Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Advent 4

Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. 

I want to start my remarks with a quotation from the well-known hymn, O God, our help in ages past. The fifth verse opens with these words: time like an ever rolling stream bears all its sons away. Imagine for a moment a swiftly moving river. The current is strong enough that if someone were in the middle of it, it would carry him away. Time according to our hymn writer is like such a river. I think it is helpful metaphor upon which to reflect. In life you see a number of different reactions to the swift current of time.

One reaction is to attempt to get out of the river by swimming to shore. In a sense you are trying to achieve a certain timelessness, an immortality within time. There are those who, like the builders of the tower of Babel, want to make a name for themselves in this fleeting world. They want to build empires of wealth, status or fame in the worlds of business, industry or entertainment. Most who try to exit the river in this manner will live long enough to realize that the river is still carrying them along—they've outlived their fame and success and maybe have even outlived their desires.

A second reaction to the current of time is to attempt to swim against the current to go back in time to what is perceived to be a more pristine and better age. I am sometimes accused of being born in the wrong decade, but the truth is I have no romantic notions about an ideal past either in the church or our society. Any student of history knows that making an idol of an epoch quickly comes to ruin the more you learn about that epoch. People then were not that different from people today, either for better or worse. Those who fight against the stream of time generally are unaware or in denial about the world as it truly is. They are like Don Quixote trying to live by a code of honor that has been rendered obsolete, fighting windmills that are imagined to be giants. Old things are good because they are useful. That is why I think traditional liturgy is so valuable. Our use of traditional liturgy should not be a fetish for the past, but a recognition that our Anglican heritage of Common Prayer is not something that should be hung up on the wall as a mere historical specimen.

Perhaps the most frightening reaction to the river of time would be those who give in; they capitulate the current and are taken under the water. Many cases of suicide are like this, but there is a kind of suicide where biological life continues and we could call this waking death. Waking death occurs when one gives into fear and anxiety, like, for example, when one is always worried for yourself or your loved ones about what lethal ailment is going to strike. One can become so consumed by this fear that very little energy is given to thinking about how to live well with the time that one does have. There are other powerful fears that can strike as well, like the fear that life and one's current circumstances will never get better and that the sadness and loneliness which seem unending are in fact unending. All of these fears and arresting anxieties might be summed in one word: despair; it is a powerful and intoxicating drug, but one that is also lethal.

Using this metaphor of time as a river, I've suggested a few of the common reactions to this reality of time as a rolling stream: there are those who try to exit time through fame and earthly immortality—a contradiction in terms; those who try to swim against the current in a romanticism of time past; and finally those who despair of the current and stop swimming. There is an alternative to all of these reactions. The attitude of Mary in this morning's Gospel gives a suggestive solution. What if the river of time instead of being totally chaotic and unpredictable was actually under the control of a greater power, the providence of God? The Psalmist writes [the waters] go up as high as the hills, and down to the valleys beneath; * even unto the place which thou hast appointed for them. Thou hast set them their bounds, which they shall not pass. My friends, the Lord is actually the Lord of history, he has set the boundaries of time that it shall not pass. Chaos, uncertainty and coincidence are actually part of the complex tapestry of God's merciful and good providence. Don't misunderstand me: I'm not suggesting from the standpoint of faith that we will always and invariably understand why things happen in this world. But faith does give one eyes to appreciate the Lord's hand in the vicissitudes of life, and trust that though we will not always understand, in the long view of history and the light of eternity, the Lord will always be shown to have been good and just.

Christians are called to enter this river of time and allow it to carry us wherever it will, knowing that the as we trust in the Lord, he will care for us and do for us whatever is for our good. The period of waiting for the messiah seemed never ending to those who had to endure it. Again and again the prophets declared a time in which the Lord's judgement and mercy would be poured out on the nations. Over centuries, God's people waited in expectation and a degree of uncertainty: when would the Lord act? Were his promises come to an end? But then in the fullness of time, as Paul writes in this letter to the Galatians, God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law. Mary was willing to stand in the long chain of prophets and priests, saints and sinners who awaited faithfully for the Lord's appearance. Though her commission undoubtedly was unexpected and certainly would have not fit the mental image of a young Jewish girl's expectation for her future, yet in humble obedience she bows to the will of God for her: behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word. She was not trying to make a name for herself: all generations call her blessed because he that is mighty has magnified her. She was not trying to go back in time to a pristine age, but rather by her obedience she because a new Eve for all humankind. She did not despair of her future though she had to sacrifice the normalcy of a quiet domestic life in rural Galilee and forever wear the scarlet letter of having become a mother out of wedlock.

We too can live by the same kind of trust and surrender as Mary had. We do not have to fear time, to try to escape or swim against it. The Lord is inviting us to lay down our burdens; the overwhelming power of fear and our need to be in control. This is an invitation to live by trust. Its an opportunity to stop trying to escape the stream of time or fight against its currents or despair of its torrents, but to say to the Lord whatever may come, whatever he may call us to do, behold the handmaid, behold the servant of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Advent 1

The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. . . for now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed. 
                                                                     - Romans 13

I'd like to start off my remarks today with a question: do you think you need to be saved? Do you honestly and sincerely believe that you need help for your life to endure? The long season of Pentecost has drawn to a close, and the start of Advent puts the necessity of salvation before us. St. Paul poetically describes this reality, "The night is far spent, the day is at hand." Now what is salvation? And what is it from which we need to be saved? The Prayer Book identifies our enemies as 'the world, the flesh, and the devil', as we just heard in the Litany. The world is that part of human society that is in rebellion to God's gracious rule, ranging from the mammoth pornography industry to the abuse of the poor to the persecution of Christians in Africa and the Middle East. When the prayer book speaks of the World it doesn't mean the physical geography of our planet; rather, it refers to that part of human society which is in rebellion against the rule and reign of the Father—it is that impulse either collective or individual to live apart from God in our own light The traditional doctrine of the devil is that he is a fallen angel. He and his angels are also in opposition to God's rule, and although we may as materialists be prone to question the existence of the devil, chaos and evil in the world should give one pause: Think of the number of innocents murdered in the 20th century, a century of technological progress and human achievement. When we think about this and other evils, it is not difficult to believe that there are forces of spiritual evil in the world that seek to destroy God's good creation. Finally, the prayer book speaks of the flesh. The prayer book doesn't simply mean the body. It means that part of the human person that is fallen: like when you know the good you ought to do, but you give in to the opposite instead; or when we you are tempted to subject your ideals and morals to a selfish desire. It shouldn't surprise us that we our own enemy sometimes. Suicide is the trap door out of which one may exit life, but lots of other decisions one can make may not cause immediate death but do cause eventual death. These latter types of decisions blossom in addictions, divorces, and all kinds of figurative crashes, the fruits of which are an acute sense of alienation from God and others. The Bible put this stark reality in this way: "The wages of sin is death." Sometimes immediate death, sometimes eventual death.

The world, the flesh, the devil. These are that from which we need saving. Our prayer book emphasizes life as a battle in which we are under attack from these enemies. That is why there are two invariable collects or prayers for peace in both Morning and Evening Prayer. In these collects, one is not simply praying for the security of the state, since to the world peace often merely denotes the absence of war. Rather, the peace we ask God to give us, the peace we want for our lives is security from the world, the flesh, and the devil, as we try to navigate through these tumultuous waters of life.

Now one of the problems of progressive theology is that it does not adequately account for the human need for salvation. The existence of the devil is usually denied and explained as merely a facet of human psychology. A theologically progressive church informed first most by the standards and mores of the World decreasing looks like the Christian church and more like a social action committee or even worse, a dying fraternal organization. Progressive theology tends to minimize the reality and costliness of sin--the flesh--and speaks of sin as denying the image of God in ourselves and others. Reinhold Niebuhr, a 20th century Protestant theologian, was formed in the mold of this type of theology, but through his pastoral work in Detroit he come to the conclusion that progressive theology held a naive view of sin and was overly optimistic about the effectiveness of social action. Concerning progressive theology, Niebuhr wrote, "A God without wrath, brought men without sin, into a kingdom without judgment, through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." If we are honest with ourselves, the human situation without God is far more stark. We are in a battle which we cannot win without God's help and we need deliverance from the world, the flesh and the devil.
As we approach the darkest day of the year, we are reminded in this season of Advent of our need for a salvation and a Savior. Will you be like those in the day of Noah did not see the coming storm, but were "eating and drinking, marrying and given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark?" In other words will you live your life as if it were not a battle against the world, the flesh and the devil and in so doing surrender to the enemy. Or will you be like Noah who heard God's word to him and obeyed, entering the hull of ship while water swept over the face of the earth? The truth is that everyday we need God's help.  To borrow a metaphor from Gospel music: the Gospel train is coming, Jesus is the engineer, the conductor is shouting 'All abroad'. Will you get on board?

Now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

All Saints & Window Rededication

And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
                                                           - Genesis 28:17

Today we are rededicating our stained glass windows. Last year a specialist in stained glass care and preservation did extensive work on our windows, and many of you helped finance that work and bring it to completion. I am delighted to be a part of and witness to this effort. It is awesome to think that we have preserved these beautiful windows for the next generation. The more I've studied them, the more I am convinced that these windows are a treasure, a treasure that tells a story. These walls and windows tell a story of those that have preceded us in faith. In many historic churches, a graveyard surrounds the church. No one today would think to put a cemetery around a church—the temptation for churches these days is to peddle feel good religion that some thinkers have called therapeutic deism because it has a loose belief in God with the goal of making you feel better. Churches that were built with graveyards surrounding them were not designed to make the worshippers feel better but to put them in mind of the dead who had gone before them. They were faced regularly with the reality of human mortality. An acceptance of our mortality demands that one answer the questions: how shall we then live? How will our pilgrimage end? Will it find us following the good examples of those who have preceded us across Jordan's stream?

Though Trinity is not surrounded by a graveyard like our parent parish, Christ Church Shrewsbury, yet when we come within these sacred walls we are reminded of the faithful departed of this parish. There is the civil war captain, Samuel T. Sleeper, who was a vestryman of this church and who died on the field at Spotsylvania Courthouse, commemorated in a marble plague on the east wall. Then there is Herbert Tilton, a veteran of World War I commemorated in the window of a kneeling soldier before Christ. The windows records of Herbert that he was, and I quote, “A faithful Sunday School scholar, choir boy, and crucifer in this church until his enlistment in the U.S. army. Christ's faithful soldier and servant until his life's end.” This last line is a quotation from the baptismal service, and can also be seen chiseled into the front of the baptismal font. Herbert was 22 years old when he died on December 18, 1918. It was less than a month after the signing of the armistice the formal end to major combat in the war, which gives rise to speculation that perhaps he died of disease or an injury sustained earlier in the war.

The lily window near the back of the church tells another story. It was originally given in memory of Eleanor Currey MacKellar. The text in the window succinctly states that she “died July 11th, 1897 in her eleventh year”. It turns out that she was the daughter of the Rev. Robert Mackeller, rector of Trinity from 1892 to 1931, nearly four decades. It is hard for me to imagine how difficult it must have been for him to bury his own child. One might think that text of the window is too succinct, too formal, but to me, the flowers in bloom in the window say everything that needs to be said about a young girl whose life was tragically cut short. The real feeling is not in the words but in the images. Fr. MacKeller is remembered in a number of other windows including the three windows that are on the back wall towards the bell tower, featuring the ascending Lord Jesus and the angels who appeared with him on that occasion. The windows were given by the members of the guild of the golden rule in thanksgiving for the four decades of his ministry.

The story behind other windows is more elusive. Sometimes all we have are names, and this invites us to imagine what their story might have been, like the husband and wife who are memorialized in the nativity window. The husband died less than a month after his wife. Was he one of those who simply could not go on without his faithful companion and spouse? Similarly, the good shepherd window is given in memory of Mary Garrison Cole by her husband William Cole. Imagine the depth of love and devotion that could move a man to dedicate a window so beautiful and sublime.

This morning we are adding a new layer of meaning to our church building by the installation of the memorial plagues and the re-dedication of the windows. Memorialized in many of the windows are deceased parents, and in a few cases spouses of current members and friends of the congregation. Though these people still feel close to us, yet I imagine that those who come after us will know them simply by a name. Just as for many memorialized around our church, the story has been lost and all that is left is a name. Yet, in God, the story is never lost and the dead we memorialize we pray have their names written in the Lamb's book of life. This past Wednesday we commemorated the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude. Simon and Jude were two of the twelve apostles, but we know virtually nothing about them. Yet, their witness to the crucified and risen Lord mattered, and we know that it mattered because the church on earth was built and began to grow and continues to this day. Our own part and the part of those who have faithfully passed through these doors from week to week is not all that different. Posterity may only remember us as a name, but our faithful work in serving our Lord and building up this church will not be forgotten because this house will a visible testament of our faithfulness or, God-forbid, our faithlessness. The bricks and the mortar, the windows and the walls, will all tell that there were saints (who were also sinners) who faithfully said their prayers in this place and because it was the place where they said their prayers and worshipped the Almighty, they gave towards its upkeep. On this All Saints day, let us be thankful for the witness of all the saints who have gone before us, and especially those members of Trinity who have worshipped, prayed and adored their Lord in this place and so preserved this house of prayer. Let us pray that our Lord would give his Spirit that we might continue this labor to his greater glory and the building up of his kingdom, until we all come to that heavenly city, the city of light, in which there is no temple because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

St. Luke the Evangelist

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

Today, October 18, is the day in which St. Luke is commemorated in the calendar of saints in the Anglican tradition. Luke is remembered as the Evangelist, the author of the Gospel that bears his name, as well as the sequel to that 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—in Paul's letters there are a couple of references to Luke but little information beyond a name and occupation. 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 sympathy for a variety of people—there is a kind of humanism in Luke's portrayals. Noteworthy for his time, Luke has a special concern for women, Gentiles, the poor, and non-practicing Jews—called in the idiom of the day—sinners. In addition, 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 parable of the good Samaritan. Also only found in Luke's Gospel are the account of Mary's humble obedience to Gabriel's report 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. Luke reminds one of the sheer variety and diversity of people in the world.

Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying that the only certainties of life are death and taxes. During their lifetime, most will labor under a sickness of the body. Might we also add that to a certain extent sickness is a certainty of life. I would submit that virtually all of us labor under sicknesses of the soul, and that these sicknesses are much more intractable that diseases of the body. The Collect for the feast of St. Luke reminds us that Luke became Physician of the soul by virtue of writing his Gospel which leads us to a knowledge of the Lord Jesus who is the wholesome medicine for what ails us.

Now a sickness of the soul might sound rather vague so I'd like to offer a suggestive illustration of what I mean by such diseases. In the classic children's book The Little Prince—a book I've been quoted as saying that it is second only to the Bible—a little prince who is an inhabitant of outer space decides to leave his tiny planet and journey to earth. He principle motivation in leaving seems to be a kind of wanderlust—he is looking for something, but he doesn't quite know what. On his journey to earth he encounters a number of fanciful and humorous inhabitants of other planets. First, the Little Prince meets the absolute monarch whose planet has no inhabitant but himself. This king insists that he rules over the stars and galaxies, though the real extent of power is pretty much over himself. The Little Prince quickly leaves the king's planet, remarking to himself, “grown-ups are so strange.”
On the next planet, the Little Prince meets a very vain man, who insists on believing that the Little Prince has to come to his planet as an admirer. The vain man wants the Little Prince to clap for him so he can tip his hat “in modest acknowledge.” On a further planet the Little Prince meets a drunkard who tells the Little Prince that he drinks in order to forget his shame about the fact that he drinks. The Little Prince is perplexed by this circular thinking. The next planet is inhabited by a businessman who gives his whole and continuous attention to adding up a list of the stars he claims he owns. When the Little Prince tries to ask him a question, the businessman distractedly says “I have so much work to do! I'm a serious man” and quickly goes back to his counting. Then the Little Prince asks him what he does with his stars, the serious man says, “nothing. I own them. . . I manage them. I count them and then count them again. . . It's difficult work. But I'm a serious person!”

Collectively these portraits are a satire on how trite human existence can become when it is disconnected from imagination, joy and friendship. The king is working under the delusion of control and power; the vain man is trying to get a sense of self from the praise of others; the drunkard throws himself into a cycle of self-destructive behaviour that has no reason or purpose but to destroy; and the businessman thinks that  his wealth is the reason for his existence. Each of these are a kind of disease of the soul that, I would argue, we encounter everyday and may even be afflicted with. If you've ever acted like you were the absolute monarch of your own life or if you've ever tried to gain a sense of self-worth from other people, if you've ever put yourself in a cycle of self-destructive behaviour, or if you've ever behaved as if the purpose of your life was to accumulate more goods or more wealth, then you too have a sickness of the soul. The bad news is that nearly all of us have one. The good news is that we have a Physician of the soul in St. Luke and the healing of our Lord Jesus.

Our Lord, by his word and actions, gives the healing medicine that to be human is not to live by power and control, like the absolute monarch, but to be human is to live by the laws of surrender, service and love. He tells the disciples that, I come as one that serveth. To those who lack self-worth and have to feed on the praise of men to gain a sense of self, like the very vain man, our Lord comes that he might teach us to call God, our Father, so that as we learn to know God as our Father, we will know that we are his children and don't need to gain a sense of self outside that reality. Our Lord tells us that there is grace for those who are living in self-destructive behaviors, like the drunkard. One of the highlights of Luke's Gospel is the parable of the prodigal son who wastes his inheritance in riotous living and decides to return to his father as a servant only to be welcomed as a son by the father who runs to meet him. The father doesn't wait for the son to come to him but runs to meet him. Finally, our Lord comes to teach us that life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment. Money is not an end in itself, like the businessman thought. We are made to eat and enjoy the good things which the Lord serves us at his table, but our final happiness is in God alone.

Just like if you have a physical ailment, the smartest thing to do, as my wife has to remind me from time to time, is to go to the doctor. So we, whole have diseases of the soul need to go the Physician of our souls, who can make us whole. We need to turn to him in faith and repentance and trust, and say, precious Lord, take my hand.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

14th Sunday after Pentecost

There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him. 

In last week's Epistle, we heard St. Paul describe the armor of God. I noted how what Paul describes is mostly defensive gear, though there is a sword, the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. I suggested that the most important battles we fight are internal battles in the heart. In fact, most people spend an inordinate amount of time trying to fix the external circumstances of their lives, and imagining that if they could only change this one external thing, then they would have lasting happiness. They say, if I only had a better job, or lived in a different place or had a better spouse, then I would be truly happy. The problem with spending a lot of time on externals is that they change: material things break or decay; jobs are lost or eliminated; circumstances require a move elsewhere, and finally, the biggest insult of all to our sense of control, people die.

As we talked about at our Vacation Bible School for the fourth day of creation—the day in which sun, moon and stars are created—we live in a world of change, and this is what he heavenly bodies teach us because they are in perpetual motion. I read to the young people that famous passage from Ecclesiastes. You'll indulge me, and let me read it.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. (3:1-8)

Now, I remember as a young person being very perplexed by this passage. Was it really saying that I should hate, and make war and lose things, and even kill?? One day it dawned on me: this passage is descriptive not prescriptive. In other words, it is not telling you this is how to live your life—you've done a little loving, now it's time for some hate. Rather, it is telling us that we cannot prevent life from being this way: there will be times of gain, and there will be times of loss. There will be times of war and there will be times of peace. And much of this, even most of it, will be out of our control. If you're sitting around waiting to be happy until your externals of your life are perfectly arranged, you may have a long wait, and if those stars finally align in perfect coordination, it probably won't last.

This is why the Bible tells us that happiness does not lie in external things. Since we live in a world of change, our Christian faith tells us that true happiness is found in that which does not change, in truth, and joy, and love, and most of all in God. In this morning's Epistle, St. James writes of God as the one in whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In other words, if you put your full trust, hope and happiness, in the one who created you—the unique yet human creature that you are—if you let go of your sense of control and trust the one who calls you by name, has a plan for your life, and has redeemed you for his glory—if you can surrender in these ways, you will find lasting happiness in Him who does not change, and who will never disappoint or let you down. This may sound esoteric, but it comes, as the author of Ecclesiastes relates, from sustained reflection on the way the world is. Trust him who does not change, not the things that by nature change.

In the Gospel this morning, our Lord was confronting an institutional religion that had become obsessively concerned with externals. The Pharisees acted as if it were more important to wash your hands than to have a clean and pure heart. Our Lord instructs his disciples that the change needed in our life cannot and will not be effected by simply following more exactly a set of religious rituals. The problem, our Lord tells us, is within, in our hearts. Your biggest problem is not with the government or institutions, or your boss or that family member with whom you can't seem to get along: your main battle is in the heart. The ancient Chinese philosopher and statesman Confucius understood this. Five centuries before the time of our Lord he wrote that if you want to regulate the State, you have to order your family, and if you want to order your family, you have to look to yourself, and to look to yourself, you have to rectify the heart. What Confucius missed is that in our fallen condition, this fight to change the heart is a losing battle. Our basic instinct without God is to be selfish rather than sacrifice, to seek pleasure rather than the virtues of temperance and justice. At about the same time Confucius was writing, the prophet Jeremiah wrote, The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?

So here is one of the great mysteries of our faith: if we cannot blame our problems on outsiders or external circumstances, but have to look to our own hearts, and yet the Bible also says essentially that alone we are powerless to change the heart, how can the heart be changed? The Apostle Paul stated the problem in this way, I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

The real answer to this mystery is that we, of our power, are not able to cleanse our hearts, but the Lord can. In answer to the prophet Jeremiah's question, who can know the human heart, the Lord answers, I the LORD search the heart. And the prophets also speak about God taking out of us the heart of stone within, and putting within a heart of flesh. You don't need to try harder to affect this. You don't need to follow a set of rigorous religious disciplines. The one thing needful is to die to self and selfishness, to surrender your life, your heart to God. To say to the Lord, take this hard heart of me, with all its uncleanness and make it new. This morning, as we celebrate the making of a new Christian in Holy Baptism, we begin this journey for Mahkalah. We will pray that she will die to sin and selfishness and be raised to new life by the power of God; that her will not be spent in idle pursuit of control over things that she have no power to change, but it will be spent in finding those heavenly treasures that cannot perish like joy, love, gratitude and peace. You too can join again in offering yourself and your life to God. By this surrender, the darkness of the human heart will be put in the light of God. By this surrender, the uncleanness in the heart which our Lord describes will be washed and carried away by the water of the Spirit.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Independence Day Sermon

This morning, we remember as a body of Christians the birthday of our nation, and we give thanks to Almighty God for its founding and continuance. I want you to ask yourself a question this morning, am I a patriot? We live in a time that is very distrustful of such ideas, and many younger people have become disillusioned about politics and many other institutions. What I want to suggest this morning is that part of being a Christian is being a patriot. Now first I have clear away some misunderstandings about being a patriot. For example, I don't believe that being a patriot means that you have to blindly follow our elected leaders or be uncritical of their decisions. On the contrary, part of living in a democracy is the responsibility to be educated and informed about what is going on in our nation. We need to be reasonably informed about national, state and local governments and be able to name some of the key figures in those levels of government. It should also be said that to be a patriot does not mean that you have to hate every other nation that isn't ours. I happen to think that we live in a great nation, but it is also far from being infallible both historically and at present. To be patriot doesn't mean you have to blind to these things, but it does mean you have to open your eyes to its virtues, that are evident, for example, in the founding documents of this nation.

Consider for a moment the word patriot. Like many words in English it is derived from a Latin word pater, which means quite simply father. So you can began to understand what it means to be a patriot in that it is someone who recognizes and honors his fatherland. To put this in terms that might have more immediacy, consider the parent-child relationship. It is by definition a one-sided relationship because the parent cares for the child when the child has no ability to care for itself and certainly not to love the parent in return. A parent meets those physical needs for food and shelter and is responsible for the rearing of the child and so has to see that the child is educated and directed towards a vocation. In addition, the parent has to warn the child of all the lurking dangers that can ensnare us, and parents have the unenviable task to try to communicate this wisdom to young people who are naturally bent on thinking that they already know everything. All of these things result in the truth that children have a debt to their parents, and this is why the 10 Commandments enjoin that we honor our mother and father. We have a debt to them for all that they have done for us. The debt is not reduced or canceled even when we come to that maturity where we can recognize the faults and shortcomings of our parents.

Similarly, we owe a debt, albeit a different one, to the country into which we were born. If you enjoy the freedom to worship as your conscience directs you, and the freedom to move geographically and to advance your private welfare through hard work and healthy ambition, if you enjoy the benefits of public education or public services, like parks and roads, then your response should be a sense of gratitude which manifests itself in being a responsible citizen who takes an active part in civic life.
Perhaps the biggest reason Christians need to be patriots is that being a patriot of your earthly nation, teaches you how to be a good citizen of heaven. St. Paul tells us that our citizenship is in heaven. The Bible begins in a garden in a communion between God and a husband and wife. It concludes with a vision of anew city where the city itself is a temple. The citizens of this city are the redeemed offspring of that first couple. If we're going to learn how to be citizens of heaven, there is no better place to learn than in being good citizens, patriots, of our nation. God gives us this school in order that we may learn the virtues of tolerance and patience and love.

One of the concrete ways we can participate in this school of how to become a good citizen is by practicing civic virtues like industry, thriftiness and justice. Those ideas may sound hopelessly old fashioned, but I think they sound old fashioned because we've neglected them so much that they sound foreign, as if they belonged to our grandparents or great grandparents but couldn't possibly belong to us. We need to rediscover these virtues as a basis of our common life and part of the foundation for a good life.

There is a beautiful prayer in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, entitled a prayer for every man in his work. Among other things, the prayer asks for God to “Deliver us. . . in our several callings, from the service of mammon, that we may do the work which thou givest us to do, in truth, in beauty, and in righteousness, with singleness of heart as thy servants, and to the benefit of our fellow men.” There is a beautiful vision here that we've neglected or forgotten in the perpetual temptation to worship at the altar of mammon, the material wealth of this world. We can get caught up in the frenzy for utility and expediency and forget that we belong to a commonwealth where the welfare of all is to be sought. We can accept in a spirit of resignation the prevailing attitude to treat people as a means to an end, rather than as ends in themselves. As a society, we are tempted again and again to be entertained to death. But lest we despair, wisdom calls us as individuals to cultivate and return to those civic virtues which are the true source for the renewal of civilization in every generation. Today, let us pray for our nation. Let us repent of the ways in which we have put our own private good ahead of the common wealth. Let us pray that the Lord would renew our civilization in our time by the practice of civic virtues and that by perpetually practicing them, we may become fit and made ready to be citizens of that heavenly city.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Trinity Sunday

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost be with us all evermore. 

Today, Trinity Sunday is our feast of title. It is also serves as the crown of the church year, in that the whole sweep of the church year, from Christmas, to Good Friday, to Easter, and finally to Pentecost, is taken up and proclaimed by this special feast of the Trinity. It is the only feast of the church year of which I am aware that commemorates a doctrine, rather than an event or a person, and yet that point is misleading. In a sense, Trinity Sunday is meant to summarize the events that have been commemorated in the past six months, and this leads to the important point, that the doctrine of the Trinity is not something new that philosophers or theologians discovered in some remote labortory of speculative science. Rather, the doctrine of the Trinity is what God has revealed about himself in the advent of Jesus Christ and his saving work and in the coming of the Holy Spirit to be his representative.

Now on Trinity Sunday there will be many sermons trying to explain the Trinity. Many of the preachers will unintentionally promote heretical ideas in order to explain the Trinity. For example, many of you will have heard of the analogy that the Trinity is like water that can appear as ice, liquid, and vapour. However, ice, liquid, vapor are three states, and so this analogy suggests the ancient heresey of modalism which teaches that God has three different modes. It is like God has three different masks that he can wear, the Father mask, the Son mask, or the Holy Spirit mask. In a simillar way you may have heard of the analogy—attributed to St. Patrick—of a three-leaf clover: one clover but three leaves. The problem with that analogy is that the leaves form three parts of the one clover, and the doctrine of the Trinity is not that God has three parts. When I teach the confirmation classes with the youth, I like to tell them that God is not the peace symbol, a pie that is cut into three pieces. A common error about the Trinity in our own day is that the persons of the Trinity are three functions of God. This is implied by the popular gender-neutral substitute for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. The doctrine of the Trinity states that the Son and the Holy Spirit cooperate with the Father in the work of Creation, and this point is no less true of redemption and sustaining. If we want an image of the Trinity, St. Augustine of Hippo suggests that we look at man who, we are told by Scripture, is the image of God. According to St. Augustine, this image must be the highest part our human nature in our intellect. He goes on to argue that there is an image of the one in three in the way that the mind exists and understands itself and loves this existence. So there is mind, understanding which is the word of the mind, and love. Mind, understanding, and love, and these three are one. If that is difficult to grasp, it is only an image, says Augustine, not even the fullness of the Trinity.

One of the most helpful phrases on the doctrine of the Trinity comes from the lengthy 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.” To confound the persons is to blur the distinctions between the three persons of the Trinity and their role in salvation history, like the example of modalism. The persons of the Trinity are really distinct in their relations: the Son is begotten of the Father; the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. On the other hand, to divide the substance, is to emphasize the differences of the persons to such an extent that the result is a belief in three gods, like the image of God as three parts. The Tri-une God is one Lord, one Almighty, one Being that is not created, one Being that is eternal. This one phrase uproots most of the images of the Trinity that will be heard from pulpits today: “we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, Neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance.”

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 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 creating our own image of 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. Occasionally we get to witness or be part of such communities of love, but even so, the loving communion 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 and by 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).

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Easter Sunday

The poor committeth himself unto thee; for thou art the helper of the friendless.
- Psalm 10:16

What does it mean to be poor? Most often we think of those who suffer a lack of material resources. But there is a more expansive meaning to being poor that is hinted at by our Lord's words from the sermon on the mount in Matthew's Gospel, "blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God." The version of this statement that appears in Luke's Gospel simply states, "Blessed are the poor." Sometimes Matthew's record of the saying is said to be a spiritualizing of the statement as recorded in Luke. The thought is that Matthew is somehow softening the abrasiveness of the bare statement in Luke. The truth is that material poverty and spiritual poverty have a common result. Both types of poverty result in the need to trust in others and in God. In a sense, when you are poor, you reach the end of yourself. You have no material, no inner or spiritual resources. There is also a kind of poverty in sickness and weakness. A dear friend and mentor died a few weeks ago. He was a bull of a man, tall and strong. When he used a tool, it was like an extension of his hand. But in his final illness, he had very limited mobility, and was almost exclusively bound to his bed. The last time I saw him, he was in a wheel chair and I served as a human crutch to help into his car so that his wife could take him to a doctor's appointment. In a kind of second childhood, he was dependent on others for almost all of his needs. 

It occurs to me that the greatest poverty is in death, because as we die everything is taken from us. Although the order varies there are generally degrees in which life is taken from us in death. There is first I think a detachment from material things: we all know buying a present for an aging person can be almost impossible because generally they do not want anything. This detachment from things is followed by a loss of vigor and strength. Then there is the loss of privacy; finally the reality sets in that natural relationships will come to an end—in this sense, the poets speak of how death is a road that every one must walk alone. Finally, there is the end of desire. Poetically describing death, the author of the book of Ecclesiastes wrote "desire shall fail because man goeth to his long home." 
Our Lord knew the poverty that is found in death. By the time he comes to his crucifixion he had no possessions except for his clothing. When the cross was placed on him, his strength failed him, and we are told that Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry our Lord's cross. The tradition, as represented in the stations of the cross, tells of Jesus falling three times on his way to Calvary. A loss of privacy came as Jesus has his garments strip from him, and is crucified with just a loincloth on. While on the cross, he sees an end to his earthly relationships and commends his mother to the beloved disciple, knowing that he would not be there to care directly for her. Finally, he enters the loneliness of death itself. In all of this, our Lords commits and commends himself to God. It is in his passion, death and burial that the words from the Psalm acquire an added depth: The poor committeth himself unto thee; for thou art the helper of the friendless.Everything has been taken from him, even life itself, not unwillingly but for our sakes. 

The proclamation of the resurrection is that the poor who commits himself to God does not trust in vain, but in this complete trust and total surrender, God brings new and unending life. And while the resurrection is an historical event, yet it is not just history. Rather, the Christian proclamation is that this resurrection is the first sign of the new order God is establishing in our midst. His will is to make all things new, to heal the breach between him and us, and to restore us to one another. To live into this new and resurrected life we have to get in touch with reality that we are poor but this feels strange and foreign. You see, new and resurrected life, unlike many things of this world, is not something we can achieve, it's not something that we can buy, and or wield it under our control by a show of force or power. This new and resurrected is a gift as we die to ourselves and put our trust in God. We have to learn what it is to be the poor who commiteth himself to God. You have may not be on the brink of death, though as we know as least intellectually there are no givens or certainties with the when and how of death. Someday we will know the poverty of death. But even now we can put our hand on our spiritual poverty, the truth that we come to God empty-handed like children. Even now, we can realize that though we might not have a material poverty, we have an even greater poverty which is found in a dearth of joy and gratitude and an abundance of greed. Remembering that you are dust and ashes, will you commit yourself this day to the God who is a helper of the friendless, to the God who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead, and will also give us life and love and joy and gratitude as we commit ourselves to him? I'm afraid the alternatives are not that attractive: we can go it alone, pretending that we are rich and denying our poverty. But the God who created you and loves you and has redeemed you in Jesus, has also called and claimed you to this new life. The poor committeth himself unto thee; for thou art the helper of the friendless. Alleluia, alleluia, Glory be to God. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Sermon for the funeral of Edward (Sandy) Hughes III

Jesus said, in my Father's house are many dwelling places. . . I go to prepare a place for you.  

I feel tremendously honored to be standing here today to remember the life of my dear friend and mentor Sandy Hughes and also, in light of his death, to set forth the truth of God. I got to know Connie and Sandy after I came to the seminary in Ambridge. I was pretty hard up at the time, and Connie mentioned that Sandy needed help on Saturdays doing work on their historic home in Sewickley. For the next three years I worked for Sandy almost every Saturday. Gradually he began to share with me his passion for old trucks and wood-working: it started with turning bowls and making stools. What eventually sealed our bond was a chair-making course we attended in my final year of seminary. I always like to tell the story that when I came back to seminary, all I could think about was making another chair. I did eventually make another chair four years later; this time we were in Sandy's basement with him as instructor. At the present time, I have another chair that is in process, but this one will have to come completion without the guidance of the master.

Over the years I learned many things from Sandy, like the proper volume for listening to opera (loud). I also learned that there is a distinctive shape to most projects whether it is laying a tile floor, making a Windsor chair or building a congregation: there is the initial hump of starting the project followed by a burst of energy. In remodeling projects this part consists of the demolition. Next follows the long and seemingly endless middle. During this period, the possibility of completion is greatly questioned especially by the neophyte. Finally, there is the finish which demands a great deal of exertion to bring all the loose ends together into a completed project. This rhythm in the shape of a project was like second nature to Sandy so that he rarely was intimated or discouraged by a task. Anybody that ever worked next to the man eventually realized that Sandy always knew the way to the end or at least that there was a way to the end.  From Sandy I also learned the wisdom of silence. The biblical proverbs speak of a proper time and content for speech. Idle and ill-timed words are destructive. To put it even more strongly, sometimes provocation and foolishness needs to be met with silence. In the Christian tradition, we see this in our Lord especially at his trial. Sandy's silences could be unnerving at first, but gradually I understood they stemmed from his wisdom. I heard Connie say once that the way Sandy used it a tool, it was like an extension of his hand: I might add that the way Sandy used his words, they were like an extension of his person.

Today we gather to give thanks to Almighty God for the life and witness of Sandy and to commend his soul to God's never-failing love and care. We give thanks for his accomplishments in engineering and construction: his projects were mammoth and wide-ranging. We also give thanks for his witness to sobriety and his friendship with Bill W. Obviously I did not know him before he went into the program, but I strongly suspect that much of his quiet strength had its origin in the twelve steps. Today, we especially give thanks for Sandy's devotion as a father and grandfather. His daughters and especially his grandchildren in my observation gave him more joy than anything. Connie, Jess, and Corrie, God bless you for the many seen and many more unseen ways in which you cared for him in his final illness. As a friend recently reflected, there is a kind of poverty in weakness and sickness, but your loving care meant that he was never abandoned to that poverty.

Today, let's be honest, we are in great deal of shock and sadness at a life that seems to have been prematurely cut short. The prayer book reminds us of the uncertainty of life with these sobering words: in the midst of life we are in death. It is fair to say, I think, that our hearts are broken—everywhere we turn there is heartache. In the church year we are in Lent. One of the themes of Lent is penitence, and every year on Ash Wednesday, the church recites Psalm 51, the great Psalm of penitence. In it, the Psalmist says, The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise. In the wider context of the Psalm, the Psalmist is reflecting on the fact that God does not accept empty religious ritual. The Psalmist realizes that the true heart of faith is not in the outward forms—in this case animal sacrifice—but in a heart broken and consecrated to the Lord. One might wonder why does the Lord seem to value so much a broken and contrite heart? Is it that he wants us to be sad and unhappy? No, it seems to me that when the heart is broken, then it can be filled up with love. The Bible says that we have hearts of stone. As long as we do not taste what the Bible calls the bread of adversity, we will be unable to empathize with others who sorrow or suffer. Once those hearts of stone have been broken, then the love of God can come and fill them up. And this is the pattern of the Bible. Those who have been broken and have confronted sorrow are the ones that find themselves consecrated to God in a particular way: consider Moses who in his youth and vitality is cast into exile away from his people, or Jeremiah who is called to prophesy to a people who would not hear or Mary Magdelene who has her life set a new course because of her relationship with the Lord. In each case a heart of sorrow and grief is transformed into a heart that burns with the fire of love for the Lord and for his people. The author of the epistle to the Hebrews speaks of how suffering perfected the Lord Jesus as our high priest. In rejection and sorrow and brokenness, his heart of love shines as if in the darkness. Consider some of his last words from the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” “Woman, behold thy son. Behold thy mother.” “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” The wounded heart is the heart that can be filled with love.

In our Gospel today, the Lord Jesus speaks of going before his disciples, before us, to prepare a place. He says, in my Father's house there are many rooms. The older translation read in his Father's house, there are many mansions. Neither is exactly right. Jesus is not promising a large house nor is he saying that you'll get your own room at the heavenly hotel. The Greek word used here is related to the verb abide that Jesus uses again and again in John's Gospel, and perhaps most famously with these words: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit.” So, when our Lord speaks of his Father's house, he says that in that house there are abiding places, or to paraphrase, spaces in which we have communion with God.  While the fullness of that communion is promised in the greater life, there is also the implication that this communion is for here and now. Our Lord says I go before you to prepare a place for you that where I am there ye may be also. When our Lord goes to the cross, he creates this dwelling place of communion with his Father. You see, even while on the cross he is still in communion with his Father. It is the truth of our Lord's crucifixion that he takes the Father with him into that time. The witness of the Psalms is that the speaker addresses God in the midst of suffering and distress. Empty platitudes or pious aphorisms are no where to be found. As Christians, we recognize that God is present in light and beauty and happiness. But the mystery and power of our faith is that, as our Lord was in communion with God on the cross and offered that sorrow and pain back to God, so we can by faith recognize that God is working in the darkness and accidents and grief. Our grief finds meaning and consolation in the one who asks, behold and see, is there any sorrow like unto my sorrow?

On this day, let us offer our grief to God. He does not ask us not to be sad or to pretend that everything is okay. What he asks us is to allow him to come into our hearts, to be with us in sorrow and pain. He asks us to loosen our grip on what the future might bring and in so surrendering, to open ourselves up more to love. On this day, we commend our beloved brother to that finished work of the Lord Jesus. And I, in the words of St. Paul,  commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Passion Sunday

Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. 
                                                                 - St. John 12:24

The Gospel lesson this morning comes from one of the final public teachings of our Lord before his arrest and trial. The Greeks, we are told, come in search of Jesus. They are curious about him, but they do not understand the true heart of his mission which is not to amass followers but to walk in the way of love, even when this love would take him to the cross. Jesus tells his disciples a kind of parable: except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone, but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. Of course, our Lord is speaking of his own sacrifice; he dies our death and takes our punishment on himself. In so doing, he becomes the first of a race of human beings who have been re-created in this new Adam. By using this image of a seed put into the ground, our Lord also suggests that parables of God's kingdom are all around us. The cycle of death, rest and rebirth that is the basis of the seasons is a sign of truth of God as revealed in Christ. The statement also reminds us that love and death go together. In many ways I am a Christian today because when I read this in high school, it struck a nerve and I realized that love cannot be a generic love for humanity but has to be sacrificial love in which we die to ourselves to serve the good of another. To put it in its simplest terms, to love is to die. As long as there is no death to self, human relationships will be valued for what they can give or what comfort they provide.

Following on this idea of the relationship between love and dying, I want to look at the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan, using our Lord's saying in John to understand more deeply this parable. The setup for the parable is that there is a man who is beaten and robbed and then left for dead on the side of the road. There are two men of religion who pass by the injured and dying man because, as we will see, they do not want to die. Then along comes a Samaritan man, who, contrary to every expectation, rescues and cares for the beaten man. In this Samaritan man's act of love there are three deaths.

The first death is in the form of a death to prejudice and social taboo. You see, Jews and Samaritans just did not associate together. There was a long history of antipathy and divisiveness that went all the way back to the original divorce between the nation of Israel after the reign of Solomon. The two succeeding kingdoms of Judah and Israel frequently fought one another for territory and power, and this discord continued up until the time of our Lord. Perhaps most infamously the Jews destroyed the Samaritans temple in 120 BC. The idea of Jews and Samaritans interacting was taboo in our Lord's time, and it would have been scandalous for a Samaritan to touch and care for a Jew. The Samaritan had to die to prejudice and anger and ill-will. He had to let go of the idea that when God commands us to love our neighbor, by neighbor is meant the person who is like me, comes from my same social class, has the same amount of education as I have, has the same religious and political views. The 19th century Scottish novelist and theologian George MacDonald wrote that, A man must not choose his neighbor: he must take the neighbor that God sends him. . . . The neighbor is just the man who is next to you at the moment, the man with whom any business has brought you into contact. The Samaritan in dying to prejudice and ill-will had the definition of who his neighbor is opened up in this expansive way.

The second death that the Samaritan met was the death of revulsion to blood and filth. We are told that, unlike the priest and Levite who pass by on the other side of the road, the Samaritan goes directly to the man: Jesus says, when the Samaritan saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast. The sight of blood and excrement and filth can provoke in us strong reactions. They can easily make us gag or feel faint. The natural human reaction to such things is to run away. Love calls us, however, to die to our revulsion, to remember that we ourselves are but dust and ashes, and that, not to put too fine of a point on it, a time is likely to come when we will being lying helpless in our own filth, and we will have to depend on the love of another.

The third death of the Samaritan was that of dying to our instinct for self-preservation. Again we are told that the Samaritan took the wounded man to an inn where he put him in lodgings and agreed to pay for his care. Jesus says, the Samaritan brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. Two pence, far from being the equivalent to two pennies, was about two days' wages. We are not told if the Samaritan had relations for whom he had to care, but two days pay is a significant loss not to mention the promise of additional money to see the man to health. But all of this is not the focus of Samaritan because he is driven by love which causes him to die to these concerns of self-preservation. In feeling our instinct for self-preservation, we can often rationalize and say things like, you don't want to give so much away that you hurt yourself. On the contrary, we can be secure in dying to the instinct of self-preservation because we know that God is our provider and he is the one who gives us life, not money or material or reputation, as much as those things can lure us into the false confidence that the they are our security.

So, to sum up, in the love of the Samaritan we see three deaths: the death to prejudice and social barriers, the death to revulsion; and the death of the instinct for self-preservation. It is not surprising that our Lord's love takes a similar shape. In him we see a death to prejudice and social barriers. He associated with sinners, and Samaritans and even some Gentiles. But the greatest barrier that he crossed was that between God and humanity. St. Paul writing of Christ's humility said that, though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, [and was] born in the likeness of men. In his love, our Lord died to the revulsion of blood and filth. He touched lepers and those who were unclean who in that society would have been like untouchables. But he also overcame this revulsion in a spiritual sense, by not turning away from sinners, those who are dirty because their souls are devoid of joy, gratitude and love. Rather, he came to make these whole by his touch. Finally, our Lord died to his instinct to self-preservation by taking to himself the vulnerability of a small child in a stable in a remote outpost of the Roman Empire. This surrender reached its natural conclusion when he gave himself away so much that it led him to the cross. The instinct for self-preservation was answered by this ultimate sacrifice of love.

My question to you this morning is, Who is the neighbor who is challenging you to die to your prejudices, to die to your revulsion, to die to your instinct for self-preservation? We can avoid this neighbor, pass by the other side, but we will remain alone. But if we die, we will bring forth much fruit for the Lord.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

5th Sunday after Epiphany, On Prayer

And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, he went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed.  

We all know that we need food to live. If you ever gone without, you quickly realize just how fragile and weak human existence really is. When you're fasting, you feel tired and inert. The body lives by food, and this is fact we all know. In a similar way, the soul lives by prayer. Now that statement seems less obvious, but we should take a cue from our Lord, who in the Gospel lesson, goes apart from the crowds and even from the disciples for a time of prayer. He has both divine and human natures, and when we look at him, we see the perfection of our nature. We might suppose that he did not need prayer—after all, isn't he God? Yes, but he is also truly human in every sense of that word. So, in him, we see that to be human is not only to need food but also to need prayer, and this is part of the symbolism of Holy Communion. We have these young people this morning making their first Communion. Communion is a kind of visual assertion that when we gather together to praise God, to hear his word, and to say our prayers, this feeds the soul. This morning I want to say something about what prayer is and secondly why it is important.

When we think of prayer, we usually think of petitionary prayers. Someone is sick and needs to be healed. There is an unpaid bill or sudden unemployment, and God's help is needed. It is good that we take these requests to God. We do so in obedience to the mandate of Scripture: let your requests be made known unto God and the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds (Philippians 4:6-7). But prayer does not solely consist of petitions. Prayer, whether corporate or individual, is a turning of the mind and affections to God. Essentially it is an internal act. This is why, paradoxically, you can come to church and not pray at all. Imagine a scenario—it is not hard to do; we have all done it—in which you let your mind wonder during the entire service and don't ever think about God. Similarly, if prayer is about turning the mind and affections to God, then it is possible that an act like reading the Bible can be prayer and also can be totally devoid of that spirit of prayer. On the one hand, one can read the Bible as of interest for literary or historical reasons. You can read it like any other ancient text, a Gilgamesh or The Odyssey. You might even feel after reading it that you had connected with the human spirit in some way, but it would certainly not be a communion with the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, one can approach the Bible as God's word, and when you read it ask God to speak personally to you and to your particular situation. Reading the Bible in this kind of way is like prayer because you are trying to have a kind of conversation with God.

Again, if prayer is turning the mind and affections toward God, prayer can obviously consist of words either extemporaneous or according to a written form, as long as your extemporaneous prayer isn't simply a sermon to the others who are present and as long as the form does not simply become empty rote. At the same time, prayer can be without words, and this is what the mystics speak of as contemplation. Contemplation is, in part, the conscious awareness of God's presence wherever you are and whatever you are doing. A few years back, I knew an older man who had done some awful things while warden of his church. One day he heard a message about God's presence, and it all of a sudden struck him that, as he put, he had taken Jesus on some bad trips. God's presence is always present: do we acknowledge it?

So this broadly speaking what prayer is, but you might ask why should I pray? The reason why you should pray has everything to do who God is and who we are. Article 1 of the 39 Articles, the classic statement of Anglican belief and doctrine, states that “THERE is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things both visible and invisible.” This means many things, but one of the most important things that it means is that God does not change. God is everlasting, eternal, the same yesterday, today and forever. He does not have passions. In contemporary idiom we would say that God is not driven by emotions, in the way that you or I could be driven by anger or sadness or even euphoria. All of these are fleeting states of mind, that can and do cloud our judgement. That God does not change is a prominent teaching of the Bible: Isaiah tells us, The Lord is the everlasting God (40). Moses writes that God is not a man that he should change his mind (Numbers 23:19), and St. James in his Epistle speaks of the Father of lights with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning (1:18).

All of this is in sharp contrast to what we see in ourselves and in the world. Even for relatively healthy people, emotional states and attitudes can change rapidly. A sudden death can put us in mind of the uncertainty of life. A sudden sickness reminds us of how fragile life is. Material things decay and break down. Anybody who has ever owned a house or a car knows this. You never get to the point where you say, the work is done in maintaining this property. It never stops. In the midst of death, decay, and destruction, we need to be reminded that there is something, or rather someone who does not change or decay. The way our gradual hymn puts all this is with these words, we blossom and flourish, like leaves on a tree, then wither and perish, but naught changeth thee. I believe that we have a natural desire for God, in that we have a hunger for things not to change. Think of the awful feeling when a precious heirloom breaks, or an institution self-destructs through feuding, or a loved one passes away. In each case we did not want to see an end, and, if we're honest, did not think there would be an end. In such a state, we have to be able to raise our eyes above these changing things and to look at God who does not change. The fact is, if you do not have prayer, your life will move from one loss to the next, from one heartbreak to the next. I heard someone say recently that Morning and Evening Prayer will save your life. It might at first sound like an exaggeration, but the truth is that prayer, this turning of the mind and affections to God, is the one thing that will sustain you through the tempest of life. This food that is prayer is offered to us at all times, but it is given in an acute and special way, when we gather together for corporate worship. Maybe this morning is the time to turn the God who does not change and who loves you with an abiding and unfailing love?

Friday, January 30, 2015

Conversion of St. Paul

And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight.

In last Sunday's lessons, the common thread that tied the lessons together was the idea of God's calling. In my sermon, I pointed out how most of us think of our lives, including our faith, in terms of a narrative with self at the center. Genuine faith is born in us when we recognize that God has called us, even called us by name like the prophet Samuel or one of the Lord's disciples. This calling is not, in general, with an audible voice, but the recognition that God is the one who initiates the communion and fellowship that we can have with him. In other words, to paraphrase our Lord, it is not you who has chosen him, but he who has chosen you. If God has called you, all the sudden the self is not at the center but God is. The Lord says through the prophet Isaiah, Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

In this commemoration of the conversion of St. Paul, we have yet another instance in which we hear the call of God. God is the acting subject, and Paul is the object. In our passage, Paul hears the Lord say, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? All of this suggests that at the heart of our faith is a call to radical conversion. Now, you might ask, what is conversion? The way the Bible answers this is with the straight forward metaphor of death followed by new life. By death, we mean a turning away from what the prayer book calls the world, the flesh and the devil; it is to reject the impulse to live apart from God, to live by our own light, and to live apart from others. As we die to these things, we are born anew to the kingdom of God and are transformed into the image of our Lord. We live in communion with God, putting our lives in his light and seeking reconciliation and peace with all men. This call to conversion, furthermore, is really for everyone. There are some religious people who are content with their religiosity and a religion of comfort. Such a religion affirms every prejudice and opinion you already have. It tells you that you don't have to change, you just have to embrace the true you. On the other hand, there are religious enthusiasts, who treat conversion as something for those people, that is what are perceived as the unconverted. They fail to realize that conversion is a life-long awakening. There are always areas of our lives that we have not yet put in the light of the Lord. There are always ways in which we are cold or indifferent to the word of God. Hence, the call to new life never really ceases, and this is why, we make a confession of sins every time we have gather for Communion or worship because conversion is not a one-and-done kind of thing.

The commemoration of Paul's conversion is unique in the church calendar; the other saint's days generally are supposed to coincide with the date of their death or martyrdom. Paul's conversion represents an important turning point in the history of the church, as Paul would become the apostle to the Gentiles. We can also see in Paul's conversion a kind of prototype or model for our own conversion. There are three points about his conversion that I want like to point out.

First of all, there is a judgment in this conversion: the Lord asks, Saul, why do you persecute me? Normally, when we think of judgment, we think of condemnation. This is because this is the judgment we witness most often in the world. The judgment of condemnation says you have done badly, therefore I do not love you, and you are not lovable. The judgment of God is different. It is a grace-filled judgment, which says you have done badly, but I love you nevertheless; you are lovable because I have chosen to love you and nothing can undo that decision. What God does in judging us is tell us the truth about ourselves and the world; in most instances, it is a truth we do not want to hear, and so often it has to take the form of a confrontation. Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? The Lord, in a sense, is staging an intervention. The Lord does this to us as well, in every moment, if we will just hear his voice. It is a voice of judgment, but also, an invitation to new life, as it was with Saul. Saul's name is changed to Paul because this judgment has been an invitation a new life, a new way of being.

The second observation is that this judgment and confrontation leads to Paul's blindness. The loss of eyesight has to be one of the most frightening handicaps. Imagine not being able to see where you are going, not to see others' faces, not to be able to read a book or watch a sunset. Paul's sudden loss of sight means that he has to trust others for everything: to guide him the remainder of this journey, to search out lodging, and even to search out Ananias. The point here is that in conversion we are called to surrender our self-willed and self-directed lives to live instead by faith and trust. We are not meant to live alone, either apart from God or one another. In conversion, we learn to trust again, like a child, and I think this precisely what our Lord means when he says that you must become like a little child to inherit the kingdom of God: children live unconsciously by trust that others will care for and nurture them. The invitation here is to get out of the business of being the manager and director of the show called my life, and to take your place in the communities in which God has placed you and to live with a sense of trust that you are God's child.

The third and final observation is that Paul's blindness is only temporary. He is given his sight again, but it is clear that this is a new vision. In conversion, we are called to look at the world in a new way, with the eyes of God. When we heed to call to new life, we are going to look at the world in a new and probably different way that our peers. In some ways, this vision might be like seeing color for the first time. Your heart might be filled unexpectedly with joy and gratitude. On other hand, this new vision might be like seeing that the emperor's new clothes are no clothes at all. While the masses chatter on about a perceived truth, you may find yourself in the lonely place of seeing something quite different.

These three marks of conversion, judgment, blindness, and new vision, are at the heart of Paul's and our conversion. Turning to such a conversion can be scary, but in it we are promised peace and joy and new life, and in the end, it is not about our initiative, but about God's loving call to us to turn to him and receive this new life.