Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Sermon

The third verse of the well-known carol, 'O Little Town of Bethlehem', begins with these profound words, "How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given." As an historical event, this one was relatively quiet and silent. It did not attract the attention of the rich or the powerful or even of the masses. There were no journalists present that night in Bethlehem; no representatives from the heads of states. Consider the public attention demanded by the birth of Prince William's and Princess Catherine's baby. The birth of Jesus, by contrast, was in relative obscurity. We all know the story of the nativity in Bethlehem, with the stable and the manger, and Mary and Joseph and some poor shepherds looking on. This story is found, however, in only one of the four Gospels—Luke. Neither can any of these details be found any where else in the New Testament. But for thousands of years, Christians have gathered on this day to remember this birth. Let's face it, it was a birth in total obscurity whose meaning only became clear with succeeding events. At the family service earlier, I spoke to our children about who was missing from the nativity scene. We noticed that there were no kings, merchants, or priests.

Now of course there was at least one king there that night in Bethlehem, king Jesus. When the angel Gabriel visited the young Mary and announced to her that she would bear the Son of God, Mary was told that "his kingdom shall have no end." Still there were no earthly kings present. No Caesar, no governor or politician. King Herod, the ruler of Judaea, wanted to be there but only because he felt threatened and wanted to kill the baby Jesus. Despite the carol, "We three kings", the wise men were probably astrologers from Babylon not kings in the proper sense. Notice the similarity between the term magi and magician which show the common origin of the words. This child is a king, but he is a different kind of king and he comes to establish a different kind of kingdom. His kingdom is a spiritual kingdom. Earthly kingdoms are established and sustained by war and conquest. His kingdom also has  war and conquest to undertake. Only this war is not against individuals, communities, or nations. As St. Paul puts in his letter to the Ephesians, "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." In other words, the war is against evil within ourselves and against evil and injustice in the world. There is a conquest to be made as well, but the purpose of this conquest is not to gain more power and control more people. This conquest, rather, is that of truth over error and ignorance, and it can only truly be done when it comes as a message of freedom, freedom from the bondage and slavery of sin and self. Again, all of this is the case because his kingdom is a spiritual kingdom.

There were also no merchants or men of business there at the nativity. Part of the skill in business is anticipating the latest fads and fashions. It is having the sense and timing for when wool coats will be more popular than Gore-Tex. In Bethlehem there would have been the perfect opportunity to be ahead of that trending curve: in a few decades, Christianity would be a flourishing religion; in a few centuries, Christianity would be adopted as the religion of the Roman Empire. Here was a chance to get in at the ground floor of commercializing Christianity. However, the baby Jesus did not come to peddle goods and sell merchandise. He came to say that riches are a distraction and hurdle to true faith. He said that if anyone wants to be his disciple, he has to forsake all that he has. This was our Lord's way of saying not that we cannot have money, but that we have to see ourselves as stewards of that which we do have and further, we have to love God above every earthly thing. In him are the true riches of peace, spiritual joy and love, but we can only possess these riches when we do not covet and seek after the riches of this world.

Finally, in the nativity there was not a priest or prophet. It interesting that nearly all religions have a place of respect for Jesus of Nazareth, but yet none of them were present that cold night, not even the Jewish religious leaders themselves who apparently sought and prayed for the coming of the messiah. This shows that fundamentally the Christian story is account of God's initiative and intervention on our behalf. Martin Luther famously said that religion is man's pursuit of God while the Christian account of salvation is God's pursuit of man in the man Christ Jesus. In Jesus, God has searched and sought us out, drawing us to himself. We do not need to take any journeys or pilgrimages to go to God, because he is already here and has become one of us.

The message of Bethlehem is for us today as well, but we will need to travel to that city to hear it. In doing so, we will need to know that we are not kings: power and control belong to him who is Lord and Christ, the new-born king. We will need to know that we are not merchants and people of commerce, because all that we have comes from God and we cannot take any of our possessions with us into the greater life. Finally, we will need to know that we are not priests or spiritual people. The message of our redemption is announced to us: "Today is born in the city of David, a Saviour which is Christ the Lord." This redemption and this salvation is not our hard road to God, but what God has freely given us in our Lord Jesus, the greatest gift that we and the world will ever receive.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Christ the King Sunday Sermon

"Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land."
Jer 23:5

Today is commemorated as Christ the King Sunday. It is a relatively new feast. The Roman Church instituted it around the period of the second Vatican Council, in the mid-twentieth century. The new prayer book of the Episcopal Church picked up on this feast. Historically the Sunday before Advent was known as "Stir up Sunday" based on the words of the traditional collect: "STIR up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded." We stand now at the threshold of the new Church year which begins with Advent. It is appropriate on this Sunday to recognize that Christian people everywhere need some "stirring up", as we enter into the somber season of Advent. Advent of course is a time for reflection on the first Advent or coming of our Lord Jesus, but it is also a time to reflect on his return when he will, in his own words, come like a thief in the night. Advent is also a time to consider what are known as the four last things: death, judgement, hell and heaven. These are somber subjects so as we close the church year we ask God to stir up our wills. It is a beautiful phrase because there are many times when we know what we should do but we just don't feel like it. Call it fatigue or laziness, we have all known this feeling. Our wills need to be stirred up, to do the good which we know we ought to do.

The commemoration of Christ the King also helps us towards preparing for Advent. In Advent, as I said, we think about our Lord's return in power and glory, but as Christians, we believe this return will make manifest that which is already the case. Our Lord Jesus is already raised from the dead so that now we can have new life in him, confident that on the last day those who rest in him, will rise again to eternal life. Our Lord Jesus has already ascended into heaven where he rules and reigns as King. The claim that the risen and ascended Jesus was both Lord and King was one of the primary reasons why the early Christians clashed with the Roman authorities. These Christians had the audacity to say that our Lord Jesus was supreme even over the Ceasars. By faith, we know that our Lord Jesus reigns over every earthly power and authority.

The commemoration of Christ the King is also an apt time for our parish to have Pledge Sunday. King Jesus, like other kings, demands certain things of us his subjects. Like other kings and earthly rulers, he expects obedience, loyalty and tribute. We are to serve this king in all we do or say; we are to follow his commandments; and we are to offer to him a portion of our wealth. But, of course, King Jesus is different than every other king. Earthly kings want their subjects to serve them as slaves. King Jesus wants us to serve him as free men and women, liberated by him from the bondage of fear and sin. Earthly kings expect conformity in speech and action to their laws and commands. King Jesus wants us to say and do the right things, but he also wants to change and renew our hearts. Earthly kings exact taxes that are a burden to their subjects and which are used in part to enrich themselves. King Jesus demands tribute from us so that he can be free us from the love of money, as we recognize that all we have comes from God and that money and material things will not alone make us happy.

This contrast between earthly kings and King Jesus is at the heart of the Old Testament lesson. Jeremiah speaks a word of judgement against the shepherds "who destroy and scatter the sheep" of God's people. In the Ancient Near East, a common metaphor for kings was a shepherd. A good king would tend and care for his people in the same way as a shepherd would care for and protect his flock. Jeremiah is drawing on this metaphor when he condemns the kings as bad shepherds of God's people. When one reads the record of the kings of Israel and Judah, it is largely a record of self-aggrandizement and tyranny. Solomon is remembered for his great wealth, but it becomes very clear through the narrative of 1 Kings that the majesty and glory of his kingdom is funded from the pockets of his people. We are told that one of the major reasons why Israel was split into two kingdoms after Solomon's death was because Solomon's successor refused to hear pleas for a reduction in taxes and tributes. The prophets saw the inadequacy of the kings of Israel and Judah, and they condemned their sins and injustices. The prophets also rightly felt that there must be something more and better when it comes to kings. They spoke of a coming King who in the words of Jeremiah would "execute justice and righteousness in the land." He would not be a tyrant over his people, taxing them for his own enrichment, but would be a merciful and just shepherd who loved and provided for his people. Under this king, God's people would "dwell securely." These prophets were shown, of course, in a shadowy way the coming King of Peace, our Lord Jesus.

It would be great to say that since our Lord's coming that earthly kings and authorities have changed significantly. However, when one reads the records of the kings in the Bible, it does not sound that different from our own day. There are still shepherds in abundance who destroy and scatter, leaders and authorities who are more concerned with promoting and enriching themselves than they are with benefiting the people whom they are called to serve. Our good and beneficent and merciful and just King Jesus still speaks a word of judgement against every earthly power and authority. Whether it is the powers of government, the leaders of the Church, the heads of social institutions like schools and universities, or even the rule of parents over children, King Jesus reveals their inadequacy. In fact, everybody in this room is a leader in some way, and yes, even we are under the judgement of King Jesus as selfish shepherds, and there is only one course of action: repent, acknowledge the true king and pray for his speedy return.  We need to repent, for example, of the ways in which we as parents have disciplined our children for own convenience and not for their benefit, knowing that King Jesus is merciful and forgiving. No matter how powerful and influential we are, we need to acknowledge that we are all subject to a higher authority, the King of kings and Lord of lords. We need finally to pray for his speedy return that we and all God's people might dwell securely in his eternal kingdom. "The Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. Even so, come, Lord Jesus."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

"As for these things which you see, the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down."

Two times in the history of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, it was destroyed. The first was in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians who afterwards took the Jews into exile. The second was in A.D. 70 by the Romans who effectively drove the Jews out of Palestine. After the year 70, the temple would never again be rebuilt even down to our own day. All that remains of the Temple is the Western Wall which was part of the foundation of the second temple. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of these two destructions of the temple on the development of Jewish and Christian religion. The day on which the temples were destroyed is still commemorated every year by pious Jews. I would guess that about a quarter of the Old Testament deals either directly or indirectly with the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians, while the destruction of the temple by the Romans is foretold or alluded to numerous times in the New Testament. In our Gospel lesson, we have an instance of the latter. Our Lord foretells the destruction of the temple. Looking around at its "noble stones" and "offerings", Jesus remarks that "the days come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another."

Our Lord is say something far more profound than merely a historical note about the future destruction of the temple. Our Lord was reminding his disciples and us that we live in a world of change and decay and death. If you looked at the temple in A.D. 30, it would have been difficult to imagine its destruction. The stones that formed its foundation on the Western Wall are huge blocks that weigh hundreds if not thousands of pounds. Could such a building really be destroyed? It can, and it was. In the same way, there many things in our lives that appear immune to change and decay. They may appear as sturdy as a heavy boulder. They may even seem invincible. When we are in good health and our loved ones are in good health, we often feel this way, but of course, one's health can change in a moment. It's odd in a way that we are surprised when one's health takes a turn for the worse: on one level we know that we cannot live forever in these mortals bodies, and yet sickness often catches us surprised and unprepared. I believe there is a good explanation for this tendency.

Theology teaches that humans have a hunger and capacity for God. We have a God-shaped hole inside of us. God of course is eternal and unchanging. In our broken and sinful state, however, we often look to other things besides God to give us that sense of permanency and stability, like our health or the health of loved ones. Those other things, however, are anything but permanent and stable. Health changes from wholeness to sickness; fortunes change from abundance to loss; the things of this world decay. I had the chance this past week to drive through some sections of rural New Jersey. The next time you drive past an old barn with its siding falling down or an abandoned house with a hole in its roof, consider the fact of how little time it takes for such decay to set it. 50 years, 100 years at max. The things that somehow manage to survive the ravages of time like the pyramids in the Egypt or the Colosseum in Rome, people flock to because they are exceptions to the natural course of things. The fact is one day even these monuments will whither away.

If your happiness is in the things of the world, the things that change, if your trust is in "the noble stones and offerings" of the Temples of this world, this is sure recipe for unhappiness: it is only a matter of time before things fall apart. You might be thinking that this is grim view of reality, but, my friends, it is true accounting of life in this world. So, instead of expecting permanency and stability from the things of this world, we can look to the Rock that is higher than we are, Him in whom there is neither variableness nor shadow of turning. In Him, you can receive all the good things of this world with gratitude for the time that you do have to use and enjoy them. I have a favorite image to illustrate this point. Imagine a piece of your grandmother's china. Everybody probably has some prized piece of porcelain that has come down through the family. The fact is eventually it will break or be lost. Most people either keep that treasured heirloom locked up in a cabinet; they do not use it or enjoy it because they are afraid it will break. They do not want to face the fact, that whoever inherits it may not value it as much as they do. Other people may use the china, but when it chips or breaks they are devastated. The hard truth is that it was only a matter of time. In God, we find the source of everything that is beautiful. He made the world, and all the beauties of nature. He made humans in his image, so that we can create beautiful things after the patterns we see in the world. If we find our true home and happiness in God, then we can use and enjoy that family heirloom without anxiety, knowing that at some point it will break but that is okay because our ultimate joy is not based on it. Like grandmother's china, we have similar anxieties about our children. Some would like to lock them away and shield them from every trouble or evil. Others manage to cut those apron strings, only to be mortified if the young person encounters some exacerbating trial or has a wayward streak. My friends, a wayward streak in your child should not be surprising: your children are after all made in your image. The only true security and protection for our children is to entrust them to God in prayer and with faith.

As we approach the holiday season and the frenzy of consumerism that erupts during this time of year, may we not be deceived into thinking that some object will make us or our children truly happy. May learn to look for the permanency and stability that we so desire not in the things of this world, but in Him who does not change. And may we our hearts learn to seek and pray after God, like the words from one of my favorite hymns: "Swift to its close, ebbs out life's little day, / Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away, / Change and decay in all around I see, / O thou who changest not, abide with me."

Sunday, September 15, 2013

17th Sunday after Pentecost: Funcational Atheism

          Psalm 14 (Coverdale)

“The fool has said in his heart: there is no God.” - Psalm 14.1

The Psalm that has been read this morning contains a devastating account of human nature. The Psalm relates what I would call a realistic anthropology, that is, it gives an honest and sober evaluation of our the human condition. The Psalm reads, “Everyone has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one.” The traditional translation of this Psalm reads even more strongly, “But they are all gone out of the way, they are altogether become abominable; there is none that doeth good, no not one.” The realistic anthropology of this Psalm contradicts the prevailing conception in our society which holds to an optimistic anthropology. Such a view says that everyone is basically good. As the church has become more worldly, it has espoused this high view of man, hence the increasing silence and embarrassment in the churches when it comes to the language of sin and redemption. But the Bible is unequivocal on this point: man apart from God inevitably sins and breaks God's righteous commandments.

I know that already there will be some, perhaps many, who will be objecting to this point. But I ask you to consider for a moment the record of human history. Is it a record of people being basically nice and good? Or is human history a record of power-grabbing, oppression, and the pursuit of solitary happiness? Solitary happiness says that my happiness can come at the expense of others' misery; that is the ethic of hell. Let me tell you, it never works to build your happiness on someone else's unhappiness. If you are doing something to make yourself happy that would hurt those closest to you, then it is probably sinful. Like it or not we live in the same world as the crusades, slavery and Communist Russia, and we possess the same human nature as Nero, Napoleon, and Stalin. Think for a moment of your own life as well. Is it free of moral complication? When was the last time you broke one of the Ten Commandments? Have you ever known something was wrong and yet still did it? This is one of the Bible's definitions for sin. In the Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul quotes our Psalm to make the point that both Jews and Gentiles have sinned. Even though Jews have the Law, they are morally no superior to Gentiles. St. Paul concludes his argument with these famous words, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (3.23).

I like to think of the Bible as one continuous narrative. The central problem in the plot of the Bible is sin and death, and so the Bible relates how God saves humanity from sin and death and evil. The darkness of human sin and brokenness is contrasted in the Bible with God's patience, mercy and love. God's existence is not hidden, but rather God reveals it in the world itself. Psalm 24 reads “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament his handiwork. There is neither speech nor language where their voice is not heard.” We live in a world which shows us that God exists. This is precisely why the Bible indicates that it is the fool who says there is no God. Look at the world around us, the order of this good creation. The axis of the earth is tilted just enough to give us four seasons. Plants and animals supply one another's needs in a delicate order and balance. Consider the ordinary beauty of a wildflower. In it is contained a hint of the good and kind and beautiful Creator himself. Man too has been given an eternal soul and has been made in the image of God. Think of the human capacity for love, joy and creativity. That such human beings as Plato, Mozart and Shakespeare could exist by a mere accident stretches the limit of credulity. I was told recently that even the great advocate of atheism Richard Dawkins conceded in a debate that his belief system could not account for beauty.

It would be easy at this moment to give ourselves a pat on the back and say, at least I'm not an atheist. I go to church and say the creed, I believe in one God. I think this lets us off the hook too easily. Notice the wording of the Psalm, “The fool has said in his heart there is no God.” It is not simply referring to those who in the outward profession are atheists. It also includes those who are functionally atheist, that is, those who might say they believe in God but do not live as if he existed. I think most of us including myself fall all too easily into this functional atheism. We come to church on Sunday, say our prayers, but the rest of the week we direct the show. Or perhaps we are given to think of God as the cosmic clockmaker who set this world in motion, but now is basically hand-offs. He doesn't intervene in human history and has no real interest in public or private life. Anytime we reject God's providence in this way, we slip into this type of atheism.

Despite the stark realism of this Psalm, it also gives us hope for God's redemption. Jesus Christ is at the center of the Bible's narrative. The Old Testament looks forward to this Christ; the New Testament proclaims him explicitly. In our Psalm today, there is a kind of foreshadowing of that grim Friday in Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago. On that day, people acted as if there were no God. The Jews gave false witness against Jesus and sought the death penalty for a man who was innocent of any crime. The Romans acquiesced to mob rule and condemned this man to one of the most heinous methods of execution ever devised. Neither group had the fear of God before them. The commoners too derided our Lord Jesus not because of any wrongdoing but because of the lofty claims he had made for himself. Careless laughter then and now is destructive both to those to whom it is directed and even more so to those who laugh. Even the disciples capitulated to fear and abandoned the courage to stand in defense of truth and principle. On that day—in the words of the Psalm—the Lord looked down from heaven to see if there was any who sought after God, but everyone has proved faithless. Now if this were a comic book or a novel, such poetic injustice would have to righted: Jesus would have to reveal his divine glory, his superhuman powers and mete out quick justice. But, of course, this is just the opposite of what the Evangelists say unfolded that day. Our Lord gives himself over in sacrifice for the sins of those who are crucifying him. “Evildoers eat him as if he were bread,” but he prays, “Father, forgive them.” He dies for the broken. He dies for the sinful. He even dies for the atheistic, the fool who says in his heart there is no God. My brothers and sisters, “Deliverance has come out of Zion;” “The Lord has restored our fortunes” by drawing us to himself in our Lord Jesus through his sacrifice. Let us rejoice, let us be glad that we have such a Saviour and Deliverer

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

St. Luke 14.25-33

“Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”

If I had to summarize Christianity in a few words, I think the words “new life” would suffice. What does the Christian Gospel promise to sinners? New life. What does it promise to the weak and elderly? New life. What does it promise to the young and perplexed as well as the full-grown and disillusioned? Again, new life. All the major feasts of the Church Year has this in common: they commend new life. Take, for example, Christmas. It is set to correspond to the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. Human society living in its own light rather than God's light inevitably turns to darkness. The eternal Word becomes flesh in the grim midst of human sin and brokenness. At the moment of greatest darkness, the Light appears. Something similar could be said about Easter. On Good Friday we show God the worst we can be. In the crucifixion there is a monumental subversion of justice; there is a rejection of love freely given. All the ugliness of human sin is on display, and on that day we fully what the evangelist John meant when he said that he, the Word, came unto his own and his own received him not. There is a sadness and melancholy in these words that have their heart at the cross. We show God our worst, but he shows us his greater love, grace and mercy. On Easter Day, God overcomes sin and death by raising our Lord Jesus from the dead, which becomes for us the promise of new, resurrected life.

In the Gospel today we have one of what is known as the difficult sayings of Jesus. Customarily preachers are expected to explain these sayings, but the usual result of such attempts is to accommodate Jesus to the comfortable image we have of him. But that is precisely what our Lord is not doing in the reading this morning. He doesn't wait until he is with a handful of his unwavering followers to say that they cannot be his disciples unless they hate father, mother, wife and children. On the contrary he makes this devastating statement when he sees that “great multitudes” are with him. This is just the opposite of the way a cult works. In a cult, the strangest doctrines are reserved for those who are so far in they cannot imagine life on the outside. To outsiders, a cult tries to appear as normal and pedestrian as possible. Our Lord's teaching is the farthest thing from being secret in this sense. But why be so abrasive and why say that a man must hate his family? To the first I would refer to the words of the great 20th century novelist Franz Kafka who wrote that a good book is to be like an ice ax to break up the sea frozen inside of us. The truth is that most of us are sleep-walkers or the walking dead. We go though life thoughtlessly, without attention to the things of eternity, not knowing what we are doing or why we are doing it. Something or someone has to awaken us out of this slumber. Our Lord addresses these words to those who would follow him merely out of a following of the popular religious sentiment or out of an unwholesome religious enthusiasm.

What our Lord is describing is new life and discipleship. This new life is so radically different that it must involve a death, the death namely of you and me. In fact, if the New Testament is correct, this new life means a total reordering and altering of our current lives. New life is a turning of our world and the world upside down.

There are two prevailing religious attitudes or rather two attitudes to religion that cannot receive this message of new life. The first says that religion and church is one part of a well-ordered life. A university student was once asked what goals he had for his life. He thought for a moment and then said, 'well, I'd like to get married and have children, and oh yeah, someday go to heaven.” This attitude says that faith is one piece of the pie that is life, with say career, family, hobbies being other pieces. The message of new life says that faith is not a piece of the pie, but rather that it transforms the entire pie. True faith, new life will touch and transform every aspect of life.

The second attitude toward religion comes closer to the spirit of true faith, but it too cannot hear or won't receive the message of new life. This attitude says that I need real help but that help is best administered by me. This attitude represents those who treat faith as a form of self-help. People with this attitude come to church in order to cope with the stresses of life. For a person with this attitude the best church is the one that is most therapeutic, the one that makes me feel good. What we actually need, of course, is the truth even when it will be unsettling and difficult. Further, any attitude that treats religion as self-help misses the point that a makeover of the old you will not suffice. What we need is total transformation and new life. Not a makeover.

Imagine for a moment if someone in recovery tried to adopt one of these attitudes on the road to sobriety. Think of one who said, AA is a part of my life along with work and family. But true recovery will involve the transformation of every part of life from work to family. Think of someone else who said I have this drinking problem and I want to stop drinking but I don't really want to change any other aspect of my life. I want help but not transformation. Anybody in recovery knows that neither road, neither attitude, leads to sobriety.

Our Lord Jesus called the multitude to new life, and he is calling us today to new life. He is not calling you to religion or self-help but to resurrection, to complete transformation by his grace. The gate to this new life is through surrender and death, the cross. Our Lord says, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has, he cannot be my disciple. When our Lord speaks of renouncing all that we have I do not think he is referring solely to material possessions. He is also, I believe, speaking to our relationships. In our fallen condition we view the world through the lens of our ego. My spouse exists to comfort me, my children exist to carry on my image, my parents are present to be my heritage. You are the protagonist in your own self-written and self-directed drama. To the world this attitude is normal, but in the new life the ego must die. New life means you love God more than even your family. It also means you love your children for who they are rather than for how much they resemble you. You love your spouse not for what comforts he or she can bring but because you have pledged your troth, your solemn vow to this person. You love your parents not for what they can give you but because you're finally able to see them as they truly are: broken and sinful people whom God loves just as much as you. The world and even our families may not know how to account for such transformation. Without the ego as the center of gravity such love appears foreign and strange. Part of what is difficult about this love is that it is a love first-most rooted and directed to God. I believe this is what our Lord means when he speaks of hating mother and father, spouse and children—and when he speaks of taking up our cross. It is to this death but also this new life that we are called this day and forevermore.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Final Sermon as Curate of All Souls

[1] Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, [2] Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.
                                                                  - Hebrews 12:1-2

Today's epistle picks up on last week's reading from Hebrews 11 which contains the definitive explanation of faith: “faith is the substance of things hoped for , the evidence of things not seen.” Faith is the spiritual vision to see the things of eternity and trust in the reality of God's providence and promises. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says that faith is not something that God invented in the New Testament. Rather there is a legacy of faith in the great men and women of the Old Testament. Abraham, for example, believed God's promise for a son, even though he and his wife were of advanced age. He believed that he and his progeny would inherit a home, even though he wandered as a stranger and sojourner in the land of Palestine. The author goes on to name other great figures of the Old Testament who belong to this hall of faith: Abel and Noah, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and Moses. Each lived by faith. In today's lesson, the author concludes this passage by writing, “wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run the race set before us”. Those who have gone before us in faith—including the major figures of the Old Testament—are this cloud of witnesses. They surround us and encourage us in this race of life and of faith. Ask any football player whether he would rather play in an empty stadium or in one filled with people. The fact is you play better, you run faster if you're being watched and cheered on. The author of the epistle says that the walk of Christian faith is not a solitary walk. We belong to a body, a corporation not just of those who are alive now in the church but of all faithful Christians throughout history, what the Apostles' Creed calls the communion of saints. The stained glass windows in a church are a concrete reminder that we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses.

The author of the Epistle has several things to say about this Christian walk of faith. First of all he says it is a race. Have you ever felt that life is one, long obstacle course? Or that your life goes from one crisis to the next? Or that the when of “when things finally settle down” never comes. The author to the Hebrews would acknowledge that life is an obstacle course and a battle. He says that the Christian life is a race. There is a race set before that we must run. Of course, there are different ways to approach this race, this obstacle course, and they are not all necessarily Christian. A friend reflected recently that there are two prevailing attitudes to life: one says that life is a prison; the other says that life is a classroom. If life is a prison, there are a variety of ways to cope with this reality. Some choose the route of escapism. Extreme forms of religiosity often are forms of escapism—we're biding our time for heaven and the life here and now has little or no significance. This is often just a method of avoidance in order not to face the painful, the awkward or the uncomfortable. Another reaction to the attitude that life is a prison is simply to try to make the prison more comfortable. People who take this path say that life is hard, so I am going to enjoy myself as much as I can in this dreadful place. My highest good will be pleasure, and it doesn't matter whom I hurt along the way. We've all known people who possess overwhelming material abundance and who are also quite miserable. We have all known others who went on a heedless pursuit of pleasure, only to end up miserable and alone. The ornaments of prison life don't change the fact that it is a prison. A third way of coping with life if it is a prison is intoxication. Alcohol, drugs, and even entertainment can all be used to drown ourselves in a sea of temporary forgetfulness. Maybe for a moment we will forget that we are in this prison. From this description it is apparent how many people—including ourselves at times—treat life as if it were a prison. The methods of escapism, materialism, and intoxication are generally pretty ineffective, especially as long term strategies. But there is this other attitude I mentioned, and I think it is the true Christian attitude to life. It says that life is a classroom, where God is shaping us and training us so that we might become more like him in our character. The Bible says that we are to be transformed into the image of God's Son, our Lord Jesus. The trials, tribulations, and crises of life are the means which God uses to bring about this transformation. Those trials are not the execution of punishment for us prisoners but the loving instruction and discipline of a heavenly Father for his children. The problem for many Christians is that they say they will start living into the Christian faith when life is easy or when they have the time. This is entirely the wrong mind-set. Our faith is most potent and living in the midst of life's dynamics. What we need to learn is how to live as Christians within the circumstances that we have been given rather than with the circumstances as we'd like them to be. An older friend in Albuquerque who is a widow often used to tell me that she would not mind dying, but that because she was still living, it was because God still had some more work to do on her. This attitude of acceptance of what life is rather than what we want it to be is precisely how we are called to live. The fruit of such an attitude is joy and gratitude. Life, my friends, is not a prison but a classroom.

Of course, we do not have the power of ourselves to run this race, or to run it in the way I am describing. Only God can give us the strength and endurance to finish this course. It means, as the epistle lesson indicates, we have to let go of the sin that is killing us, the sin, that as our authors writes, so easily besets us. Most importantly we have to look unto Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith”. He is the beginning and end of our faith walk, and by his grace that we can live this life of faith. Many Christians understand what it means for Jesus to be the author of their faith, particularly if someone feels that he has been delivered from some addiction, some catastrophe or even from himself. But all too often the Christian attitude is, “Thanks God, I'll talk it from here.” Such Christians act as if our ongoing sanctification were a result purely of our effort. Such thinking is reflected in the theologically preposterous, popular country song “Me and God.” I'm sorry, you and God are not a team. Such thinking also produces silly slogans such as Jesus is my co-pilot. Only the most deluded of survivors would say that the helicopter pilot who rescued him from drowning is his co-pilot. According to the Epistle, Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith. He has gone the way of the cross. In other words, he knows the trials and tribulations of life, and in the midst of them gave himself wholly to his Father. It is the model for our own lives of faith in which we give ourselves to God in the midst of the storms of life. The truth is we don't get to see around the next corner in life. Usually our ability to predict these turns is middling at best. As Christians, we are called to keep on moving, keep on running the race, not worrying about what is around that next corner, knowing that there will be trials and troubles, but that we will have grace to live through them. This is the faith that Bonnie and I are trying to live into as we move to New Jersey and I take this new call to ministry. Like marriage, children or anything else in life, we can't really predict what it will be like, but as we trust in faith, we know that whatever troubles or difficulties come, God will lead us, he will instruction and shape us in this divine classroom of life. For all these things we can be joyful and grateful, just as we have been blessed to be here at All Souls.

Our last hymn this morning is a famous one: Martin Luther's A Mighty Fortress is our God. One of my favorite verses is the third one which speaks of the difficulties and trials of this life, this race that we are exhorted to run. The verse reads, And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us: The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.” That word, of course, is the mighty name of Jesus. He it is who is the author and finisher of our faith. It is to him and to the word of his grace that I commend you, my brothers and sisters, both for this life and the life to come.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Apocrypha 101

The first document compares the three different canons or sets of books deemed authoritative in the Jewish, Protestant and Roman Catholics faiths. Also included is a list of books in the Anglican Apocrypha, which as I note is a necessary part of a true King James Bible. The second document cites the Anglican view of the Apocrypha and gives a brief synopsis of each of the books.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Kids Bookcase from Recycled Wood

Over the past few years we have acquired a lot of children's books for our three children. We've been using an old press-wood bookcase from my dad's office that I've used for years. It shelves have for years bowed underneath the weight of too many books. The laminate back is coming off. And the whole thing looks like it may collapse at any moment. I actually cut an "insurance" board to put under the one of the shelves in case it came down--it's in the picture on the lower left. In sum, for some time I've been meaning build a replacement shelf (with additional space for more books!).

One of the great things about OKC is that they have big junk day. You can put out almost any large trash on the curb once a month and the city will remove it free of cost. It's an opportune time to scavenge the reusable and recyclable. There is invariably the parade of working-class men driving trucks full of spoils and often following behind is the curate of All Souls. One day I found about a dozen pieces of 1X12 pine paneling that were being thrown out. Another time, a neighbor who was moving threw out a stack of 1X6s that he did not want to move.The paneling was superficially in pretty rough shape. They were almost completely covered with paint on one side and had numerous nail holes. I used a heat gun to remove the paint and a surface planer to clean up the 1X12s and 1X6s.

After a couple Saturdays in the garage and in the "barn", we have a new book case to move to our new home made entirely of. . . trash!

For any that might be interested in the tools and methods used to build this, please refer to this earlier post on a cd shelf.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sermon - Martha & Mary

          St. Luke 10:38-42

When we think of family traditions on holidays, we usually think of decorating Christmas trees, listening to music or playing certain games as a family. There are other holiday rituals that contrast with these yearly traditions. Every year Uncle gets drunk at the party, or the sisters get in a knock-out fight, or father picks on the black sheep yet again. I remember in my family of origin, my siblings and I had a yearly ritual on Thanksgiving. Whoever was doing the dishes would complain about how the others siblings were not helping enough. If two siblings were doing dishes together this complaining could be especially vicious. It gave us something to resent and be self-righteous about. Years later, I figured out our fallen nature feeds off of such contempt and resentment. Feeling smugly self-righteous is like the food we need to prop up our wounded and fallen humanity.

A somewhat similar situation unfolds in today's Gospel lesson. In the familiar story two sisters Mary and Martha have invite our Lord into their home. Martha is doing all the work to host Jesus, while Mary sits idly at his feet. Martha complains to our Lord about Mary's idleness, wanting him to change her behavior. Now I wouldn't go so far as to compare my siblings and my attitude at Thanksgiving to Martha. We're not told, but I think she does all of her activity with love for our Lord even if that love is imperfect. Nevertheless, Martha's attitude needed to be changed. You see, she believed that activity is a substitute for love. Activity, things we do for our children or others, can be an indication of love, but it cannot be a substitute. We have all known children who received all the material and physical comforts one could possibly imagine and yet felt unloved. Activity is no substitute for love. My activity at Thanksgiving had the appearance of loving service, but was merely a charade since it became the occasion to grumble about my siblings. Martha's activity was necessary and good, but it was no substitute for loving attention given to our Lord.

Very early in the interpretation of this passage, Martha's and Mary's dispositions were given names to characterize them: action and contemplation, Martha of course being action and Mary contemplation. The early Church fathers and later writers described the spiritual life as tending between these two poles of action and contemplation. Action is concerned with caring for others, helping the poor, building organizations and churches. Contemplation is that time and attention given to prayer and communion with God. I like the direct way St. Augustine describes the active and contemplative life. The active life, Martha, is that which seeks to feed ourselves and others. The contemplative life, Mary, is that which seeks to be fed by God. Of course, Martha and Mary are both necessary, action and contemplation are both necessary, but contemplation has to hold the preeminence. Why, you might ask? If activity is concerned with our physical and material needs in this world, we know that there is an end to that hunger: death. But the bread which God gives in contemplation is truth, peace, joy and gratitude. In other words, it is the food of eternal life.

I try to remind myself and young people that there is no end to wanting.   After acquiring the object of his desire, no materialist ever says that I have enough. Once possessed there is always more and more to possess. I think we are built in this way, in order to lead us to God. If the material things of this world satisfied us—if there was an end of wanting--then we would never turn to God or the things of eternity. But as it is, there is a hunger swelling in us, that can only be fed by this bread from God, really by God himself. If there is no end of wanting when it comes to material things, there is no end of activity when it comes the time we have been given to live. From the standpoint of human reasoning, it wouldn't be hard to argue that there is absolute necessity that someone needs to work seven days a week. In ceaseless activity we build an empire of capital and power and reputation. We forget however that this empire is doomed to die either with us or with some careless progeny. With so much demanding our attention these days, it is easy to be swept away by a torrent of activity. There is work, a home to care for, perhaps children and their activities, friends and family. Amongst all this activity it is easy to forget God and the things of eternity. In fact, in our day and age, I think the greatest obstacle to an awakening to the things of eternity is distraction. Even our leisure is simply another form of taxing activity so that it is easy to come back from vacation more exhausted then when you left.

My friends, our problem is not that we don't have enough activity, although it might be argued that our activity, like Martha's, lacks joy and the fullness of love. Rather, our problem is a lack of contemplation. We often fail to make the space to pray, worship and be fed by God. We are all Martha's who need to discover the joy of a Mary. For this reason it is critical that we gather every Sunday to worship God, to pray for those things that we need, and to receive the Bread of Life. From the perspective of the world's activity, a couple of hours on a Sunday morning (or Saturday evening) accomplish nothing. But together we are building a temple in time in which we can bring our attention and longing to God. What I am saying is that I am glad you are here. This is an excellent beginning, but we also daily need to have time with the Lord, time for contemplation. It can be a quiet prayerful walk, time reading the Bible, or simply praying in a quiet corner of your home. The reality of heaven and eternal life is not something we have to wait for. If eternity were completely removed from our lives here and now, heaven might as well be a pretend island of paradise. In this case, Heaven would be no different than a prisoner fantasizing about life on the outside. But eternity and the contemplation of God are gifts to us here and now. We simply need eyes to see and hearts to receive these gifts. Do you remember those famous lines from William Blake: To see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower,/ Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,/ And eternity in an hour. Eternity begins now as we turn our attention and devotion to God. It is to this contemplation that we are called, offering our bodies and souls and all our lives to Christ our God.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Trinity Sunday Sermon

This has been a hard week for our city and our community. The storms and tornadoes that struck Moore and a number of communities near the Oklahoma City is unsettling even for those who have lived here their entire lives. There are no easy explanations in a time like this. Adversity and trial demand of us faith that God is working his purposes even if we are unable to grasp what they may be. Especially with the death of children, faith is difficult to find. There is a simple, but beautiful prayer in the prayer book service for the burial of a child. It reads, ALMIGHTY and merciful Father, who dost grant to children an abundant entrance into thy kingdom; Grant us grace so to conform our lives to their innocency and perfect faith, that at length, united with them, we may stand in thy presence in fulness of joy. A trial like this can be an occasion to remind ourselves of a few important lessons. For example, the things of this world are highly unstable. We expect permanence from material things and even, when not confronted with mortality, act as if we are permanent and will never die. The things of this world crumble to pieces in a moment. In the face of such sudden change we have to ask ourselves where is our faith and trust placed? A second lesson is that we often assume that a happy life is a long one. We are mistaken. A blessed and happy life is one that is lived with love and devotion to God and kindness and pity for our neighbors. The author of the Apocryphal book of Wisdom reminds us of this fact when he wrote 2000 years ago that “The righteous man, though he die early, will be at rest. For honourable age is not that which standeth in length of time, nor that is measured by number of years. But wisdom is the gray hair unto men, and an unspotted life is old age. . . The good man, being made perfect in a short time, fulfilled a long time” (4.7-9,13). My friends, death often does not give us a warning of its visitation, and so while we live, we must live well, and treat our time to live as the gift that it is. Finally, it is moving to see how many people have reached out to help those who have been affected. This outpouring of love is, as Fr. Petley reminded us a few weeks ago, the way that we are to live as human beings. The expressions of care and generosity we have seen are the way we were created to live rather than the usual callousness and indifference that characterizes our fractured world. The common element in all these expressions of love is self-offering. People showing up and saying how can I help? A similar self-offering is evident in the work of Stephen Ministry. This ministry is not about dispensing advice, money or gifts. It is a simple self-offering of time and attention to someone enduring the inevitable trials of life. For all the self-offerings we have seen this week, we gives thanks to our Lord who has left us the prime example of self-offering in his cross and passion.

Turning now to today's feast, the day is set aside as a feast of 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. 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 or changing states of God. One of the most helpful phrases on the doctrine of the Trinity comes from what is called the Athanasian Creed. It 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.”

The purpose of this feast becomes more when we consider where it falls in the course of the church year. The Feast of the Trinity comes at the end of a long string of feasts that celebrate chronologically the life of our Lord The church year begins with Advent in 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—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 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 the 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. 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. 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 inspired result of reflection on the saving events we have commemorated over the past six months.

Now, someone will ask, why does the doctrine of the Trinity matter? Isn't belief in one God sufficient? It is an adage of religious studies that you become like that which you worship. If your god is remote and distant and loves in a purely abstract way, that will shape your character and thinking about the world: empathy may not be a distinguishing aspect of your personality. In many false religions, of course, one worships a simply a self-image, a god of our own tastes, opinions and prejudices. That is why the idea of God's self-revelation is so important. Rather than imposing our own image on God, we allow God to speak for himself. The doctrine of the Trinity is so important because we believe it is who God has revealed himself to be in the person and mission of Jesus Christ. The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that the Tri-une God is an eternal community of love. Love and self-offering is not a learned behavior of God or one of God's modes of acting. Love belongs to the very substance of God in the intercommunion of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father begets and loves the Son. He gives his divine life to him. The Son loves the Father and gives himself completely in love and obedience. The Holy Spirit is the bond of love proceeding from the Father and the Son. That we worship this Trinity and believe that we are made in his image means that we are created for love and community. As individuals, families, and a community, we want to become like the God we worship, a communion of love with God and fellowman. It is not good for man to be alone, and so we are given families, friends and communities to love freely and unreservedly. We have seen such love this week, but even so, it is still only partial and imperfect. It belongs to the hope of eternal life, to see the perfection and fulfillment of this communion of love in God. The most profound image for heaven in the Bible is a city without church or temple because the city itself is the temple. The society of man is joined to the society of God—the Trinity—and it is joined in love. The Anglican theologian Austin Farrer wrote a meditation on this feast of the Holy Trinity. He had these moving words to say, “Belief in the Trinity is not a distant speculation; the Trinity is that blessed family into which we are adopted. God has asked us into his house, he has spread his table before us, he has set out bread and wine. We are made one body with the Son of God, and in him converse with the Eternal Father, through the indwelling of the Holy Ghost” (Crown of the Year 37).

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Rogation Sunday Sermon

And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there. And they shall bring the glory and honour of the nations into it. And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb's book of life. And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever.

- Revelation 21:22 - 22:5

In today’s Epistle lesson, John has a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God which abides eternally in perfect communion and fellowship with God. It is interesting that the narrative of the Bible begins with man and woman in a garden and ends with redeemed humanity in a city. Heaven, in John’s vision, is not pictured as simply a return to the garden of Eden. There is of course the fellowship with God which is common to both, but the fact that there is a city at the end suggests that the succeeding history from Eden—the history of civilization—finds its fulfillment and perfection in this universal city. Heaven is not about erasing history. Rather, all that is true, noble, good and beautiful will find its place and perfection in heaven. It is comforting to know that the music of Mozart, the poetry of Shakespeare and the painting of Rembrandt ultimately belong to this city. In this city, all that is hateful and destructive is purged, all that is good and praise-worthy and loving is preserved and perfected.

In the book of Revelation, John contrasts this heavenly Jerusalem with what is called the whore of Babylon a symbol for the city of Rome in John’s time. The city of Rome, the city of this world, is all about power that controls, trade that accrues ever increasing material goods, and commerce that builds paper wealth. The city of Jerusalem, the city of God, is all about power that serves, trade that honors God as the giver of all, and commerce that builds the commonwealth, in the old sense of that word. In our own time we see both cities operating in this world. Although the heavenly Jerusalem has not yet been manifested, we are called to live as citizens of that city, with all that that citizenship implies.

In his vision, John also writes of a river, a river flowing with the water of life. The river “proceeds out of the throne of God and of the Lamb”. Water of course is symbolic for that basic sustenance which we need to live. Of all the things needed for human life—food, water, shelter—we can endure water’s absence for the least amount of time. Perhaps this is because our bodies are composed mostly of water. The point of the image is that from God flows the very life of our being. He is our sustenance, our life, our endurance, our future. The image also is reminiscent of the assertion in the Old Testament that a spring flowed from under the temple in Jerusalem. Writing of this river, the Psalmist says, There is a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God; * the holy place of the tabernacle of the Most Highest (46.4). The presence of life-giving water in Jerusalem, out of the temple, suggests that the joy God’s people receive from his presence in the temple is also life-giving. Following the destruction of the first temple by the Babylonians, Ezekiel had a vision of a new temple purified in ideal worship to God. It too has a stream following out from under it. In his vision, Ezekiel follows this stream which begins as a trickle and eventually becomes so voluminous that he can no longer stand up in it. This symbolic river transforms the salty Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is called by this name because of how uninhabitable its waters are. In Ezekiel’s vision the Dead Sea becomes a fresh water lake full of fish and other living creatures. Along the banks of this life-giving river, Ezekiel sees abundant “trees. . . whose leaf shall not fade, neither shall the fruit thereof be consumed: it shall bring forth new fruit according to his months, because their waters they issued out of the sanctuary: and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and the leaf thereof for medicine.” Notice the echo in Revelation of these leaves that are for healing or medicine. In John’s Gospel we also have a hint of this life giving water when Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well, “Whosoever drinketh of this water—the well water—shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” You see, in each of these passages from Scripture what we are dealing with is not literal, physical water, but a symbolic reality. The sacred writers are conveying with these images that God is like water to the soul. No doubt, you’ve heard of the figurative God-shaped hole in each one of us. Everyone has a hunger and appetite for God and the things of the Spirit. One of course sees a myriad number of ways in which people try to satisfy this thirst for the water that is God. They try anything they can to put into that God-shaped hole. Only, instead of satisfying their thirst, it is as if they are drinking salt water which only makes them more thirsty. The man who has a will to power, believes that the more authority and control he has will make him content and happy. This lust for power has led many to wade through slaughter to a throne. Materialists on the other hand seek an excess of material goods. Only, as you know, there is no end of wanting. It has never happened that the materialist announces with satisfaction, I have enough. Further, the person hungering for love will go from relationship to relationship and from marriage to marriage looking to be affirmed and fulfilled. Each of these are recipes for loneliness, unhappiness and eventually despair. Why? Because in each case, someone tries to substitute a false god for what God alone can give: the water of life. This is precisely the meaning of all the water images in the Bible. God is the ultimate happiness and satiation of our being. Christianity calls us to live as pilgrims on earth. That does not mean that we are wandering nomads, or that we are afflicted with the great vice of wanderlust. Rather, we know ourselves to be citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem. We know that their true home is in God, and can say like the Psalmist, “the Lord leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul” even in the midst of this world, this valley of the shadow of death.

This symbolism surrounding water has extended to the church’s outward order. As you entered the church you probably passed by the baptismal fount where the waters of baptism bring us to new life. Tomorrow as our young people and adults are confirmed by the bishop, each will make a promise to live into the reality of that living water by which they have been washed and filled in Baptism. And even now, we are invited to find our satisfaction and fulfillment in God as we partake of this simple meal of bread and wine. It is not a meal to satisfy our stomachs, but a feast given by God to feed our souls with his very life. My friends, when we come to learn that God can and does fill us in a way that nothing else in this world can, there is great peace, joy and contentment to be found. May we all turn to him in repentance and faith and find that water within us that wells up to everlasting life.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Low Sunday Sermon

     John 20:19-31

As children, many of us probably asked if we could see God. My children have asked the question. As children we learn about the world around us through our senses. It is only natural to ask to see God. A child is certain to wonder who this fellow is that you talk about so seriously but that he cannot see. Perhaps at a later age, we wanted to hear God, and to receive some assurance that God was really there. Were you ever in such perplexity that you wanted God simply to tell you audibly what to do? As adults, we are not that different. Many want some kind of evidential proof of God’s existence. Nothing short of that will make them believe. As a result, some readers will undoubtedly feel a bit frustrated when they encounter today’s Gospel. In the reading, Thomas apparently receives such proof when the resurrected Jesus appears to him. Does he get to have that which we will never have? Does he get the proof that we think we need? Tradition has been somewhat hard on him by labeling him doubting Thomas. This is a misleading title, and ultimately the title believing Thomas might be more fitting.

Before I get there, I need to say something about the words for sight or seeing in John's Gospel. There are five different Greek verbs used for seeing in the Gospel. These different verbs contain a range of meaning. There is the seeing of the man born blind whom Jesus heals. Physical sight is given by the healing touch of the Lord. In the Easter morning accounts, Mary sees the stone rolled away from the tomb. Both of these refer to the function of our bodily eyes.

But there is another type of seeing, seeing with the understanding. If I put before you an American flag, you would say that it is more than strips of red and white fabric sewn together with stars. Your eyes tell you that this is a piece of cloth, but your understanding reminds you of the freedom, equality and justice that the flag represents. In John’s Gospel there is a kind of seeing beyond the bare facts of sight, but which does not grasp the fullness of who Jesus is or what his mission is. John 2.23 says that “when [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did.” As the Gospel develops it becomes clearer that those, who simply believe because of the miracles they see, do not have an abiding and substantial faith. The crowds have a sense of Jesus’ holiness; they can appreciate his miracles, but they cannot understand that his miracles point to a greater reality that Jesus is the Word of the Father, the perfect expression of God's character and person. In a similar way, after Jesus reveals the checkered history of the Samaritan woman in John 4, she says to Jesus, “I perceive, I see that you are a prophet.” Jesus’ power to reveal secret sins of which she is ashamed compels her to this confession, but she does not of course understand the fullness of who Jesus is. He is more than simply a prophet or soothsayer.

There is a third kind of seeing in John’s Gospel. This type of sight leads to substantial faith and trust. In last Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Peter and the beloved disciple—usually understood as John—run to the empty tomb of Jesus. There they see the linens from the dead body of Jesus in one pile, and then in another spot, “the napkin, that was about his head. . . wrapped together in a place by itself.” This is followed by the affirmation that the beloved disciple, after he had entered the tomb, “saw and believed.” What did he see that caused him to believe? I think that he saw the way in which the linens were placed suggested that the body of Jesus had not been stolen. If you’re going to steal the body of Jesus, you wouldn’t take the time to unwrap it, and you definitely wouldn’t take the time to fold the head napkin, and place it neatly in another spot. John sees the burial linens with his physical eyes, but with the eyes of faith, he believes that Jesus has risen. It is the resurrection that gives clarity to the cross, by showing the cross to be the means of new life. It is only by the eyes of faith that we can see this new life budding out of the hard wood of the cross. For this reason, it is not morbid or evidence of an obsession with death, that we Christians wear crosses and place them in the center of churches. Faith teaches us the true meaning of the cross as not merely a recollection of a horrible execution. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote of the cross as God’s grace hidden in judgment. The grace of the cross becomes clear and manifest on Easter morning. When we look at the cross we see grace and love.

So, there are at three types of seeing in John’s Gospel, that which is merely perception with the physical eyes, that which sees with the eyes and believes to an extent, and that which sees with the eyes of faith and so believes. These distinctions help to shed clarity on the meaning of today’s Gospel. Thomas who is not present at the first appearance of Jesus says that “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Thomas mistakenly thinks that faith is given simply by seeing and touching. Faith however is an internal power of perception. He should be asking for the eyes of his faith to be opened and not for the eyes of his body to be satisfied with the sight of Jesus and his wounds. A week after Easter Sunday, Jesus appears again to the twelve; this time Thomas is with them. Jesus invites Thomas to reach forth his hands and his finger and to touch his wounds. Finally and most importantly he tells him to be not faithless but believing. Our Lord chastens Thomas for not using the eyes of faith but simply relying on the eyes of the flesh. What follows is surprising, and most people do not notice it: the Evangelist does not say that Thomas reached forth his hands or his finger. He does not appear to do either or any of these things. Thomas simply makes his great confession, “My Lord and my God.”

Here is what is remarkable about this confession. The Godhead of Jesus is not something one can see or touch. As the prayer book reminds us, God is without body, parts, or passions, and this is true of our Lord’s divine nature. It belongs to his human nature, as a man composed of body and soul, to be seen, touched and heard with an audible voice. Thomas' confession shows that he believes Jesus to be more than a mere man. Preaching on Thomas, St. Augustine wrote that, Thomas “saw the man, but acknowledged the God.” It is only the eyes of faith that Thomas could perceive our Lord’s divinity. So, it would perhaps be more fitting to call Thomas, believing Thomas. Thomas does begin with doubt but he ends in faith. It is not a faith that has been proved by some incontrovertible evidence, but it is a faith that has been informed by the eyes of trust and belief.

There is a pregnant application in all of this. Most people live their lives in a kind of sleep-walking state. All they see are the bare facts of their existence. They simply view the world around them only with the eyes of the body. The world for them seems to be governed by chance and accident. Faith teaches us something more. Faith reminds us that God's providence holds all of our lives. The Bible says that God works all things together for the good of those who love him. Everything that happens to us, God makes use of for his purposes. Even the bad things, the things that appear to be evil—like the wounds on our Lord Jesus—bear a role in God's work of bringing all things into wholeness and unity with him. We have to see the trials and tribulations of this life with the eyes of faith, so that when we look at the cross we don't see a man dying but new life budding forth.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday Sermon

But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:23-24)

In the sixth century B.C. the nation of Judah went through what was one of the biggest events in the Old Testament. In 586, the city of Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the invading Babylonians. While the city was being besieged God told the prophet Jeremiah to do something that was very strange, perhaps even foolish. The oddity of this directive will become clear as I give an outline of the historical context. The nation of Judah was the last fragment of the once prosperous nation of Israel under the monarchy of David and Solomon. With the advent of the Babylonian Empire, Judah was faced with a political and military situation that was far beyond its powers to affect. The Babylonians were at their apex and were subduing all the small nations in the Ancient Near East, even putting in check the Egyptians. The prophet Jeremiah ministered at this time in Jerusalem, Judah’s capitol. He voiced the unpopular message that Judah was not just the victim of a geo-political accident, but that the Babylonian’s power over Judah was a manifestation of the judgment of God for their unfaithfulness. Needless to say, not many wanted to hear or heed Jeremiah’s message of repentance to God and submission to Babylon, and so as a result, he faced a great deal of derision and persecution.

In about the year 590 Judah’s king attempted to rebel against the unwanted yoke of Babylon. He solicited help from Egypt and confederated with surrounding nations. These allies however were of little help when the Babylonians brought the full force of their military might against Jerusalem and the few other walled cities left in Judah. For thirty months the Babylonian army surrounded the city, while the helpless Judeans were left trapped inside. To make matters worse, rural Judeans who lived outside the city fled into Jerusalem at the oncoming Babylonian army. Makeshift dwellings popped up in streets and alleys to accommodate the swollen population. As the siege continued difficulties multiplied. Food and water became scarce and eventually gave out. Fuel to cook food and heat homes had to be carefully rationed. Household and human waste collected within the city; then there was the problem of how to bury the corpses of the dead. When the Babylonians finally broke through the city walls in 586, they administered swift justice to the king by killing his sons and then blinding him. The Judeans who survived the famine, disease and warfare largely went into exile in faraway Babylon. Finally the Babylonians destroyed the city and the temple. It was not until decades later that the city or the temple would be rebuilt in any recognizable fashion.

Just before the Babylonian army penetrated the walls of Jerusalem, a small, seemingly insignificant transaction occurred. As I said Jeremiah was in the city during the siege, telling the people that the Babylonians were going to be successful and that they would be going into exile. In the midst of this, a cousin approached the prophet and wanted to sell him a piece of land in their rural hometown north of Jerusalem. Now with the land of Judah overrun with the conquering Babylonian army and Jerusalem being one of three remaining cities, how could it possibly make any sense to buy a piece of land? With food and fuel prices at a premium within the besieged city, what type of person would buy land that he knows he will likely never be able to use or enjoy? One cannot eat a deed. But to buy this land is precisely what God tells Jeremiah to do, and so while the city is falling, the witnesses are gathered, the deed is signed, the money exchanged. God tells Jeremiah that this purchase of land is a sign to the people that there is hope, even in the present darkness, for a return to the land. Land again will be bought and sold in Israel, the Lord tells Jeremiah. But from a worldly perspective it is folly and foolishness to make such a purchase. What would be your reaction to an offer to buy interest in a failing company or to purchase stock in a bankrupt organization? Folly indeed. But with God it is not so. It is the wisdom of God to hold unflappable hope even in darkness and calamity.

This apparent folly in God’s ways is evident in another Old Testament narrative. The eighth century prophet Hosea ministered in the northern kingdom of Israel. Although the details of his ministry are different from Jeremiah, many of the attending circumstances were the same. The people were continually going after others gods and being unfaithful to God. Hosea like Jeremiah was commissioned to call the people to repentance and fidelity to God. Also like Jeremiah, Hosea was called to do something that would appear to be folly from the world’s eyes. At the beginning of his ministry, God tells Hosea to marry a woman who will be unfaithful to him. Hosea and this wife have several children together, but of course, as the Lord foretold Hosea, his wife commits adultery. The purpose of all this is to act out before the people the complaint that God has: God’s people, his spouse, have been unfaithful to him. God led the Hebrews out of slavery and bondage, and gave them the promised land. In prophetic language, he took this people as his wife. But the people from the beginning have been unfaithful to him. They have not been filled with joy and thanksgiving in being free and serving the true and living God. Rather, they grumble and complain; they follow the religious trends of their neighbors in worshipping images and offering sacrifices to sun and rain gods; they oppress one another, each one seeking his own personal gain. According to the conventions of the world, marital infidelity is the termination of a marriage. How can a relationship survive after such a violation of love and trust? Perhaps there can be forgiveness after a separation but never again can there be love. But God tells Hosea to do just the opposite. By being faithful to his unfaithful wife, it will be a sign to all the people that though they have been unfaithful, God’s love abides and persists. With these devastating words God tells Hosea to be faithful to his spouse: ‘Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods’ (Hosea 3:1). This is either the height of folly or the wisdom and love of God.

The story we proclaim today contains, in the same way, either great folly or great love. It is for this reason that St. Paul tells the Corinthians that the message of Christ crucified is foolishness to the Greeks. If the passion and execution were merely the story of an ordinary man, it would no doubt be a tragic, even moving story. The Greeks were experts at writing and performing tragedies. But this is not the Christian Gospel: our Lord is both God and man. He is God not in a secondary sense, but co-equal with the Father in honor, dignity and worship. In the account of the crucifixion, we are confronted with either the folly of God in handing himself over to sinful men or a love so profound that it will take all eternity to unfold. The very limbs which he freed from the bonds of slavery in Egypt, arrest and bind him in chains. The very hands which he formed beat him and nail him to a cross. The very lips and tongue which he taught to speak demand his crucifixion. The very hearts to which he called in the Word of the prophets, mock and scorn him in his suffering. The one who by his righteousness, holiness and love is shown to be the only one qualified to judge is judged by broken, feckless and hypocritical men. The Judge is judged.

We like to tell ourselves that we believe in unconditional love. Our society likes to say that it affirms unconditional love. But almost always there is an exception. If you hurt me or break me or humiliate me, then I cannot love you, I cannot abide you. But if you refrain from these things, then I will love. This is, of course, hardly unconditional love, yet so many of our relationships are conditioned in this way. The love of God by contrast is a love that knows no bounds, and its definitive manifestation is in the cross of our Lord Jesus. We have hurt him, we have broken him, we have humiliated him, and yet his arms are still spread open wide. This is a love that keeps on loving even when wounded. It is a generosity that keeps on giving even when rejected. It is a hope that keeps on hoping even when the situation seems hopeless. It now becomes apparent that if we are to be Christians we will never be issued a license to write people off or to decide that someone is a hopeless case.

At weddings we often read St. Paul’s hymn to charity. Charity, of course, being an old word for love. Those present at such a wedding probably imagine that the love between those two is true, at least to a degree, to Paul’s description. It is however on the cross that we see a love above and beyond what the world calls love. Jesus is the one who actually lives into the love Paul describes. It is a love that is truly unconditional in the absolute sense of that word. In closing I want now to read that hymn, and I want to you to hear in these words the love of Jesus poured out on Calvary. These words are about him. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; [Charity] beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

It is to this word of love and grace that I commend you this day, both for this and the life to come.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Old Testament Highlights Schedule

A couple of readers of the New Testament for Lent were so excited about reading the Bible that they asked to continue reading, this time in the Old Testament. Here is a schedule for reading highlights of the Old Testament through the 40 days of Easter. I've selected what I think of as the most important Old Testament books representing one book from each of the four major categories of Old Testament books: Genesis for a book from the Pentateuch or Torah, 1 and 2 Samuel for a book from the history books, Psalms for a book from the poetic books, and Isaiah for a book from the books of prophecy. Be blessed in your reading of the Scripture!

Old Testament Highlights for Easter

Day of Easter

Easter Monday
Genesis 1-6

Easter Tuesday
Genesis 7-12

Genesis 13-18

Genesis 19-23

Genesis 24-26

Genesis 27-30

1st Sunday after Easter
Genesis 31-34

Genesis 35-38

Genesis 39-42

Genesis 43-46

Genesis 47-50

Psalms 1-18

Psalms 19-33

2nd Sunday after Easter
Psalms 34-44

Psalms 45-60

Psalms 61-72

Psalms 73-81

Psalms 82-93

Psalms 94-105

Psalms 106-118

3rd Sunday after Easter
Psalms 119-131

Psalms 132-150

1 Samuel 1-6

1 Samuel 7-11
1 Samuel 12-15
1 Samuel 16-19
1 Samuel 20-24
4th Sunday after Easter
1 Samuel 25-29
1 Sam 30 - 2 Sam 3
2 Samuel 4-9
2 Samuel 10-13
2 Samuel 14-17
2 Samuel 18-20
2 Samuel 21-24
Rogation Sunday
Isaiah 1-7
Isaiah 8-14
Isaiah 15-23
Isaiah 24-29
Ascension Day
Isaiah 30-36
Isaiah 37-41
Isaiah 42-46
Sunday after Ascension
Isaiah 47-53
Isaiah 54-59
Isaiah 60-66
Spare Day
Spare Day