More Than Conquerors

Sermon delivered on Trinity 7A, Sunday, July 30, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. It’s a splendid day to listen to a sermon, don’t you think?

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

Lectionary texts: Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105.1-11; Romans 8.26-39; Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52.

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

We have been working through the climax of this section (chapters 5-8) of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Two weeks ago we saw that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because of his saving death and resurrection. Last week we saw that to be in Christ requires our suffering for his sake because the powers, while broken, are not yet fully vanquished. Today, St. Paul offers us much-needed encouragement as we live in God’s fallen world as redeemed followers of our Lord, and this is what I want us to look at this morning.

“All things work together for good for those who love God.” That probably wasn’t the first thought that occurred to Jacob when he woke up the morning after his wedding. Jacob, the master deceiver, found himself deceived and forced to work another seven years to secure his beloved Rachel as his wife. Assuming Charlie Gard’s parents love God, I’m pretty sure they are struggling to believe this promise in the aftermath of their infant son’s illness and death (may God have mercy on the sin-sick souls of those who prevented them from bringing Charlie to the U.S. and then home to die). Likewise for the families of the young man killed and those who were critically injured at the state fair this past week. Likewise for Bishop Grant LeMarquand, one of my old professors at Trinity, and his wife, Dr. Wendy, who must suspend their ministry in Africa because of life-threatening health issues confronting Wendy, thus leaving a medical and spiritual void in the lives of those they have served so well. Likewise for many of you whose lives have been disrupted by all kinds of affliction, and who continue to struggle to make sense of it all.

To add insult to injury, we hear the mocking voices of those who are hostile to the faith and who see our struggles and failures to live as Christians. Where is God in all this? Why doesn’t God act? You are a fool to believe such nonsense as St. Paul writes in Romans 8. If God were real, God would do something about all the suffering and injustice in the world. How is God possibly working for good in all things for you who profess to love God in Christ? Then there are the troubling voices from within, from time to time asking the same taunting questions.

And yet… And yet… These questions all presume to know how God can and should work in God’s world, bless our pointy little arrogant heads. They presume that because God is all-powerful, God will just wave God’s hand and destroy all the forces of evil in one fell swoop. Doing so, of course, would mean that God would have to destroy the entire creation and all of us because we are all hopelessly infected by the power of Sin and Evil. But we know Scripture consistently testifies that God in his faithfulness has promised to ultimately redeem his creation, rather than destroy it and every living creature in it. You do know that, don’t you? No, the long perspective of Genesis, not to mention the whole of Scripture, tells us quite a different story about how God is at work to bring about God’s promise to heal and restore God’s good creation gone wild.

We see God working in the life of Jacob and his forebears Abraham and Isaac with all their duplicity and half-faith, to fulfill God’s promises to Abraham to make a family from his loins that would be so large it could not be counted (mustard seed, anyone?), and through that family God would heal, bless, and restore God’s world (Genesis 12.1-3; 17.1-7). This is our first clue as to how God chooses to work to heal and restore God’s good creation: through human beings and through ways that are both mundane and spectacular. And what was Abraham’s response? Twenty-five years went by and no promised offspring. So he and Sarah took matters into their, um, own hands and voila! A son was born to Abraham’s slave Hagar whose offspring would be at war with Abraham’s offspring to this day. Not only that, but twice Abraham lied about his relationship with his wife Sarah to save his own skin. These aren’t exactly paradigms of faithful and virtuous behavior, but God worked through them and Abraham’s line eventually produced Jesus the Messiah, the Savior of the world, just as God promised. But for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God’s hand wasn’t always readily apparent and so they sometimes (often?) resorted to taking matters into their own hands, especially Jacob the deceiver, just like you and I do today when God’s hand isn’t readily apparent in the midst of the chaos and suffering in our lives.

Notice that the writer of Genesis never tries to explain why God operates in this way. Neither does the psalmist in today’s psalm. Instead, he simply proclaims the faithfulness of God. So does St. Paul in our epistle lesson. As we saw last week, St. Paul assumes we will suffer on behalf of the Messiah because it was in suffering that Jesus broke the power of Sin over us and took on our just condemnation so that we would no longer stand condemned in God’s eyes. This is the essence of justification about which St. Paul speaks today.

No, instead of trying to explain why God apparently doesn’t act in the ways we want or expect God to act, the apostle assures us that God is indeed active and involved in God’s world. How does St. Paul know this? First and foremost because he had met the risen Christ face-to-face and knew that the resurrection was an historical reality that made Christ’s death on the cross all that it was, at least as far as we can plumb the depths of its meaning. As St. Paul would write to the Colossians, on the cross the dark powers and principalities had been defeated. Hear him now:

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross (Colossians 2.13-15, NLT).

Now in today’s lesson St. Paul makes the astonishing claim that we are more than conquerors through Jesus who loves us. If we assess the truth of St. Paul’s statement—not to mention the rest of the NT writers—based on evidence from this world, we are likely to conclude that they are delusional (and so are we who believe their claims of God’s victory over the powers of Sin, Evil, and Death). But St. Paul would tell us that his claims of Christ’s victory over the dark powers is not based on deductions from our daily experiences. After all, he wrote his letter to the Colossians while he was imprisoned for Christ’s sake and would soon be facing more imprisonments, persecution, and ultimately death because of Jesus. Rather, St. Paul would tell us that his claims are based on the faithfulness of God first revealed to the patriarchs and manifested supremely in the cross of God’s own dear Son, Jesus Christ. In other words, St. Paul’s claims were based on faith, a gift from God the Father himself, and available to all who want it.

This is how it goes. We know that in all things God works for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose, even when we cannot see it in the life of the world and in our own lives. In addition to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostle assures us we know this to be true because of three other reasons: 1) the groaning of all creation to be liberated; 2) our own groaning in our suffering as we await the redemption of our bodies, i.e., our resurrection; and 3) the inarticulate groaning of God’s Holy Spirit who lives in us. All these are signs that God’s promises to heal and redeem God’s creation and us are true. If we are old enough, everyone here has been in a situation where we have reached our wits’ end. We don’t know what to do or say, let alone pray. And so we groan in our misery. It is precisely at this moment that St. Paul tells us that God’s very Spirit is also groaning in us on our behalf and for our good. So in the desperate times of our lives we have God’s assurance that both the Son and the Spirit are interceding for us on our behalf, and they are doing so because it is the will of God the Father. And in doing so, somehow we find the strength to endure and to press on as we walk through life’s dark valleys. I suspect that if I were to ask you to give me an example of this from your life, every one of you here could give me at least one example of this phenomenon occurring. We find unexpected strength, or a friend or a stranger suddenly appears in our life to say and/or do just what we needed to hear or see at that moment. And the funny thing is, we didn’t even know we needed what we got till it happened. For Christians, in light of what St. Paul tells us here, there should be no such thing as coincidences or chance happenings. Nothing happens by chance. Nothing. We can have confidence that in the smallest things, the hand of God is at work on our behalf for our good. Amen? Be mindful of this and work to cultivate this mindset as you live out your days with their various trials. You’ll never regret it.

Our Lord Jesus says much the same thing in our gospel lesson. He too was besieged by the “why” questions. If you are Messiah, why aren’t you kicking butt and taking prisoners? Why have you assembled a ragtag group of followers and go about espousing peace and doing all kinds of healing? God’s people won’t get free by doing that stuff! To which our Lord offered, in part, the parables we read in our gospel lesson today. The kingdom of heaven (or God’s kingdom, not God’s space) is like a mustard seed or like yeast. You don’t see either actively at work in their normal operation. But at the end of the day, you see massive results. And so God is at work in me, God’s Son and Messiah, to bring in God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. And guess what? God is calling you to follow me and give yourselves to me utterly. Yes, you are losers and ragamuffins just like my original followers. Like them and like Jacob and the patriarchs, your faith will waiver and you will conform your lives to mine in very uneven ways. In fact, you’ll get things wrong as much as you get them right. But if you resolve to understand what the kingdom is about and how God works through me and what I must do for you, and then through you as you give your lives to me, you will know that the kingdom does come on earth as in heaven. Don’t waste time asking and trying to answer questions you aren’t capable of answering. Focus on me. Give your lives to me. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love and forgive your enemies. Don’t judge others in a self-righteous manner. Develop a generous heart because your Father has a generous heart and gives to you far beyond anything you deserve. Work for the good of others, even if it costs you a great deal. Suffer for my sake. Don’t lose heart or hope. Why? Because eternal life in God’s new world is worth more than anything else in all the world. Your worldly aspirations of power, security, and wealth cannot save you. Neither can any identity other than being in me save you. I know. It’s enigmatic and perplexing this side of the grave. But take heart and believe because I have overcome both the world and the grave, the latter which you will see when I raise you from the dead upon my return to finish the work I started.

This is why we are more than conquerors, my beloved, the only reason why we are more than conquerors. We live in the power of God, a power nothing or no one can defeat, strange and inexplicable as that can be for us at times. We have given our lives to Jesus, the Son of God, who has conquered all by his saving love on the cross and who has been raised from the dead as a tangible sign of the fulfillment of God’s promise to heal and redeem us forever. We have God’s very Spirit who witnesses to us and who groans on our behalf when we are afflicted. Please. May none of us ever throw away this pearl of greatest price because it is the only pearl that really has any eternal value to it. It is the pearl of the Good News of Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord, 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.

No Condemnation. Now What?

Sermon delivered on Trinity 6A, Sunday, July 23, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Genesis 28.10-19a; Psalm 139.1-12, 23-24; Romans 8.12-25; Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43.

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

This is the first time I have preached on my birthday. It doubtless will be an even more spectacular sermon than usual, precisely because it is my birthday and unlike the Beatles, I know you still need me now that I’m sixty-four. I know you still need me because of my brilliant sermons, rugged good looks, and award-winning personality™, not to mention my great humility. That and one other small thing. Like you, I no longer stand under God’s just and right condemnation because of the cross of Christ as we saw last week. Good News, that. Have you pondered it this week? I hope so. So what happens now? What should be our expectations as recipients of God’s astonishing love and mercy? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

St. Paul wastes no time in telling us in our epistle lesson. We are God’s children and are therefore heirs of God! Think about that for a moment. We are going to inherit God’s kingdom with all of its attendant good! We are heirs, of course, because of what God has done for us on the cross of Jesus. If we tried to lay claim to any of God’s kingdom on our own, we would find ourselves bereft and without a family, exiled to the streets as desperate beggars because as we also saw last week, left to our own devices we are all enslaved to the power of Sin and as the apostle warned us in Romans 6.23, the wages of sin is death, and death certainly isn’t part of God’s kingdom. That’s why we must always recognize that our inheritance depends solely on Christ. We are joint heirs with him because in our baptism we know we have died with him and look forward to being raised with him. This is our glorious inheritance!

So if we are heirs of God, what can possibly go wrong? This no condemnation stuff is awesome, baby. Smooth sailing from now on, right? Not so fast, says St. Paul. As God’s heirs you can expect two things from your inheritance: suffering and redemption. Well, Paul, we like that redemption thingy. But suffering? What’s that all about? What the apostle is urging us to do is to think clearly about living in a world that has been corrupted by human sin and rebellion and the attendant evil so that it labors under God’s curse. More about that in a moment. Like other biblical writers, most notably the author of Job, St. Paul here assumes the presence of evil in God’s world but does not try to explain it. Rather he tells us what we can expect as Christians who now no longer live under God’s condemnation as the rest of the world does.

First, the apostle talks about our own fallen nature. If God has condemned our sin in the flesh by sending his own dear Son to bear our just condemnation, why would we want to go back to our old rebellious ways of living? Why would we choose to live life without God? That kind of living, where we pander to our own selfish and disordered desires, i.e., where we live according to the desires of our flesh as St. Paul puts it, leads only to death. There’s no future in it—literally—and its source is the Satan himself who hates us and wants to see us utterly destroyed. Who in their right mind would go back to a life of slavery when they could have real freedom instead?

But here’s the problem. As we saw last week, although evil, Sin, and death have been defeated on the cross, there’s still quite a fight left in them, not to mention the dark powers behind them, so that we have to work each day to kill those disordered and death-producing desires in us. This is no small or easy task and we can expect to suffer as we work to kill off our hostility and rebellion toward God. Who wants to stop doing things that feel so good, even if they are so wrong? The good news is that we don’t engage in this struggle on our own as St. Paul reminds us. We do it with the help of the Spirit, who testifies to us through our doubts and fears and darkness that we are God’s beloved and adopted children, heirs to his eternal kingdom, in and through Christ, and that we can stop doing those things which keep us hostile toward God.

Putting to death our fallen nature is not the same as self-help or pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We already are free from God’s just condemnation because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. There is nothing we can do bootstrap-wise to earn that pardon. God gives it to us because he loves us and wants us to live, not die. Yes, we struggle to kill off our disordered desires in the power of the Spirit and sometimes we fail because we are that infected by Sin’s power. But God’s power is greater than Sin’s and even in our failures, we no longer stand condemned because of what Christ has done for us. Moreover, we are to take heart because we know we do not struggle alone. We have our Lord Jesus present with us in the power of the Spirit to help us overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil, and who will always forgive us when we miss the mark. As St. Paul will tell us next week, nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen?

However, there is another dimension of our suffering that St. Paul talks about. It is suffering that results from living in a sin-sick and evil-infested world, and we all know what that looks like: desperate poverty, cruelty, racism, addiction, alienation, war, injustice, all kinds of deviancy, greed, hatred, idolatrous self-worship, adultery, abuse, sickness of all kinds. The list goes on and on and it is enough to overwhelm us. When that happens, we need to return to this chapter in Romans to be refreshed and encouraged by it because it is precisely at this point that Paul makes the bold and audacious claim that God is going to heal his world from top to bottom. St. Paul tells us that the whole creation groans in eager anticipation for the redemption of our bodies, i.e., for the coming of our Lord Jesus and the resurrection/transformation of our bodies, so that we will once again be the wise and just stewards God created us to be. Our sin and the evil it unleashed has made a mess out of God’s good world. But St. Paul makes the astonishing claim that it is God’s intention to restore his good creation through the agency of his Church, through losers and ragamuffins like you and me, as we suffer on behalf of creation. Far from withdrawing from the world, God calls us to bear its pains (and our own) by taking on its wounds and scars and afflictions. We do this in and through prayer and humble, loving, and selfless service to others. We give our time, our effort, and our money to help alleviate suffering wherever we encounter it. We don’t turn our backs on the world’s worst and neediest. We embody the love of Christ to them in the power of the Spirit. And when we trust God enough to start doing this, guess what? We will suffer because we will be abused and exploited and scammed and mocked and everything in between. But the kingdom comes through our suffering.

For you see, suffering is the way God redeemed the world. Think it through. Christ suffered for us and so we suffer for the world on his behalf because he has given us the precious gift of life. Impossible! we want to snort back at St. Paul. You are out of your mind. I’m not finished yet, says Paul. There’s more. As Christians you are going to be confronted with the additional challenge of dealing with your afflictions and the world’s, even when you can make no sense of those afflictions or see any hope of them being successfully resolved. We all know what that looks like. I’m thinking, e.g., of Len and Sharon, who are dealing with Len’s chronic and debilitating back pain. Despite several rounds of surgery, despite our persistent prayers, nothing seems to be getting better. I’m thinking of those of you who are under- or unemployed with little hope of sustainable income in the foreseeable future. Each one of us here bears the pain of unresolved and/or unjust pain and suffering. It’s enough to crush us and make us think we are Godforsaken.

It is here that the apostle speaks of hope, the sure and certain expectation that comes from having an unshakable faith in the God of the Bible, despite our circumstances, because we know that God never reneges on God’s promises and God has promised to one day heal and redeem us so that our suffering ends forever. Listen again to St. Paul as he speaks of this hope.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Romans 8.22-25).

This is why Paul tells us that our current sufferings, terrible as they are, are not to be compared with what awaits us. God has promised to heal and restore us fully when God brings in his promised new world at our Lord’s return to complete the redemptive work he started in his death and resurrection. This God can be trusted because this God has overcome all that opposes him: the world, the flesh, and the devil, but in a most unexpected way—the way of the cross. And this is the path God expects us to take so that in our faithful suffering, God will use us to help bring about the world’s healing and ours. Creation knows this and eagerly anticipates it. Do you?

Let us be clear about what Paul is saying here, my beloved. He is not telling us to minimize our suffering or discount it. Anyone who has really suffered knows what a bunch of pious caca that is. There are times when we have all felt Godforsaken in our suffering and where we can make no sense of it. It is precisely then that Paul tells us to remember our hope, to remember that we are God’s heirs. Think about this with me carefully for a minute. When we feel Godforsaken, we must head back to the foot of the cross and remember the supreme example of Godforsakenness. As our Lord Jesus was bearing the full brunt of God’s just condemnation of our collective sins and the full power of evil unleashed on him, he too experienced being abandoned in ways we cannot even begin to comprehend or imagine: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27.46)? Cry out those desperate words with your Savior as he was being crushed and condemned for your sake and then remember that God used his suffering to bring about your redemption. Take comfort and hope in that. This is not a God who abandons you.

Or go and read great stories like our OT lesson today where we find Jacob, the deceiver, the one who lied, cheated, and connived to steal his inheritance, the one who took pride in depending on his own cleverness to get what he wanted, just like you and I do. And what was God’s response to him as he fled for his life in today’s story? Don’t be afraid. I am with you and I will fulfill the promises I made to your grandfather Abraham through you. I am close by. That’s why I allowed you to see my ladder so that you know heaven and earth are not far apart nor am I far from you, even in your smug and sinful foolishness and folly. I am God and am always good to my promise. The God who made that promise to Jacob makes that same promise to you in and through Jesus. He’s with you right now in the power of the Spirit and when things get so bad in your life that you can only cry out Abba Father! because you don’t know what else to say or do, remember that it is the Spirit himself, not you, crying out to God on your behalf, the God who knows you intimately and loves you thoroughly as our psalmist proclaims, the God who wants all to be saved and thus is patient in executing his final justice as Jesus reminds us in our gospel lesson today (cf. 2 Peter 3.3-9).

This is our hope as Christians, a hope not based on the chances and changes of life, but a hope based on the faithfulness and love of God the Father made known supremely to us in and through our Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot as yet see this hope. It has not been made fully known to us yet. That’s why we call it hope. But it’s a done deal and it frees us to act as God’s heirs, to be bold in our proclamation and good spirit. There is no place for moping and feeling sorry for ourselves as Christians. We are no longer under God’s condemnation and we have a real future and a hope! As we have just discussed, when we see our suffering for what it is and that God actually uses it to help bring about his kingdom, we will have hope even in the darkest night. This in no way diminishes the seriousness of our suffering or our struggles with it. It simply reminds us that suffering can be redemptive, even when we cannot see how. That takes great faith and a humble acknowledgement that there are some things in this life that are simply above our pay grade, even as we put our hope in God to fulfill his redemptive promises one day.

But if we really do not know this God about whom we have been talking—the God of the Bible, not the one of our own imagination or the world’s—we will never have this hope in our suffering and we will be defeated. To be agents of God’s redemptive plan for us and his creation, we must steep ourselves in Scripture to know this God and this God’s promises to us. We must be focused in our prayers, both for ourselves and for the world, and persist in them even when no answer is apparently forthcoming. We must come to table each week to feed on our Lord and be refreshed and reminded that he really is present with us in the power of the Spirit. And we must accept the gift of fellowship with which God has blessed us to strengthen and encourage each other in the midst of our trials and sufferings. This is our inheritance, my beloved. Suffering and redemption. When we know we are heirs to the best inheritance in the world, it frees us to endure our suffering and to act boldly in the present on Christ’s behalf because we know our future is secure. We know our future is secure because the Spirit testifies to us that we have been claimed by the suffering love of Jesus Christ our Lord and so we await our final glorious redemption at his Second Coming. And that, my beloved, is Good News, strange and vexing as it sometimes sounds to us, 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. Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen. And until you do, equip us to fight the good fight on your behalf. Amen.

No Condemnation: Are You Despising Your Christian Birthright?

Sermon delivered on Trinity 5A, Sunday, July 16, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

Because the preacher has to be smarter than the recording device, there is no audio podcast to today’s sermon.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 25.19-34; Psalm 119.105-112; Romans 8.1-11; Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23.

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

What are we to make of our OT lesson with Esau giving up or despising his inheritance of God’s promise to his grandfather Abraham to bless the world through Abraham and his descendants? It’s a strange story to our ears and we wonder what would lead someone like Esau to despise such an awesome gift from God, especially over something as trivial as being hungry in a non-life threatening way? It’s easy for us to shake our heads wisely and scold Esau because of his foolishness. But what about us as Christians, who inherit an even greater promise in and through Jesus Christ? Do we despise our inheritance or birthright? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

So what is our inheritance as Christians? I suspect many of us, if pressed, couldn’t answer the question and that’s a problem, folks, because it is indicative of the problem Jesus highlighted in the parable of the sower. Many of us don’t have ears to hear. But that’s not one of Paul’s problems because he tells us right out of the gate in our epistle lesson what the prize is: No condemnation. To the glory and praise of God, Paul and the rest of the NT writers didn’t partake in unreality like we do. They recognized the deadly problem of the power of Sin in our lives and spoke clearly about it. As Father Bowser preached last week in his tepid sermon (I hate when he’s not here so as to miss a perfectly good insult), left to our own devices, we humans are enslaved by Sin’s power and have been since our first ancestors rebelled against God in the garden to unleash its deadly power in God’s world to corrupt and destroy it and us.

In Romans, Paul has been relentless in talking about our slavery to Sin. In chapter 3 he talked about the fact that there is no one who is good in God’s eyes, no one who is able to live out fully God’s righteousness and justice. If this weren’t true, if we could live out God’s righteousness and justice, there would be no racism, no greed, no cruelty. We wouldn’t be backbiting each other and murdering each other or blowing each other up. People wouldn’t be starving or homeless or pushing drugs. There wouldn’t be talk of inequality and favoritism. The list is endless but you get the point. None of us is able to live fully as God’s image-bearing people and that’s a massive problem, both for ourselves because our sins dehumanize us, and for God’s world because there are always going to be people who suffer and people who inflict suffering. And of course as Paul reminds us in Romans 6.23 and elsewhere, the wages of sin is death and we can fully expect to experience God’s terrible wrath on our sinfulness and unrighteousness because both represent our open and ongoing hostility toward God and God’s goodness manifested, in part, in God’s world. No, there is no unreal thinking on Paul’s part when it comes to the dark and terrible subjects of Evil, Sin, and Death. We are all under God’s just and terrible condemnation and there’s not a thing we can do about it on our own.

Oh, but how we try to do something about it! All this frank and straightforward talk makes us feel uncomfortable and we hate that. So we try to do everything in our power to manage our anxiety about it and to justify ourselves. We want to focus on feelings, on making ourselves feel good, and any talk of the terrible reality of Sin’s enslavement of us certainly doesn’t accomplish that. So we tell ourselves that we’re not that bad. Sure, we may want our way most of the time, but at least we are not terrorists or murderers. We’re not the ones who cause the kinds of suffering I just described. Right. What we are doing is being the seed that was sown on the path and in the thorns in Jesus’ parable this morning. And the Satan, the Father of Lies and Evil, encourages us in our delusional thinking. He is perfectly happy to let us be that kind of seed because it ends in our death. We may try to wish away God’s just condemnation of us, but that isn’t going to change the reality of our situation one iota. We all stand condemned in God’s holy presence.

I see Carl back there squirming in his seat and muttering something about this sermon being a buzzkill. What’s that you are saying? Glad to have you back in the pulpit, Father Maney! Don’t you want to take some more vacation time? Why, thank you, Carl. Yes I do! But I digress. Of course, if that were the end of the story, this sermon would be a total buzzkill. However it is to the glory of God that the Good News of the gospel is actually tied to the bad news about which we’ve just been talking. If all this talk about the power of Sin and its deadly consequences has you squirming in your seat and feeling hopeless and terrified, take heart! This means that you are beginning to experience God’s grace in your life afresh. God is being gracious to you and helping you to really consider the deadly seriousness of Sin and its twin brother Death so that you know clearly what is at stake regarding your faith. Once we actually start talking about Sin in ways that the NT writers do, we are ready to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and to become those seeds that bear fruit and produce a hundredfold yield by God’s power.

How so, you ask? Patience Weedhopper. Let me explain. Because Sin is an outside and invasive power that has the ability to enslave us, we have no hope of defeating it ourselves. Try as we might, we set ourselves up for failure. Conquering the power of Sin takes far more than self-help, by trying to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But as Paul reminds us this morning, we do not have to try to defeat the power of Sin because God has already done that for us on the cross of Jesus Christ. All the NT writers are clear that God became human in Jesus to rescue us from the power of Sin and free us so that we are able to actually live righteous lives in God’s sight. Only God has the power to break Sin’s enslavement of us and only God loves us enough to actually do so. On the cross, God the Son, in agreement with God the Father’s will, broke Sin’s power over us. Not completely in this life to be sure as we all are painfully aware. But Sin’s power over us has been broken and God the Son endured our just condemnation for us so that we would not have to bear it. As Paul tells us, in Jesus, God condemned our sin in the flesh as a loving and just God must do to bring about his perfect justice. But God did so in a way that spared us his wrath, thanks be to God. As we saw last week, Paul asked the agonized question, Who will rescue us from this body of death (Romans 7.24)? This morning, Paul answers his question. Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In his body, God has dealt with the death-dealing problem of Sin and so spared us from experiencing God’s justice pronounced on us. Therefore there is now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus, i.e., who have his Spirit living in us to unite us to him by faith. This is God’s free gift to us, given to us because Jesus loves us that much to give himself willingly for us.

Whatever we might think of ourselves, whatever we see in ourselves that we despise or that is unwholesome or unlovely, when our Lord Jesus looks at us from the cross, he sees us as forgiven. There is nothing we have done, there is nothing we are, that is beyond the healing love and merciful forgiveness of God the Father poured out in God the Son as he died a godforsaken death for us on the cross. And now we are back to the parable of the seeds. If we see all this as clearly as we can—realizing of course, we are never going to plumb the depths this side of the grave of what God in Christ did for us and suffered for us on Calvary—we will be those fruitful seeds. Our hearts will be full of astonished, humbled, and grateful love for this God who saved us from a sure and certain death because of his astonishing love for us. Amen?

So we no longer have to fear God’s condemnation because we put our whole hope and trust in Christ and are open to the power and working of the Holy Spirit to heal and transform us. This doesn’t mean that all our problems and struggles disappear. What God the Son has done for us on the cross does not constitute some kind of magical power that we suddenly get. Sin is still real and it still has a fight in it. But it has been given a death blow and its end is certain, thanks be to God. When we realize we are now no longer under God’s just condemnation, that God has taken care of that for us, we are free to love and serve this God who loves us and gave himself for us. We’ll not do that perfectly this side of the grave, but do it we must. Many, of course, will see God’s power in us and hate us for it because sadly, many want to continue in their sins and enjoy being enslaved by Sin’s power. And when they see us struggling to live as God’s true image-bearing creatures so that we flourish even in the midst of our suffering, it will infuriate many and they will hate us and want to silence us. As our Lord warned us, if they hate him, they will certainly hate us who are his followers. But take heart. He’s overcome the world.

This is our birthright, our inheritance as Christians, my beloved: No condemnation. And we deserve none of it, just as Abraham and his descendants didn’t deserve God’s call to them to be a blessing to the world. Yes, we continue to struggle against the world, the flesh with its fallen and corrupted desires, and the devil. But we do not fear God’s condemnation because in Christ, God has overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil, thanks be to God. As God’s healed and forgiven children, we look forward to living in God’s new world with our resurrection bodies patterned after our Lord’s. And we know this hope of eternal life is true because we know God raised Jesus from the dead and promises to do likewise for us.

So how might we despise our birthright as Christians? There are several ways, but I will only mention a few to stimulate your thinking and prayerful consideration about this. Perhaps the most common way we Christians despise our birthright is to not believe God’s salvation story in Christ. We may think it’s too good to be true or refuse to believe the NT’s insistence that in Christ God has defeated the power of Sin and Death because there is still so much chaos in the world and our lives. To be sure this is where faith comes into play and we must have a strong belief that God really did enter human history in Jesus to die for our sins and be raised from the dead. If we don’t believe that, or if it really didn’t happen as the NT writers proclaim, everything becomes dark again. But God did intervene on our behalf to save us and if we essentially do not believe this or what we recite in the Creed each Sunday, we despise our birthright and become seeds ripe for the plunder.

A second way we despise our birthright is to not accept God’s forgiveness of us in Christ. This is closely related to not believing the Good News, of course, but this can also involve us loathing ourselves and projecting our own unloving spirit onto God so as to convince ourselves that God couldn’t possible forgive our sins because, well, we’re just too rotten. This  means that we really do believe we are under God’s condemnation and elevates us to a special status where the Cross just can’t cover our sins. If you are one of these folks, I encourage you to talk to one of your priests and other faithful Christians so that we can start praying that you get over yourself and that Satan’s power to delude you might be broken so that the scales fall from your eyes and you can see yourself as Jesus sees you: As one of God’s beloved and forgiven children.

Another way we can despise our birthright is to develop a proud and haughty spirit that leads us to do good things so that we can obligate God to us. We all know folks like this. They’re usually proud, arrogant, and self-righteous like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable who prays opposite the tax collector (Luke 18.9-14). When we realize we are no longer under God’s condemnation, it will lead us to desire likewise for others, even our enemies, and we realize how utterly foolish it is to think we can make God feel obligated toward us by how we behave. To believe this indicates we really are clueless as to the seriousness of Sin and living in a state of death-dealing unreality.

All these attitudes, and a host more, can also lead to us despise our birthright in another and devastating way by causing us to refuse to live and proclaim the gospel to others because we are embarrassed and/or worry about offending them. We tell ourselves that maybe salvation is possible outside of Jesus, that trying to do our best is all that it really takes to get right with God. But of course that is a delusion and a lie, and our reluctance to warn others about the deadly consequences of Sin and to embody and proclaim God’s love in Christ to others is a damning testimony to the shallowness of our faith, if faith is what we have.

Think on these things, my beloved. Not just once. Not just occasionally. Think on these things constantly. Consider the astonishing and life-changing love and mercy of God the Father made known to us in Jesus his Son. Dare trust Christ’s love for you enough to really believe you are no longer under condemnation and therefore have nothing to fear in that regard. And then get to work in ways God calls you, both individually and together with the rest of the folks here at St. Augustine’s and beyond, to proclaim this life- and world-changing news to others. Be prepared to suffer the condemnation of others, but give it no thought. They do not hold the power of life and death over you. The one who does has declared that you are no longer under his condemnation so that you know you really do have Good News, 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.

Fr. Ric Bowser: Know What You Believe

Sermon delivered on Trinity 4A, Sunday, July 9, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 24:34–38, 42–49, 58–67; Psalm 45.10-17; Romans 7.15-25a; Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30.

There is no written text for today’s sermon because Father Bowser has not yet learned how to write. We’re working on that.

Click here to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon.

Another Prayer for Independence Day 2017

Lord God Almighty,
you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory,
to serve you in freedom and in peace:
Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice
and the strength of forbearance,
that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and ever. Amen.

A Prayer for Independence Day 2017

Lord God Almighty,
in whose Name the founders of this country
won liberty for themselves and for us,
and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn:
Grant that we and all the people of this land
may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Today in History

From here:

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Continental Congress adopts the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims imagesthe independence of the United States of America from Great Britain and its king. The declaration came 442 days after the first volleys of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts and marked an ideological expansion of the conflict that would eventually encourage France’s intervention on behalf of the Patriots.

Read it all and give thanks to God for this country of ours.

Lincoln on the Declaration of Independence and 4th of July

lincoln19In the 1850s, Abraham Lincoln’s rhetoric was suffused with a profound sense of loss. He considered it shameful national backsliding that a new affirmative defense of slavery had arisen in the South. At the time of the Founding our nation had merely tolerated slavery; now, it was an institution actively celebrated in part of the country.

In a letter in 1855 despairing of ending slavery, Lincoln wrote to the Kentuckian George Robertson that “the fourth of July has not quite dwindled away; it is still a great day–/for burning fire-crackers/!!!”

At around this time, Lincoln fastened on the Declaration of Independence as “his political chart and inspiration,” in the words of his White House secretary John G. Nicolay.

He made it the guidepost by which the country could return to its lost ideals. His example shows the enduring vitality and the endless potential for renewal that is inherent in the Declaration.

Some good stuff here. See what you think.

CT: You Have God’s Blessing to Say ‘God Bless America’

See what you think and feel free to comment below.

I thought back to that moment several years later, when I first encountered bumper stickers reading, “God Bless the Whole World. No Exceptions.” You can see why someone might find that sentiment attractive. “God bless America”? Too narrow and chauvinistic. We’re better off not beseeching the Almighty to play favorites.

Still, the new slogan left me discontented. Why imply that there’s anything unseemly, even ungodly, about loves and loyalties less than universal in scope?

We understand this readily enough in our prayer lives. If I ask my fellow small group members to lift up my ailing grandmother, no one expresses bafflement or outrage that I haven’t asked God to heal all the ailing grandmothers. No one imagines that I harbor indifference or ill will toward any other old folks. In other words, no one scolds me for failing to remember “the whole world—and everyone in it.”

In all likelihood, my ailing grandmother isn’t the world’s most meritorious grandmother. God doesn’t love her any more, or less, than your own kith and kin. But being my grandmother, her welfare naturally lies uppermost in my mind, and weighs heaviest on my heart. So it is with nations. You cherish your homeland—you champion its cause above others—because it’s home.

To be sure, we ignore the “no exceptions” outlook at our peril. Christian faith may not forbid elevated attachment to particular places (any more than to particular people). But hopefully it enlarges our vision, sets vital boundaries, and tempers patriotic excess. Proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” reaffirms that nothing else—no crown, no constitution, no ballad of blood and soil—should claim our highest allegiance. It joins us to that “great multitude . . . from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9).

Read it all.

Today in Civil War History: The Battle of Gettysburg Ends

On the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate imagesGeneral Robert E. Lee‘s last attempt at breaking the Union line ends in disastrous failure, bringing the most decisive battle of the American Civil War to an end.

Read it all and read about Pickett’s charge, the battle that effectively ended the Gettysburg campaign.

Fr. Philip Sang: When God Tests Our Faith

Sermon delivered on Trinity 3A, Sunday, July 2, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

The audio podcast of today’s sermon is not immediately available. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42.

May the words of my mouth and meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you Oh Lord our Rock and our Redeemer, in the name of God the Father, the son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

As we seek to do the Lord’s work of building His kingdom, we will sometimes face difficulties and trials which make us feel discouraged. When this happens, we must go the Scriptures to learn how to face such difficulties and trials. And what we will learn is that we must have faith in God. In fact God often allows us to go through trials deliberately in order to test or refine the faith we have in Him. This morning, we will see how this worked in Abraham.

Abraham was known for the faith he had in God. He believed God’s promise to give him and his barren wife a son, and God miraculously did this when Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90 years old! Abraham’s faith in God was therefore vindicated and all hopes of having a multitude of descendants were now going to be fulfilled as Isaac would then grow up, get married and have his own children. We can imagine how lovingly Abraham and Sarah must have doted on their precious son, taking the greatest care to nurture him with only the best food they had, and with the most comfortable environment they could provide. How well they must have watched Isaac and protected him from all harm and danger -whether of sickness or injury. This was their son, their precious miraculous son, who was their great hope and their future!

But now the very God who had given Abraham this son was about to tell him to do something quite unthinkable: to sacrifice him as a burnt offering to the Lord. This brings us to our Old Testament lesson. The first two verses say. ‘And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said to him, Abraham: and he said, here I am. And he said, Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering up on one of the mountains which I will tell you

The command is made up of three simple verbs: ‘Take’ ‘go’, and ‘offer him’. Nothing was stated as to why this was to be done. It seemed so contrary to all that God had spoken before to Abraham. We can imagine the great shock that Abraham might have felt when he heard it.

Perhaps he might even have wondered if he heard God correctly, and said, ‘Lord, are you really telling me to take Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering?’ But surely that would mean that Isaac would have to die! I don’t understand this. I thought that Isaac is the son You promised to give me and that through Him, your promise to grant me a multitude of descendants would be fulfilled.’ The Bible does not record any response from Abraham to this commandment, except one: Complete obedience. My brothers and sisters, how would you have responded, if you had been in Abraham’s place? This was clearly the greatest faith crisis he ever had to face in his life. How would you cope if you were the one facing this crisis?

Some of us may be tempted to react to this by complaining that God’s command is too cruel, inhumane and unreasonable to carry out. How can God tell me to do that? He is not fair. He obviously does not love me nor my son. He is a bloodthirsty God who is absolutely insensitive to the agony and death of his own people.

Have you sometimes felt that way when things did not go very well for you? Have you sometimes questioned God or doubted His goodness in allowing you to experience loss or pain? Well, when this happens your faith is being tested. Faith is confident that God is always good, righteous, fair, just and loving no matter what He does. And this was true in Abraham’s situation as well. God’s Word clearly reveals that God is not unreasonable, cruel or bloodthirsty. He is most gracious and merciful. He hates any kind of human blood sacrifice. In fact when God gave His laws to Israel about 400 years later, one of the prohibitions was against human blood sacrifices. This is found in Deuteronomy 12:31 ‘You must not do the same for the LORD your God, because every abhorrent thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods. They would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.’. Deuteronomy 18:10 says, ‘ No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire.’

Why then did God command Abraham to sacrifice his son if He is so firmly against human sacrifices? Was He contradicting Himself? No, He was not. Our reading from Genesis makes this clear in the very first verse. It says: ‘After these things God tested Abraham’ The word ‘test’ here reveals that God had no intention of taking Isaac away from Abraham. There is actually no thought or intention of an actual blood sacrifice, although Abraham at this time did not know it yet.

But the command was meant only to test the faith of Abraham. And Abraham passed the test very well, with unquestioning obedience. Look at v.3 ‘So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.’

Lessons from Abraham’s Faith

The Bible does not give us any details of Abraham’s initial reaction to what he heard from God. But I think we can safely assume, that as a loving father, he must have been very troubled in his heart, and must have shed tears in great anguish. Abraham had probably spent the whole night without any sleep. But finally at daybreak, Abraham took his son with him up to Mount Moriah. He built an altar and laid Isaac on it. But at the very last moment, just before the knife was plunged, the Lord sent an angel to stop him. Abraham’s faith had been proven. There was no need now for Isaac to be sacrificed. You can imagine how greatly relieved and glad Abraham must have been to receive his son back.

There are four lessons about faith that we can learn from Abraham: Firstly, we learn that the reason why we need to have faith in God in any crisis or difficulty is our incomplete knowledge of God’s plan. God does not require us to know every single detail before we obey Him. There are many things He has chosen not to reveal to us yet. But He wants us simply to trust Him. According to Isaiah 55:8,9 ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’

And in every crisis we face, we must believe that God has a good purpose for whatever He does, and for whatever He allows to happen in our lives. Romans 8:28 assures us that ‘all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.’ We ought to realize that the trials we face have a divine purpose. They are not there merely by chance or accident, but by God’s design. They have all been carefully planned and deliberately woven into the fabric of our lives for His glory. Thus we should humbly submit ourselves to whatever trial or testing that the Lord puts us through, just like Abraham did.

Beloved, are you facing a trial at present in which you are greatly perplexed? Do you wonder why God is allowing this to happen to you? Please be aware that there are things being accomplished that you do not know about, and that this gives you an opportunity to trust Him for the things you do not know. As it is said where knowledge ends, faith begins! The second lesson about faith that we can learn is that faith obediently submits to God’s will. Abraham obviously loved Isaac very much, but to him obedience to God’s will was even more important than loving Isaac. Faith makes us willing to give or offer up anything God requires from us, even the things that may be most precious to us. Faith must make us willing to surrender all, and to abandon all that we have, to God. It acknowledges that our lives and all that we have are not our own anymore, but God’s, to shape and to use in any way He wants to.

In short, our faith must be a faith that makes Him fully Lord of our lives. God must be made Lord of all, or else He will not be lord at all. Church, if the Lord should require you to give up something very precious to you for His sake, would you submit obediently to Him? Or would you withdraw and go away sorrowful like the rich young ruler? There is a way to overcome any unwillingness to submit obediently to the Lord: Focus on His power and provision. God’s requirements are not designed to deprive or destroy you, but to bless you.

Third lesson about faith that we can learn is that faith confidently depends upon God’s power and provision. Although we do not know all that Abraham felt and thought as he was preparing to offer Isaac, we have two important clues in the passage: The first is found in the reply that he gave to Isaac’s question. Isaac innocently asked him ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’

Abraham’s reply was ‘My son, God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering.’ Let us not think that Abraham was telling Isaac a lie here. The truth of the matter was that if God had commanded that Isaac is to be sacrificed, then Isaac must be the lamb that God has provided. But of greater significance here, is the confidence expressed here by Abraham that God will provide. This shows Abraham’s faith in God’s unfailing provision. The other clue to Abraham’s thoughts is found in Hebrews 11:19 which says ‘Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead’ Abraham really had no doubts at all about God’s unlimited power. He can do anything. If He wants to, He can even resurrect the dead body of Isaac back to life. But it turned out that God did not choose to do that, but to provide a ram as a substitute to be sacrificed.

In the same way that Abraham depended on God’s unfailing provision and power, we too need to depend on His unfailing provision and power when we meet with adversities in life. We must believe that God will provide whatever is needful.

If we suffer any loss, we must believe that God will either sufficiently provide and return whatever it is that we have lost (as He did for Job), or that God will provide us with sufficient grace to bear the loss (as He did for Paul). But in whatever way God provides, the fact remains that He will provide! And in any crisis, we must have firm confidence that God can do anything that He wills to do. It is well within His power to raise the dead back to life if He wants to, or to remove all traces of cancer, or to provide timely material and financial help, or to change the heart of an estranged spouse, or a prodigal child.

But while all things are within His power to do, this does not mean that He will always choose to use His power the way that we would like Him to use it. For instance if I have cancer, I am confident that if God wills, He can remove my cancer immediately and miraculously. But I must not presume that He will do that in my case, as I have no right to expect Him to do that. I must simply accept whatever God chooses to do for me, as good. His ways are so much higher than my ways. He may choose to remove my cancer by the use of medical treatment, or He may even choose to let it remain. This last option does not mean that God is less powerful than what He is.

The Lord can provide and He will provide, whether by miracle or by ordinary means, whether by life or by death, whether by deliverance or by suffering, whether by gain or by loss. And when we go through any trial, we should confidently say, ‘I do not know how the Lord will provide, and I do not know what the Lord will provide, But this one thing I know by faith – The Lord will provide!’ Church, perhaps your faith is being severely tested right now. Trust in God’s provision and power, for when you do that you will find benefits and blessings!

The fourth lesson that we can learn from Abraham’s faith is that: Our faith benefits by being manifested, proven and refined through crises. This is seen in the response that God gave to Abraham’s unquestioning obedience, in v.12 ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ This verse reveals the hidden purpose of God for the strange command He had given to Abraham – it was designed to prove Abraham’s love and devotion to God. In the process it also proved Abraham’s faith, since the writer of Hebrews stated plainly that Abraham offered up Isaac by faith. Abraham’s faith was precious to God.

And it was God’s plan that Abraham’s faith should be fully revealed and refined, not for God to see (because God already knows it, being omniscient), but for Abraham and all his descendants to learn from (including us, who are his spiritual descendants) The only way in which this could happen was by putting Abraham through this severe trial.

The same thing is true about our trials. They are placed in our lives by God to reveal our faith and to refine our faith. If you feel that your faith in God is not strong enough, and you pray, ‘O Lord, please strengthen my faith,’ please be prepared to face some trials and crises. God uses them to accomplish His mighty work of changing our lives. By putting us through them, he refines our faith. We become like Christ. We develop virtues. We become less and less dependent upon ourselves and more dependent upon God. Through trials we become better than what we were before, and so we endure them patiently and willingly. We endure them now with mature understanding and with greater trust in God, who lovingly brought these trials into our lives.

As we face this coming week, and days to come, remember these four things about having faith during times of trials: 1) We need faith because of our incomplete knowledge of God’s plan for us; 2) we express faith by submitting ourselves to God’s will; 3) we exercise faith by depending confidently on God’s provision and power in times of adversity; and 4) our faith benefits by being manifested, proven, and refined through times of adversity.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.