Andrew McGowan (BAS): How December 25 Became Christmas

Thus, we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6).

Connecting Jesus’ conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together. One of the most poignant expressions of this belief is found in Christian art. In numerous paintings of the angel’s Annunciation to Mary—the moment of Jesus’ conception—the baby Jesus is shown gliding down from heaven on or with a small cross (see photo above of detail from Master Bertram’s Annunciation scene); a visual reminder that the conception brings the promise of salvation through Jesus’ death.

The notion that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year is also reflected in ancient Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a dispute between two early-second-century C.E. rabbis who share this view, but disagree on the date: Rabbi Eliezer states: “In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born … and in Nisan they [our ancestors] will be redeemed in time to come.” (The other rabbi, Joshua, dates these same events to the following month, Tishri.)14 Thus, the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on such chronologies: Jesus would have been conceived on the same date he died, and born nine months later.15

In the end we are left with a question: How did December 25 become Christmas? We cannot be entirely sure. Elements of the festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times may well derive from pagan traditions. Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaism—from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year—than from paganism. Then again, in this notion of cycles and the return of God’s redemption, we may perhaps also be touching upon something that the pagan Romans who celebrated Sol Invictus, and many other peoples since, would have understood and claimed for their own, too.

Read it all.

Fr. Philip Sang: Prepare the Way for the Lord: Make Straight His Paths

Sermon delivered on Advent 2B, Sunday, December 10, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3.8-15a; Mark 1.1-8.

Prepare the way of the Lord make straight His paths in the name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit Amen.

Advent is a season of expectation and preparation, as the church prepares to celebrate the coming (adventus) of christ in his incarnation, and also looks ahead to his final advent as judge at the end of time. We note that the readings and liturgies not only directs us towards christ’s birth, they also challenge the modern reluctance to confront the theme of divine judgement.

Last week Fr. Kevin reminded us that the four last things – Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell- have been traditional themes for Advent meditation.

Advent means “coming.” I don’t need to tell good Anglicans that. This is a season of waiting, of expectation, for Christ’s coming on Christmas Day. So with the whole church, we wait: lighting candles, singing coming of the Lord songs, counting down each Sunday until, with Christmas joy, we celebrate God’s incarnation. Waiting, faithfully, for Christ’s coming at Christmas.

But there’s another side to Christ’s coming, one that, generally speaking, us mainline Christians get a bit nervous to discuss. This reason gives some of us hope to get out of bed each morning, and for others, it’s the farthest thing from our minds, a scary and strange idea that we just rather not consider.

Advent means “coming” in another way: Christ’s “second coming.” Christ’s return. Today’s lection is all about Christ’s coming again, Peter calls it “The day of the Lord” , but that day isn’t December 25th at all. It’s that other day, the timing of it is rather fuzzy, after all “with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” but it’s that day, that second-coming-day, about which Peter is concerned.

I’ve heard a story told about one New Testament scholar who every day would wake up, stretch, and walk to the window of his bedroom and open the blinds. Then he’d pray the same prayer every morning. Short, succinct, longing. Every morning he’d pray: “Is it today Lord? Is it today?”

These are not new questions, they are the questions Peter’s community were struggling with when he wrote 2 Peter. It was then several generations after Jesus’ death, and the people were met with the hard truth: Jesus had not yet returned.

Their opponents said the delay was proof that he would not come. The doubters cemented their stances against the Christ-followers. And, like you and I might be, Peter’s community was worried. They found themselves asking, “Is he ever going to get here?”

Waiting is hard. Anyone who has checked the mail anxiously expecting an admissions letter or very important mail knows that waiting is hard. Anyone who has kept vigil beside a hospital bed, crying and worried, holding a loved-one’s hand knows that waiting is hard.

Peter gets it too, waiting is hard. Perhaps he was persecuted for his beliefs like other Christians of his day. Perhaps he had struggles along the way, but he knows his Bible and echoes Amos and Joel and Isaiah: “The day of the Lord will come.”

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness” Peter writes, “but is patient with you, not wanting any one of you to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

Peter writes But the day of the Lord will come, like a thief in the night . And then he says the heavens will pass away with a bang, and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and all that is done on the earth will be disclosed. One translation puts it: “Then the earth and everything on it will be seen for what they are.”

Advent is a time of grace to remind us that Jesus is the reason for the season. We heard the beginning of today’s Gospel reminding us of the prophecy of Isaiah fulfilled in John the Baptist, Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’ (Mark 1:2-3) The season of Advent therefore being the time of waiting and anticipating Christ’s coming is like John the Baptist now, crying out to us to prepare. ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’ (Mark 1:3) The Church longs for the Second Coming of Jesus because it will be Christ’s victory over all evil and Christ’s triumph in the world.

In the Eucharistic Acclamations we profess our faith in Jesus’ Second Coming: Great is the mystery of faith:

Christ has died Christ is risen Christ will come again

When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory.

In the Creed which we profess every Sunday too we also proclaim: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.”

Advent every year encourages us to reflect on the Second Coming of Jesus and to long for it because then Christ will triumph and all evil will be destroyed and God’s plans will finally be accomplished. As I said earlier like the church of Peter’s day we have been waiting two thousand years for Jesus’ Second Coming but Peter reminds us that for God that is only like a day because time for us is very different to time in eternity, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day” (2 Pet 3:8) This time of waiting for Jesus to come again, this Advent of two thousand years already, is a time of grace for us so that we can prepare our hearts and do what we can to bring about God’s kingdom. As I pointed earlier Peter reminds us that this extended time, this long Advent, before Jesus comes again has been given to us because God is patient, “not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9) If this is the case what is to be our attitude as we wait? The gospel says prepare the way. Peter advices us to be “conducting ourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Pet 3:11-12) And the reading concluded, Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive, in other words be eager, to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish (2 Pet 3:14)

My Brothers and sisters in Christ, during this Advent let us prepare our hearts for Christ by turning away from sin and evil and giving ourselves completely to God so that when Christ comes, or when we are called from this life, we are ready and prepared.

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’ (Mark 1:3)

In the name of God the father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit Amen.

The Four Last Things: Judgment

Sermon delivered on Advent Sunday B, December 3, 2017 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. What better time to consider your present and future but now?

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 64.1-9; Psalm 80.1-8, 18-20; 1 Corinthians 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Happy new year, St. Augustine’s! Today is Advent Sunday. We begin a new calendar year for the Church, a new lectionary cycle, and have lighted the first purple candle on our wreath that represents the patriarchs. Advent comes from the Latin word, adventus (parousia in Greek), and means coming or arrival. Advent is a season of expectation and preparation in which the Church prepares to celebrate the coming (adventus) of Christ in his incarnation and also looks forward to his final advent as judge at the end of history. Advent is not part of the Christmas season but rather a preparation for it. It is an appropriate time for us to reflect on the Four Last Things—Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. While none of us really want to talk about these things, talk about them we must because they remind us of the reality of our standing before God and no amount of denial or discomfort on our part is going to change that fact. Better for us to think clearly and soberly about the human condition and our relationship with Almighty God than to whistle through the graveyard hoping everything will turn out all right in the end.

Before we talk about God’s judgment, it is critical that we place it in the overarching story of Scripture so that we understand God’s judgment in its proper context. Recall that Scripture contains the story of how God is putting to rights all that is wrong with his good creation. God created everything good and created humans in God’s own image to be wise stewards of God’s good world. But human sin and the evil it unleashed thoroughly corrupted God’s world and us. We are hopelessly enslaved by the outside and hostile power of Sin and the forces behind it, unable to fix ourselves. Don’t believe me? How many of you are still keeping those new year’s resolutions you made back in January? How many of you are still trying to break those sins in your life you know you need to break but you keep on doing them regularly? Me too. So God’s judgment is an integral part of God righting what is wrong with God’s world and us.

The first thing then we need to observe about God’s judgment is that there is a positive dimension to it. God’s judgment is always wrapped in God’s love for his creation and creatures. If we do not understand this critical dynamic, we will never understand why God judges in the first place. God judges all in God’s world that corrupts and dehumanizes us, which is what Sin does to us as God’s image-bearers. If God really loves us, how can God not judge that within us and outside us that afflicts us and diminishes us as his image-bearers? What loving parent would stand by idly and watch evil afflict his or her child? We all understand this instinctively. That is why there is always a yearning in Scripture for God’s justice, even with its accompanying judgment. We see it in our OT lesson where the prophet yearns for God to rend the invisible veil that separates heaven and earth, God’s dimension and humans’ dimension respectively, to defeat God’s enemies who afflict God’s people. Likewise the psalmist yearns for God to intervene on behalf of God’s people to break the power of their enemies over them. Behind such a yearning, of course, is the recognition of God’s great love for and faithfulness to his people.

And we too have this yearning as we look at the world we live in with its increasing madness. It’s not necessarily that the world is more evil than before. It’s just that now we have the means to learn about the depths of human depravity almost as it happens. When we read horror stories about mass murders or racism or exploitation or addiction or the increasing scandal of sexual abuse and harassment among the famous and powerful, we know in our bones that something must be done about it. We know, for example, that murderers and drug dealers must receive justice because of the lives they ruin or destroy. But even if they do receive human justice, their victims are still lost. Those who loved them still grieve their death. Human justice will not and cannot restore the dead to life. Likewise for those who have lost loved ones to truly evil diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s that ravage body and mind before destroying the victim. If God truly loves us, God must judge both the Evil and the evildoer as part of God’s restorative and healing justice. Otherwise Evil will always corrupt and destroy God’s good world and God’s image-bearers. How can a loving God allow that to continue?

And while we are all for God’s fierce judgment being pronounced on the bad guys, especially those we despise most, we are much less enthusiastic about God’s judgment when we find ourselves standing in God’s dock. When we hear the NT writers like Paul remind us that we all must stand before the judgment seat of Christ [to] receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body (2 Corinthians 5.10) it strikes fear in our hearts. We remember all the wrong we have done and we are mindful of God’s terrible wrath on all that is evil for the reasons we’ve just discussed. We, along with the psalmist, ask, “Who can stand before God when once God’s anger is roused? From the heavens God uttered judgment; the earth feared and was still” (Psalm 76.7-8). Think, for example, what fear Fathers Bowser, Sang, and Gatwood must feel when contemplating standing before Christ’s judgment seat and having to answer for all the mediocre sermons they preach. Or see Bishop Ames tremble as he realizes that he must answer for ordaining a loser like me to the priesthood. It is a fearsome picture.

On a more serious note, Scripture tells us we will all have to answer for the evil we have committed in our lives, great and small. As St. Paul makes clear in our epistle lesson, one day  our Lord Jesus will appear again to judge once and for all the Evil that corrupts God’s good world and God’s image-bearing creatures as well as those who commit that evil. This is a very sobering thought, especially when we remember what St. Paul says about human sin in Romans 3.10-12. Echoing Psalm 13, the apostle reminds us that, “No one is righteous—not even one. No one is truly wise; no one [seeks] God. All have turned away; all have become useless. No one does good, not a single one” (NLT). It is here that we must stop and remind ourselves where judgment fits into the overall story of Scripture. This is God putting to rights all that is wrong in God’s world, us included. No wonder we hear the call to abandon our evil ways and turn to God. i.e., to repent.

But many of us, hearing the call to repent, lose heart and hope because we know how thoroughly enslaved we are to the power of Sin. We say we love God but we keep on committing the same sins. We say we believe the Good News of Jesus Christ but then set out to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps so that we will be right with God when we stand before Christ’s judgment seat. So we resolve to read the Bible more, to pray more, to be nicer to the people we really don’t like, to come to worship more regularly. More self-help. That’s the ticket we tell ourselves. It must be. After all, the bookstores are full of self-help books. We can do it if we only try harder. Right. This is not believing the the Good News, my beloved. It is another form of self-worship and indicative of our inherent hostility and rebellion toward God. We don’t trust God to deal with the problem of human sin and God’s judgment upon it and those who commit it. We want to trust ourselves. But to trust ourselves is utter foolishness and folly because we are defeated before we ever get started. We are that thoroughly infected by Sin.

But if we really do understand and believe the Good News of Jesus Christ, we have nothing to fear. We hear Isaiah remind us in our OT lesson that God is our Father with all that is good about a father’s heart. To be sure we all must stand before Christ’s judgment seat. But we who put our hope and trust in Christ will hear the verdict of not guilty as St. Paul states boldly in our epistle lesson. Part of repentance, therefore, is learning to trust in the love and faithfulness of God the Father to do as God promises. Listen to St. Paul again:

You have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Corinthians 3.7-9, NLT).

Did you catch that? As people of God gathered here as St. Augustine’s, despite our brokenness, despite our ongoing short-sightedness, sin, and folly, we as God’s people collectively don’t lack any needed spiritual gift to help us be God’s true image-bearing creatures. Why? Because we are empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to overcome our sin and folly. To be sure this is quite a long and messy process. But as St. Paul reminds us, it’s a done deal because it’s not about us. It’s about what God has done, is doing, and will do for us in Christ. As Christians, we will be held accountable for our good deeds and bad. But we will hear the verdict of not guilty pronounced on us. Why? Because of what God has done for us on the cross. If you want to know what God’s justice looks like, a justice wrapped in God’s love, look no further than Calvary. There you will see God’s only begotten and beloved Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, dying a criminal’s death in utter humiliation for our sake. As we’ve seen, God’s wrath must and will be poured out on Evil and evildoers. But God became human to die for us and take on his own terrible and just punishment for our sins so that we do not have to bear it. Are we worthy of such love and grace? Of course not. But again, it’s not about us. It is about God’s great love and perfect justice for us.

We are astonished by this and cry out that it’s just too good to be true. Well yes it is. That’s why we call it the gospel or Good News of Jesus Christ. God’s love for us is greater than our sin and hostility toward God. We deserve none of it but it is offered to us freely anyway. God offers it to us because this is how God has decided to put to rights all that is wrong in this world. On the cross of Jesus Christ, God has condemned our sin in the flesh and defeated the power of Evil. As we have seen, evil has not been fully vanquished. That remains for when Christ returns. But God has done what needed to be done to reconcile us to himself, even while we were still God’s enemies, and God has defeated the power of death by raising Jesus from the dead. All who are Christ’s will share in that new life. Then God’s restorative justice will be fully revealed. Evil will be annihilated, death will be no more, and God’s redeemed and fully healed people will be raised from the dead to assume their rightful roles as God’s wise and loving stewards over God’s new creation, the new heavens and earth. Amen?

This is why Advent is so important, my beloved. It gives us a time to reflect intentionally the midst of holiday madness on who God is and what God has promised to do for us. It is a time for us to get our house in order with the help of the Holy Spirit so that we act like we really do believe the Good News of Jesus Christ. God’s judgment reminds us that God is not indifferent to the suffering and injustice in God’s world and our lives. God hates all evil and will restore fully his good creation and image-bearers. So we watch and wait, firmly resolved to give our lives to the One who loves us and and gave himself for us so that we could have life. This is the Good News of Advent that we are to proclaim and live out as we await the return of Jesus our Lord and Savior. May we all grow in grace to really and truly believe the Good News, to take what God has done for us on the cross seriously and not just pay it lip service as we await his kingdom to come in full. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Fr. Terry Gatwood: Christ the King and We His Beloved Subjects

Sermon delivered on Christ the King Sunday A, November 26, 2017. at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. You’ll feel like royalty after you read today’s sermon.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1.15-23; Matthew 25.31-46.

>“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

There may be no more awesome or terrifying passage in all of Holy Scripture than the picture of the last judgment found in Matthew 25. No words of our Lord are more direct and uncompromising in their meaning; no image of our Lord is more unsettling than this picture of Christ the King, the final Judge over all nations and all people. Our gospel does not pretend to tell us when this final judgment of the world will take place, only that it will take place; and that on that day there will be no escape from the piercing judgment of the King who sees every life and every heart in all its fullness.

What does it mean for us—this picture of judgment, this vision of a shepherd separating sheep from goats? What is it that the Lord expects and wants of us?

Looking at the parable we hear the absolute simplicity of what Jesus requires of us. So often we look at problems in our world and want to throw up our hands in despair. There is so much need in the world, and here we are, feeling inadequate. And we can use those feelings of helplessness as an excuse for doing nothing.

But note well! The servants of Jesus Christ are not called upon to fix all the evils in the world. We don’t have the power or authority to do everything by ourselves. But we are called to do simple things that have great impact! “I was sick”–says the Lord—and what did the righteous do? Did they heal the sick. Did they work great miracles with the sick and completely restore them to perfect health? No. The Lord doesn’t ask us to do things we have no power to do. The righteous are blessed, not because they healed the sick but because they visited the sick. A simple action, one requiring no skill, no money, no political strategy—just compassion. Healing may come as a result of the visit, but only because the Lord has done it.

“I was in prison”—says the Lord—and what did the righteous do? Did they set the prisoner free? No. The Lord doesn’t ask us to do things we have no power or authority to do. The righteous are blessed because they simply visited the prisoner, befriended, loved the imprisoned, the outcast. A simple action, requiring no great effort, no particular power—just compassion.

There comes a moment, you see, when we must learn the rather unsettling truth: that what Christ asks of us in terms of “social involvement” begins with the very simplest of actions—actions that don’t require anything of us but some time and some personal care. Actions so simple that when we fail to do them, there is just no real good excuse.

We also must note that all the deeds for which the righteous are blessed in this passage are deeds done very close to home. There is great work to be done worldwide for sure, but here we understand the righteous are not the ones who searched the world over, looking for good deeds to do—they are those who ministered to people in need right in their own situation, on a day to day basis. Some of you may remember the old Audrey Hepburn movie called “The Nun’s Story.” Hepburn played a nun whose life-long ambition is to work in the Congo as a missionary nurse. She finds her dream disappointed, time after time. She is assigned to a mental hospital, then to a European hospital in Africa. Her dream of working out in the bush eludes her. And what she never really understands is that she can serve God and meet human need right where she is.

But the righteous, you see, are not those who have gone on exciting adventures in search of some exotic mission, but those who have served right where they are. That’s where it begins. The moment comes when we face the unsettling truth: that the compassion Christ requires of us doesn’t depend on some special situation or unusual opportunity. It is compassion that is shown now, today, to those in need who are all around us.

And then again, we must be aware that whatever we do in Christ’s name, it is to be done without expectation of reward. Often this passage is interpreted as evidence for salvation by works. Doesn’t it demonstrate that we are saved by what we do? Doesn’t that conflict with our understanding of salvation by grace through faith? But the key here is that in this story, the righteous are every bit as surprised as the unrighteous at the judgment of Christ. They have done these good works, not for the purpose of pleasing God, but simply out of the compassion of their hearts. “Lord,” they protest, “when did we see you hungry…?” Their kind deeds were so much a part of their ordinary lives that it never occurred to them that they had done anything very great or significant. They were simply following, acting like, Christ the Good King.

Francis of Assisi, the great saint of the 11th century, was born into a rich and well-placed family. He spent his life preparing to be a knight, a noble soldier; but he felt his life had an emptiness to it. One day he was out riding and he saw a leper, a poor man in rags whose body was ravaged by that terrible disease. On impulse, Francis dismounted and embraced the man—and there, before his eyes, the poor leper turned into a vision of Christ. From that day on, Francis gave up his wealth and devoted his life to loving and caring for the least of these. He made his life a gift to Christ by giving his life to those in need.

What gifts have we given lately to Christ the King? The gifts he wants are so simple. They are to feed the hungry and clothe the naked—not just on the other side of the world, but here, in our own midst. They are to visit the sick and befriend the imprisoned—here, in our own midst. They are to treat every person—even the least, even the one that seems most useless and unimportant—as if he were Christ himself. For inasmuch as we give something or refuse something to one of the least of these, we give or refuse it to Christ himself. There is no one, you see, who is not important to him. The tramp on the street. The little old lady who lies alone and near death in the convalescent home. The rather nerdy kid at school who is always by himself. The prisoner at the county jail. They are all among his brethren, as useless and as unimportant as they may seem to us. And what this passage finally means, you see, is that we will one day be held accountable for how we have treated or mistreated all of these little ones.

This is part of following Christ our King, and being his ministers, each and every one of us. What it is you have been called to do by Christ here may not be a Hallmark quality touching moment. It may not do anything for you to get those warm fuzzies welling up inside. In fact, it may be something quite messy and uncomfortable. Engaging in the lives of others, especially those in great need or pain, always comes with great risks. Sometimes the desired end may not be realized after all our best efforts. Yet, we press on in doing these things, presenting them to the Lord as if we were serving him directly, because in the end we are.

Caring for these little ones—it is part of the commission we were given in our baptism. I love the moment in the rite of confirmation when the confirmands state their intention to continue to live in their baptismal covenant, including their lifelong intentions. From our formative 1662 prayer book, here is a question and answer that is part of that confirmation liturgy concerning those coming forward for Holy Communion:

Quest. What is required of them who come to the Lord’s Supper? Answer. To examine themselves, whether they repent them truly of their former sins, steadfastly purposing to lead a new life; have a lively faith in God’s mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death; and be in charity with all men.

That is a tall order. “…Steadfastly purposing to lead a new life,” and to “have a lively faith in God’s mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death; and be in charity with all men.” It is something of which all of us need continually to be reminded, that we are called to live the life of our faith in Christ the King, to trust him and follow, to be thankful every day for what he has done in his sacrifice, and to live in charity with all people. Most of us don’t do it that well all of the time. We are like those in Jesus’ parable who would say with astonishment, “Who, me? When did I ever fail to feed you, and clothe you, and serve you, Lord?” We tremble to think of the answer: “Inasmuch as you failed to do it to the least of these, you failed to do it to me.”

The Christian life is not just about going to church and reading your Bible, as vitally important as those things are. It is about living your faith. It is about serving Christ every day, in every person you meet. Yes, that is a tall order. But I have good news for you. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, commenting on this passage, reminds us that Christ is always working in us, helping us learn how to be compassionate, teaching us that we must look away from ourselves, away from our own works, and simply trust in him. In spite of this note of judgment, Bonhoeffer says, “the Christian life is not one of gloom, but of ever increasing joy in the Lord. God alone knows our good works, all we know is his good work. We can do no more than hearken to his commandment, carry on and rely on his grace, walk in his commandments, and—sin!” Because, let’s be honest, that is still a problem with even us who have followed after him for many years, and a problem which the Lord is still helping us to deal with and overcome. Bonhoeffer continues, “But we believe, and are well assured, ‘that he which began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ.’” The good news is God the Holy Spirit will not leave us unchanged, but daily will continue his good work begun in us at the baptismal font, and continues when we receive him at the Lord’s table.

May he do so even in us this day and evermore! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation 2017

Thank you, Mr. President.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.

Read the whole thing and give thanks for the country in which we live, warts and all.

Fr. Philip Sang: Living Wisely

Sermon delivered on the 2nd Sunday before Advent A, November 19, 2017 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. What better time is there to listen to a great sermon?

Father Sang continues to learn how to write, bless his pointy little head, so there is once again no written manuscript of today’s sermon. Click here to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon.

Lectionary texts: Zephaniah 1.7,12-18; Psalm 90; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30.

154th Anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Today marks the 154th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, one of the seminal speeches in American history. Take time to read and reflect on it today and give thanks that God has raised up leaders like President Lincoln to guide our country through extraordinarily difficult times.

LINCOLN’S GETTYSBURG ADDRESS

doc_036_bigdoc_036b_bigFour 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.

Fr. Terry Gatwood: God Will Come

Sermon delivered on the 3rd Sunday before Advent A, November 12, 2017 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. It’s a splendid day to listen to a sermon!

Father Gatwood as contracted the bug afflicting our other priests that prevents him from being able to write. So there is no manuscript of today’s sermon. To listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Joshua 24.1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78.1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18; Matthew 25.1-13.

Why All-Saints’ Sunday Matters

Sermon delivered on All-Saints’ Sunday A, November 5, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. It’s a splendid time to read it and be renewed by Christian hope.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Revelation 7.9-17; Psalm 34.1-10, 22; 1 John 3.1-3; Matthew 5.1-12.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In this day and age where there is increasingly fuzzy thinking about Sin, Death, and Judgment—not to mention an increasing acceptance of gnostic thinking about the evil of the created order versus the acceptance of all things spiritual—it is vital that we Christians think straightly about the hope and promise of the resurrection. Where are our loved ones who have died in Christ right now, and what is their final destiny? Moreover, what does All- Saints mean for us who are still living in this mortal life? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

We start with the question of where are our Christian dead? While the entire Bible speaks very little of heaven, we get a glimpse of it in our NT lesson from Revelation. Many folks think these visions of the heavenly throne room are in the future, but they are mistaken. St. John is getting a glimpse of the present heavenly reality. And what does he see? The saints of God standing before God’s throne and Jesus the Lamb. There is a great multitude of them from every tribe, language, and nation—a reminder that the gospel is available to anyone with the good sense to believe and accept it—and they are worshiping their Creator and the Lamb. Visual imagery is important in St. John’s revelation, and we see the Christian dead dressed in white robes and waving palm branches. These images remind us that their sins have been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb, thus the white robes. They are no longer wearing their filthy, sin-stained garments that we all wear in this mortal life. And the palm branches they wave proclaim Jesus as God’s Messiah or anointed one, who came to die for us so that we could be rescued from our slavery to Sin, and Death which always results from it.

These visual images are reinforced by what the saints proclaim. They rightly acknowledge they are standing before God’s throne and the Lamb because of what God has done for them in Christ. “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb!” they proclaim with great joy and wonderment. They readily acknowledge that they are in God’s direct presence only because of God’s awesome and gracious love for them, not because they have done anything to deserve or merit being there. I want to read you a quick story that I recount at every Christian funeral. It poignantly summarizes the free gift of God’s grace that flows from God’s loving and merciful heart, a deep and abiding love God has for even the worst sinners.

In 1989 Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, wife of Emperor Charles of Austria died. She was the last Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, and Queen of Bohemia—one of the last members of the storied House of Habsburg. Her funeral was held in Vienna, from which she had been exiled most of her eventful life. After the service in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, her body was taken to the Imperial Crypt, where some 145 Habsburg royals are buried. As the coffin was taken to the Crypt, an ancient ceremony took place. A herald knocked at the closed door, and a voice responded, “Who seeks entrance?” The herald answered, “Zita, Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary.” From within came the response, “I do not know this person.” The herald tried again, saying, “This is Zita, Princess of Bourbon-Parma, Empress of Bohemia.” The same reply was heard: “I do not know this person.” The third time, the herald and pallbearers said, “Our sister Zita, a sinful mortal.” The doors swung open.

Did you get the punch line? Of anybody that we might consider by worldly standards as being worthy of acceptance into God’s kingdom, Zita was it. She was royalty and an important big-shot. But none of that made a difference to God because she, like the rest of us, was a sinner and therefore unworthy to enter into God’s holy presence. But God didn’t create us to condemn us or to remain alienated to us, and so God sent his only begotten Son to die for us so that we could have our sins washed away, be reconciled to God and live, thanks be to God! Can I hear an Amen?

Furthermore, St. John reminds us that those who stand before God and the Lamb are also rejoicing because they have come out of the great tribulation in which they suffered persecution and death. Among this great throng, then, are the martyrs who have literally given their lives for Christ. But we don’t have to be martyred to have the privilege of standing before God’s throne and the Lamb in heaven. God’s love is not particular in that way. We think of our own tribulations in this mortal life and the tribulations of those we have loved but lost for a season. If you have ever seen someone you love struggle with disease or addiction or old age and infirmity, or madness or financial, social, or relational calamity, to name just a few, you can understand and appreciate why these Christian dead rejoice that they have come through their own tribulations and now stand released from them, thanks be to God. They now have the immense and wonderful privilege of being with God and his Christ in heaven. As St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live” (Philippians 1.23-24, NLT).

All this reminds us that our Christian dead are conscious in some form and are aware of being in Christ’s presence, something that St. Paul believes will be indescribably good, as we’ve just seen. So to answer the question, where are our Christian dead, they are with Christ in heaven, God’s dimension. Their souls have been separated from their mortal bodies, but they are alive indeed even as their mortal bodies lie moldering in the grave. This is what Christians usually mean when we talk about life after death. But let’s also be clear about this. Our Christian dead are still dead, even though we know their souls are alive with God and Christ in heaven. And it is precisely at this point that many Christians today get tripped up. They get tripped up in part because the Church, at least here in the West, has done a dreadful job of teaching about and proclaiming our hope—the sure and certain expectation—of resurrection. There are many reasons for this, reasons that we do not have time to explore today: a loss of creational theology that posits the goodness and worth of God’s created order, especially to God; an increasing acceptance of gnostic thinking that rejects the goodness of God’s created order and is all about all things “spiritual;” and yes, sadly, an increasing skepticism about the resurrection of the dead as we continue to elevate to an idolatrous level science and human experience.

So what do I mean when I say our Christian dead are still dead? The scene from God’s throne room in St. John’s revelation is a glimpse of the present heavenly reality, not the future hope and promise of the new heavens and earth. God’s dimension of heaven remains hidden from our mortal eyes, and because it is hidden from us, we must endure the pain of being separated from our Christian dead. But that separation is only for a season. As St. John alludes to in our epistle lesson, the dimensions of heaven and earth will one day be fused together when Christ returns to consummate his saving work that he started at his first coming. When that happens, our mortal bodies will be raised from their graves and transformed into spiritual bodies, or bodies that are animated and powered by the Holy Spirit, not flesh and blood (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.42-50). Their souls will be  reunited with their transformed bodies and they will get to live forever in God’s new creation, the new heavens and earth about which Revelation 21.1-7 speaks. This is what resurrection is all about, my beloved. It is about bodily existence, not some kind of ongoing disembodied spiritual existence that gnosticism advocates. As Bishop Tom Wright says, resurrection is about life after life after death. It is the end game and the culmination of God’s promise that runs throughout the story of the Bible to restore and make right his good but sin- and evil-corrupted original creation. New creation, new bodily existence, and the privilege of living in God’s and the Lamb’s direct presence, only this time with new indestructible bodies, is the essence of the Christian hope, hope again defined as the sure and certain expectation of resurrection. There is no teaching like it in any of the other major religions.

For anyone who has watched a loved one struggle in his or her mortal body, the hope of resurrection is the only balm that can really heal our aching hearts because as St. John reminds us, while no one knows what our resurrection bodies will look like, they will be patterned after Christ’s resurrection body and will surely be incomprehensibly beautiful, strong, and healthy. Only then, as St. Paul reminds us, will the last enemy of Death be fully conquered (1 Corinthians 15.26, 53-55).

Now that we have answered the questions about the current state and future destiny of the Christian dead, what about us who still are members of the Church Militant, who live our mortal lives in God’s good but broken world? Our epistle and gospel lessons have something to say about that as well. As St. John reminds us, we have the privilege of being called children of God, and because we are God’s children in Christ (and let’s be clear; only those who are in Christ are God’s children), we can look forward to our inheritance we’ve just talked about, an inheritance made possible by God’s great love and mercy for us as demonstrated in the blood of the Lamb shed for us on the cross. God’s gracious gift of salvation is given freely to us and we are called to live in the power of the Spirit, a gift we received at our baptism, as God’s healed and transformed people. This means that we strive to conform our lives, however imperfectly, to become truly human beings who bear God’s image—or to use St. John’s language, to be pure. It means, to name just a few, that we seek God’s righteousness and justice in all aspects of our lives, in how we manage our resources and treat those around us, especially those in our family. It means we are merciful and forgiving just as God in Christ is merciful and has forgiven us. It means we seek the peace and welfare of the world, especially in our own neck of the woods. We do this in response to the gift of eternal life, resurrection life, with which God has blessed us. This is why All-Saints’ Sunday is so important, my beloved. This is the Good News those on our Roll Call of the Victorious are experiencing. Remember that as we read their names in a few minutes. This is the Good News we are to proclaim and live out, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A Prayer for the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed 2017

Everlasting God, our Maker and Redeemer,
grant us, with all the faithful departed,
the sure bene?ts of your Son’s saving passion
and glorious resurrection,
that, in the last day,
when you gather up all things in Christ,
we may with them enjoy the fullness of your promises;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

All Saints’ Day 2017: Augustine Muses on the Saints of God

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With humans this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”— Matthew 19.25-26

The saints are those who are moved by God’s grace to do whatever good they do. Some are married and have intercourse with their spouse sometimes for the sake of having a child and sometimes just for the pleasure of it. They get angry and desire revenge when they are injured, but are ready to forgive when asked. They are very attached to their property but will freely give at least a modest amount to the poor. They will not steal from you but are quick to take you to court if you try to steal from them. They are realistic enough to know that God should get the main credit for the good that they do. They are humble enough to admit that they are the sources of their own evil acts. In this life God loves them for their good acts and gives forgiveness for their evil, and in the next life they will join the ranks of those who will reign with Christ forever.

–Augustine of Hippo, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, 3.5.14

One of the reasons I love Augustine is that he was never afraid to be real. As you read his description of the saints, you cannot help but wonder how these folks can be enjoying their rest with their Lord. I mean, look at their flaws Augustine is pointing out!

Here’s the answer. They have died with Christ and so are raised with him (Romans 6.8) They were buried with Christ in the waters of baptism so that they might rise with him in his resurrection (Romans 6.3-5). And when they were alive in this mortal life, this treasure of life eternal was hidden with Christ (Colossians 3.3-4), i.e., this hope and promise of resurrection and eternal life is not always readily apparent to us or the world around us.

For you see, it is not about the saints or our worthiness. None of us is worthy to stand before God in God’s perfect holiness! Rather, it is about what God has done for us in Jesus so that through his death we might enjoy real peace and reconciliation with God (Romans 5.111). In Jesus, God condemned sin in the flesh so that we might be equipped to live with God forever, both here on earth in the power of the Spirit and in God’s promised new creation (Romans 8.3-418-25). This is what Jesus reminds us in the passage above from Matthew and that’s why we have hope for the Christian dead and ourselves on All Saints Day. Jesus is Lord, even over death!

Is this your hope or are you clinging to something less which is bound to fail? On this All Saints Day may God grant you the grace, wisdom, and courage to embrace the hope offered to you in Jesus. Come celebrate our victory over death in Christ this Sunday as we celebrate the communion of saints!

A Prayer for All Saints’ Day 2017 (1)

Almighty God,
you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship
in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord:
grant us grace so to follow your blessed saints
in all virtuous and godly living
that we may come to those inexpressible joys
that you have prepared for those who truly love you;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.