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.