion actually occurs on Calvary. Jesus says before his arrest, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” He is the grain of wheat, that does die, that gives his life freely. And as he pours out his life on Calvary, this single seed of wheat—this single seed of love—bears a great crop of wheat. The wheat engendered by his death is the bread that we eat in this Sacrament of Holy Communion. As he dies on Calvary, Christ is the true sacrament of love. He is the sacrament that we receive and commemorate every time we gather at this, His table, to be nourished once again by Him and to eat of this wheat, his flesh, given for us and for the life of the world. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bible in 90 Days Schedule (Revised)

The Bible in 90 Days is a reading schedule developed by Ted Cooper, who after purchasing a Bible (Zondervan NIV, Large Print, Thin Line Bible) realized that by reading 12 pages a day he could read the Bible from cover to cover in 90 days. Actually the exact figure is 88 days with two "grace" days. Zondervan now conveniently prints NIV, Large Print, Thin Line Bibles just for this program. The only difference from the Bible Ted Cooper purchased are headings every twelve pages, "End Day 8","Begin Day 9".

Personal History
In my church I am currently leading a group of people reading the Bible in 90 days with this program. We are doing it partially as a Lenten devotion, although we had to start a number of weeks before Ash Wednesday in order to finish during Holy Week. This is the second year I've used this particular schedule. I didn't feel I could ask others to use it, if I had not done it myself and could say with certainty that it is achievable. In fact, as a fairly average reader with respect to speed, I only have to read from 40-60 minutes per day. It is difficult to tell, but I think about fifty people are reading the Bible on this schedule.

The Problems
There are two major problems with the schedule for the Bible in 90 Days as it stands, and they both are a result of being tied to a particular printing of the Bible. The first problem is that exactly 12 pages are appointed for each day. While this rigid regularity perhaps has some merit, it results in very illogical breaks in the text. I couldn't help noticing the first time I used this schedule, that with minor changes--a subtraction or addition of a page on a particular day--could make the breaks in the schedule much more natural, leading ultimately to greater comprehension. A perusal of the original schedule will evidence its inadequacies in this regard. A particularly egregious example is day 53. The schedule breaks at Isaiah 66:19, four verses before the end of the book! Another example is day 38, when the book of Job, which has been read for three days could be concluded but instead ends at the second to last chapter, leaving the brief forty-second chapter for the following day. Days 79, 80 and 81 are also alarming. In that case, the last half chapter of Acts is read on the same day with most (but not all of Romans). By merely lengthening the reading on Day 79, the reader could on days 80 and 81 read Romans and 1 Corinthians in one sitting, an exercise that, I think, commends itself.

A second and perhaps more serious problem is in the way modern Bibles type-set Hebrew poetry. The trend since the Revised Standard Version (1952) has been to set Hebrew poetry in English stanza form. A look at a modern printing of the Psalms, for example, shows how much white space is on a page, compared with say a page from the book of Genesis. The result of this additional white space is that on the days when poetry is largely or exclusively read--all the poetic books and much of the prophets--far fewer words are read than in other narrative portions of Scripture. A survey of the word count of the readings in Genesis and Psalms showed a average difference of 3000 words. While the original schedule divides the Bible into 90 pieces (88 to be exact), they are far from equal, despite all being twelve pages.

A Proposed SolutionI think it makes greater logical sense to develop a schedule that is not tied to a particular printing of the Bible. This also frees the reader to use any Bible, of any translation, he may own. An old King James Bible is ideal to calculate 88 equal pieces because the type is set consistently throughout the Bible (each new verse begins a new paragraph). By using this Bible, my hope was to close the gap between the word count on days in narrative portions of Scripture versus days in poetic portions. A survey has shown that the schedule below does close this gap considerably. Of course, I did not simply want to find out a word count for the entire Bible and divide that by 88 so there is still some fluctuation.

The schedule, in fact, is not rigidly tied to an exact number of pages which frees it to break in much more natural places. In the revised schedule, one will notice the readings always break at a chapter and a number of times on a book. On Day 50, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon are read in their entirety. In the subsequent four days, the book of Isaiah is read. In the New Testament, on Days 78-80 the book of Acts is read, followed by the entirety of Romans on Day 81. All this is accomplished by merely reading one or sometimes two pages more or less on any given day.

I hope this schedule may be useful to the reader of God's Word. Whatever schedule is used, one will be blessed in reading the Bible and hearing again the message of God's saving acts in history. Please feel free to email me if any would like Word or Excel files of the schedule for printing.

Note: the schedule will appear clear if it is saved to the hard drive and viewed or printed as a picture. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Sexagesima Sunday Sermon

[24] Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. [25] And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. [26] I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: [27] But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.
- 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

[40] And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. [41] And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean. [42] And as soon as he had spoken, immediately the leprosy departed from him, and he was cleansed. [43] And he straitly charged him, and forthwith sent him away; [44] And saith unto him, See thou say nothing to any man: but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing those things which Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them. [45] But he went out, and began to publish it much, and to blaze abroad the matter, insomuch that Jesus could no more openly enter into the city, but was without in desert places: and they came to him from every quarter.
- Mark 1:40-45

How do we know God’s character? How do we know, for example, that God is love and not a malevolent and mischievous deity, as the jaded Mark Twain thought at the end of his life? According to Christianity, we know God and his character by his self-revelation, what he tells us about himself. A facebook profile for an individual is full of details, nuances about favorite books, movies; habits, likes and dislikes. God represents himself much more succinctly; it is not a set of words that he uses to reveal himself, but a single Word, the man Jesus. The Gospel of John calls Jesus the Word of God, and for those in the first audience of this Gospel who were Greek and had a secular education, they would have connected this idea of the Word of God with Greek philosophy; But for the Jewish audience, the Word of God would evoke the words of the prophets, who received the Word of the Lord. The prophets were the vehicles through which God revealed himself to his people Israel. But the final prophet, the Word himself, comes to reveal God definitively, for all times and all places. Jesus is the Word of God—God’s self-revelation—not simply on account of the words he has to say, although this is obviously an important part of his message. He is also the Word of God in his actions, in how he relates to the people of his own time. This is very well illustrated in the Gospel lesson today.

In the account, a leper approaches Jesus asking to be cleansed. Now leprosy in the Old and New Testaments was probably different than the leprosy with which we are familiar. The leprosy we know causes extreme lacerations to the skin; fingers and toes can fall off, and death is not an uncommon end. The leprosy of the Bible appears to consist of relatively mild skin lacerations, which by comparison do not sound too severe; however, according to Old Testament law, someone with this type of leprosy was prohibited from living within the walls of a city or from entering the temple. In the language of the Pentateuch, a leper is unclean; he cannot worship in the temple; he cannot be touched without making the one who touches him unclean and therefore, at least for a time, unable to enter the temple. It is likely that in the parable of the good Samaritan, the priest and Levite pass by the bleeding and beaten man because touching him would have made them unclean and therefore unable to fulfill their formal religious duties. A leper or any person who remained unclean for a long period—like the woman with the issue of blood—would have felt cut off from society and cut off from God.

Notice the reaction of Jesus to this leper: “Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him.” Jesus is moved with compassion; God is not simply aloof and detached from the trials and troubles of humanity. What Jesus reveals about God is that God is moved to pity by the sufferings of individuals. But this pity is not simply the pity of abstract good will towards the less fortunate. Jesus has pity and his pity moves him to identify with the leper, to share in a small way in his affliction. By touching the leper, our Lord himself becomes ritually unclean. This is precisely the point of the incarnation, God the Son, identifies with the plight of man—his bondage to sin and death; he takes this plight upon himself and shares, as a brother, in our afflictions.

To the leper’s declaration—“ If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean”—Jesus says, “I will; be thou clean.” Jesus has compassion on the leper, he identifies with him by touching him, and finally, by his power, he makes the leper clean, restoring him to society and, in a very tangible sense, to God, by making him fit to enter the temple. Amongst our peers we are very accustomed to hearing ‘I will not’ to our requests. Part of the process of growing up seems to be accepting that we will encounter these disappoints, these rejections, all the time. But the word of Jesus is different. To the leper, he is a yes that negates all the no’s that society and established religion had issued to him.

Listen to what a Jewish scholar has to say about this incident from the Gospel: “Here we begin to catch the new note in the ministry of Jesus; his intense compassion for the outcast, the sufferer, who by his sin or by his suffering, which was too often regarded as the result of sin, had put himself outside respectable Jewish society, who found himself rejected and despised by men, and believed himself rejected and despised by God. Here was a new and lofty note, a new and exquisite manifestation of the very pity and love which the prophets had demanded” (quote by Sir Moses Haim Montefiore from Branscomb, The Gospel of Mark, p. 38). The fact is to a degree we all are lepers and outcasts. Even the most popular teenager, if he were honest, would say that he felt, at least to a degree, like an outsider. The only difference between people really are those who know that they are outcasts and those who all their lives have tried to deny and hide this reality, by conforming themselves in such a way that they will be accepted. Once we can identify ourselves as outcasts, then we are ready to hear the word of Jesus to us: “I will; I will, be thou clean.” We can hear the invitation of Jesus: “Join me in the fellowship of God; join me in the community, the family of my people.” What freedom is to be found, when we can hear this “I will” as spoken to each of us as individuals. There is no longer any need to make ourselves clean: touchable by our fellow men and able to enter into the temple and the fellowship of God; we have been made clean by this word of Jesus, “I will.” To put it in its simplest terms, this “I will” means that we have a home and family: our home is fellowship with God, our family those who share in this fellowship. The very longing of the human heart is for home and for family, and we have it, freely given, in our Lord Jesus and his word of “I will”. This is the freedom of a Christian, and you can see how it runs counter to the movement of individuals in society who are striving to be accepted by God and by their fellow-man.

From this standpoint of freedom, we can enter the sanctified life of a Christian. For example, as Christians—those who follow in the teachings and example of Jesus—we ought to have a particular compassion and love for the rejects and forgotten—the lepers—of our society. Those who their whole life have heard “I will not” are to hear the voice of Jesus, “I will”, through our lips. Paul writes of this sanctified life in the Epistle lesson today. From the standpoint of knowing ourselves as those freely accepted and made clean by Jesus, we can know our final destination. In a series of sports metaphors, Paul compares the Christian life to a race and a boxing match. It would be to misunderstand the lesson, if we heard it saying that we just need to try a little harder or that the Christian life is about competing with other Christians. The first point to be made about this passage is that it reminds us that we are indeed in a race. Most people do not even realize this; they live as if life were a dress rehearsal. The second point is that we need to run the race knowing the destination; you don’t want to run backwards around the track or off the track altogether. In the same way, we need to hit our opponent, not simply punch the air in futility. If you knew you were going to run a marathon tomorrow or fight a boxing match, there would be certain things you would do today: you wouldn’t eat this, you’d train, you’d go to bed early; in the same way knowing we have a race to run and a destination means we will consequently live in a certain way. Now, all this is true because we see it modeled and fulfilled in Jesus. He has already run the race set before him and gone on to glory where he sits at the right hand of God. We hear the word of Jesus, “I will” and we are set to the destination to which he has already led the way. The Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, describes this reality beautifully, when he writes in his Church Dogmatics, “What the Holy Spirit positively wills and effects. . . is always a human existence that deserves to be called a life to the extent that it is lived in the light of the royal man Jesus, in an attentiveness and movement to Him, because the Christian who receives and has the Holy Spirit recognizes and acknowledges that this man [Jesus] died for him and has risen again for him, that [Jesus] lives for him, that [Jesus] is the Owner and Bearer, the Representative and Lord of his life, and that in [the] exaltation [of Jesus] he too is exalted and set in a living fellowship with God” (Barth, CD IV.2, p.375). If the day has never come for you, may today be the day you hear Jesus word of acceptance and healing, “I will, be thou clean”, and in hearing this word may know that our true and final home is in God.