Sunday, September 25, 2016

19th Sunday after Pentecost

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

18th Sunday after Pentecost

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

Commemoration of 9/11

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

16th Sunday after Pentecost

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.