What Happens When God Isn’t Near

Sermon delivered on Trinity 18A, Sunday, October 15, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. It’s a beautiful day to consider the beautiful Presence of our Lord Jesus in his good creation.

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

Lectionary texts: Exodus 32.1-14; Psalm 106.1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4.1-9; Matthew 22.1-14.

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

What are we to make of that strange story we read in our OT lesson this morning? Here are God’s people, rescued by God from their slavery in Egypt by an awesome display of power, and then nurtured by God and his servant Moses as they made their way through the desert to the promised land. What would make God’s people Israel abandon their rescuing, faithful God for a lifeless and powerless idol? And why should we care about this story as Christians living in 21st century America? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

To help us make sense of our lesson today, we need a little background. The Lord had called Moses up to the mountaintop to give Moses instructions for building the tabernacle, which would be the place on earth where God would dwell with his chosen people, Israel. Let that fact sink in. God is giving Moses plans that will enable God’s people to enjoy in a special way God’s presence with them as God’s people (cf. 1 Kings 8.1-13). No other people on earth could claim this privilege, dangerous as God’s presence could be at times. God was making preparations with his servant to make good on God’s promise to be their God in a meaningful way.

But the meeting between God and Moses was taking longer than the people apparently expected. Exodus 24.18 tells us Moses was on the mountaintop forty days and nights, but God’s people don’t seem to have gotten that memo. And so they started grumbling to Aaron, Moses’ brother and God’s appointed priest, who would mediate God’s presence with his people once the tabernacle was built (don’t forget that last little nugget). Make gods for us who will lead us, they tell Aaron. As for Moses, we don’t know what the heck happened to the dude. He just checked out on us. In effect, the people were telling Aaron that they weren’t sure God was with them anymore as God had promised, and so they wanted God’s priest to make them gods to fill the perceived leadership void. Astonishingly enough, Aaron immediately agreed and forged a golden calf in direct violation of the first three commandments God had given Moses. Later in the story when Moses challenged his brother as to why he had done this, Aaron had this to say:

“Do not let [your] anger burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf” (Exodus 32.22-24)!

Seriously, Aaron? The first thing out of your mouth is to pass the buck and then to offer that ridiculous excuse about throwing gold into the fire and it coming out as a calf on its own? Really? Any self-respecting five-year old could do better than that! So it seems that God’s priest was no better than God’s people (I would invite you not to draw too many conclusions about priests from this; I might resemble that statement). Despite having witnessed God’s deliverance of them through the Red Sea, despite the presence of the Lord in the pillars of cloud and fire, despite the manna from heaven, despite God giving his people water to drink in the midst of the wilderness to sustain them in their journey (at that point) to the promised land, God’s people Israel, Aaron included, demonstrated how profoundly broken they were. Once they perceived God to be absent from their midst, they chose to take matters into their own hands pretty quickly so that all hell began to break loose. It is a sad and astonishing story for us to ponder on the brokenness of the human condition. Take God out of the picture for a moment, give us an inch, and we will take a mile. This is the legacy of the sin of our first ancestors, Adam and Eve.

And it would seem that God’s people in Christ are not immune to this problem either. In our epistle lesson, St. Paul addresses the growing problem of a conflict between two prominent women in the house church at Philippi. While Paul does not directly say it, it is not unreasonable for us to conclude that one of the reasons for the conflict was the perception by at least some that the Lord was absent among them. Otherwise, why would St. Paul bother to say in the context of addressing this conflict that the Lord is near? Not only that, but the apostle had some recommendations for the Philippians to help them cultivate the Lord’s presence amongst them. More about that in a minute. So this problem of misbehaving when we perceive the Lord to be absent seems to be common to both the people of the old and new testaments.

But Israel’s misbehavior wasn’t simply a product of God’s perceived absence. As Jesus’ parable about the wedding banquet warns, while all are called to the banquet, many simply aren’t interested in attending if it means they must live under God’s rule and rules. This flies in the face of our modern sensibilities where inclusion is king and we don’t want anyone to be left out of the reindeer games. But as we saw last week, while living in God’s direct presence in this mortal life is a huge privilege, it is also a very dangerous privilege. How can sinful mortals stand in the presence of a perfect and holy God who is opposed to any form of evil? Just ask Aaron’s sons who were consumed by fire when they offered unauthorized fire to the Lord (Leviticus 10.1-3). As Christians, we believe that humans are made fit to stand in the presence of our holy God because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us on the cross. But the sad fact remains that there are many who do not want to live their lives in the manner God desires.

This is the point of Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet. To be sure, God loves us as we are, but God does not desire to keep us where we are. Think about it. When Jesus was confronted by the lame, the blind, and the demon-possessed, he didn’t tell them he loved them as they were. He healed them. Likewise, Jesus loves mass murderers, child molesters, drug pushers, ruthless and arrogant business people, and manipulative parents who damage their children’s emotions for life. But because Jesus loves these folks, not to mention folks like you and me with our own brokenness and baggage, whatever it is, Jesus doesn’t want to leave us in our current condition because he hates the effect of our sin on us and those we afflict by our sin.

In a few moments we will come to our Lord’s Table to feed on his body and blood and be reminded that we are reconciled to God so that we have a future in God’s kingdom when it comes in full on earth as it is in heaven, just like we pray for every Sunday. But if we love our sins more than we love God, we are effectively thumbing our nose at God and telling him no thanks when he invites to enter his banquet forever. The fact of the matter is that God’s kingdom is a kingdom in which God’s love, justice, truth, mercy, and holiness reign unhindered and God calls us in Christ to be people who embody these virtues, however imperfectly we do so in our mortal lives. And so when Christ calls us to be his, he expects us to act the part, to come and die as Bonhoeffer put it, with Christ’s help, of course. And when we don’t act the part, our Lord tells us to confess our sins and receive his healing love and forgiveness made possible by his saving death. This is what it means to be God’s people—in Moses’ day, in St. Paul’s day, and in ours. All are called. Jesus died for the sins of the world, not just a few. But many will reject the gracious invitation for whatever reason and will face the consequences of rejecting Christ’s love and righteousness. That is the sad reality of the human condition in our world today.

Returning to our OT lesson, what was God’s reaction to the golden calf? God tells Moses that God’s people are no longer his people, they are Moses’s people. In effect, God tells Moses, “Take your people and good riddance.” I’m going to destroy them and start all over. You are going to become the new Abraham, dude! But Moses wouldn’t have it. He reminds God of God’s covenant faithfulness to God’s people, a covenant sworn to Abraham and his descendants. You are good to your word, God. You can’t destroy these people because they are yours, not mine, and if you do that you will look like a cosmic Loser in the eyes of the Egyptians out of whose country your brought your people. You will lose your well-deserved cred.

Of course, God, being who God is, relents. God cannot renege on his promises and Israel is saved, at least for the moment. But hear what else Moses said to the Lord when he returned to the mountaintop after confronting Israel with their colossal sin and folly:

On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” But the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you (Exodus 32.30-34a).

It is worth our time to consider carefully the effect that being in God’s presence had on Moses. Think about it. When God first confronted Moses in the burning bush, Moses was reluctant to fulfill God’s call to him to lead God’s people. He made dozens of excuses as to why he couldn’t do what God asked him. And of course Moses later murdered an Egyptian who was abusing a fellow Israelite. Moses wasn’t exactly ready for prime time in his new role as God’s chosen leader. But now we see Moses interceding for his people, begging God to spare them and offering himself in their place if only God would not destroy them. Can you say transformation?

And God did relent, at least partially. God did not destroy either Moses or God’s people. God spared them both. But we also know that there would come a time when God did not spare his chosen One from bearing the punishment of the people for their sins. No, God sent his only Son to be tortured and die a humiliating and agonizing death to spare God’s enemies—you and me—from God’s holy wrath on the evil we commit every day. God’s only begotten Son, Jesus our Lord, willingly gave himself in accordance with the Father’s will to save us from our slavery to Sin and to break its power over us so that we could enjoy our invitation to God’s wedding banquet of which the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste, thanks be to God. This is the kind of God who calls us to be his and who is present to us in the power of the Holy Spirit just as he was present to his people in the pillars of fire and cloud as they wandered through the wilderness. This God is good to his Word. We need not doubt God’s Presence among us. Ever. Yet whether it was through their faulty perception that God had abandoned them or their own willful rebellion against God and God’s rule, God’s people have often gone astray and worshiped false gods or idols.

Now before we get all smug and uppity about our spiritual ancestors and their shortcomings, it might help if we conducted a reality check about our own spiritual condition. Of course when you come to worship on the Sundays that I preach, and hear these divine sermons, you will naturally be tempted to think you have been transported to heaven. I know that temptation is strong, but resist it because it is only an illusion. In fact, we are every bit as prone to go astray because of our own inherent hostility toward the Lord and/or our perception that he is absent among us. Think it through. When sickness or death strikes us or our loved ones, we want to ask where God is in it all. Where was God when the Las Vegas sniper was mowing down innocent people? Where is God in the bombast about nuclear war that we hear coming from the leaders of North Korea and our own country? Where is God in this country as we seem to increasingly tear each other apart, and often irrationally? Where was God when the hurricanes afflicted this county and the Caribbean islands? We are constantly bombarded with bad news, and instantaneously, and are tempted to think God has abandoned us. And it’s not just turmoil in our country and world; it’s all the turmoil in our lives and the lives of our family as well. You get the point. We are every bit as prone to look for something or someone else to lead us (astray) as the ancient Israelites were because we do not perceive God’s leadership.

That is why we should pay attention to what St. Paul had to say to the Philippians in today’s epistle lesson. First he reminds us that the Lord is near in the power of the Spirit. That said, as with any relationship in a broken world, we have to do our part to cultivate our knowledge of his Presence and our relationship with him. Yes, the Lord is near to us. So St. Paul tells us to do three things to cultivate a sense of that Presence. First, come together as his people regularly to celebrate our Lord’s presence among us. That’s what St. Paul means when he tells us to rejoice always. You don’t have to spend too much time here at St. Augustine’s to get a sense of that Presence. Or consider Christian funerals. We can rejoice, even in the midst of our sorrow, because of the fact that God has defeated Sin and Death in the death and resurrection of Jesus his Son. Second, focus on the goodness of creation, especially in prayer. That doesn’t mean we ignore what’s wrong with creation. Rather, it means we focus equally on its goodness because it is a reflection on the goodness of its Creator. Focus each day on whatever is good, right, just, and beautiful in your life and the lives of your loved ones. Give thanks for the little things that happen to you that are good and wholesome. Those things aren’t coincidences. Make this a habit and eventually you will be reminded that God is very much present in God’s world. Last, live as Jesus’ people. Embody his love, mercy, goodness, justice, and holiness. The key concept here is habit. Imitate your Lord in his life and death, focus on his goodness and presence, and you will not be disappointed because as we have seen, God is faithful to his promises, even when we cannot see how. This is the Good News we are called to both embrace and proclaim, my beloved, now and for all eternity. But we must put in our sweat equity and then trust our Lord Jesus to continue to be good to his eternal promise to lead us to the new heavens and earth. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Do You Have Good News?

Sermon delivered on Trinity 17A, Sunday, October 8, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. What a splendid day to be refreshed by the gospel!

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

Lectionary texts: Exodus 20.1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3.4b-14; Matthew 21.33-46.

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

As Christians, we are people who are supposed to have Good News, or the gospel. But do we? If someone asked you what the gospel is all about, could you answer that person? Now I know many of you would be quick to say that you do have good news. You have an awesome rector who preaches brilliant sermons to counteract the tepid sermons of the other priests. While that’s certainly true—I am awesome and a brilliant preacher—it’s not the Good News I have in mind this morning. And the question is more than just rhetorical in nature because I suspect many of us don’t have Good News in the sense that we really believe what God has done for us in and through Christ. Therefore I want us to look at this issue carefully this morning because if we are going to live as people with power, we have to know the source of our power.

In our OT lesson this morning we read about God giving Moses the Law, the Ten Commandments. It is critical that we understand that the Commandments originate from God, not humans. More on that in a moment. When I was a young man I used to hate reading or hearing about the Ten Commandments because they seemed to me to be designed to rain on my parade, and I suspect I am not alone in my feelings. Don’t worship idols. That’s tough to do when I want to make life all about me and my wants and needs. Watch your language about God. That was tough, given I have the mouth of a sailor. No illicit sex. Well what about all those attractive women I see? Don’t lie about or to your neighbor. But it’s so fun and gratifying to spread juicy gossip and diss those folks I don’t like! C’mon man. You get the idea.

The writer of Exodus tells us essentially the same thing about God’s people Israel. Apparently they weren’t very fond of the Commandments either because it reminded them of their sin and standing before a holy and just God. I mean, let’s get real about this, folks. We all know how hard it is for us to keep the Commandments and it was especially critical for God’s people Israel because they believed their ability to keep the Commandments determined their right standing before the Lord. That’s what St. Paul was talking about in our epistle lesson before he met the risen Lord Jesus. So they were willing to talk to Moses about being God’s holy or called-out people, but they were terrified at the prospect of standing in God’s holy presence because they knew they would die. Why? Nobody keeps the Commandments perfectly.

But this kind of thinking about the Commandments demonstrates a profound misunderstanding about God and God’s purpose for giving us the Commandments, even as it exposes the dark side of human nature and our slavery to the power of Sin without outside help. To understand what the Commandments are all about, we have to place them in the proper context of the biblical story of how God is rescuing his good but fallen world and image-bearers from the ravages of Sin and Death. As Christians we should all know at least the basic outline of that story of how God created this vast cosmos, our world included, and then chose to create image-bearing creatures, humans, to run God’s good and beautiful world. It was utter paradise as long as our first ancestors did as God told them. You can read about that in Genesis 1-2. But we know Adam and Eve didn’t obey God’s command and the result was our expulsion from paradise and the unleashing of the dark powers of Evil, Sin, and Death to corrupt and destroy God’s good world and creatures. After Adam and Eve rebelled, literally all hell broke loose in God’s world, corrupting and defiling it. That’s why we are confronted with all the evil in its various forms that assails us today. As Fr. Bowser rightly explained in his mediocre sermon last week, the cumulative effects of human sin brought an ever-increasing level of destructiveness to God’s good world and his human image-bearers, and unleashed an array of fearsome powers who hate and and want to destroy us forever. We need to look only to the massacre in Las Vegas last week to be reminded of this reality, and that the human condition really hasn’t changed from Adam and Eve’s day to ours. Investigators are at a loss to explain a motive for the shooter’s actions, and even if they were to find one, it doesn’t really explain or justify amassing an arsenal to slaughter 58 people and wound countless more. There’s no good reason or justification for doing this. Welcome to the world that our first ancestors’ sin unleashed.

But God was never going to let his good creation be corrupted permanently and so God called Abraham and his descendants to bring God’s healing love to God’s sin-sick and corrupted world. You can read about that starting in Genesis 12. If you do, you will find that Abraham and his descendants were every bit as flawed as the people to which they were called to bring God’s love and blessing. It wasn’t that God didn’t know or anticipate this happening. After all, God is eternal and all-knowing. God knew this was going to be the case before God ever created Abraham in his mother’s womb. But God in his great love and graciousness for his called-out people Israel stuck with them, and now we are ready to understand why God gave Moses the Commandments. Given the sin-sickness of the human race, Israel included, God was showing Moses and God’s people what it would take to flourish as fully human beings. It all starts by us recognizing there is only one true God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to align ourselves with that God in choosing how we live our lives. Think about it. If we worship false gods, we learn false and dehumanizing ways to live. If, for example, money is our false god or idol, we will align our living around it. Given our brokenness, we will likely do whatever it takes to procure more of this idol, falsely believing that being rich will make our lives infinitely better and that money will give us life. But a second’s thought reveals how ludicrous this thinking is. Are rich people immune from the problems of the poor? Materially, the answer is probably yes. But wealth doesn’t keep us mentally, physically, or spiritually healthy. Money doesn’t guarantee we will have satisfying relationships or be anxiety-free. Money does nothing for us but give us a false sense of security and increase our innate sense of pride.

Or think of the destructive power pornography has on a marriage. Porn is more addictive than crack cocaine so that it literally enslaves us. And it sets up a false reality and expectations about what true love and sex are all about, thus sowing the seed for the destruction of an important basis for marriage between a husband and wife. Likewise with lying, gossiping, and coveting. How many times have we heard stories about people who pursue these false gods, only to leave a trail of destruction and anger and betrayal and disillusionment, to name but a few. No, if we follow any god other than the real God, we are assured of a life that is temporary and unreal, a life that will steadily wipe out God’s image in us and ultimately make us sub-human creatures. That’s what Sin does to us. It dehumanizes us and makes it impossible for us to flourish. I am persuaded that this is at the heart of what is happening in our country today with all of its alienation and polarization.

So here we see God, our Creator—and who knows better about what it takes for God’s creatures to flourish than their Creator—giving Moses and his people concrete guidelines to help them flourish and spread the goodness, love, and blessing of our good Creator throughout the world, and to help them be real humans. If you understand this about the Commandments, they will no longer seem like an odious burden, unless of course you think your ability to get and remain right with God depends on your ability to keep them. This is exactly what many Israelites believed, and for those who could keep the Commandments better than most (like St. Paul), it became a source of pride. This, of course, meant that any good law keeper was already defeated because pride does not come from God. It comes from the power of Sin.

And we Christians are not immune to this phenomenon. We all know folks who call themselves Christian, but who go about life grimly or arrogantly, struggling to keep the Commandments or having a false sense of pride and superiority when they manage to keep a majority of them or to keep them better than they perceive others doing. These folks self-righteously proclaim that they have “good news” because they see themselves as being able to keep the Commandments better than most, thereby improving their standing before God.

But as St. Paul reminds us in Romans 7, unless we are able to keep all the Command-ments, and not just some of them, we are utterly lost. And so instead of seeing the Commandments as a framework to allow us to flourish as fully human beings, we elevate keeping the Commandments and make them our own idol. Yes, we are that profoundly broken, my beloved.

Now don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that keeping the Commandments is not important. Of course it is, but not in terms of determining whether we are right before God. Those Christians who end up making their faith all about keeping the Commandments will inevitably end up gritting their teeth while they grimly deal with increasing levels of anxiety because none of us can keep the Commandments perfectly, hard as we may try. To make matters worse, many of us resent the notion that we need help from an outside power to help us get right before God. At its essence this is what is going on in our gospel lesson. Jesus had called out the lie that we can save ourselves by following the rules and had announced in word and deed that he was the true Messiah, the only hope the world had to really get right with God. This infuriated the religious leaders of his day, as it does many of us in our day, and it ended up getting Jesus killed.

But thanks be to God that in Jesus’ death we find and gain our life. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is not about our ability to follow the rules. None of us can. We are too sin-sick to do so and unless God does something about it, it means that we have no share in God’s present world or the world to come, despite the material blessings and relative power most of us enjoy. When Jesus returns to finish the work he started in his life, death, and resurrection, there will be no room for evil in God’s new world, and that is for our good. Who wants to live an eternity being bedeviled by Sin and Evil? The new heavens and earth is the culmination of the biblical story of God’s plan to rescue his world from the ravages of Sin, Death, and Evil, and the powers behind them (cf. Revelation 21-22). At first it involved God calling out a people to do this and culminated in the one true Israelite, Jesus, the Son of God, who came to die for us and break the power of Sin over us. In Jesus’ death, God condemned our Sin in the flesh so that God would not have to condemn us, the real perps. Instead, on the cross Jesus bore God’s wrath against our Sin. We did, and can do, nothing to earn this gift of life. It flows from God’s very heart and love for us. This is the same God who swore to Abraham in that strange ancient covenant ratification ritual we read about earlier this year in Genesis 15.12-21, where God in his actions unilaterally vowed to bear the curse himself if either God or Abraham broke the Covenant the two had made. This is the same God who astonishingly consigned all to disobedience so that he could have mercy on us all (Romans 11.32). This is the God who sent his own Son to die for us while we were still God’s enemies to reconcile us to himself (Romans 5.6-11). And what must we do in return? Believe the story. Believe the promise and begin, with the help of the Spirit, to reorient our lives back toward Jesus, God become human, so that we can flourish and not die. If you understand this whole story of salvation, however imperfectly, it is a sign that you have God’s Spirit in you because without his presence, it is impossible for humans to understand.

This is the Good News of Jesus Christ, my beloved. Is it your Good News? Do you understand that God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us so that we can live? Do you understand that as one of Christ’s own beloved, your ultimate future is new creation, a new bodily reality, where you will live as a fully human image-bearing creature who is once again charged with running God’s world on God’s behalf as you enjoy living in God’s direct presence forever? Do you understand this is so because of Jesus’ own resurrection? Do you realize that you are totally unworthy of such a great love and salvation but that it is yours anyway because of who God is, not because of how you try to live your sin-stained life? If you do, thank God right now for the gift of his Spirit who lives in you and sets you free to be fully human again. With this kind of humble knowledge, you will inevitably be filled with a joy that does not originate in you, a joy that has the power to transcend the worst the dark powers can throw at you, and you will be prepared to imitate our Lord Jesus in his life and in his death, in his suffering and in his victory, because that is what it means to follow Christ. Of course you cannot do this on your own power or strength and you will be tempted to balk at that, just like any good proud and self-righteous person would do. But God’s love and power is greater than our weakness. Amen?

In closing, I appeal to you to reject the false gospel that so many of us want to follow because of our folly and pride, the gospel of Pulling Yourself Up By Your Own Bootstraps, which will inevitably fail and cause you to fall into despair over your inability to live a good and right life before the living God. Please don’t choose to proclaim and live that false gospel in what you do and say. Instead, take heart and hope and remember that the God who loves you and who has claimed you from all eternity is stronger than the dark forces who are at work inside and outside of you. That same God sent his Son to die and rise for you, and to destroy the grip the forces of Evil have on this world and us, death being the ultimate evil. This is the Good News we are called to both embrace and proclaim, now and for all eternity. No wonder St. Paul considered everything in his life before he met the risen Christ to be caca. May we also be blessed with the same grace and privilege. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Father Ric Bowser: Spiritual Warfare

Sermon delivered on Trinity 16A, Sunday, October 1, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

Because Fr. Bowser still has not learned how to write, there is no written text for today’s sermon. Click here to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 20.1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3.4b-14; Matthew 21.33-46.

Fr. Terry Gatwood: What is Right

Sermon delivered on Trinity 15A, Sunday, September 24, 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: Exodus 16.2-15; Psalm 105.1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1.21-30; Matthew 20.1-6.

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

A landowner is looking for day workers for his vineyard. He goes to the marketplace, first thing in the morning, roughly 6 a.m., finds some willing laborers, agrees on the wage of a denarius for the day, and sends them to his vineyard.A landowner is looking for day workers for his vineyard.

He goes to the marketplace, first thing in the morning, roughly 6 a.m., finds some willing laborers, agrees on the wage of a denarius for the day, and sends them to his vineyard.He goes back to the market place at in the morning, at noontime, in the afternoon,  and again in the evening, each time finding workers and hiring them for what remains of the day. However, unlike the first hiring where a specific wage was negotiated (a denarius), at each of these subsequent hirings the landowner simply promises to pay “whatever is right”. There’s the sense here that the landowner is well known and has a good reputation among the people there—that laborers would be willing to work for “whatever is right”—trusting the landowners judgment to make that determination. There is a high level of respect and trust for this man.

Perhaps that’s why when it came time for the wages to be paid out as the landowner had promised, the surprise wasn’t that those hired later received a denarius, but that those who were hired first received that sum as well.

And those first hired weren’t too happy with this—they grumbled. I can almost hear them saying, “You’ve got to be kidding me! We’ve been here all day and earned our denarius. They’ve only just arrived! This isn’t fair!” I can almost hear them saying that because I would be tempted to say or think that myself.

The first hired laborers had their own notions of what fairness and generosity should look like in this situation and when the landowner didn’t meet those expectations, they complained about his unfairness. To them, this just wasn’t right. This wasn’t just. They felt cheated because of the generosity of the landowner toward the later hires.

It quickly becomes apparent the real complaint isn’t about the landowner’s fairness (because as he points out he did honor the original agreement in full), but his generosity. Even though they received the usual daily wage, the first hired workers begrudged the landowner paying what he thought was right—which was his prerogative it being his money and vineyard. The owner is well within his right to dispense from his treasury as he sees fit.

The unsettling thing about this parable is that like all the others, Jesus starts it with the words “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” and within the following lines, in the words and actions of the landowner and the workers, we hear echoes and see images of life in the Church.

In parallels drawn between the landowner of the parable and God I’ve heard descriptions like extravagant, abundant and lavish, used to describe the generosity demonstrated in this parable. And at one time I would have wholeheartedly agreed with such descriptions—that was until I came to a realization that such adjectives were based on my impoverished image of what generosity looked like—that the only reason this looked extravagant is because my expectations were far too low bar to begin with. Compared to what we might experience from day to day in this middle place, the already-but-not-yet phase of the Kingdom of God on earth, these things may indeed seem to be extravagant, abundant and lavish. But for the Kingdom of Heaven this is the operational standard. And this pouring out of God’s blessing has already begun in our lives in our baptism, and continues in prayers answered, people healed, and every time we feast at the table of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And it will be all the more so when the middle place we live in is finally the final place where we will live forever with the Lord.

We come to Scripture with our own pre-conceived notions of what grace, mercy and divine generosity look like—operating under the illusion that our ideas are somehow close to how God truly works. And then a parable like this shows the Kingdom of God is nothing like we could ever imagine. Not even close sometimes. A God who gives graciously to all, simply because He has decided that is what he is going to do, in the words of the landowner “to pay whatever is right”—that is, right in the Divine economy and not necessarily right according to what makes sense to us.

Consider the history of our ancestors as we recalled in the appointed lesson from Exodus this morning. God had brought our ancestors out of intense bondage in Egypt, and lead them through a place that appeared to be a death trap for them. They were hot, they were hungry, they were wandering through a place they had never known and they wondered why they hadn’t just stayed behind in Egypt and tried to make the best of the thing there. God heard the grumbling of his people there, and he sent them quail, and he fed them with bread from heaven. This bread, which they called manna, was nothing like they had ever seen before. Manna was made into cakes and breads, and tasted like it had been baked with honey. It was delicious to the taste. But it was something unexpected, and something already in the mind of the Lord to give to them to sustain them on their journey. This unexpected blessing to them was called manna, because, as the word literally means “what is it?,” they didn’t know what the thing was. But it fits part and parcel with what we know about the nature and character of the God who saves us and whom we serve. A rich and wonderful blessing, followed by more blessings, not as a result of any extra special thing anyone had done, but because it is how God works in this world to show his great love for us. But they still grumbled about having these great blessings in the middle of a deadly desert later in the narrative of the five books of the Law, this time in Numbers. The manna wasn’t enough for them. Others had fish and other meats; they wanted that too.

And as evidence of our fallen sinfulness, rather that simply being overwhelmingly grateful to be called to live for and serve such a God, whose graciousness is more than we could have ever dared hope or imagine, we get distracted by comparing what we think we have been given by God, with what we think others have been given by Him. Note, the qualifier, “what we think”, because truth be told we have no clue just how much God has blessed us with. And yet we are tempted to try and compare, and then, God forbid, complain should we fear being “short-changed”—begrudging another the blessing of God because we think they ‘got more than they deserved’.

Truth is, none of us gets what we deserve—thanks be to God. Rather we get what God thinks is right. Should you wonder what that might be, the service of Holy Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer is a good place to start.

We thank you, almighty God, for the gift of water  to sustain, refresh and cleanse all life.  Over water the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.  Through water you led the children of Israel  from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.  In water your Son Jesus received the baptism of John  and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ,  to lead us from the death of sin to newness of life.  We thank you, Father, for the water of baptism.  In it we are buried with Christ in his death.  By it we share in his resurrection.  Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, in joyful obedience to your Son,  we baptize into his fellowship those who come to him in faith.  Now sanctify this water that, by the power of your Holy Spirit,  they may be cleansed from sin and born again.  Renewed in your image, may they walk by the light of faith  and continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Or this prayer after the baptism:

May God, who has received you by baptism into his Church,  pour upon you the riches of his grace,  that within the company of Christ’s pilgrim people  you may daily be renewed by his anointing Spirit, and come to the inheritance of the saints in glory.

You might also want to play close attention to the words in the liturgy for Holy Communion in a few minutes, to hear how Jesus’ very body and blood are given for you. Of course if that’s not enough, and you need more, you can always go to Holy Scripture and read for yourself of God’s blessings. Please do dig into your Bibles at home and rediscover God’s love and desire for you.

Remembering of course that this all unfolds differently in each of our lives—given that we are all unique individuals in various and diverse circumstances this makes sense. We’re gifted differently, have different personalities, and are called to different types and settings of ministry. We aren’t able to fully grasp all that God has done for us, how could we ever expect to figure out all He has done for someone else?

The only time we should give thought to how God has blessed another is if we are remembering them in prayer asking God’s mercy for them, or giving thanks for what God has done for them.

Beyond that, we would do better to keep our eyes on Christ, cultivating grateful hearts for all that we have received, and if there is any dissatisfaction in our prayers, it’s directed toward ourselves, asking that God might help us recognize, use and live fully in the graces bestowed on us as his children. Not because we deserve it but because in His love He determined this is what is right.

Let us pray:

O Lord, You brought us out of bondage and into freedom that we might honor and serve you. You gave a cloud for cover in the daytime, and fire to guide us during the night. Your people asked you for food, and you provided exactly what was needed. Your people were thirsty, and you opened the rock to provide a stream of water, so much so that it flowed like a river in the desert. You remember your promise you made to our father, Abraham, and to his descendants forever. You bring your people out with joy, and we your chosen ones will sing from our hearts. May we ever be thankful for your undeserved and unearned blessings, rejoicing all the way, and stand ready to receive from you what it is you have prepared for us. This we pray through the blessed name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory, with you and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Amen.

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

Bishop Stephen Kewasis Nyorsok: Trust in the Lord

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 14A, September 17, 2017 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. Today we welcome Bishop Stephen from the Anglican Church in Kenya. Check him out.

To listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here. There is no written text for the sermon.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 14.19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14.1-12; Matthew 18.21-35.

History of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross 2017

From here.

exaltation of the holy crossAfter the death and resurrection of Christ, both the Jewish and Roman authorities in Jerusalem made efforts to obscure the Holy Sepulchre, Christ’s tomb in the garden near the site of His crucifixion. The earth had been mounded up over the site, and pagan temples had been built on top of it. The Cross on which Christ had died had been hidden (tradition said) by the Jewish authorities somewhere in the vicinity.

According to tradition, first mentioned by Saint Cyril of Jerusalem in 348, Saint Helena, nearing the end of her life, decided under divine inspiration to travel to Jerusalem in 326 to excavate the Holy Sepulchre and attempt to locate the True Cross. A Jew by the name of Judas, aware of the tradition concerning the hiding of the Cross, led those excavating the Holy Sepulchre to the spot in which it was hidden.

Three crosses were found on the spot. According to one tradition, the inscription Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum (“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”) remained attached to the True Cross. According to a more common tradition, however, the inscription was missing, and Saint Helena and Saint Macarius, the bishop of Jerusalem, assuming that one was the True Cross and the other two belonged to the thieves crucified alongside Christ, devised an experiment to determine which was the True Cross.

In one version of the latter tradition, the three crosses were taken to a woman who was near death; when she touched the True Cross, she was healed. In another, the body of a dead man was brought to the place where the three crosses were found, and laid upon each cross. The True Cross restored the dead man to life.

In celebration of the discovery of the Holy Cross, Constantine ordered the construction of churches at the site of the Holy Sepulchre and on Mount Calvary. Those churches were dedicated on September 13 and 14, 335, and shortly thereafter the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross began to be celebrated on the latter date. The feast slowly spread from Jerusalem to other churches, until, by the year 720, the celebration was universal.

In the early seventh century, the Persians conquered Jerusalem, and the Persian king Khosrau II captured the True Cross and took it back to Persia. After Khosrau’s defeat by Emperor Heraclius II, Khosrau’s own son had him assassinated in 628 and returned the True Cross to Heraclius. In 629, Heraclius, having initially taken the True Cross to Constantinople, decided to restore it to Jerusalem. Tradition says that he carried the Cross on his own back, but when he attempted to enter the church on Mount Calvary, a strange force stopped him. Patriarch Zacharias of Jerusalem, seeing the emperor struggling, advised him to take off his royal robes and crown and to dress in a penitential robe instead. As soon as Heraclius took Zacharias’ advice, he was able to carry the True Cross into the church.

For some centuries, a second feast, the Invention of the Cross, was celebrated on May 3 in the Roman and Gallican churches, following a tradition that marked that date as the day on which Saint Helena discovered the True Cross. In Jerusalem, however, the finding of the Cross was celebrated from the beginning on September 14.

Another Prayer for the Feast of the Holy Cross 2017

Almighty God,
who in the passion of your blessed Son
made an instrument of painful death
to be for us the means of life and peace:
grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ
that we may gladly suffer for his sake;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

A Prayer for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross 2017 (1)

Almighty God,
whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ
was lifted high upon the cross
that he might draw the whole world to himself:
Mercifully grant that we,
who glory in the mystery of our redemption,
may have grace to take up our cross and follow him;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross 2017

During the reign of Constantine, first Roman Emperor to profess the Christian faith, his mother Helena went to Israel and there undertook to find the places especially significant to Christians. (She was helped in this by the fact that in their destructions around 135, the Romans had built pagan shrines over many of these sites.) Having located, close together, what she believed to be the sites of the Crucifixion and of the Burial (at locations that modern archaeologists think may be correct), she then had built over them the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was dedicated on 14 September 335. It has become a day for recognizing the Cross (in a festal atmosphere that would be inappropriate on Good Friday) as a symbol of triumph, as a sign of Christ’s victory over death, and a reminder of His promise, “And when I am lifted up, I will draw all men unto me.” (John 12:32)

Read and relish it all.

All About Holy Cross Day 2017

hc

Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Roodmas)

 September 14, 335 

Roodmas1 — more commonly known simply as “Holy Cross Day” — was first begun to commemorate the Dedication of the Basilica of the Resurrection, built by St. Helena holy-cross-graphic-2(Constantine the Great’s mother), in Jerusalem in A.D. 335 — but the true Cross was found shortly thereafter, also by St. Helena, so the two events were joined.

The story of the finding of the True Cross, from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

In the year 326 the mother of Constantine, Helena, then about 80 years old, having journeyed to Jerusalem, undertook to rid the Holy Sepulchre of the mound of earth heaped upon and around it, and to destroy the pagan buildings that profaned its site. Some revelations which she had received gave her confidence that she would discover the Saviour’s Tomb and His Cross. The work was carried on diligently, with the co-operation of St. Macarius, bishop of the city.

The Jews had hidden the Cross in a ditch or well, and covered it over with stones, so that the faithful might not come and venerate it. Only a chosen few among the Jews knew the exact spot where it had been hidden, and one of them, named Judas, touched by Divine inspiration, pointed it out to the excavators, for which act he was highly praised by St. Helena. Judas afterwards became a Christian saint, and is honoured under the name of Cyriacus.

During the excavation three crosses were found, but because the titulus was detached from the Cross of Christ, there was no means of identifying it. Following an inspiration from on high, Macarius caused the three crosses to be carried, one after the other, to the bedside of a worthy woman who was at the point of death. The touch of the other two was of no avail; but on touching that upon which Christ had died the woman got suddenly well again.

From a letter of St. Paulinus to Severus inserted in the Breviary of Paris it would appear that St. Helena herself had sought by means of a miracle to discover which was the True Cross and that she caused a man already dead and buried to be carried to the spot, whereupon, by contact with the third cross, he came to life. From yet another tradition, related by St. Ambrose, it would seem that the titulus, or inscription, had remained fastened to the Cross.

After the happy discovery, St. Helena and Constantine erected a magnificent basilica over the Holy Sepulchre, and that is the reason why the church bore the name of St. Constantinus. The precise spot of the finding was covered by the atrium of the basilica, and there the Cross was set up in an oratory, as appears in the restoration executed by de Vogüé. When this noble basilica had been destroyed by the infidels, Arculfus, in the seventh century, enumerated four buildings upon the Holy Places around Golgotha, and one of them was the “Church of the Invention” or “of the Finding”. This church was attributed by him and by topographers of later times to Constantine. The Frankish monks of Mount Olivet, writing to Leo III, style it St. Constantinus. Perhaps the oratory built by Constantine suffered less at the hands of the Persians than the other buildings, and so could still retain the name and style of Martyrium Constantinianum. (See De Rossi, Bull. d’ arch. crist., 1865, 88.)

A portion of the True Cross remained at Jerusalem enclosed in a silver reliquary; the remainder, with the nails, must have been sent to Constantine, and it must have been this second portion that he caused to be enclosed in the statue of himself which was set on a porphyry column in the Forum at Constantinople; Socrates, the historian, relates that this statue was to make the city impregnable. One of the nails was fastened to the emperor’s helmet, and one to his horse’s bridle, bringing to pass, according to many of the Fathers, what had been written by Zacharias the Prophet: “In that day that which is upon the bridle of the horse shall be holy to the Lord” (Zechariah 14:20). Another of the nails was used later in the Iron Crown of Lombardy preserved in the treasury of the cathedral of Monza.

Scientific study of the relics of the True Cross show it to be made of some species of pine. The titulus crucis  —  the wood on which the inscription “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” was written in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew (Matthew 27:37, Mark 15:26, Luke 23:38 and John 19:19)  —  is made of an olive wood. The titulus has been scientifically dated to the 1st c. and the script is still legible (interestingly, the Latin and Greek are in reverse script), though the Hebrew is missing due to the entire thing being halved, the second half having been lost in the 6th century. It is from the Latin inscription  —  “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum” that we get the abbreviation “I.N.R.I.” that is found on many Crucifixes.

The titulus crucis and relics of the True Cross can be seen in Rome’s Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.

Footnote:
 1“Rood” is the Middle English word for “Cross.”

Conflict Resolution, Jesus-Style

Sermon delivered on Trinity 13A, Sunday, September 10, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. There has never been a better day to consider how you handle your conflicts as a Christian.

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

Lectionary texts: Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13.8-14; Matthew 18.15-20.

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

Have you ever stopped to consider what an awesome privilege it is to be called to be one of God’s people in Christ? While the Church is many things, above all else it is a living organism composed of redeemed followers of Jesus, you and me. As such, we are called to do business in ways that are fundamentally different from the way the world does business. In our gospel lesson this morning our Lord tells us how we should resolve conflicts between each other and this is what I want us to look at this morning.

Before we look at the model for conflict resolution Jesus commanded us to use, it is necessary for us to lay some groundwork so that we approach this subject with our minds right and in the proper Spirit. Some Christians believe that there should never be any conflict between Christians. You know, love your neighbor and all that. But this viewpoint simply does not take into account the human condition. We are all badly broken and prone to self-righteousness, some more than others, and so conflict is bound to erupt, even among Christians who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ. Not only that, but there are times when perfectly legitimate and unsullied viewpoints will clash. Even a superficial reading of Scripture bears this out. Proverbs 27.17 tells us that, “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend (NLT),” and sometimes conflicting opinions will actually bring much-needed clarity and wisdom about an issue. For example, Barnabas and Paul got into a sharp disagreement over whether to take Mark (the gospel writer) with them on their next missionary journey. Apparently the young Mark had lost heart and deserted Barnabas and Paul during their previous (and dangerous) mission work and that landed him in St. Paul’s doghouse. The disagreement between St. Barnabas and St. Paul became so sharp that the two parted ways and we have no record of them ever seeing or speaking to each other again, a sad ending, considering they had survived many perilous situations together during their missionary journeys (Acts 15.36-41). Surely Barnabas and Paul had legitimate reasons for wanting to take or leave Mark with them and in this particular instance they couldn’t work it out. But this doesn’t make their conflict illegitimate or immoral. Sometimes things like this happen because we live in a broken world and there can be more than one correct perspective regarding a situation. As a happier postscript to this story, we know that St. Paul and St. Mark were eventually reconciled and that St. Paul counted on St. Mark’s companionship and faithfulness as the former languished alone and abandoned in prison awaiting his execution (2 Timothy 4.9-18). This gives us a hint as to what Jesus was driving at when he gave us this model to resolve conflict and to the fact that St. Paul was faithful to it because he was eventually reconciled with St. Mark. So as Christians, we need not fear conflict with other faithful Christians and should accept that legitimate conflict is inevitable. If that is true, then the question before us is how to resolve conflicts faithfully when they arise.

Before we answer that question, we must first look at some assumptions behind Jesus’ model for conflict resolution. For us to follow Jesus’ command about how to resolve conflicts with other believers within his body, the Church, we must approach conflict resolution with a clear understanding of the human condition and a profound sense of humility, leaving behind our built-in sense of self-righteousness. We can only do this if we first share the radical view St. Paul had about the leveling of human distinctions that has occurred in Christ. What does that mean you ask? It means that St. Paul believed and taught that every one of us stands under the just and holy judgment of God, that there is no one who is good. All of us are sin-sick to death and in desperate need of the Lord’s healing that is available to each of us in the shedding of his blood for us on the cross and in the power of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. Without the saving death of Jesus who loved us and died for us while we were still his enemies, none of us has a hope or a future. None of us. Therefore none of us enjoys an inherent advantage or high ground when it comes to disputes. To be sure, there are some instances where one party is clearly in the right and the other clearly in the wrong, but that does not have blanket application because in the next instance the tables might just as well be turned because we are all profoundly broken and enslaved to the power of Sin without help from the Lord. When we understand this about ourselves and the love God has for us as demonstrated supremely in the death and resurrection of his Son, we enter conflicts with the required sense of humility about ourselves and with the understanding that the person with whom we are in conflict is also a greatly-beloved and rescued sinner by God’s grace, and only by God’s grace, just like we are. When we forget who we are and our status before the Almighty and Holy God without the blood of Christ shed to reconcile us to God, our inherent sense of self-righteousness will kick in and we will immediately see our needs and our views as superior to those of the person with whom we are in conflict. And if reconciliation is the goal of Jesus’ conflict resolution model, we all know that bringing a haughty sense of self-righteousness to an argument is surely the kiss of death in terms of being reconciled with one’s opponent.

This is why St. Paul spent so much time telling his churches to love one another and to bear each other’s burdens, even when some people are like fingernails on a chalkboard to us. None of us is superior to the other in God’s eyes. We are all guilty sinners deserving of nothing but God’s righteous condemnation and death. But because God loves us more than God hates our sins, God as acted to redeem us in and through the cross of Christ and to raise us to new life with our risen Lord and Savior. That’s why we must always enter a conflict with a fellow Christian with a baptismal mindset where we acknowledge that we have died with Christ and are raised with him. That is what makes us right, nothing else. If you enter a conflict with this in mind, you will be amazed at the difference it makes in how you see and treat your opponent.

We see this dynamic clearly at work in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Hear him as he chastises that little congregation for taking each other to court over various disputes:

When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints [fellow members]? In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that (1 Corinthians 6.1,7-8).

If we do not understand that Paul always operates from the perspective of Jesus Christ, we are likely to conclude that Paul is a lunatic in admonishing the Corinthians as he does here. But when we see that behind Paul’s admonishment there is a firm belief that because all Christians are rescued by the blood of Christ—being rescued while we were still his enemies, no less—why should we not imitate our Lord’s love for his enemies and bear their wrongs instead of insisting on our rights? I cannot tell you how many times my, um, “interesting” sense of humor has gotten me in trouble with others because I inadvertently offend them at times. Now if I were to bring my natural sense of self-righteousness to bear against the offended, I might snort and say something like they are too sensitive and need to get over themselves. But there is no humility in that. There is no recognition that the one I offended is as beloved in Christ’s eyes as I am and that I might actually be in the wrong. So instead of getting all huffy, which will surely escalate the argument and perhaps damage our relationship long-term, why not swallow my pride for the sake of the other? Doing so imitates our Lord’s self-giving love for the sake of us both and in the process, goes a long way in reestablishing holy Christian fellowship between two redeemed believers of Christ’s body. If all of us had this mindset consistently, think of how much stronger and blessed we would all be because our relationships would be nourished and strengthened. Nobody wants to feel the sting of rejection. Nobody. So behind our Lord’s command is the command to be humble and faithful, just like he was and is.

Turning now to the actual model itself, our Lord commands us to gently confront the one who offends us. Again it is important for us to remember that this is how we are to treat fellow believers inside the Church. We are to confront each other because we are commanded to love each other enough not to let our relationships deteriorate. Jesus always has in mind reconciliation where possible. This should make sense to us. After all, Christ died to reconcile the world to God. So why wouldn’t he want us to be reconciled to each other after our disputes?

But many of us do not want to confront those who offend us because then we open ourselves up to criticism. When we confront another, we must be prepared to hear their perspective about us and about how we might have contributed to a dispute or conflict. It’s easier for us to get all self-righteous. So instead of confronting the person who offends us, we try to run down that person to others. We engage in gossip and backbiting. Did you hear about Maney? He’s at it again. He’s always so critical and standoffish. You just can’t talk to him. And he’s quick to spend our hard-earned pledges on stupid stuff. This is not conflict resolution, my beloved. This is backbiting and evil speaking and is called triangulation, drawing a third party into our conflict. These are wicked behaviors that dishonor our Lord and his love for us because they foment ill will and actually escalate conflict. They do not serve to promote reconciliation.

Or sometimes when we are offended about something that goes on in the church, we might decide to withhold our pledges as a way to voice our disapproval. Does Maney think we really need a new church building? What’s wrong with this one? I’ll show him. No more giving until he comes off his mark. Do you see how this kind of thinking and behavior does not help anyone? The problem still exists and persists, festering until it explodes. This kind of thinking is born out of self-righteousness that makes us think only we can be right, and the offending person never has the chance to defend his position. To be sure, there may be times when withholding our money might be necessary, but not until all the facts are laid out for all to see and consider. Better for us to confront our offender and lay out our case to him first so that we can listen to his perspective as well. But we are to do so in private so as not to publicly embarrass the person. Again, keep in mind what we have said about the need to approach the person in humility and with the deep understanding that the offender is greatly beloved in Christ and stands redeemed in God’s eyes, just like we are loved and redeemed. And so we confront our offender, and we cut to the chase, not sugarcoating the issue or trying to rationalize the fact that we are offended. If we can work out our differences, then Jesus tells us we have gained a brother or sister and God’s approval, thanks be to God. A vast majority of arguments could be ended this way and the parties reconciled if we would only follow this model.

But there are some cases in which the offending person refuses to come off his mark and the person offended must then bring evidence and witnesses to bear against the offender, again not to humiliate her or “win” an argument, but to seek reconciliation with the offender. This should be done with extreme care, not to mention with much prayer, because it indicates that there has been a serious breach between two believers and one of them apparently is digging her feet in for a fight. Again, the emphasis is on confronting the offender, not speaking evilly about the person or engaging in backbiting about the person with others. There is no room for that among believers who all stand under God’s judgment and mercy. If after confronting our offender with witnesses and further evidence of her wrongdoing, the offender repents, we have won a sister and reconciliation is achieved, thanks be to God.

But our Lord was wise enough to know the human heart and how desperately sick it is. He knew that there would be some who would not repent of their offenses even when confronted by compelling evidence and witnesses. And so he commands us to take the issue before the entire parish. This is the nuclear option of conflict resolution and should be used sparingly and with great trepidation. We cringe when we hear this because we have become so private and individualistic. But if there is a cancer in the body, it must be excised for the health of the body. Doing so should never be done hastily and it should always be done in sorrow. But even here our Lord has in mind reconciliation. The person is not excommunicated to be punished but in the hope that the offender will come to his right mind, repent, and be reconciled to the rest of the body of Christ. We can see this played out again in St. Paul’s letters. At the church of Corinth there apparently was a man who was having sex with his stepmother. The congregation had done nothing about it, apparently in the name of grace. But Paul would have none of it. After all, he had asked the Romans how they who had been freed from their slavery to Sin and Death by the blood of Christ could go on living in a lifestyle that fostered their old death-producing slavery. So here Paul tells the Corinthians the same thing. Expel the man, he tells them, not to punish him but to perhaps help him come to his senses so that he will bear the fruit of repentance and be restored to fellowship with the Lord and within the body of Christ because his sins were damaging everyone, not just those immediately involved (1 Corinthians 5.1-5).

This is tough stuff, my beloved, and thankfully most of us won’t need to escalate our conflict resolution to this level. But if we love others enough, we must be willing and able to confront them for our sake as well as theirs and the body of Christ’s because we are called to live out our life and faith together. If we fail to confront those who offend us because we are uncomfortable in doing so, we are essentially declaring we really do not love them enough to be concerned about our mutual health and life together. Of course, we cannot force offenders to change, but we can and must love them enough in the power of the Spirit to confront them about the destructiveness of their behavior to themselves and to our relationship in the hope that they will. In doing so we realize that we could easily be in their position except by the grace of God. This Spirit-driven knowledge is essential in conflict resolution, Jesus-style. So we don’t gossip. We don’t triangulate (bring in another person to do our work), we don’t speak evilly about the offender to others, and we don’t remain silent and seethe. We are called to love the other enough to confront him or her because we know we are all greatly beloved by Christ and are all forgiven and redeemed sinners. This is the basis of conflict resolution for Christians within the Church, my beloved. It is based on the Good News we are to embrace and trust, now and for all eternity. For the sake and honor of our Redeemer’s holy name and for the health of his body here at St. Augustine’s, not to mention our own health, I implore us all to resolve our conflicts in the holy and faithful way our Lord commands. Doing so is a powerful testimony to the world that there are better ways of being human, and it starts by patterning our lives after Jesus our Lord, especially in how we handle conflict when it arises. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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