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

Monday, March 18, 2013

Luke-Acts Chart and Maps

The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, though separated in the canonical order of the New Testament by the Gospel of John, are actually two books with one continuous narrative and one human author. The point of the following chart and maps is to show how in the Gospel of Luke there is a movement inward towards Jerusalem, where the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord occurs. In the Acts of the Apostles there is a movement outward away from Jerusalem, as if the crucifixion and resurrection were a stone cast in the water of history that forms a wake steadily moving to the boundaries of the known world. X marks the spot of the central event of human history. All the came before looked forward to it. All that came after is shaped by it and looks back on it as the defining moment.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Wood-Working & Traditional Anglican Worship

When I was still in seminary, I worked for a man who was remodeling his Victorian house. The man had a love for old hand tools and making chairs. As we became friends, he began to share his passion with me. Eventually we went to a five day chair-making course in an old barn in Reading, Pennsylvania. The barn was filled with dusty old tools; there were chickens running loose; in the January cold, the only heat came from a wood stove. On some rickety shaving horses we made the spindles for our chairs.

I went back to seminary classes, and all I could think about was making chairs. Since that time I've had a passion for traditional wood-working. I love to buy old, neglected tools and turn them into something beautiful and usable. I often bring people out to my wood-working shed to show them my old tools, or I show them the chair I made in Reading. I usually get questions like: why do you like these old tools so much? Aren't there new tools that are electric powered and faster and better than these old hand tools? Are you a Luddite? Or do you just have a fetish for the old and antique? None of these is the reason why I use traditional wood-working tools and methods. I use them because they actually work. When a hand tool is properly sharpened and properly used, it feels like an extension of one's own hand, in a way that a machine can rarely if ever do. 

My love for traditional Anglican worship is similar. There is so much about traditional Anglican worship that I love: daily morning and evening prayer, altars attached to the wall, traditional language in addressing God, the 'meaty' content of Anglican hymns, Holy Communion using the inimitable words of Thomas Cranmer. So whether it is this, 

Or this,

I find myself increasing devoted to this centuries old yet ever new form of traditional Anglican worship. Again some might ask, aren't there modern liturgies that are clearer, more accessible, more relevant, with wider appeal? Maybe I like traditional worship because I was an English major? Or perhaps I am just an Anglophile? But these are not my reasons. Quite simply, I love traditional Anglican worship because it works. The Book of Common Prayer holds in tandem two central truths of Christian faith. It tells us, namely, who we are and what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. These both are things we need to hear clearly and regularly, and the Book of Common Prayer does a superlative job of precisely that.

The first truth the prayer book sets before us is a sober and empirically honest evaluation of humanity apart from God. The prayer book says quite frankly that "we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves." It also does not white-wash human sin. Take these devastating words from the confession at Morning and Evening Prayer: "Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us." This honest evaluation of human nature and our condition is something every one needs to hear and be reminded of. As humans, we are stuck in the mire of sin, and we need to hear that simply trying a little harder will not work: we need a savior to lift us up. In relation to sin, the prayer book's clarity on the human condition is the equivalent of the first step in AA: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable."

Just as the Bible does not leave us solely with this grim evaluation of human nature, so too the Book of Common Prayer--the Bible prayed--does not leave worshipers without hope: a Savior has come to rescue us in our need and brokenness. The prayer book frequently dwells on God's great love for humans as shown principally and definitively in Jesus Christ. Among my favorite words of the Communion service are the following: "All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world." When the revisers of the current prayer book took to editing this prayer for contemporary use, they removed what they thought were the redundancies of this passage. They missed the point however: as humans in need of real help, we need to hear over and over again the assurance that we have been saved. It is finished. Our security and salvation lie not in ourselves but in the one who has offered himself selflessly and completely.

So, if you want to be a Christian your whole life long, there is perhaps no better way than in traditional Anglicanism. Because it works. The Book of Common Prayer gives a form to set apart the major events of life--birth, marriage, death--in the context of God's grace. It also provides a form in the regular services of Holy Communion and Morning and Evening Prayer to be grounded daily in the fundamental truths of Christian faith, especially of the human need for God and God's great love for humanity shown in the cross of Christ.

Last year, my wife sent me to Pittsburgh for a week to make another chair with my friend. This time we made the chair in the basement of his Victorian home. We took things that looked like pieces of firewood


and turned them into parts of a chair.

But if you're going to do this you need a good sharp draw knife:

We also took something like this:

And made it into spindles.

But if you're going to do this, you will need a sharp and well-turned spoke shave.

After a week of hard work, occasional frustration and fun, I came out of my friend's basement with this:

In the same way, if you are going to make a Christian, the Book of Common Prayer and traditional Anglican worship works. It offers a beautiful and ordered method for showing us who we truly are and how much greater God is than our sin.

Hand tools take time to learn and become skilled at. It requires instruction and patience and endurance, but when you've learned how to use them and you have a sharp tool, they work amazingly. In the church today there is a generation of Episcopalians like myself that grew up with modern liturgy. There are also significant numbers of Evangelicals seeking for some kind of liturgical worship. For both of these groups, traditional Anglican worship may seem foreign and difficult to use at first. With time, patience and encouragement, it is one of the richest and most effective tools for shaping and molding Christians, their whole life long.