Thursday, November 3, 2016
GRANT, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that the words, which we [will hear] this day with our outward ears, may through thy grace be so grafted inwardly in our hearts, that they may bring forth in us the fruit of good living, to the honour and praise of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This morning, we are using the liturgy for the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion from the English Book of Common Prayer first authorized in 1662 and still the authorized version of the Book of Common Prayer in England today. One of the reasons that this date was settled on to use this liturgy is because it falls on what some Protestant groups call Reformation Sunday. On the 31st of October, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, and it is this date that is usually remembered as the start of Reformation. In posting those theses, Luther was inviting debate about a host of different church practices which he perceived were at variance with the Bible. In the opening theses, Luther argued that “when our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said 'Repent', He called for the entire life of believers to be one of penitence. The word cannot be properly understood as referring to the sacrament of [confession]. . . [and] the pope himself cannot remit guilt, but only declare and confirm that it has been remitted by God.” Luther was protesting the teaching of the church that forgiveness could only be obtained through making a confession to a priest and that the priest was given power to forgive and remit the sin (or not). Before Luther started to see these inconsistencies between the church's teachings and the Bible, he had been a monk who was very devout, making numerous, almost daily, confessions, and always lacking assurance of his salvation. He was gripped by fear and guilt. In his later theological terminology, the monk Luther was imprisoned by the Law, God's righteous ordinances which invariably found him and find us lacking. What Luther the monk had not heard, and the discovery (or rediscovery) that he would make, that would rock Europe and the established church, was the teaching of St. Paul that what saves us is not works of the law, but faith and trust in our Lord Jesus. The Law reveals us as a sinners—a fact most of us already know, but the Gospel reveals God's gracious will towards law-breakers and sinners. Thus, as Paul says elsewhere, the Gospel is the good news “that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.” Put directly, God accepts us not for the list of our merits but by his own free-will and grace in Christ. To apply it to the human realm, do you love their children for what they do (or fail to do) or because you have made a choice to love them? The teaching of the late medieval church so clouded this truth that God appeared to be a father who loved us only when good. The Gospel of our Lord Jesus, however, is really about God's gracious love for sinners, and his will to renew and restore them. Luther's rediscovery of Paul burst across Europe like a flash of light: in Geneva, a young lawyer was so struck by this good news that he would change professions and go on to write a systematic theology according to the rediscovered doctrine and a nearly complete commentary on the all the books of the Bible. This lawyer of course was John Calvin. In England, there wasn't a central figure like Martin Luther or John Calvin, but the Reformation took no less of a decisive turn. The archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer undertook to develop a liturgy that took into account this rediscovery of Paul's doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. There were a number of facets to this undertaking: first of all this liturgy would be not just for priests and monks—it was intended for all of the people because all needed to hear the message of forgiveness and new life. Therefore, Cranmer put the prayers and readings in the vernacular. In most cases he didn't start from scratch, but took the Medieval service books, prayers and services from the continental Reformers, and edited them into a single book of services: the Book of Common Prayer. Next to the Authorized King James Bible and Shakespeare, it stands as a touchstone of English literature and the highmark of English piety and religion. The first edition of the Book of Common Prayer came out in 1549 after the death of Henry VIII during the short reign of his son Edward VI. Revising it to conform more thoroughly with the principles of the Reformation, a new more Protestant edition of the Book of Common Prayer came out in 1552. After an interval of its being outlawed under the reign of Mary, popularized as Bloody Mary, it was reintroduced with some slight modifications upon the enthronement of Elizabeth I in 1559, and it was once more slightly edited in 1662 and has been the official Book of Common Prayer in England ever since. The first settlers in America in Virginia used that 1559 Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer, but the 1662 was one that traveled all over the world as the British Empire spread. It became the parent book of all other local adaptations of the Book of Common Prayer in such diverse places as Uganda, America, and Australia. There is a copy of the 1662 prayer book at historic Christ Church in Philadelphia where the references to the English King were crossed out on July 4, 1776, prefiguring the ways in which the prayer book would be adapted as it went from country to country.
The legacy of the 1662 prayer book is strongly evident in our 1928 Book of Common Prayer which was the last American prayer book to take its immediate predecessor as a base text. There are a number of deficiencies, in my opinion, in the 1979 prayer book, even while there some significant contributions it has made. Whatever its virtues or deficiencies, there can be little arguing with the fact that 1979 prayer book presents a very different form and content to common prayer than the 1928 or 1662 prayer books, though the '79 can be used in such a way as to reflect the earlier tradition. I hope that many of the prayers we say today we ring a note a familiarity and consonance for you. It's a rich and beautiful tradition from the Collect for Purity, the Comfortable Words, and the Prayer of Humble Access. A secular author, James Wood, writing in a review for The New Yorker for the 350th anniversary of the 1662 prayer book a few years ago had this to say,
Despite the quality of language that strikes us nowadays as majestic and grandly alienated, the words of the Prayer Book are notable for their simplicity and directness. C. S. Lewis called this quality “pithiness”; I would add “coziness” or “comfortability.” The Prayer Book was a handbook of worship for a people, not for a priesthood, and its job was to replace and improve the ancient collective rites of worship that bound people together in the English Catholic Church.
From the standpoint of faith, we can and should be thankful for the prayer book's simplicity and clarity on the matters of faith: it tells us who are: those who from time to time (or to put it into contemporary idiom again and again) have sinned against the Lord. But it also tells us of God's great and unfailing love for us. Again and again we hear of him whose property is always to have mercy. John Wesley, who is credited with founding Methodism but was actually a loyal son of the Church of England, had this to say about the 1662 prayer book: “I believe there is no Liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breathes more of a solid, scriptural, rational piety than the Common Prayer of the Church of England.” And might I add, though we're not going to use the 1662 every Sunday, our regular Sunday liturgy resonates with the same or similar prayers, and so let us celebrate and use this heritage of common prayer that it might express the living faith of the dead. We use it not for reasons of nostalgia nor because we are anglo-philes, but because it works!
Sunday, October 16, 2016
This morning I have the wonderful privilege to baptism Abraham Edward Williams. Performing the sacrament of Holy Baptism is among the best things a priest gets to do. As the service of Baptism states, in Holy Baptism we are regenerated (born again) and grafted into the body of Christ's Church. Historically baptism has often been called a Christening, which simply refers to the belief that in Holy Baptism a new Christian is made, not of course as a result of any merit that we present to God, but because of God's loving grace poured out in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and given to the baptized person as a free gift.
In the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul asks the question, Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Put simply if you are baptized, as you go under those cleansing waters you die with Christ in his crucifixion, and as you come out of those same waters you rise again with him. Holy Baptism follows the pattern of Christ's death and resurrection. And why, you might ask is this important? It is important because we want to belong to our Lord Jesus whom the Bible speaks of as a new Adam.
We all know the old Adam, and in a sense we all live like that old Adam. In the opening chapters of Genesis, we hear the account of how man falls away from communion with God, and this comes about because Adam wants to live by his own light rather than the light of God—he will decide what to call good and what to call evil rather than subjecting his will to the Word of God. Adam and Eve's alienation from the Lord is succeeded by a break in the fellowship between brother and brother when Cain slaughters his brother Abel. As I've said many times before, In Adam's sin, man said to God, I do not need you, and in Cain's, man said to his brother, I do not need you. The old Adam's heritage is a heritage of alienation, sin, and death, and we still see these impulses strongly at work today, to say to God, I don't need you, and to say to a fellow-man, I don't need you.
But the new Adam comes to teach us how to live in the light of God and in fellowship with one another. He tells his Father, even in the midst of the agony of death, that he needs him: into thy hands, I commend my spirit. The one who displays his superiority and moral perfection does not despise fellowship with sinful and broken humans. Rather, he works endlessly to restore them to God and to one another. Even in the difficult things that our Lord says, he is not aiming at abrasion but healing.
By original sin, we belong to the old Adam—we are part of his communion, although this word can only be used equivocally since the lineage of Adam blindly smashes every act of communion and fellowship by sin and selfishness. It is, I am sorry to say, the legacy of old Adam that seems to have won the day in our society today, that is so divided by suspicion, discord, and animosity. Our only real hope is Christ, who can reconcile us to God and to one another. By grace and the sacrament of Baptism, we belong to the new Adam, our Lord Jesus. As St. John reminds us again and again, “truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. . . and if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another” (1 John 1:3,7). As we belong to Christ the new Adam and live in him, we become part of his spiritual family, the communion of saints that will ever grow in charity. As we bring Abraham to these cleansing water we pray that, though the old Adam will undoubtedly still manifest his legacy in his life, it will not hold sway, and the gifts of the new Adam will live and grow in him, the gifts of forgiveness and love and concord.
In the English 1662 Book of Common Prayer there is a prayer in the service of Baptism that is not found in the later American prayer books and it is truly exquisite. It begins by a recollection of Old Testament figures whom God saved through water, specifically Noah and his family in the ark and the Hebrews who passed through the Red Sea on dry ground. Both of these are figures of Baptism in which God saves us from trial and judgment. The prayer concludes by petitioning God that the infant about to baptized will be placed in the ark of Christ's church and that "being stedfast in faith, joyful through hope, and rooted in charity, [he] may so pass the waves of this troublesome world, that finally he may come to the land of everlasting life." The "waves of this troublesome world." A beautiful and poignant phrase. Isn't that the nature of this life. It is full of waves and tumults. We feel like we are in constant flux and change. As soon as we seem to land on settled ground, all turns to chaos. It has been my observation that most people most of the time are in inner chaos despite the serene front we may put on. If the world and life is like this, then surely we are in need of God's grace from beginning to end, from the first day of our life to our death. Without God's help, we simply cannot tread this world's troublesome waves long enough to reach shore. In the words of a familiar hymn with which we are soon to be reacquainted, our longing must be that "God [would] be at my end and at my departing." We need God's grace every moment of our lives, and this is one reason why it is fitting that infants are baptized.
You know, Shakespeare got it wrong when he said faithful romantic love is "the star to every wandering bark." The image of course is that of a ship which navigates by the reliable North star. Think about our lives for a moment. I am a wandering bark--we all are wandering ships--tossed by the "waves of this troublesome world." The star, compass and map that guides us home is Jesus and his love and grace. May we all this day be reminded of the grace we have received, signified by our Baptism and given freely to us every moment of our lives, a grace that leads us through "the waves of this troublesome world, so that finally we may come to the land of everlasting life."
Sunday, October 9, 2016
But the word of God is not fettered
The lessons this morning tie together the theme of the power of God's word. In the first lesson and the Gospel it is the power of the prophet's word to bring cleansing for the lepers Naaman and the Samaritan, both foreigners. The power of the word is illustrated in these readings, and it is asserted in the profound words of St. Paul in the Epistle, “the word of God is not fettered.” Paul wrote these words while he himself was fettered in prison, but he states that the word, the truth of God, cannot be fettered. Towards the end of his life, St. Paul spent considerable time in prison for being what we would call today a disturber of the peace. The Christian Gospel is a faith that demands the transformation of every aspect of life, whether it be private, political, or social. As such, true Christian faith will never be welcome in a society which tries to relegate religion to the realm of private opinion and private devotion. Roman society was open to every type of belief, but the Apostles preached a man who claimed to be the way, the truth and the life. Caesar could still be king, but the Christians had the audacity to say that there was a greater lord than the Caesar. It is not surprising that such talk was unpopular to the powers of the Roman State. This is why Paul was in prison and would ultimately be killed for his proclamation. Among the thirteen letters of Paul in the New Testament there are a handful that were written while Paul was in prison. They are moving letters. Here is a man enduring trial and persecution and yet confident of the one in whom he trusts. This morning's Epistle comes from one of these prison letters, addressed to a young leader in the church.
One wonders what Timothy felt having his spiritual father in prison. I don't think any of us would fault him if he felt a great deal of uncertainty about the future of the church. After all, the early Christians were facing a seemingly all-powerful State which could tolerate Christianity as long as it marched in step with the rest of the Roman Empire, which of course it couldn't. Amongst the doubt and uncertainty that Timothy and the church must have been feeling, Paul exhorts Timothy to "Remember Jesus Christ" in the opening words to our lesson. The form of the verb used here for remember contains the idea of repeated or habitual action. Paul is saying that Timothy should have Jesus in mind and keep him there. Paul is not just exhorting him to be pious. He is reminding of Timothy of the great story of our redemption. Our Lord Jesus was crucified and died. It seemed like the end for Jesus and his followers. In the days after his crucifixion, the Gospel accounts relate that the disciples were in fear, uncertainty and sorrow. In the account in Luke of our Lord appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we're told that the disciples did not even recognize the Lord. I think most of their blindness was due to the fact that they did not expect to see him: Jesus was dead; end of story. In our Lord's crucifixion, corrupt religion, power without principle and even death all seem to win the day. But in our Lord's resurrection, it is demonstrated that nothing is impossible with God. Not all the powers of State, Religion, or even Hell can negate God's purposes. In the grim circumstances Paul and the church are facing, he reminds Timothy that we must follow the Lord who shows by his death and resurrection that nothing is impossible for God: Remember Jesus Christ. Paul may be in prison, but this will not thwart the preaching of the Gospel. Paul reminds Timothy that the word of God is not fettered. I may be in prison, but the word can not. The word of the Lord cannot fail because it is true.
As I was writing composing this sermon, I couldn't help but think of those familiar opening words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the great hymn of the Union during the Civil War:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
My friends, the truth will always march on from the perspective of eternity. The truth cannot be silenced. This was evident when Socrates was condemned for being an atheist and disturber of the peace. No one remembers the names of the judges who gave sentence on him or the citizens of Athens who agitated for his arrest and execution. But his name and the pursuit of truth which he inspired live on. In the same way, injustice that is codified into law can not stand forever, as the history of slavery in England and America shows.
What God has done and declared in our Lord Jesus cannot be undone, repealed, silenced or rebutted. In our Lord Jesus, our elder brother, the new Adam, has died on our behalf, canceling the debt of our sins and drawing us to himself and to his Father. In Christ, God is reconciling the world to himself that he may be all in all (2 Corinthians 5:19, 1 Corinthians 15:28). Christianity is not like a secret society in which a central mystery is passed from person to person and where you might run the risk of the last member dying and the mystery being lost. Rather, the word of the Lord cannot be bound; it is not a light hidden under a basket. This means that we do not need to worry about the ultimate fate of the world or of the church. That which is true will ultimately triumph and be manifest. The Word which God sends, like the rain upon the mown grass and the snow from heaven, shall not return to him void, but will accomplish that for which he has sent it. That Word, our Lord Jesus, is recreating you and me in the image of himself, that we might be a new humanity that lives by humility and grace and love.
Sunday, October 2, 2016
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
I wonder how many of you winced or even revolted at the last verse of our Psalm this morning. It contains a grisly and unsettling image: blessed shall he be that taketh thy children, and throweth them against the stones. I hope none is more scandalized by these words than by the actual suffering of children in our time. No matter what your view of abortion is—whether it is an absolute evil that should be outlawed or a necessary evil that should be allowed but carefully regulated—I wonder if we wince more at these words than the approximately 700,000 abortions in the United States every year. I also wonder how much we wince at the plight of children made refugees by the Syrian civil war. Many were moved by the recent photograph of a Syrian child caught in the midst of that civil war, but such tenderness can often stall at just sympathy and not translate into action. I'm not saying that you were wrong to wince at the Psalm if you did—I'll admit it is a portion of Scripture that in the course of the monthly reading of the Psalms, I often wince at—I'm just wondering if we are more sensitive to the words found in the Bible than of the myriad of actual sufferings in this world? That is a question only you as an individual can answer.
But before we start getting too upset about the Psalm, we need to ask the who, what, when, where, and why. Answering these questions will help us understand the Psalm, which in turn, will help us to understand how it might relate to us today. The Psalm is set in the period around the Babylonian exile. Next to the Exodus, the most important event in the Old Testament is the Exile which occurred in 586BC. The Babylonians conquered the rebelling Jews in Judah. The Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, destroyed the capital city of Jerusalem, tore down its walls and razed its temple. Afterward, many were carried into exile, nearly a thousand miles away in Babylon on the banks of the river Euphrates. The people not only lost their home, they lost their sense of autonomy with the execution of the their king and his sons. They also felt cut off from God because God had told them that the one place to worship was in the temple. The Psalm opens with a statement of the sadness of the people in exile, By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee, O Sion. Sion of course is the name of the hill on which the temple had been built in Jerusalem. Here is a people that is downcast and dejected, and to compound the matter, the captors, the Babylonians, wanted them to sing and make music. To put this is more direct terms, this would be like asking a Southerner to sing the national anthem in 1865 or more a trivial illustration, you being asked to attend and cheer at a parade for the winner of a sports championship for a team whom you despise. The exiles hang up their harps and ask themselves, how shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? In the closing verses of the Psalm, we hear their sadness well up into anger and a desire for revenge. First they renounce the Edomites, a neighboring nation to Judah, who apparently watched with glee the downfall of an old foe. Then comes the curse on the Babylonians and on their children. In the horrible eighteen month siege of Jerusalem, the Bible reports that some resorted to cannibalism, and the prophet Jeremiah had warned that I [the Lord] will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another's flesh during the stress of the siege imposed on them by the enemies who seek their lives (Jeremiah 19:9). The speaker in the Psalm merely wants what happened to the Jews to happen to the Babylonians. That being said, I would submit to you that the anger and revenge we see evidenced here is not a noble or godly emotion, but one that reflects a genuine human emotion. This is one of the brilliant things about the Psalms in that it shows the full range of human emotions. One cannot really condone the anger here, but one can at least understand it after taking account of what the what the people endured in the siege of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon.
So, why, you might be asking, does it matter and what does it have to do with my life? Well, according to the traditional understanding of the Psalms, there is an additional layer of meaning. There is the historical meaning I've been describing, and then there is the allegorical or typological reading. In this reading, for example, Jerusalem containing king and temple for God's people would be understood as the kingdom of God. Hence, St. Paul can talk about the heavenly Jerusalem, where our true citizenship belongs, and which is, as he says, the mother of us all. Furthermore, Babylon, the place away from Jerusalem, would be understood as this world and the time of this mortal life in which we long for the life of heaven, for Jerusalem. Such a reading of the Psalm is reflected in the (Offertory/Gospel) hymn this morning. The second to last stanza reads,
Now, in the meantime, with hearts raised on high,
we for that country must yearn and must sigh,
seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
through our long exile on Babylon's strand.
we for that country must yearn and must sigh,
seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
through our long exile on Babylon's strand.
In the language of the New Testament, we are living in exile in Babylon waiting to be taken back to our true home, Jerusalem. We live in Babylon, but we don't live in quite the same way as the sons and daughters of that city of the world live. But, my friends, and here is the rub, just like those exiles of long ago, Christians can be overwhelmed by anger and revenge for a world that is broken in so many ways. We can be angry because life and society have let us down. We can be angry because when we look at the world we see much insanity. The truth is that it is all too easy to get fed up with the world, and retreat into our own religious or cultural safe-havens. I'm here to tell you that it is okay to be frustrated and it is probably even okay to be angry at the insanity you see in the world, but we can't let it get the best of us. Our Lord tells us to bless them that curse you, that you may be children of your father in heaven. The Psalmist can't bring himself to sing the Lord's song in a strange land, but I believe this is precisely what we are supposed to do. While we live on Babylon's strand waiting to go to Jerusalem our dear native land, let us sing the Lord's song in this strange land, a song of the Lord's goodness and justice and love.
Sunday, September 25, 2016
We brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.
In last week's sermon, I talked about mammon which is a word used in the Bible to encompass material things and money. It is all things of this world of which we claim possession. In the sermon on the mount, our Lord said that we cannot serve God and mammon. Divided loyalty does not work. The parable in the Gospel last week told of the unjust steward who gave away his lord's assets so that he would gain friends and sympathizers to take him in after he was removed from office. Our Lord's admonition is to make for ourselves friends using the mammon of unrighteousness, and I described how William Tyndale the great English reformer argued that this really applies to the poor. To paraphrase Tyndale, use your money to supply the want of the poor. This concrete love for the those in need will be the outward sign of your inward and true faith in God. It is not that money or mammon is evil. Rather our Lord calls it unrighteous mammon because it leads us into temptation. As Paul writes in the Epistle this morning, those who desire to be rich fall into temptation. Notice how he says those who desire to be rich not those who are rich. You see, as Augustine of Hippo pointed out, it is possible to be rich and greedy, but it is also possible to be poor and greedy. In each case, one thinks that money and material possessions will give lasting happiness. Our readings this morning, as I am sure you noticed, all continue this theme of mammon.
The problem with mammon is actually an identity problem with ourselves. In our VBS this summer, we talked about the crux of the story about the Tower of Babel is really an identity struggle. Those who built the tower, we are told, wanted to make a name for themselves. They were building fame and earthly reputation. It is significant I think that in the story that succeeds that of the tower of Babel, the narrative of the patriarch Abraham, God tells him that if he will follow his leading into the land of promise, God will bless him and give him a name. This is the truth that the Bible stresses. It is not we who decide who we truly are—we don't forge our identity through a long voyage of self-discovery. Rather, it is God who tells us who we truly are: he gives us a name; you are his creature; you are made in the image of God so that you are endowed with reason and creativity and the ability to choose right and wrong; you are also a wayward sinner who has run away from your Creator again and again; by adoption and grace you are his dearly beloved child. God reserves the right to show us our name, our identify, because he has created, redeemed and sustained us. Today's readings speak a powerful word to us about our identity: your identity, my identity does not come from mammon. You are not what you own. We live in a society that largely lives by such metrics—there is a reason why they are called status symbols. But the happiness material wealth can give is tenuous at best: the material thing can break, the money can be lost or squandered, and most importantly, inanimate things don't go very far in filling our deepest needs for love, joy and communion with others.
The Epistle opens with a common place truism that is all too-easy to forget: we brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of it. Job lost first his family and all he had, and then he lost the most unnerving thing of all: his good health—many ancient commentators made a lot of the fact that Job still had his wife after all that—but Job recognized that all those transitory things—his possessions, family, and health—are just gifts of God, gifts that in this temporal and mortal life must have a termination. After his wife incites Job to curse God and die, he famously says, the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord. To quote a country song from a few years back that makes the same point: I ain't never seen a hearse with a luggage rack. If you believe in that greater life, and you're hope and identity is in things that you can't take out of this world, you are bound to be disappointed and broken by very things you trust so much. Mammon is a god that can seem to give such a quick high, but it will cast you down with blind cruelty.
In reading the Lesson from Amos and the Gospel, I couldn't help but think of our Lord's words in last week's Gospel that in Luke directly precedes today's Gospel. He told his listener's, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. Are those who as Amos says, lying on beds of ivory, and who stretch complacently on their couches, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, are these making friends of their poor with their unrighteous mammon, or are they making friends of themselves? They expend what they have in pleasing themselves, while great suffering and pain and injustice pervade the city of Samaria. The same thing could be said of the rich man in the parable of Lazarus. What friends does he have who will testify of his faith from his unrighteous mammon? He certainly does not have a friend in the poor man Lazarus, who has his sores licked by stray dogs. It has often been pointed out that Lazarus is the only named person in any of our Lord's parables. The very person who in real life nobody would know his name is the very person named explicitly by our Lord. Such is the upside down way that God views the world. So, my friends, two questions for you: where is your identity? Is it in the perishing things of this world or is it in the fact that you are child of God, loved completely by the Lord? In addition is there is a person in your life that is nameless, a Lazarus if you will, to whom you extend in the name of the Lord a few crumbs. Maybe it is a kind word, an encouragement or counsel, or just a helping hand that you could offer? Our society might say that people are expendable, but this idea can be given no quarter in the Gospel: Perhaps, my friends, we should start seeing the world “upside down” where those who are nameless are loved and treasured and find a home in the family of God and God's kingdom.
Sunday, September 18, 2016
And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.
This morning we have one of the most difficult of our Lord's parables. The most obvious difficulty is that our Lord commends the unjust steward, even though his actions are not only unjust, but unethical and immoral. The steward gave away part of his employer's property without his permission or consent. This morning, I'd like to try and make some sense out of this challenging parable, but first we have to define our terms. Mammon is a word that we don't use much anymore, but it's a helpful one. Mammon is external material goods, principally money though not exclusively so. Mammon is all those things of which our Lord said that life does not consist, that is, the abundance of possessions. He also said that you cannot serve God and mammon. My mentor and rector in Oklahoma City, Fr. Bright, used to talk to me about mammon. On several occasions I came into church bemoaning some calamity that had happened to me—car troubles and a minor flood in the garage come to mind. Whenever I'd start in on this, he would often just say one word: mammon. He said this not so much to chide me for my excessive concern but indirectly pointing out that we live in a world where cars inevitably break and garages flood. This is what mammon does, and it's why we don't serve it as god. I think that is the reason why our Lord calls mammon unrighteous. He is not saying that money or material things are evil. That was a later heresy that was soundly rejected by the church. No, our Lord is saying that too often the human heart is drawn away into the service and worship of mammon—a service that inevitably leads to heartache and sorrow when that money disappears or material thing breaks. In fact, if we listen carefully, our Lord is definitely not saying money is evil because he advises us to make use of unrighteous mammon by gaining friends, that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.
This is still quite perplexing though. Who are these friends that we are to make with money? How is that these friends will be the ones to receive us into eternal habitations? I thought it was God who takes us to himself in that greater life? One of the great English Reformers during the reign of Henry VIII was William Tyndale who wrote an entire tract on this particular parable of our Lord's. Tyndale's claim to fame is that he was the first to translate the New Testament into English after the Reformation began. When it was first printed, it had to be done so illegally and smuggled into England where it became hugely popular. A priest once chided Tyndale for his translation efforts, arguing that Tyndale was being disobedient to God, the king and the church. Tyndale famously responded that “If God spares my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than you do.” Writing in short book about the Parable of the Unrighteous Mammon, Tyndale informs his readers that the common interpretation for the parable is his day is that those who had money should to give to the church in honor of some saint. When they did this the saint would be pleased with them—the rich would make a friend of the honored saint--and then no matter what their moral life was like or their faith in God, the saint would receive the person into everlasting habitations. The gist of this interpretation was that you get into heaven by honoring the saints.
One of the problems with this line of interpretation, as Tyndale noted, is that it places too great an emphasis on the saints as intercessors and intermediaries with God. The saints should be honored for their valiant faith and works of love, but they are no substitute for Christ who is our high priest, our mediator, and our intercessor before his Father. Furthermore, even more problematically is that we could take from this interpretation of the parable that somehow it is our works that get us into heaven. It is impossible for us to keep God's law, as we testify in our liturgy when we respond to the summary of the law with the plea, Lord have mercy. The Law actually convicts us because it reveals the ways in which we've walked apart from God's justice and righteousness. Tyndale and the Reformers sought to recover Paul's teaching that what saves us—what gets us into heaven if you like—is not our good works but the merit of Christ and his shed blood. In his commentary on the parable Tyndale writes,
When temptation ariseth, and the devil layeth the law and thy deeds against thee, answer him with the promises. . . Remember that he is the God of mercy and of truth, and cannot but fulfil his promises. Also remember, that his Son's blood is stronger than all the sins and wickedness of the whole world ; and therewith quiet thyself, and thereunto commit thyself. At the hour of death, bless thyself with the holy candle of faith in Christ. What does it matter if thou hast a thousand holy candles about thee, a hundred ton of holy water, a ship-full of pardons, a cloth-sack full of friars coats, and all the ceremonies in the world, and all the good works, deservings, and merits of all the men in the world, be they, or were they, never so holy. God s word only lasteth for ever; and that which he hath sworn doth abide, when all other things perish.
One of the frequent responses to this teaching that we are saved by our faith in Christ is what then of good works? Does it not matter what we do? Tyndale and the other reformers again get their answer from Paul: what is supremely important, to paraphrase Paul's word in his letter to the Galatians, is faith showing itself by love. If you have faith in God, trust in his promises and know of his love for you in our Lord's death on this cross, this will change the way you live and think. In fact, the Bible speaks of this new way of living as resurrection. Our good works don't save us. Rather they testify and bear witness of the faith you have within. Tyndale in combating the conventional interpretation on the parable concludes with these remarkable words about what kind of friends we should gain with our mammon. He writes,
The saying of Christ, "Make you friends," and so forth, "that they may receive you into everlasting tabernacles," pertaineth not unto the saints which are in heaven, but is spoken of the poor and needy which are here present with us on earth : as though he should say, What, buildest thou churches, foundest abbeys, chauntries and colleges, in the honour of saints, to my mother, St Peter, Paul, and saints that be dead, to make of them thy friends ? They need it not. . . Thy friends are the poor, which are now in thy time, and live with thee; thy poor neighbours which need thy help and succour. Them make thy friends with thy unrighteous mammon ; that they may testify of thy faith, and thou mayest know and feel, that thy faith is right, and not feigned.
Sunday, September 11, 2016
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be alway acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and redeemer.
This morning is the 15th anniversary since the 9/11 terror attacks. The attacks killed 2,996 people and injured at least 6,000 others. It has become one of those events—like the assassination of JFK or the first moon landing—that people can recall where they were and what they were doing that grim morning, as the footage started coming in. Sadly for many in this area, it is more than just an important national memory, marred as it is by the death of friends, associates, and family members. In Monmouth County alone there were 147 fatalities from the attacks. The Bible has some sobering things to say about that grim day, and I'd like to point out some of the connections between our lessons and this commemoration.
First of all, in the Gospel we have the account of what are known as the holy innocents, the children who were barbarously slaughtered by Herod in order to kill the baby Jesus whom he perceived as a threat to his political power. In the Christian tradition, these children are remembered as martyrs. Though they did not consciously or even willingly die for our Lord, yet they lost their lives because they bore the wrath of Herod that had been intended for the baby Jesus. This narrative of the holy innocents puts us in mind of a sad fact in this fallen world that there will always be innocent people who are slaughtered unjustly by the rage of those have a will-to-power or who want to use coercion and fear to change the world into their own vision for it. As people who honor the holy innocents, Christians are called to renounce every slaughter of innocent people and to repudiate the use of fear and coercion as instruments for change. However just (or unjust) the perceived cause may be, no quarter can be given to violence against innocent people.
In the lesson for the Epistle, we have St. John's vision of heaven. There the saints rest in the Lord, and they rest from the turmoil which they endured: they shall hunger no more, neither thirst; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. The world may say that death is the worst thing that can happen to you, but long ago, the philosophers pointed out that length of life does not equate with a happy life. A short, well-lived life is immeasurably better than a long life that is plagued by vice. Further, as Christians we believe in a greater life. We believe in this life because our Lord Jesus rose triumphant from the dead on Easter morning, and so we too by our baptism and faith in him, will share in that new life, once we have passed through the same gate of death he entered on our behalf. These truths remind us that even if one's life is cut prematurely short, it is decidedly not the worst thing that could happen to you.
In the Psalm, we hear of the confidence of the psalmist in God's care and love. I particularly like the last verse and often refer to it at funerals: the Lord shall preserve thy going in and thy coming out from this time forth and forevermore. The message here is not only about God's protection—that we need not fear any mortal or created thing, but also about God's timing. The Almighty with his all perceiving eye preserves our entrance into this world, he sees that we cry, as Shakespeare put it, when we are come to this great stage of fools. The Lord is also present at our departure and because the Lord Jesus has sanctified death by his death we need not fear it.
Now you might be saying to yourself this morning, this is a lot of talk about heaven, but what about this life? Why does God allow horrific things like 9/11 to happen? It's important to remember that God gives us free-will, even to work evil, but the truth is sometimes there are just no easy answers to suffering. Consider the suffering of Job who never got the answer to why, but he did receive the assurance of God's loving providence. Just because we can't always say why horrible tragedies occur, we can still say that they have a redemptive aspect: they teach something we need to learn. Look at the signs of love and care that were poured forth on that grim day fifteen years ago. The love and concern is the way we're supposed to live all the time. We need to remember that love and strive to imitate it. In addition, 9/11 has something to teach about how to live as American and patriots. If no other good can be seen in these events, at the very least it should inspire us to renew our resolve to promote the common wealth of this nation and the liberty of our democracy.
On November 19, 1863 many gathered together in a small town in Pennsylvania to remember the death of over 7,000 in a grim three-day battle. Although it would be incorrect to say that they were innocent, it might be argued that their blood was shed unnecessarily. On that date, a new cemetery was dedicated for the fallen of Gettysburg, and President Lincoln thought that their memory should be preserved not only to keep in mind the horrors of war, but that their deaths might make everyone better citizens and patriots. In those familiar words he said,
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
My friends, we have unfinished work as Christians and Americans to do. On this day of commemoration, let us renew our resolve as people of faith and re-dedicate ourselves to the principles of freedom and justice for which our nation stands. Let not the lives of those who died in 9/11 be lost in vain, as we strive to build a more just society and a more faithful church.
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
If I had to summarize Christianity in a couple words, I would say, “new life.” What does the Christian Gospel promise to sinners? New life. What does it promise to the weak and elderly? New life. What does it promise to the young and perplexed as well as the mature and disillusioned? Again, new life. All the major feasts of the Church Year have this in common: they commend new life. Take, for example, Christmas. It corresponds to the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. Human society living apart from the Lord and his light turns to darkness, but the eternal Word becomes flesh in the grim midst of human sin and brokenness. At the moment of greatest darkness, the Light appears. Something similar could be said about Easter. On Good Friday we show God the worst we can do. In the crucifixion there is a monumental subversion of justice and a rejection of love freely given. All the ugliness of human sin is on display, and on that day we can understand what the evangelist John meant when he said he came unto his own and his own received him not. There is a sadness and melancholy in these words that have their heart at the cross. We show God our worst, but he shows us his best, his greater love, grace and mercy. On Easter Day, God overcomes sin and death by raising our Lord Jesus from the dead, which becomes for us the promise of new and resurrected life.
In the Gospel today we have one of what is known as the difficult sayings of Jesus. Customarily preachers are expected to explain these sayings, but the usual result of such attempts is to accommodate Jesus to the comfortable image we have of him. But that is precisely not what our Lord does: he comes to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Furthermore, he doesn't wait until he is with a handful of his unwavering followers to say that they cannot be his disciples unless they hate father, mother, wife and children. On the contrary he makes this devastating statement when he sees that “great multitudes” are with him. This is just the opposite of the way a cult works. In a cult, the strangest doctrines are reserved for those who are so far in they cannot imagine life on the outside. To outsiders, a cult tries to appear as normal and pedestrian as possible. Our Lord's teaching is the farthest thing from being secret in this sense. But why be so abrasive and why say that a man must hate his family? The truth is that it is so easy to become a sleep-walkers or the walking dead. You can go though life thoughtlessly, without attention to the things of eternity, not knowing what you are doing or why you are doing it. Something or someone has to awaken you out of this slumber. Our Lord addresses these words to those who would follow him merely out of a following of the popular religious sentiment or out of an unwholesome religious enthusiasm.
What our Lord is describing is new life and discipleship. This new life is so radically different that it must involve a death, the death namely of you and me. In fact, if the New Testament is correct, this new life means a total reordering and altering of our current lives. New life is a turning of our world and the world upside down.
There are two prevailing religious attitudes that cannot receive this message of new life. The first says that religion and church is one part of a well-ordered life. A university student was once asked what goals he had for his life. He thought for a moment and then said, 'well, I'd like to get married and have children, and oh yeah, someday go to heaven.” This attitude says that church is one piece of the pie that is life, with say career, family, hobbies being other pieces. The message of new life says that faith is not a piece of the pie, but rather that it transforms the entire pie. Heaven starts now for those in surrender themselves and live in the joy and grace of the Lord. True faith, new life will touch and transform every aspect of life.
The second attitude toward religion comes closer to the spirit of true faith, but it too cannot hear or won't receive the message of new life. This attitude says that I need real help but that help is best administered by me. This attitude represents those who treat faith as a form of self-help. People with this attitude come to church in order to cope with the stresses of life. For a person with this attitude the best church is the one that is most therapeutic, the one that makes me feel good. What we actually need, of course, is the truth even when it will be unsettling and difficult to hear and receive. Any attitude that treats religion as self-help misses the point that a makeover of the old you will not suffice. What we need is total transformation and new life. Not a makeover.
Our Lord Jesus called the multitude to new life, and he is calling us today to new life. He is not calling you to religion or self-help but to resurrection, to complete transformation by his grace. The gate to this new life is through surrender and death, the cross. Our Lord says, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has, he cannot be my disciple. When our Lord speaks of renouncing all that we have I do not think he is referring solely to material possessions. He is also, I believe, speaking to our relationships. In our fallen condition we view the world through the lens of our ego. My spouse exists to comfort me, my children exist to carry on my image, my parents are present to give me my heritage. In such view, those relationships have value because of what they give to you. Now to the world this attitude may be normal, but it is not the Christian love which we are commanded to practice. New life means you love God more than even your family. It also means you love your children for who they are rather than for how much they resemble you. You love your spouse not for what comforts he or she can bring but because you have before God given your solemn vow to this person. You love your parents not for what they can give you but because you've finally been able to see them as they truly are: broken and sinful people whom the Lord loves. Today, the Lord puts before you the way of surrender or the way of self. The way of self is some sense the easy way out; you don't have to work hard to lead self-serving and self-directed lives. On the other hand, it won't be long until you'll be feeling weary and heavy-laden. Our Lord and Master calls us to take on his yoke, a yoke of surrender and new life, and if we will heed his call, he promises rest for your soul.
Sunday, August 28, 2016
The beginning of man's pride is to depart from the Lord; his heart has forsaken his Maker.
The concluding verse of our first lesson tells us that “Pride was not created for men” (Ecclesiasticus 12). The question of pride is a confusing one, I think, for many, especially those, like me and other Gen-Xers and Millenials, who had pounded into their heads the idea of self-esteem. This is the age of participation awards and the morality of being nice. As a result, it is easy to get confused by the question of pride. Is it a good thing to be proud of who you are and the talents you have? Or is pride just conceit and vaunting? According to Gregory the Great who formulated the so-called seven deadly sins from a verse in the book of Proverbs, pride is the first and greatest of these sins. Is pride a sin or does it express a positive self-image and self-esteem? This morning I'd like to work through this thorny question.
So what is the sin of pride as the theologians define it? In his magnum opus, The City of God, Augustine of Hippo gives an extended meditation on Adam, Eve, and the Fall. Now, some of the earlier church fathers contended that the first sin of Adam and Eve was fornication, leading to the erroneous conclusion that sexual sin is the worst kind of sin. Augustine takes a deeper view of the matter. He notes that before Adam and Eve took of the forbidden fruit or broke any commandment, they had a thought, a will inside of them which said that they knew what was good for them better than God. From this premise that they knew better, they could make the decision to break the explicit commandment of a loving Creator and Father. Augustine says that a bad will preceded the transgression, and that bad will was pride. We might summarize, thus, that pride is a willingness to separate oneself from God, to frame one's destiny apart from the lordship and fatherhood of God. It's been pointed out that in the narrative of Genesis up through the fall, it was invariably the Lord who said it is good: and God saw the light, that it was good. In the fall, we are told that the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes. The root of pride is thus to decide what is good and evil according to your own self-directed morality. It's the impulse to live apart from God and to direct our lives apart from his Word and his leading,. If you think you can live apart from God and be your own light and guide, you obviously have an inflated ego. This is the bad, the sinful type of pride, and it has a further ramification: when we say that we do not need God, we soon say that we do not need our fellow human beings, and this also is pride. This resultant pride is illustrated in the story that succeeds the fall, the slaying of Abel by Cain which, as I talked about in last week's sermon, is a grim illustration of innocent and unredeemed suffering. It paints a true but hopeless picture. We've all thought at one time or another that we could better direct our lives than the Lord. We've all known the impulse to write others off, and say to ourselves we do this better without you. Such bad pride is illustrated in this morning's Gospel where our Lord warns us not to disregard the host—God—or the fellow-guests—our fellow-man. In pride we say, I'll take the best for myself without respect to God or care for others. Now our Lord was not trying to teach social etiquette in his parable; rather, the parable shows how we are relate to God as our Father and fellow-man, our brother. You look to the host to tell you where to be seated; you recognize that others may have an equal or greater claim to distinction than you. There is constant need for those in the ministry of the church to be reminded of the fact that the ministry does not depend on man—if you won't be faithful to what the Lord has called you to do, he'll raise up others.
So if bad pride is wanting to live apart from God and man what is good pride? First of all, it has to be said that the Bible does not use the word pride in a good way; rather, it speaks of the fact that we are, for example, God's children by adoption and grace. To be a Christian, thus, means being able to say not that I am worthless but that God accounted me worthy to send his Son to live and die and rise again for my salvation. Let me back up and cite another lesson from our recent VBS. On the last day, we talked about the Tower of Babel. If you ask why the people wanted to build a tower, the answer you'll get 90% of the time is that they wanted a tower to reach God. But the Bible says something different: And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name for ourselves. Assumably, the building of a tower to reach to heaven is about going up to God, but I think the second phrase is more important: the people wanted to make a name for themselves. They wanted to define their own identity and destiny. Thankfully, as we learned from our VBS, Jesus rescues us from this awful burden, by coming to show us who we truly are. As I told our children, you are a child of God by adoption and grace, you are a son or daughter of the king. True pride then is a well of confidence that springs from the truth that you are loved and treasured by the Lord, not because of anything you've done, but because God freely chooses to love you. Such pride and confidence we need to instill in our children. It's a drum we need to be banging for young adults today who too often are trying to find meaning and identity in careers and shallow materialism, inevitability leading to depression and the sadness that is so endemic among people in their 20s and 30s.
This true pride also teaches us how to relate to one another. I am a child of God and son of the King, I can also recognize that others are too. The gifts and talents that my God and Father has given me are not tools to stroke my personal vanity. Rather, they are to be used to build up others, just as the gifts of others build me up. You see, the truth is we need one another. We can't do very much apart from one another, and we can do nothing apart from the Lord. But if we'll surrender our lives to the Lord, and give ourselves in loving service to one another, we can do beautiful things for the Lord in this world. The world doesn't need another Babel, but it needs people of faith and good-will to work together for good. There is much negative about in our world today, but we're not called to be cynical and negative. We're called to accept our true identity as children of God, and to go out into the world making it a better place by things like love and joy and forgiveness and beauty.
Tuesday, August 23, 2016
In the Epistle this morning, we have the climax of the argument that the author of the epistle has been making throughout his letter. That argument is that the new covenant of Christ is greater than the old covenant of Moses. Throughout the epistle he illustrates this argument. He says that Jesus is superior to Moses, because Moses was just a servant of God while Jesus is a Son—the heir always has greater care for his father's house. The priesthood of Jesus is greater than the priesthood of Aaron, because unlike those Old Testament priests, he doesn't have to make a sacrifice for himself nor offer repeated sacrifices annually. Rather, he has made one complete sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. In chapter twelve from which we heard this morning our author compares Mount Sinai to Mount Zion. Mount Sinai was the location of the giving of the law and the Ten Commandments to Moses. The people were told that they could not touch the mountain nor their cattle or else they would die. At first the people heard directly the voice of God which they found terrifying. Afterward they requested that God speak just to Moses and then Moses could deliver the message. As Christians, the author argues, we have not come to Mount Sinai where we hear the law, a law that convicts us as lawbreakers. Rather, we belong to the heavenly City and have come to its mount, Mount Zion, where we don't hear the law that condemns but the good news that forgives, that our Lord Jesus has made one sacrifice for our sins and the sins of the whole world.
In the middle of our passage, there is a curious statement that we have come to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. It's an unusual image because we don't usually think of blood as speaking. As readers though we're invited to compare and contrast the murder of Abel with the execution of Jesus, to figure out why the blood of Jesus is a better word than the blood of Abel. Abel and our Lord are both similar in that they are innocent sufferers; they are both killed by brothers—in Abel's case by his brother of nature, in our Lord's case by his brothers of nation and ethnicity. They are also killed for reasons of religious envy: Cain is jealous of the acceptance of Abel's sacrifice; the Pharisees are jealous of our Lord's authority and his claim to have God as his Father. The fruit of envy is a consuming hatred that is evident in both accounts.
Now, given these similarities, why is it that our author says that the blood of Jesus speaks a better word than the blood of Abel? A better initial question would be what word does the blood of Abel speak? This past week at VBS we talked about the key stories in Genesis 1-11. This section contains the primaeval narratives that lead up to the story of the patriarchs, Abraham and his descendants. One of the main purposes of these opening chapters is to explain why the world is the way it is. Why are there multiple languages in the world? The story of the tower of Babel provides an answer to that question. Why is man out of communion with God? The story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall answers that question. Another question is why is there is war? Why do brothers and sisters feel malice and hatred for their own kin? Why is a marriage that survives so rare and one which would be described as happy even more rare? Why is friendship so difficult to find and then to maintain? The story of Cain and Abel is an answer to this question, or at least an assertion that the world of Cain and Abel is the same world in which we live, a world where man is at enmity with man. Abel's blood does speak a word, but one that is painful to hear. Despite our desire for poetic justice, the innocent often suffer. Children are the object of abuse and violence. The powerful lord over the powerless, and human beings are treated as expendable for the benefit of political expediency or economic growth. Economies are constructed in such a way to promote oligarchy rather than common wealth. In short, the word of Abel's blood testifies that sin divides and destroys families and communities and nations. Sin has separated us not only from God but from one another. At the heart of all this division between man and man is the assertion I am not my brother's keeper. The word of Abel's blood is a true one—it reflects accurately the disorder and suffering between man and man, brother and brother in the world, but it is a word that offers no hope. It leaves us with the fact of innocent suffering with no remedy for the malice and hatred that engendered this suffering.
But the blood of Jesus, my friends, speaks a better word. His blood is that of an innocent suffer, but it is a blood that cleanses and makes new. Our Lord does not live in the paradigm of Adam or of Cain. Unlike Adam he consecrates all of his life to God his father, and lives in total obedience and surrender. Unlike Cain, he lives in total love for his brothers and sisters, his fellow man, even when they do not deserve it. All of the injury and violence that has been inflicted in the world calls for justice; this blood cries out from the ground. Our sins are the same way. They call out for justice and satisfaction to God. The blood of Jesus is shed that the unjust might be made righteous and just. He doesn't promise that if you'll be good and just try harder, you'll be considered just before man and God. He doesn't offer an elaborate self-help program. What he offers is forgiveness if we'll turn to him in faith and trust; forgiveness is the only real hope for a world as broken by injustice and sufferings. There will never be marital reconciliation without forgiveness and a surrender of your sense of right and wrong. There will never be reconciliation between family members without forgiveness of past grievances. Society will never be at peace unless forgiveness is extended as a sign of goodwill to all people. You might ask, how can I forgive this person or that group for what they've done? And the answer is in the word of Jesus' blood. The one absolutely innocent person suffered unjustly and yet extends forgiveness: forgive them for they know what they do, he says from the cross. In the cross is found the way that Cain can be reconciled to Abel, and this is why it is the greatest hope for our world. This is a word that we should never tire of hearing and proclaiming, as we live into the call to be ambassadors to the world of this shed blood that indeed speaks a better word.
Tuesday, July 5, 2016
I have a copy of the English Book of Common Prayer from the 1830s. In the back of that prayer book can be found several commemorations that cannot be called strictly religious: there is a set form of prayers to commemorate the failed Gunpowder Plot which was an effort in 1605 to blow up the English parliament and kill the king, James I, in order to, among other things, restore the Roman Church in England. Another commemoration is for the date of the death of Charles I, the king who was forcibly removed from the throne and eventually killed or martyred depending on your perspective in 1649. Another celebrates the restoration of the monarchy a decade later with the crowning of Charles II which brought an end to the nearly two decades of the English Civil War. The introduction to that brief service reads in part: A FORM of PRAYER with THANKSGIVING to Almighty God, For having put an end to the great Rebellion, by the Restitution of the King and Royal Family, and the Restoration of the Government after many Years interruption; which unspeakable Mercies were wonderfully completed upon the Twenty-ninth of May, in the Year 1660. It is thus entirely in keeping with Anglican custom to recall political events of the nation and to see them through the lens of our faith.
This is precisely what we are doing this morning, as we celebrate our nation's Independence, not merely as a civic holiday but one that should be commemorated in our churches and by all faithful Christians who are citizens of this nation. I have noticed an alarming trend among fellow Episcopal clerics. It is commonly taught by many that it is not a good idea to have patriotic hymns or services in the church. Many have worked to remove American flags from the interior of the church. Perhaps you've heard or witnessed something along these lines in another church? The reasoning behind this move is to a certain extent compelling. These religious leaders are trying to avoid the church adopting an uncritical attitude towards the nation in which it resides. If the mission and promotion of the nation become one with the mission of the church, social and political disaster is at hand. Think of the majority of churches in fascist Germany who largely remained silent and inactive about the Nazi program of world domination and racial cleansing. When the church enmeshes itself in politics, the church's proclamation is often corrupted and its people can begin to think that God is exclusively on their side of a political or social issue. There is something to be said for this argument especially if one is residing in a particularly nationalistic environment. This qualification, however, is the reason why I don't think it is a wise decision to remove flags from churches or to discontinue patriotic services. We live in an age of ambivalence about a great many things. There is ambivalence about religion—the fastest growing religion according to the demographers is no religion at all: the so-called nones—n-o-n-e-s—the nones are those who have no religious affiliation. It's not that the nones don't believe in God or in an afterlife—the nones are not atheists, but simply ambivalent about religious institutions. If it is possible, there is even more ambivalence about politics in our age. Very few trust the established political institutions and together with a big dose of ambivalence, most people cannot be bothered with patriotism. The kind of heroic sacrifices made by so many during the grim days of World War II when so many were either fighting abroad or managing their homes with victory gardens and limited rations seems like a world apart. No, our problem today is not an excess of nationalistic fervor, but a seeming apathy about our nation and its future. In one of his books, G.K. Chesterton, the great Catholic apologist and satirist, offered the helpful insight that most ages are blind to their own weaknesses and vices. They pick on the vices of a former age, and congratulate themselves on being so much more superior, but all the while they are blind to their own faults. I think we have an excellent example of that in our own time. If in a former time, some were uncritically loyal to every action of the nation, and therefore, forfeited some of the prophetic role of the church, in this age, what we need is not less patriotism but more.
What does not it mean to be patriotic? Well, the word patriot is derived in part from the Latin for father, pater. To be a patriot is to be loyal to your fatherland, your homeland. Christians are sometimes accused of being so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good. I think this point is overwrought. Christians should place very high value on life on this world because it is where we learn to live in the world to come. If you want to be part of God's family, the communion of love in his eternal kingdom, then you are going to need to learn how to get along with your own family, to do your duty to parents, children, siblings, and all those who might have a claim on your care and responsibility as kin. Similarly, if you are going to be a part of the Catholic, the universal Church, the body of all faithful Christians in heaven and earth, then you will need to learn to be a member of a local congregation: to offer yourself in loving service and ministry in whatever way the Lord has gifted you; to overlook the faults and foibles of others; and to live into the truth that Christianity is not something to be practiced individually, but as a body, a community of believers joined together in Christ. Finally, if you are want to be a citizen of that city above—the heavenly Jerusalem—you are going to need to learn how to be a good citizen of your city and state and nation in this world. If you neglect your responsibilities to these temporal powers, how will you possibly be a faithful citizen of the City of the Lord Almighty. He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. And what are those civic virtues that we need to practice as patriots? Well, among other things, we might start with honest and diligent labour and industry, promotion of the common good rather than our own private good, establishing justice for all, fighting if necessary for the defense of liberty and the protection of innocents. St. Paul tells us that our citizenship is in heaven. May we render to Ceasar his due, even as strive to live as the children of our heavenly King and Father.
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Then they found the man, out of whom the devils were departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid.
This morning's Gospel is one of the most strange accounts in all of the Gospels. It's also one of my favorites, because I think it offers a striking representation of self-destructive humanity which is delivered and renewed by God in Christ. After crossing the sea of Galilee, our Lord and his disciples enter into a primarily Gentile region—this is evident by the fact that in this county the people keep herds of pigs which of course then and now are forbidden food for observant Jews. In this land our Lord and his disciples meet a man who, according to St. Luke, had certain devils long time, and ware no clothes, neither abode in any houses but in the tombs. In a parallel account in the Gospel of Mark, we are told in addition that this man used to cut himself with stones. I cannot help but be struck how suggestive this detail is for our own age. There is a small but significant trend among young people—young women in particular—to cut themselves and practice self-harming. One of the triggers for this in this intense negativity that young people feel about themselves and their bodies. I believe that this phenomenon is not just isolated abnormality of human psychology but actually an acute manifestation of the more pervasive problem of self-loathing. Listen, you probably don't cut yourself, you may not even loathe yourself, but I bet you know a lot of people in the world, and maybe young people in your family who loathe themselves. Look at the staggering number of suicides every year among teens and those in their twenties. Despite Gen-Xer's and Millennials being fed a steady diet of self-esteem reinforcement with things like participation awards, very little of this has seemed to translate into greater confidence and positive self-image. The world, my friends, has defined what constitutes a happy life—certain physical looks, popularity, academic and professional success—and when these don't measure up, as inevitably they don't because we're human, the living flesh and blood pales with this perfect image, and self-loathing ensues. The demon-afflicted man may seem a world apart from us, but I would suggest that he is really a representation of our self-loathing society and may be a portrait of us in self-loathing or self-destructive behavior.
But the power of the Gospel is that our Lord comes and he wants to deliver this demon-afflicted man. There is no personal gain for our Lord—he just pities this afflicted son of Adam and wants to see him restored to his right mind. What further illustrates the vigor of self-destruction in these demons is that our Lord at the demons' request sends them into a herd of swine. The demons who make the man cut himself, enter into the swine and the herd runs violently down a steep place into the lake and are choked.
Life, my friends, is a battle. It is outward battle of trials and vexations, mostly things out of our control, and it is inward battle as we struggle with sin and temptation and fight our own inner demons of addiction, or self-hatred, or anger, or greed, or malice. All these kill. These are the demons that cause the man to cut himself and that move the herd to be cast violently down and drowned. The demonic is self-destructive, as is sin. We think sin will make us happy or at least will not harm us, but on another cognitive level we are usually aware of how unhappy sin makes us and how sin robs us of spiritual joy. Clinging to that rage will kill you. Ask any doctor, and he will tell you that the stress of anger increases blood pressure and the rates of heart attack and stroke. Ask any Christian, and you will be told that anger roots out joy and peace. And yet in a kind of insanity we cling to that rage and anger. Addiction to alcohol or pornography will do the same thing: driving one to self-destruction. Part of the nature of sin is that it causes self-destruction. St. Augustine makes a profound statement on this point. In explaining the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, he points out that implicit to the commandment is the love of self. And so he asks the questions what does it mean to love yourself, and concludes that to love yourself is to have compassion on yourself; to have compassion on yourself is simply not to sin because sin is that which kills us.
Our Lord wills to deliver those who are afflicted by inner demons. In this miracle, the kingdom of God breaks into human existence. In the kingdom of God, there is liberation for the captive, freedom for the possessed, joy for those who are cast down by sorrow and despair. Listen to this beautiful succession of actions attributed to God in the Psalms: The Lord upholds the cause of the oppressed, and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. . . the Lord watches over the foreigner, and sustains the fatherless and the widow. Our Lord’s ministry is the manifestation of these works of God, exemplified in this miracle. Our Lord reveals God’s dominion over every spiritual evil in his kingdom. If our Lord delivers the man who cuts himself with stones, he will deliver you too from your inner demons and self-destructive behavior. Your deliverance may not come overnight—the implication is that the man has been possessed for years—but seek the Lord in prayer of the heart, gather together in Christian fellowship, study the Bible to hear God’s word to you—and your deliverance will come. When we are going through a time of intense internal struggle, it is so easy not to look beyond the present feelings and circumstances, and so to hand ourselves over to despair. The God whom we worship, revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ, wants to deliver us from every demon, addiction and sin. We are his children, he has pity on the afflicted sons and daughters of Adam.
Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.
Sunday, June 5, 2016
The Lord loves the righteous, the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow.
In last week's Gospel, we heard the story of the centurion of great faith, and who sought to have his servant healed by Jesus. There was an interesting tension in that account: on the one hand, there were the centurion's friends and sympathizers who said that the centurion was worthy of having this healing performed even though he was not a Jew, and on the other hand, you had the centurion himself declaring that he was not worthy. As I pointed out in my sermon, we do good things not so that we can present them to God as a kind of resume, but rather, doing good that we can do, we recognize that before the Lord we are not worthy because our good is never unalloyed with a little bad and even the good we do pales in comparison with him who is goodness itself. What is particularly notable about last week's Gospel in contrast with today's is that our Lord was asked to come and perform that healing, while in today's, where he raises the only son of a widow from the dead, he acts without being implored. As much as we may have a sense that we are growing in holiness and in the life of the Spirit, the more profound truth is that at some point we were like this dead young man. To put it into the words of that familiar hymn, I once was lost but now am found. At some point our Lord found you; he came unsolicited and unwanted, by his own authority and moved by his heart of love, to awake you out of spiritual slumber. The Lord's greatest work is almost invariably unsolicited, and this is so because so often we don't even realize the good things we need or can have from the Lord. Gorging ourselves on a steady diet of stale biscuits and water, we too often miss the fact that our Lord has spread a table before us, and by his grace has called us to partake, all of his own initiative.
It is interesting to put the first and Gospel lessons in conversation with one another. Both contain stories of raising a widow's only son from the dead. Luke wants us to think of this scene from the life of the prophet Elijah because he understands Jesus is a prophet, but of course, he is even greater. This is evident if read them side by side. The broken-hearted widow reproaches the prophet Elijah for the death of her son. The prophet takes the child into an open room, and beings to pray, Lord, O Lord my God, hast thou brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn? Then he lays upon the child three times, and finally the soul of the child comes into him again. It is clear that this raising from the dead is by the power of God and not by Elijah's power. He is merely the pleader and the intercessor, the instrument through whom the Lord works. In contrast when our Lord sees the young man being carried on the bier, thronged with mourners and processing towards the grave, he sees the sorrowful mother and has pity on this poor widow. Walking over and touching the bier, he says, young man, I say unto thee, arise. Here our Lord is seen not as the pleader and intercessor, but as the one in whom authority is given to raise from the dead. Like the prophets, our Lord proclaims the truth of God, but unlike the prophets, in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, to use the words of St. Paul. Our Lord is not only the mouthpiece of God as a prophet, but the incarnate God. He shows that he has authority over every sickness and demon, and even over death.
But someone might ask why didn't our Lord raise all deceased children? Was his compassion limited just to this widow? I like what George MacDonald, the great 19th century Scottish divine, had to say about this passage, O mother! mother! wast thou more favoured than other mothers? Or was it that, for the sake of all mothers as well as thyself, thou wast made the type of the universal mother with the dead son—the raising of him but a foretaste of the one universal bliss of mothers with dead sons? Now a modern interpreter might argue that widows were often destitute in the ancient world, so our Lord's raising of the young man had more to do with providing for her than sympathizing with her grief, but such a view misses the plain wording of the Scripture: when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said unto her, Weep not. It is a horrible, horrible thing for a parent to bury a child. Some of you may have been through that; others perhaps have seen loved ones and friends mourn the death of a child. A window in this church memorializes such a death. The thought of a child cut off in the flower of youth is horrible to contemplate—lost life and joy swallowed by the oblivion of death. And yet our Lord comes, he has compassion; he touches the bier. He did this not just for this widow, but for all mothers and fathers who mourn the death a child to show them that he is the Lord even over death and destruction. In his kingdom, the love between a mother and a son, a parent and a child will find its reunion and fulfillment because God is love, and that motherly love was a gift of his. Our Lord touches our sorrows and has compassion on the those who mourn, and we pray that, to quote the graveside prayers from the Book of Common Prayer, he would raise us from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness.
Sunday, May 15, 2016
We do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.
In Augustine of Hippo's great work, The City of God, he reviews the popular philosophies of the time, both popular and academic, and evaluates the kind of happiness they offer. Augustine works from the thesis that no lasting happiness can be established apart from that found in God in the greater life, because in this world, we are subject to so many dangers and trials. Some of these are of our own making—many of them are not, but have to do with living in a transitory world where things wear out and break and human bodies fail and die. One of these evils, Augustine argues, is the diversity of languages in the world that divide human beings. He writes: Man is separated from man by the difference of languages. For if two men, each ignorant of the other's language, meet. . . mute animals, though of different species, would more easily hold intercourse than they, human beings though they be. For their common nature is no help to friendliness when they are prevented by diversity of language from conveying their sentiments to one another. All know what he is talking about if you've have ever been in a foreign country and struggled to communicate with others of a different tongue or simply interacted with a foreigner on your native soil and confronted the intractability of trying to communicate with someone that doesn't speak your language, though they are human. Just a few weeks ago, near the end of evening prayer, a Russian speaking Belorussian wandered into the church. He spoke very little English and trying to explain the Episcopal Church was very challenging—even church of England did not suffice.
The opening chapters of the book of Genesis have what is known as etiological purpose, that is, these chapters help explain why the world is the way it is: why are humans out of fellowship with God? Because of the human willfulness to break his commandment, as shown in the fall of Adam and Eve; why are humans out of fellowship with each other? Jealousy turns into malice and hatred and finally the murder of brother by brother in the story of Cain and Abel. The account of the Tower of Babel is a narrative that explains the diversity of languages in the world. A simplistic reading of the text would suggest that God feels threatened and so he confounds the languages of those building the tower—they were getting too close to him and might have stolen fire or something else from him. If you ask most people why the people wanted to build the tower, the most common answer will be that they wanted to build a tower to God. However, we need to read carefully. They are building a tower to heaven—this is what they are doing, but the reason why they do it is in order to make a name for themselves. And herein lies the clue to the wickedness of their endeavor and why God so punishes it. Life is decidedly not about making a name for yourself. Many of course are working under this assumption. Some build and put their name on monuments. Sometimes the very geography of the earth is imbued with this pursuit of reputation so that the names of powerful men are given to mountains, rivers and valleys. Thankfully in the United States we've avoided some of this demagoguery by not putting figures on our currency or giving their names to things until after they are dead.
My friends, life is a kind of education; God, our great teacher, uses the uncertainties and evils of life to wake us up and push us towards healthy change. The Bible tells us that, Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. (Proverbs 16:18). Often times, as in the case of the those erecting a tower for their name, God lets us fall that he might open the door to the way of humility, the way of his sons and daughters. He confounds their languages they he might teach them a new way of speaking, that he might establish for them a union not based on human power and reputation but on the wonderful works of God.
And this is really the answer to the seemingly contradictory actions in the first and second lessons. In the first lesson, God confounds the languages of the people, causing disorder and disunity. In the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, the account of the day of Pentecost, the Father sends the Spirit and empowers the apostles to speak the languages of the diverse crowds of people who have come to Jerusalem for the temple feast. It's an event of unification that anticipates the great turn in the early church when Gentiles, non-Jews, will be allowed to be included in the body of the faithful. Every tongue and nation, whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, whether slave or free, has a place in this kingdom of heaven by the grace of our Lord Jesus.
In last week's sermon, I made the point that Jesus as our high priest is the representative of all without distinction. This means that at the heart of the Christian proclamation there is posited a radical equality among all people that flows out of the truth that we all have one high priest, one representative. At the heart of the proclamation of this feast of Pentecost is the truth that by the work of the Holy Spirit, God is bringing all things into unity with himself. Again, it is not a unity based on human endeavor, power, or ambition, but rather, based on what God has done for us in Christ. The multitudes hear the Apostles telling each in their own language the wonderful works of God. The kingdom of God is not something we build so that we can make a name for ourselves, but God's gift to us by the Spirit. It's economy is the giving of love and its light is the Lord. The world may divide men and races and categorize according to party, class, and so forth, but the goal of eternity is that all would be one in the Lord. As we cooperate with the work of the Spirit in our lives this unity is what he nurtures and promotes. Each of us are given a choice, will you be among the common day laborers of the tower of Babel, scrambling for your slice of human fame and accomplishment, or will you be in the army of the Lord whose banner is to fight evil, promote love, and proclaim the new humanity revealed in our Lord Jesus?