Wednesday, October 29, 2014

20th Sunday after Pentecost

This is the first and great commandment and the second is like unto it.

All of the lessons this morning relate to love for God. I suspect to many that love for God seems like a vague subject. How can one love a being that is not visible? Furthermore, how can one love a being that does not seem to need love, being wholly self-sufficient? Our society does us no favors in the way it conceptualizes love: love is thought of as an emotion, a magnetic force impelling two people together, the chemistry of two souls. Such love can strike like lightening in the first flame and dissipate like fog in the morning sun of adversity. With so many divorces today, the cause is often said to be I just don't love him or her anymore. In most of these cases, by all evidence, they seem to mean that they do not have that jittery, butterflies in the stomach, romantic feeling.

One of the pieces of good news in our faith is that God, as the 39 Articles state, is without body, part, or passions. That God is without passions means that his love is a decision of his will while his anger is an act of his justice. God does not ever loose his temper nor is the basis of his love fleeting emotion. It would be foreign to his character to say to one of us, his children, I just don't love you anymore. Why? Again, because his love is a decision of his will. Before we were born, before we had done anything good or bad, before we had any desire for the things of God, he loved and chose us to be in his image. He sent his son to be our representative and head that we might be his ambassadors in the world. God's love, therefore, is unshakable and unchanging. It is based on a decision not on emotion.

In a similar way, when we speak of love for God, and the command to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, we are talking about a decision, a reasoned commitment, that should not be based on how we are feeling at any given time—because we know that to be human is to have emotions that fluctuate and change.  In other words, loving God is about actions not about feelings. One way to describe this active love for God is to think about the Ten Commandments. Traditionally the commandments have been divided into our duty to God—the first four—and our duty to our neighbor—the last six. Commandments one and two tell us to honor and worship God. We have to acknowledge his unity, while at the same time disavowing all other gods. While this might seem like a merely formal statement, to reject other gods has profound practical implications. It means that everything in the world that would claim absolute authority, or to which we would give undivided allegiance, has to be set aside. There are so many things in the world that try to convince us that things will make us happy: whether it is material goods, a good reputation, or simply money and financial security. Anytime we think these alone can make us happy, we are treating them as gods, giving to them the loyalty and worship that the one true God alone deserves. So the first thing that we do to love God is to forsake the myriad idols of the heart that seem to promise so much but give so little.

The third commandment prohibits taking the name of the Lord in vain. While this prohibition includes not swearing, it also prohibits empty and idle religious talk.  It is easy for religious people, you see, to do a lot of talk about God and not really to be converted. Remember our Lord quotes the prophet Isaiah, these people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. So, secondly, a way to love God is to speak sincerely and reverently about him. This is precisely what Paul is describing in the Epistle lesson. He did not come to the Thessalonians with flattering words or with elegant words that were in fact a cloak for greed. Rather, he came to preach the Gospel, something that was more than just a set of beliefs, but a proclamation of God's power to save and transform. Paul writes, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves. In a sense, we see Paul's love for God in this honesty and sincerity with the Thessalonians.

It is my intention and pledge to speak to you from Sunday to Sunday with such sincerity. In good faith, I want to point you to God. I will not offer you empty religious talk in the form of devout platitudes. Nor will I stand here and give you my insights on the issues of the day, missing the point that what we all need to hear is not my opinions about politics or society but the word of God.

But, I digress, the fourth commandment is to honor the Sabbath. This commandment  speaks to our duty to God in regular religious observance, including corporate worship on Sundays, but also private devotions throughout the week. Sunday worship should not be about our being entertained or even about “getting something out of the service.” It is about recognizing that God has given us life and all things, and offering back to him our devotion and prayers. This is yet a third aspect of love for God by setting aside time consistently and regularly to honor and worship him.

A final aspect for the love of God is, in fact, to love our neighbor. You see, the love of God and the love of our neighbor are connected. In his first epistle, the Apostle John asks the question, if you do not love your brother whom you have seen, how can you love God whom you have not seen? You see, to love God is to do good to our neighbor. Jesus tells the Pharisees the great commandment is to love God, but then he goes on to say that the love of neighbor is like unto it. The reading from Leviticus gives us some ideas on what love for neighbor looks like: it means not favoring people based on their outward circumstances like for example that they have a lot of money. It means not slandering our brothers or sisters or being the vehicle for malicious gossip. It means not hating our brother in our heart. When we do such things, we are showing our love for God.
It is worth asking yourself today, do I love God? Of course, we often must fail, if this love for God is principally about our actions. There is grace on hand, of course, for us when we fail in this great commandment, but we are called to renew our commitment to love him. In eternity, we are promised the enjoyment of a communion of love in the Trinity. Now is our time to train in this activity and fellowship of love for which we have been created.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

St. Luke the Evangelist

Heal the sick. . . and say unto them, the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.

Today we commemorate the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist. The word evangelist is derived from a Greek word that simply means proclaimer of the Gospel. To Luke is attributed the Gospel that bears his name, as well as the continuation of that Gospel, the book the Acts of the Apostles. We do not know a great deal about Luke. According to tradition he was a physician and a disciple of Paul. The argument is often made that Luke's training as a physician gave him special skills in attention to detail that characterize the books attributed to him. Another noteworthy quality of the Luke's Gospel and the book of Acts is his ability to depict a remarkable range of different types of people. Luke has a special concern for women, Gentiles, the poor, and non-practicing Jews—called in the idiom of the time sinners. Today we might speak of him as being humane. It is not surprising then to learn that some of the most moving parables are only found in his Gospel: the parables of the prodigal son, the Rich man and Lazarus, and the good Samaritan. So too are only found in Luke's Gospel the account of Mary's humble obedience to the angel's announcement that she will bear God's son, the encounter of our Lord Jesus with the tax collector Zacchaeus, and the realistic portrait of the two sisters Martha and Mary, the one who works tirelessly to host Jesus and the other who simply wants to sit and enjoy his presence.

One significant application that can be gleaned from the profession that St. Luke is said to have had is that Christianity and secular learning are not at odds. There is a significant streak in some Christian sects to put a wedge between the spiritual healing offered in faith and modern medicine. The traditional understanding is that God works through both supernatural and natural means: he can miraculously heal someone who is sick, or he can use doctors and modern medicine to effect the same end. Sometimes he appears to do neither, but more on that in a moment. Christians should not be afraid of secular learning, as if secular learning could undermine the claims of the Christian faith. Rather, Christianity has always welcomed learning, harkening back to Augustine's assertion that all truth is God's truth. In fact, the home of the liberal arts is really the Christian university. A strictly capitalistic view of learning would minimize the liberal arts because the utility and economic benefit of the liberal arts is so minimal, but we worship the God who of his own free will, not for any utility or monetary gain, created all things bright and beautiful.

The question, however, remains why God heals some while others who seem faithfully to ask never receive their miracle? Some have even lost faith altogether because they felt that God failed them in their darkest hour in not giving the physical healing for which they pleaded. The collect does not make any false promises that God will always heal. Rather, we ask God that we may delivered from all the diseases of our souls by the wholesome doctrines delivered by St. Luke. Luke, the physician of medicine became the physician of the soul by relating the story of Jesus the healer. All of our Lord's miracles have a spiritual dimension. They are never simply just a physical healing but also a spiritual release. This is why our Lord says to many of those healed, your sins are forgiven. But notice what our Lord does not do: we never once hear him tell a supplicant that he is unwilling to heal and restore. Are the Evangelists simply trying to paint him in the best possible light? And if Jesus is still Lord, even the risen Lord who triumphed over death, is he unable or unwilling to heal now?

One of my favorite hymns speaks to this very question. The hymn is “O what their joy and glory must be”; the text was written by the medieval theologian Peter Abelard. In the hymn, the joys of heavenly life are described: in that greater life there is a ceasing of sorrow and an eternal rest in God, our greatest happiness and contentment. The second verse contains the profound lines, Wish and fulfilment can severed be ne'er, Nor the thing prayed for come short of the prayer.  You see, my friends, in heaven every noble desire, every virtuous longing will find its object. Those who long for peace will find a greater peace than heart can understand. Those who long for love will be in God, whom we confess to be a Trinity of persons, a communion of love. In short, even if the prayer goes unanswered or appears to have been answered with a no, in that Jerusalem above the thing prayed for cannot come short of the prayer. Every good desire of the human heart can and will receive fulfillment there because wish and fulfillment can severed be ne'er.

The members of the church here on earth always will have the prayers of its ministers and people for healing, and yet, we know that death inevitably comes. In the Bible's account, death is a judgment for human sin. No man can reach the end of his life and say that he has not sinned nor in some way contributed to the unhappiness of this world. And yet as Christians, we die with hope for that greater life, a life given to us not because we are perfect, but because of what Jesus has done on our behalf and for all humanity. It is very important to realize that God's grace and judgement are not two separate actions, but two aspects of his unchanging will. Death is a judgment for human sin because God cannot have fellowship with our darkness, but there is a grace hidden in death. Death is a mercy in that our earthly lives are not prolonged beyond measure because life here is subject to many evils: here unfulfilled desires abound, the separation between brother and brother caused by anger and unforgiveness is normal. There is even the wall of death which separates those who love one another and seems to put an end to that mutual love. We are told in the book of Genesis that God guarded the way to the tree of life with a flaming sword and cherubim so that humanity was not given eternal life in this fallen and unhappy world; the exile outside the garden would not last forever. The way to new life has been opened now that we are forgiven and redeemed in the new Adam, our Lord Jesus. Those prayers for healing may or may not be answered in this life, but in God's eternal kingdom, we will have the fullness of his healing and benediction. We will, in the words of the prophets, abide by streams of living water. The leaves of the trees which line its banks will be for the healing of nations.

     Now, in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high,
     We for that country must yearn and must sigh,
     Seeking Jersusalem, dear native land,
     Through out long exile on Babylon's strand.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

17th Sunday after Pentecost

Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. 

In the Gospel lesson this morning there is a whole range of dispositions demonstrated in the various characters in the parable. Each reaction to the king's invitation to the marriage represents an attitude toward the message of the Gospel, God's invitation to fellowship with him. In this sense, it is similar to the parable of the sower which describes the various levels of receptivity to the word of God; however, that parable, I believe, is meant to be descriptive: that is, it is not telling us that we just need to try harder to be good soil. Rather, the parable explains the way the world is. It does not answer why some are receptive to the Gospel and others not,  but it does remind us that we should not be surprised to encounter all these dispositions in the world: we will encounter hostility towards the Gospel, openness to the Gospel that is hampered by being superficial, openness that is marred by worldliness, and finally sincere receptivity to the word of God. The parable this morning I believe shows us these various kinds of attitudes towards the word of God in the Gospel, but it is also telling us to do something about it. We are in the end to identify with the highwaymen who know they are entirely dependent on the hospitality of the king.

The parable begins with a king and the announcement of his son's impending marriage. The Bible ends with the announcement of a marriage. In the book of Revelation, we are told about the coming marriage supper of the Lamb. The Lord Jesus, the Son of God, will be joined with his bride, the church, the body of God's faithful people throughout the world and throughout history. All have been invited to this marriage feast of love, which will be the everlasting communion of love between God and his people and one another. But, of course, there are different reactions to this invitation, and we see this represented symbolically in the parable. The first of those who are invited to the king's marriage are consumed with their own affairs. The parable says that they went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise. In the one we see a collective symbol for manual labor, in the other a symbol for the industries of finance and trade. Both are never-ending occupations with no definitive destination. Nobody ever says, I have reaped enough corn; I have traded enough goods and made enough money. It is easy to become consumed by the revolutions of both and forget that neither is an end in itself. If we become consumed by these cyclical pursuits we will neglect the call of God, forgetting that the true riches, and the true bread cannot be seen or touched, but are in God the source of all goodness, love, beauty and peace. The disposition of those who decline the gracious invitation could be summed up in one word: worldiness. They are consumed with the cares and occupations of this world, as if our happiness and contentment rested in worldly things.

There is, of course, another type of reaction to the invitation of the king. These are hostile to the invitation, and in the parable we are told, they took the king's servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them. To understand their hostility towards the king and what it might mean spiritually, it is helpful to recall last week's Gospel lesson which included the parable of the vineyard and the husbandmen. In that parable, a vineyard owner rents out a vineyard to some tenants. When he tries to send servants to collect his dues, the tenants abuse the servants and eventually kill his son whom he had sent as a last resort. The application of that parable is that there are those who believe that the faith belongs to them as a possession. True Christians are not those who think they have chosen a religion and are practicing it to the best of their ability. No, my friends, true Christians are those who know that they have been called and claimed by God; God has chosen them in Jesus. The faith is not our possession; rather, we have come to realize that we are God's possession. The vineyard is not ours but the Lord's. In a similar way, there are those in today's parable who are hostile to the king and his gracious invitation. It is always baffling but true that there are those who respond to love and kindness with malice and malevolence. We will never in this world understand why some are open to the things of God and others defiantly closed.

But there is a third disposition, that of the highwaymen. The king tells his servants, go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. Highwaymen, of course, are not the prominent citizens of a community. They are not the kin and relations that must, out of obligation, be invited. But they are those who are passing through. They have no natural belonging to the king and his community of subjects, friends, and relations. We are, I believe, to identify with these highwaymen. We are those who do not belong, who do not find their home in this world, but are on the road, on a pilgrimage of growth and learning and journeying towards that greater life. Have you ever felt like an outsider or as if you did not belong? Have you ever felt handicapped by your past wounds, emotional or psychological? Then you are a highwaymen. You have been invited to the king's feast not because you deserve it, but because of the open invitation of the king who has gone out into the highways and byways of human life to call all to a feast of communion and fellowship with him.

This fact is highlighted by the puzzling detail that one of the guests did not have on a wedding garment and so was cast out. In fact, it was the host's responsibility to supply a wedding garment not the guests, and particularly to highwaymen who naturally would not be properly prepared to come to a wedding feast while on the road. This reminds us that it is not our righteousness that gains our entrance to the feast, but God's gracious invitation. At this feast he clothes us with a righteousness not our own but the righteousness of the Lord Jesus.

My friends, if you find yourself burdened by the cares and occupations of this life, like those who would not come to the king's feast; If you find yourself resistant to change and new life, like those who attacked the king's servants; then perhaps it is time to get in touch with your inner highwaymen, the person that realizes he does not have his act all together, who cannot claim to have a right of invitation to God's feast or even to be worthy of one. We are called to a feast today. A feast that is a picture of that future wedding feast with the bride and the lamb. We are gathered together as highwaymen, who do not presume to come to this table trusting in our righteousness, but in the king's never-failing property always to have mercy.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

16th Sunday after Pentecost

Verily I say unto, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. 

In the account of the fall of the human race in Genesis, Adam is asked by the LORD, Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat? God is of course asking the question not because he does not know the answer. The point is that God is giving Adam an opportunity to admit his fault before him. Not surprisingly Adam does not acknowledge his disobedience, but contrives a subterfuge for his disobedience. He tells the LORD, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. The audacity of sin is on full display in the sentence. Adam implies that his disobedience is somehow God's fault because he gave him the woman.

Like so many passages in the book of Genesis, the narrative is succinct but full of meaning and deep insight into the human condition. It is part of fallen human nature to seek to justify ourselves. Often even when people know that they have erred they will contrive excuses to try to deflect their guilt. Adam blames the woman. He blames the LORD for giving him the woman. He does not take responsibility for his fault. He does not own his sin.

Christianity is often the victim of popular caricatures of our faith. One such caricature is that Christians are those who pretend or imagine they are perfect. I do not even think that the goal of Christianity is moral perfection. No, genuine Christians know that perfection is not within our grasp as fallen human beings. A changed life can only be the gift of God. If you want to be a Christian, the principal characteristic will not be perfection which cannot be achieved in this life and in the life to come only as the gift of God. Rather, the characteristic of Christians in this world is that of repentance. But, in order to repent, there has to be an acceptance of real fault and guilt. The endless evasions, the stitching of fig leaves together and hiding amongst the trees, the blaming of God and others for our sins and faults, has to be cast off. This attitude is paralleled in steps four and five of the twelve steps which are to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and to admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Addicts—just like all human beings—tend to blame others. The whole point is to take responsibility and ownership. In biblical terms this is called repentance, and it means owning our past lives, not just the parts that we are proud of, and placing all of our lives in the light of the Lord.

Repentance is a motif that runs throughout the readings this morning. The book of Ezekiel was originally addressed to the exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar had removed from Jerusalem to Babylon. The prevalent attitude was that the exile was a judgment of God not for the exiles' faults but for the sins of their parents and ancestors. The exiles were angry at God because they thought they had done nothing wrong.  Hence, they quote the proverb, the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge. Ezekiel points out that they slipping back into Adam's subterfuge of blaming others rather than being honest about their real culpability. The exiles strive to justify themselves, but in so doing, they warp true justice. The Lord speaks through the prophet, the house of Israel says, the way of the Lord is not just. O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? God could have put these rhetorical questions to Adam: have I not been just in giving you the woman? Is it not, in fact, you who have unfaithful and unjust? Ezekiel's message to the exiles is one of repentance and new life. He tells them, cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. In other words, own your past, and God—not you—can make all things new.

Now, ask yourself a question, if repentance is the touchstone of the Christian life, is it easier to repent for those who know they have a checkered history or for those who fancy that they have achieved a measure of religious and moral refinement? The answer is obviously the former, and such an understanding illuminates the Gospel lesson this morning ,as well as all the Gospels in general. You see, the Pharisees, the outstanding religious people of Jesus' day, were not prepared to live into this repentance that all the prophets, including Jesus, preached. They could not admit and own their faults. In the final evaluation, however, they were like the son who told his father that he would do his errand but then failed to do it. They did all the right religious things, but missed the true heart of religion: compassion, love, care for the poor. On the other hand, publicans and harlots knew that they were poor before God, and so they were open to our Lord's message of repentance and new life. It was not a great leap for them to own their history before God and others, and in so surrendering to receive a new life. As the religious people of our own day, we need to hear in this lesson an admonition to forsake the self-justifying Pharisee inside us and to get in touch with the true publican and harlot within. We need to become the person who realizes that he is poor before God. Such a person is equipped for the true Christian life.

Despite the orthodox claim of Jesus' perfection, in him we see an example of what it is to be poor before God and not to justify one's self. In the Epistle lesson this morning, Paul exhorts the Philippians to humility, not thinking higher of one's self that he ought. In other words, having a sober estimation of who you really are not who you imagine yourself to be. He sets before them Jesus as the prime example of humility, in words that some scholars believe was an early Christian hymn: though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God something to be grasped but emptied himself. The part I wish to draw your attention to this morning is the statement, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. You see, though Jesus was innocent and free of every crime and offense, he did not attempt to justify himself before men. He did not argue with Judas that he was a good man and he should not betray him. He did not tell Pontius Pilate that he should acquit him. He did not tell the soldiers they were making a mistake. Rather, you see in him a total surrender to the Father and a self-offering for us his brethren. Though he could not personally repent of sin, he takes the sins of the world to himself on the cross. He does not turn away from the jeering crowds or the cruel soldiers, but says, father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Again, here is the call of God, to let go of the endless cycle of self-justification and surrender to God, offering ourselves in love to one another. It is the road of repentance, lined with honesty and transparency whose end is new life and communion with God and all the saints who are poor in spirit.