Sunday, November 30, 2014

1st Sunday in Advent

Thou hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities.

With the first Sunday of Advent we come to the beginning of a new church year. Just as with the beginning of the secular year, we are called at the beginning of the church year to make resolutions in good faith and to rekindle our minds and affections for the things of God. The church year begins on the sober note of Advent, one of two penitential seasons of the church year. In Advent, we recall the three comings or Advents of our Lord Jesus, his first coming in the flesh in the stable in Bethlehem; his second coming in glory which we await with hope; finally his coming into our souls. The traditional Gospel for this Sunday is the account of Jesus cleansing the temple which is a perfect image for how he comes into our souls. We are to be the temple of the Holy Ghost, and every thing in our lives that is not godly he demands we surrender. He casts out that which is not of him. It is not simply enough that we do the right things externally, he tells us that we need new hearts. In the book of Ezekiel, the Lord says that he will remove the stoney hearts of his people and give to them hearts of flesh. He wants, in other words, to take every thought captive for Christ and to direct our love and affections to that which is good and noble and beautiful.

The truth is that so often, instead of choosing that which is good and noble and beautiful, we chase that which is bad and harmful and destructive. When it comes to sin, you see, most are not that different than from the alcoholic: we just cannot help ourselves. The addict will almost always say that he wants to quit; he is not proud of his behavior; yet he finds himself powerless to resist his hunger for alcohol. So too, rarely are we proud of our sin; we know it is destructive, and yet we keep returning to it. One of the axioms of theology is that sin is its own punishment. Sometimes we witness this firsthand with our children. They make a poor choice and the result of that poor choice is something painful or uncomfortable. The prophet states the truth of this axiom when, in speaking to the Lord, he says, “Thou hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities.”

Many of us are likely to excuse ourselves for our sins. One definition for sin is simple transgression of God's law. When we speak of God's law, we usually mean the Ten Commandments, but how do our lives actually measure up if we take serious inventory of the ways we have broken these commandments. The first two commandments are about giving God his due and not committing idolatry. Now the common conception of idolatry is that it has to do with bowing down and worshiping images and statues. That is of course idolatry, but it is not the full extent of idolatry nor even the grossest kind of idolatry. Idolatry is anytime one gives to something or someone that is not god that which is due to God. When our greatest hope is for material goods or a perfect family or worldly success we are giving to what is not god what is due to God. When we think that some creature can make us truly happy, we are falling into the same trap. Idolatry then is far more common that we might be apt to think. In fact, John Calvin wrote that the human heart is an idol factory. The third commandment prohibits taking the name of the Lord in vain. This fairly well covers both cursing and hypocrisy, hypocrisy being when we pretend to be something that we know we are not. The fourth commandment is about keeping holy the sabbath day. We might ask ourselves is Sunday set aside as a day dedicated to the Lord, a kind of first fruits of our time? The fifth is about honoring our parents, which I think can be extended to all the authorities to which we are rightfully subject. The sixth is about not committing murder. O good, you might say, finally one I am not guilty of, but Jesus says that if we bear anger toward a brother or say 'you fool' to a fellow human being, we are guilty of breaking this law also. I don't think I need go any further; we are all guilty, and we are probably feeling like the Jews who wept at the reading of the law by Ezra because they realized how far astray they had gone. The bad news is that the verdict has come in and we are all guilty before the Judge.

In Advent, we should think about what are known as the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, hell. We know that when our Lord Jesus returns, he will not find us perfect or without sin. The one thing he does ask us to do is to surrender to him our sins. You see, a lot of people want to cling to their sins. They are not ready to give them up. They are like St. Augustine who in his Confessions wrote, Lord, give me chastity, but not yet. The worst imaginable thing is that the Lord would hand us over to these sins, to give us into the hands of our iniquities. In the collect for Advent, we ask God to “give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness.” It is time to open our hands, time to let go of our sin and rebellion against God and to open the doors of our hearts to let the master come in and cleanse his temple.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

Cast ye out the unprofitable servant into outer darkness.  

One of the most comforting messages of the Bible is that no injustice will escape the judgment of God. All of the lessons this morning highlight this affirmation of Scripture, as well as emphasizing the immediacy of this judgment. Zephaniah, like many of the Old Testament prophets, speaks of “the day of the Lord,” a day of reckoning in which the Lord will give to each according to his desserts. In the Epistle, Paul speaks of the day of the Lord as coming like a thief in the night; the Lord's return will be swift and unexpected. Finally, in the Gospel lesson, our Lord describes in a parable the final judgment; the parable describes an accounting for entrusted goods at the return of the rightful owner of those goods

The first thing that needs to be said about this parable is that the talents referred to are a measure of weight that was used in the ancient world for precious metals. Basically the owner entrusts his money to his servants; in modern terms they might be thought of as day traders. So the parable is representing the shrewdness of the servants with their master's money. It would be a mistake to conclude that the parable is basically about financial stewardship.

Let me explain. We all know that we come into this world entirely dependent on others for our care and nurture. In fact, we don't even have a choice about being born, and for many years, we are dependent on the love and care of others to provide for all of our needs, from the basic needs for food and shelter to the more subtle but no less necessary things like human interaction and conversation which allow for the development of speech. From a theological perspective, we would say that our entire lives are dependent for their origin and continuation on God. Everything we have and are is dependent on others and in the final estimation all is dependent on God alone.

What is interesting about the servants in the parable is that they have no property of their own. They are not told to go out and build a fortune out of nothing. The parable would have had a very different message had it been about many of our forbears who came to this country with nothing and by hard work and discipline achieved great success. Such a story would be inspiring, but it would not be good news. The servants do not have anything of their own. They trade what they have received. This is an honest assessment of the human condition. We have our origin in God. We owe our birth to our parents. We owe our eduction to our parents and teachers. Should we have it, we owe our good health to doctors and the Lord's care. Our response to all this really should be an immense sense of gratitude. There is a beautiful prayer of thanksgiving in the prayer book that probably many of you know. It states this truth in a beautifully poetic way: we bless thee for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life. But as Christians we have even more than these things: we have the knowledge of God's abundance grace and the power of faith to hold us through all of life's trials. The prayer goes on to say, but above all, [we bless thee] for the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. 

Occasionally, people will ask questions like, if Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, the only way to the Father, what will be the eternal fate of the native, half a world away, who has never had occasion to hear the Gospel? My friends, I have much greater concern for the bishops and ministers of our church who have been entrusted with so much; some of whom cannot state with sincerity or faith the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have no desire to be a controversialist, but I am very dismayed at how our Gospel witness is undermined when Christian leaders speak of Jesus as a way, or my way to God, as if our faith were a decision of expediency or convenience rather than the life-preserver thrown by God to us in the midst of a life-and-death struggle.

We have been given much; our life and being, our health and continuance, access to immeasurable grace and love. The parable and the other lessons remind us that we have to give account for what all this, and the judgment of God is imminent. We know cognitively, even if we don't apply it practically, that we can die at any time. What God demands of us is not that we magically produce quarters out of ears or dollars out of empty hats, but that we open our hands in surrender. You see, the two servants did not pretend that the talents were theirs. We hear no report that they were particularly anxious to guarantee the return of the investments. We know that investments by nature have a measure of uncertainty. Those two servants opened their hands to put into trade that which was not theirs anyways. It was the third who thought he needed to cling to it, in a futile attempt at self-preservation. It is the third servant who represents the solitary way, the fallen instinct to go-it-alone, apart from God and others. When we tell God and others, I don't need you, we are essentially like this third servant, clinging to our talent. The first two servants represent the way of surrender; giving away what isn't yours anyways. It is the way of love and self-sacrifice, but paradoxically the way to fruitfulness and abundant life. Love is the only thing that does not diminish when given away; in fact, it grows. My friends, how will the master find us: clinging to that sole talent, or surrendering what he has put into our hands for his purposes?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

All Saints

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.  

Most people are very confused about Christian holiness. They think that to be holy is to be perfect and to be uber religious. Of course, in the world, the people that think they are perfect and are uber religious are normally some of the most hypocritical and toxic individuals. For this reason, some are actually driven away from Christianity because the mental picture they have of it is of people who are pretending to be saints. True Christian holiness is something quite different. If you examine the lives of those individuals whom everyone agrees lived like saints, like Mother Theresa, it is interesting to notice that they never talk about how much better than are becoming. In fact, with genuine saints, there is an increasing consciousness of sin and unworthiness. The road of Christian holiness is  on the one hand to plumb the depths of the darkness of the human heart and our capacity for despair apart from God and each other, while on the other hand, growing in the knowledge that we belong to the Lord Jesus, we have been redeemed by his blood and by being a new Adam he has claimed us as his offspring. You see, the Gospel proclamation is that we are God's children by virtue of our trust and faith in Jesus Christ. In the opening of John's Gospel, we are told, “To as many as believed in him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God.” As adopted children of God, the Lord Jesus is our elder brother. He gives to us his holiness and righteousness. Holiness is not something we can manufacture by our efforts, but something we receive as we acknowledge our sins and surrender to him as Lord.

This is precisely why we can have a feast of All Saints. It isn't simply laziness on our part because we don't want to honor each one with a separate feast day Rather, we are acknowledging that the saints belong together. The saints belong together because of whom they belong to and whose holiness they exhibited in their lives. It was his holiness that they showed forth in humility; it was his strength that they showed forth in their weakness; it was his grace that they showed forth in their insufficiency.
And inasmuch as we, my brothers and sisters, are humble; inasmuch as we are weak; inasmuch as we are insufficient, we have the grace to acknowledge that we belong to this Lord. There is nothing in us that can make us holy, but if we are marked as his then we are holy. And we are marked as his, when we are baptized, when we receive Holy Communion. These outward signs indicate the spiritual grace that we have to belong to him. He is one Christ, and all saints belong to him, whether in heaven or in earth. And every time we gather at this table, we believe that are joined to him and ask that “he may dwell in us, and we in him.” All those saints that have gone before us, the ones who are known and admired, as well as the many more who are remembered only by a few with cherished memories and stricken hearts, and even those saints who have been forgotten, they too are joined with us in Christ in our worship of God Almighty. As one of the classic hymns of our tradition states, we are separated from the saints at rest, only by the narrow stream of death. In this banquet of life, we are in put in mind that our communion with all the saints who have gone before us is established in God and in his Christ.