Out of the Depths

Sermon delivered on Trinity 11B, Sunday, August 12, 2018, 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: 2 Samuel 18.5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4.25-5.2; John 6.35, 41-51.

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

“Out of the depths, O Lord, I cry to you.” How many of us have prayed this prayer in one form or another in our lives? Like King David in our OT lesson, we are often afflicted by tragedy and other darkness. As Christians, what should be our response? Does the Bible have anything to say about the despair we all feel from time to time? This is what I want us to look at today.

So what can we learn from our psalm lesson this morning, with its cry of despair along with its embedded hope? As we read in our OT lesson, if David didn’t actually pray this prayer, he surely felt its emotion as he grieved the death of his beloved son. Likewise with us. While we may not have lost children to violent death, we have suffered betrayal and loss and hurt and sickness. We have been afflicted by fear over our health, our financial security, the uncertainty of living in a world going increasingly mad by the day, and by the unknowns in our life that afflict and oppress us. We may not have prayed Psalm 130 explicitly, but we understand the despair contained in it all too well. So what can this psalm teach us?

First, it reminds us that our cries of despair are not signs of faithlessness. Some of us believe that to have feelings of fear and anger and despair over the darkness and evil in our lives are signs that we don’t trust God. But that belief would surprise the psalmists who wrote prayers like the one in our lesson this morning. Rather, our cries of despair indicate a much-needed humility that recognizes we do not have the power to overcome everything that life throws our way and that we do need to cry out to the One who has the power to make all things right. Just as Jesus rebuked the crowds in our gospel lesson for their hard-hearted rejection of how God operated in their lives, the psalmist acknowledges that we are incapable of solving all our problems and must turn to God with a humble trust to rescue us when life overwhelms us. That is the essence of real faith. This is not easy for us to do because we much prefer our own delusional narratives that make us equal or superior to God. 

Second, the psalmist reminds us that Sin and the evil it has unleashed in God’s good world are at the root of all that afflicts us and here we must be very careful. The psalmist is not saying that all that afflicts and oppresses us is our fault. As we saw last week, while God forgives our sins, sometimes God allows the consequences of our sin to remain like he did with David, and we saw that tragically played out in our OT lesson this morning. So sometimes the darkness in our lives that causes us to despair is caused by our own sin and folly. But as the book of Job powerfully reminds us, sometimes the affliction we suffer is not our fault. Mysteriously and enigmatically, sometimes really bad things happen to innocent people. For example, innocents are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Terrible accidents happen that cause permanent wounds and alter lives forever. Innocent babies are born with horrible defects and deadly diseases. Whether we are responsible for that which afflicts us or not, the fact remains that we live in a sin-sick and evil-infested world and we are all afflicted by that, directly or otherwise. The psalmist recognizes correctly that only when Sin and Evil are properly dealt with by God can we expect to be truly healed and liberated from all that makes us despair. That is why we cry out to God from the depths, i.e., when we are overwhelmed, because we realize that only God has the power to deal with the darkness of Sin and the evil it unleashes. More about that in a moment.

Third, we need to be careful that we don’t misunderstand the key terms of hope and waiting on God contained in our psalm. As we have seen before, hope as it is used in both the OT and NT is more than an attitude. It’s much more than keeping good thoughts. Hope as the psalmists and NT writers use it is better translated as a confident expectation. Both terms require an object: We expect something or wait for someone. And so just as a guard waits for the morning to come, and with it an end to the dangers and threats of the night, so does the psalmist wait for the Lord to act on his behalf. 

And while there is an attitude of patience in our psalm, we must not be misled by its implications. While we might think that waiting patiently suggests a calmness or having a mellow attitude, this is not the attitude of the OT and NT writers. For them, waiting is impatient and urgent. Listen to them now (all translations from the NLT).

I am sick at heart. How long, O Lord, until you restore me? (Ps 6.3); O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way?/How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? (Ps 13.1-2); How long, O Lord, will you look on and do nothing? Rescue me from their fierce attacks. Protect my life from these lions! (Ps 35.17);  How long, O God, will you allow our enemies to insult you? Will you let them dishonor your name forever? (Ps 74.10); O Lord, how long will you be angry with us? Forever? How long will your jealousy burn like fire? (Ps 79.5); O Lord, how long will this go on? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your anger burn like fire? (Ps 89.46); O Lord, come back to us! How long will you delay? Take pity on your servants! (Ps 90.13); How long, O Lord? How long will the wicked be allowed to gloat? (Ps 94.3); How long must I wait? When will you punish those who persecute me? (Ps 119.84). 

Do you hear and feel the sense of urgency and impatience for God to act on behalf of his people who cry out to him from the depths? Now listen to these final two verses of the NT. 

The one who testifies to these things [Jesus] says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! [And until you do, t]he grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen (Rev 22.20-21, NRSV). 

St. John has just finished recounting the vision given him in Revelation regarding how God will finally defeat Satan and his minions, i.e., the forces of evil, both spiritual and human, so we are meant to read these closing words with impatient longing and expectation. Of course there would be no impatient expectation if God were not faithful to his promises and/or lacked the power to deliver. Thus when we are overwhelmed by the darkness in our lives that afflicts or oppresses us, we too are called to have the same impatient longing for God to act on our behalf. This is part of living out our faith.

I can hear some of you grumbling right now. That’s all well and good, Father Maney, but here’s a newsflash for you. God doesn’t always answer our desperate prayers. We or our loved ones don’t always get healed. Injustice still runs rampant in our lives and society. The wicked seem to be having a field day mocking God and his word. I prayed for a job and didn’t get it. There’s much more but you get the point.

All of this is true, my snarky ones. Sometimes God seemingly doesn’t answer our prayers, at least in the immediate way we ask him, and all this remains an impenetrable mystery for us. I do not know why that is because God has chosen not to reveal why he sometimes acts while at other times he apparently doesn’t. But in acknowledging there is the mystery of unanswered prayer, as faithful Christians, we must also acknowledge that God answers far more prayers than he apparently doesn’t, and we must be thankful for that. Whatever the reasons for unanswered prayer, they remain above our pay grade and we must therefore have enough humility and wisdom to trust God’s promises to heal and redeem us, believing that God can, does, and will act on our behalf to answer our prayers uttered from the depths of despair. To be able to do this, the biblical writers exhort us to remember God’s goodness, faithfulness, mercy, and love for us, as well as God’s ability to act on behalf of God’s people (cf. Psalm 77).

And now we are ready to turn to our gospel and epistle lessons because they provide us with the hope needed to deal with the darkness that afflicts us. They remind us of what God is doing about it all, regardless of whether we get the hoped-for response to our prayers. As Jesus reminded the crowds, God was not at their beck and call, nor is he at ours. God did not call them (or us) because we are special or somehow deserving of God’s love and mercy. We’re not, much as we love to think we are. Nobody is. And because all are hopelessly sin-sick and incapable of self-healing, we are utterly dependent on God to act on our behalf to heal and restore us to health. And how has God chosen to do that? By becoming human to die for our sins, to execute his justice on himself. It is God who calls us, not the other way around. And only God has the power to heal us from our internal sickness and external afflictions. This is why the Father sent the Son, because only in and through the Son do we find God and the resulting healing and redemption we so desperately seek. And while the claim of Jesus is exclusive (only he can save because only he has seen the Father and knows the Father’s will), the invitation to be healed (saved) is open to everyone. God calls us, pulls us, and cajoles us to him. God invites us to know Jesus because only then can we have eternal life. In turn, Jesus promises to raise up those who believe in him—those who believe that Jesus is the only way to God and that only in his Name is there salvation and forgiveness of sins—on the last day. That is why Jesus is the true bread of life who came down from heaven (who came from God). He has given his body and blood for the life of the world. In other words, in his death, Jesus has broken the power of Evil over us and redeemed us from our slavery to Sin and the death that results. Amen?

Our Lord said something similar to Martha and Mary when he came to raise Lazarus from the dead and give us a foretaste of his own resurrection. He didn’t answer their why questions (why didn’t you come earlier to heal our brother, Lord?). Instead, Jesus gave them an answer that, while demanding patient (and sometimes impatient) waiting and expectation, was ultimately more satisfying. Jesus told them he is the resurrection and the life, that those who live and believe in him will live forever, even though they suffer mortal death (John 11.27-27, 32).

And what is this eternal life about which Jesus speaks? It doesn’t mean dying and going to heaven as many Christians have been incorrectly taught (shame on the church and its leaders who have done that). Eternal life as Jesus used it meant two things. First, it refers to quality of life when we share in the inner life of Jesus. It means we choose, with the help of the Spirit who lives in us and who is given to us by the Father and the Son, to live like Christ. This is where our epistle lesson is helpful. In it, St. Paul lays out what Christlike living looks like. It means, for example, that we look out for the other, especially our fellow Christians, like Christ looks out for us. How did Christ do that? He gave himself for us and bore our punishment so we could be forgiven and healed of our sin-sickness. So St. Paul tells us to stop lying to each other, because lying causes hurt, heartache, bitterness, and distrust. We belong to each other in Christ so why would we want to act evilly toward the other? St. Paul tells us to not let our anger control us so that it does not open the door for us to eventually hate the other. Out of mutual love, we are to work hard so that we can support those amongst us who cannot legitimately do so, and we are never to abuse others’ generosity. We are to stop our evil speaking, where we criticize each other and speak wickedly about them. We are to put away wrath, anger, and abusive language and behavior toward each other, especially toward those we dislike. We are to build each other up and be kind to each other. We do this because this is exactly what Christ has done for us. We dare not judge those whom Christ has already redeemed by his body and blood. 

Wise Christians will immediately see that St. Paul is not laying out a bunch of rules for us to follow slavishly to get our tickets punched. Instead, they will recognize that he is urging us to put away our sins and wickedness because they lead to death and will not be allowed to exist in God’s new world when Christ returns. When we realize this, we realize that by choosing to live right now as Christ lived, always with the help of the Spirit, we align ourselves with God and find life as God intends us to live it. This is what Jesus had in mind when he talked about having eternal life in him. And second, this eternal life that we enter now will extend beyond our mortal death and last forever, imperfect and flawed as we are. The life we live in God’s new world will be a perfect version of the imperfect life we live now as new creations in Christ.

This is the answer to our concerns about unanswered prayer and the problem of Evil. As Christians we remember that God has acted decisively in Christ to defeat the dark powers that afflict us and cause us to cry out from the depths. We are healed and forgiven completely by the blood of the Lamb shed for us on the cross. How that works, I couldn’t tell you completely. I just know that is does. This is the Father calling us to himself. This is why only Jesus, the true bread of life, can satisfy completely. When we give our lives to him and trust his promise that he has healed and redeemed us by his death, our fears about sin and punishment dissipate. On the cross, God has defeated the twin powers of Sin and Evil and in Jesus’ resurrection we have the promise that it’s all true, even if the promise remains partially unfulfilled. So when we cry out from the depths and wait expectantly and impatiently for God to act, we do so because as Christians we know Jesus has a job to finish and he will do so one day when he returns to consummate his saving work begun in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. In the meantime we are his right now, warts and all, even in our affliction, and will be forever. We know this because we believe the story in Scripture and see God’s work in our lives and the lives of others, despite the darkness that descends on us from time to time. This is the only hope that can truly sustain us.

When we find ourselves threatened to be overwhelmed by the depths, we are called to remember God’s plan of salvation revealed ultimately in Christ. God will use our remembering to help strengthen our belief that God has acted decisively on our behalf and is present with us in the power of the Spirit to walk with us so we won’t be overwhelmed by the darkness. Knowing this gives us patience and the confident expectation that victory is ours, even as we cry out impatiently for God to consummate his great and saving work. When we believe this, really believe this, it won’t save us from moments of darkness and sometimes despair. But it will have the power to sustain us, even in death, because we know that we are God’s beloved children, despite who we are, and that we have the Good News of Jesus Christ who holds the key to not only our own healing but the restoration of all creation, now and for all eternity. Take hope and be renewed in this knowledge, my beloved, as you come to the Table to feed on the bread of heaven and drink the cup of salvation, the Lord Jesus himself. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

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

You are the Man (and Woman)!

Sermon delivered on Trinity 10B, Sunday, August 5, 2018 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: 2 Samuel 11.26-12.13a; Psalm 51.1-13; Ephesians 4.1-16; John 6.24-35.

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

What are we to make of our OT lesson with its story of God’s judgment on David’s sins? How did God “put away” David’s sins? Why would God’s anointed king resort to committing the twin evils of adultery and murder after being so richly blessed by God? What are we as Christians with our own impressive baggage of sins to learn from this sad episode? And where’s the Good News to be found? If God pronounced this kind of judgment on David, “the man after [God’s] own heart” (Acts 13.22), what hope do we poor schleps have when we stand before God’s judgment seat? These are some of the things I want us to look at this morning.

If ever there were a compelling reason for us to believe the old proverb that, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9.10), our OT lesson provides it. After hearing God pronounce judgment on King David through the prophet Nathan, we almost instinctively wonder how we will escape God’s judgment on our sins, and it makes us afraid. The story itself raises as many questions as it answers. Yes, there is God’s judgment on David’s sins of adultery and murder. But God also tells David through Nathan that God has put away David’s sins after he confessed them. But how? And why didn’t God remove David as king the way God did with David’s predecessor, Saul? Adultery and murder are about as serious as you can get, yet David remained God’s chosen king. What’s that all about? Like all sin and God’s reaction to it, it’s complicated and there are surely some questions that will remain unanswered this side of the grave. But that should never stop us from learning what we can from God’s word.

We start with David. Why would this man, so blessed by God, resort to committing two evils? Had Father Gatwood preached one of his tepid sermons on the OT lesson from last Sunday, the ostensible answer would have been that David wasn’t where he should have been—leading his men in battle against Israel’s enemies. But this is only a superficial answer. One of the things the writer surely wants us to see is that this episode is another tragic example of how the human heart—the biblical term for the core of our very being—is desperately wicked and beyond our understanding as the Lord himself reminded his prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17.9). In other words, we humans are terminally sin-sick, even the best of us, even the man after God’s own heart. Even though David wasn’t where he was supposed to be, he could have looked away and resisted his lustful urge to take the beautiful Bathsheba. But he didn’t. He chose to commit adultery and then tried to cover his sin by ultimately having her husband murdered. We can relate to this, even if we have never committed adultery or murder. How many times have we refused to take the high road and indulged our sinful desires instead? More than most of us care to admit. If our hearts are that thoroughly corrupted, who among us can hope to escape God’s judgment on the chaos our sins produce? We are truly the man in Nathan’s story. 

To make matters worse, as Nathan pointed out to David, David’s sins were like spitting in God’s face. David knew they were wrong but chose to sin anyway, despite the fact that God had been so graciously generous to David, blessing him by making him king, but also granting David success at every turn up until David chose to transgress against the Lord. We understand this dynamic as well. How often do we tend to turn our back on God when things are going swimmingly well for us? How often do we give ourselves credit for our successes and want to blame God when things go south for us? In other words, how often does success and God’s blessing actually harden our hearts toward God as it did David’s? We are the man! 

Last, but certainly not least, as God pointed out to David, his sins gave the enemies of God even more reason not to put their loyalty and trust in God. If God’s chosen one acted this way, what kind of God was he actually be worshiping? In this age of instantaneous communication, the consequences of our sin are even more vital for us to consider. As people watch how we behave and treat others in our lives, what are we proclaiming about the character of our Lord Jesus whom we profess to worship and follow? Are we accurately portraying the character of Jesus or are we projecting the image of the false idols we worship, thus causing harm to the Name? None of us likes to have our name or character besmirched by others. How much more for the perfect and holy triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? As we look at how many times we have failed our Lord publicly, we are forced to acknowledge once again that we are the man.

But God’s reaction in this tragic story is just as breathtakingly mysterious. By Law, David’s offenses were clearly punishable by death. So why did God spare him? Is this part of what Nathan meant when he told David God had put away his sins? We aren’t told. And why did not God remove David from office the way God removed Saul? David’s sins were as bad if not worse than Saul’s, but God did not remove David. Why? Again, we aren’t told, but I am persuaded that we see a glimpse of God’s love and grace here that might help explain why David remained king after sinning so grievously against God. You recall that two weeks ago we read the Lord’s promise to David. David had wanted to build God a house in which to dwell (i.e., the Temple at Jerusalem), but God refused. Instead, God promised to build David a house (a dynasty) that would one day include God’s anointed one, the Messiah (2 Samuel 7.1-17). It is here that we see the love, grace, and faithfulness of God shine through the darkness of human sin. God would punish his wayward king but God could never abandon him by reneging on his promise to David. As St. Paul reminded Timothy right before Paul’s death, God remains faithful even when we are unfaithful (2 Timothy 2.13). God cannot be untrue to himself or revoke his promises, even in the face of our flagrant sins. Here then is surely the main reason God did not remove David as king. God had to remain faithful to his promise to David that there would always be an ancestor sitting on his throne. That would be hard to do if God removed David as king! So even in the midst of judgment, we find God’s faithful love and grace piercing the darkness of our sin.

What then are we to make of God’s judgment on David? Didn’t God put away David’s sins after he confessed them to God? Well yes God did, even if we are not told exactly what that entailed. What we do know is this. God’s judgment on David matched David’s sins. David had flagrantly dishonored the marriage bed and took another man’s wife because he could. In return, God’s judgment matched the crime. David’s own wives would be taken by his own son, Absalom, and David would be publicly humiliated. David had committed murder to cover his adulterous tracks. God’s judgment also matched that crime. David’s sons would rise up in rebellion against David and two of them would die violent deaths. Violence and political intrigue would haunt David’s family until the day he died. Hard as it is for us to watch, especially considering the fact that we too are the man (and woman), we see God’s perfect justice being executed on his king.

All this makes us wonder how this represents God’s forgiveness. It is here we must remember that when God forgives our sins, this does not mean that God automatically removes the consequences of our sins. Sometimes, by God’s grace, we are spared many of the consequences of our sins, both those we anticipate and those we don’t. But God doesn’t always spare us from the folly of our sin. For reasons known only to God, we often must deal with consequences of sins long since repented of. It’s part and parcel of living in a sin-sick and evil infested world. This doesn’t mean God refuses to forgive us. After all, God spared David’s life when God’s own law demanded it be taken. Instead, God simply let God’s justice be done and we all get that. We look around at all the wrongs of our world and we know that something has to be done about it. Without justice there can be no mercy. If God is truly just and good, God must do something about the evil in God’s world and those who commit it. Unfortunately, because we are the man (and woman), we can all expect to come under God’s fierce judgment. 

Uh, Father Maney, I hear some of you muttering right now. We know you’ve haven’t been in the pulpit since like Moby Dick was a minnow, but aren’t you supposed to be a preacher of Good News? Helpful hint. Good News does not focus on beating us up and reminding us that we all fall short of the glory of God without hope of fixing all that is wrong with us, n-kay? We know all too well that we are the man!

Patience, my grumpy and judgmental ones. I have been laying out for you the basis of the Good News of Jesus Christ and it is never a bad thing for God’s people to consider regularly the consequences and destructive power of our sins, which we have just done. Doing so reminds us God is already at work on us. Yes, we are the man. Yes, our hearts are desperately sick and beyond our ability to repair them. Yes, there are often lasting consequences to our sin and folly. Yes, we all can expect to fall under God’s fierce and terrible judgment if left to our own devices. But here’s the thing, my beloved. We are not left to our own devices. Thankfully we worship and serve a God who hates evil and who has promised to rid his good creation of all traces of it. If God did not hate evil and promise to pronounce judgment on it, we would have no hope of ever living in a new creation that is devoid of all evil and brokenness and hurt. In our heart of hearts, we all know that justice is necessary to address the wrongs and transgressions we all commit, even if we don’t want God’s judgment on us. To not believe in justice means that we could not support any kind of criminal justice system, that it would be OK for us and our loved ones to suffer all kinds of injustices and crimes because none of it really mattered in the end. Nobody in his or her right mind believes that for a minute, broken as we are. We all know wrongs must be put to right and that is exactly what God promises to do. 

But God also knows we are the man (and the woman) who deserve God’s just wrath for our sins. God knows we are thoroughly infected by the power of Sin and incapable of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Self-help is a farce and a lie. And because God made us in his image and loves us more than we can comprehend, God has moved to save us from destruction. Despite the fact of our ongoing sin and rebellion against God, which will produce permanent alienation and death if left unchecked, God’s great love and faithfulness are made known to us in Jesus Christ. St. Paul reminds us that while we were still active enemies of God, God sent his Son to die a shameful and godforsaken death on our behalf so that we would not have to suffer God’s just condemnation of our sins and the evil that resides in us. Like David, we are spared from death by the mercy of God. To be sure, barring the Lord’s return in our lifetime, we will all suffer mortal death. But we will not die because of Jesus. St. Paul reminds us that when we are baptized, we share in a death like Jesus’. And because we share in his death, we also share in a resurrection like his because our baptism unites us with our crucified and risen Lord. God raised Jesus from the dead and in doing so destroyed death forever. So we too will be raised when the Lord returns to finish the work he started in his death and resurrection. As Jesus told Martha, those who believe in him will live, even though they die, and anyone who lives and believes in him will never die (John 11.25-26). So here is God’s response to our sin and the evil it unleashes. God promises to condemn evil and evildoers but sent his own dear Son to bear that condemnation himself so as to spare us from having to suffer it. God did this for us while we were still his enemies because God loves us and is faithful to his good creation. God wants us to live and God has overcome death in the resurrection of Christ, promising those of us who believe the same destiny, the promise of eternal life in God’s new world that is devoid of evil and sin of any kind. None of us deserve it because we are too broken to live as God’s people. But God gives us his Holy Spirit to heal and transform us, one inch at a time, backsliding and all, to free us from our disobedience and slavery to Sin. God can do this impossible thing because he is the God who calls things into existence that don’t exist and who raises the dead. The extent we are able to live faithful lives in accordance with God’s created order and revealed is the extent we will enjoy real peace and true happiness. Jesus promises as much in our gospel lesson today. He is the true manna, the bread of life, that we are to consume regularly on our journey to the new creation, the new promised land. That’s why we feed on him in our hearts with thanksgiving each week. We literally consume Jesus and are healed and reminded of God’s wondrous promise to heal and deliver us from our sin-sickness, thanks be to God!

If you are not overwhelmed by this Good News, then there’s a good chance that you either have not fully considered the seriousness of sin in God’s eyes and/or you don’t believe that God can be that good and loving. Believe it, my beloved. It’s true. Here is the nature of the heart of God whom we worship. God used our disobedience to imprison us so that God could show mercy on us! Amazing grace! God’s perfect justice has been executed in Christ but not yet fully implemented. One day it will be and we will be astonished at God’s love and mercy in ways we cannot now comprehend. Yes, we will all stand before God’s judgment throne. But because we belong to Christ, we will hear the verdict of “not guilty,” despite our mountain of sins.

And if you are overwhelmed by the Good News of God’s love made known to you in Christ, thank God, because it must change you. God did not die on a cross for you to continue to act like an ungrateful twit. God did not die for you so that you could keep on in your sinful and death-dealing ways. God is not a cosmic Enabler. God is the Supreme Lover. God gave himself for you and promises you eternal life so that you can start enjoying it right now in the power of the Spirit. None of us gets it right all the time, but if you want to know what being a new man (or woman) in Christ looks like, start by rereading our epistle lesson this morning. Christian unity will give you a good starting place to think about what Christlike living, real living, is all about. 

And so, my beloved, remember this. The bad news is that we are all prisoners to our sin and rebellion. The Good News is that God’s love and mercy are stronger than our sinful folly, and God has acted decisively on our behalf to give us life. Accept the gracious invitation and give your life to the One who is the source of your life. Then you will know that you are the beloved and that you have Good News, now and for all eternity, despite your sins and the times when you walk through the darkest valleys of life. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Fr. Terry Gatwood: Do Not Be Afraid

Sermon delivered on Trinity 9B, Sunday, July 29, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

Father Gatwood makes it up as he goes along so there’s no written text for today’s sermon. To listen to the audio podcast, click here.

Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 11.1-25; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3.14-21; John 6.1-21.

Fr. Philip Sang: Bringing Down Dividing Walls and Erecting Unifying Ones

Sermon delivered on Trinity 8B, Sunday, July 22, 2018, 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: 2 Samuel 7:1-14; Psalm 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56.

We humans are great builders – we build towns and turbines, subways and satellites, farms and factories, tunnels et cetera. We can take justifiable pride in these accomplishments, but sometimes we tend to do our building for all the wrong reasons. In the lesson from Second Samuel this morning, we have conversation between King David and the prophet Nathan and between Nathan and God over building a house for God now that David and the people of Israel are settled. Buildings need walls and walls both shut in and they shut out.

Remember the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel? Those builders achieved amazing things – they were on their way to building a tower to heaven itself – but they were constructing a temple to their own glory. In Genesis 11, we read that the reason for building the tower was to “make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4). To avoid this, God scrambled their languages and put some limits on their ambition.

Unfortunately, we took those skills we had at building one very tall tower and got really good at building lots and lots of walls. We build walls to protect, walls to shelter, walls to mark boundaries and walls to defend those boundaries.

In fact, the walls themselves work in concert with the curse of Babel. They help us define and defend all the differences between us. We usually start with languages and nations, but before long we’re segregating ourselves by customs and habits, by religions and ideologies. The distinctions get finer, and the walls grow more numerous. Ever creative in our pride, we begin to build walls to the glory of our own distinctiveness, and then convince ourselves that God dwells within our own particular boundaries.

The issue of walls- keeping us in or keeping us out continues in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. Paul reminds the listeners that Christ “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph. 2: 14). Languages and nations? Christ proclaims peace to those who are far off and those who are near. Religions and ideologies? Jesus was prepared even to “abolish the law with its commandments and ordinances that he might create in himself one humanity in place of the two, thus making peace” (Eph. 2:15).

Jesus takes down whatever walls we have raised to create divisions amongst us. The insiders and outsiders? The walls come down. Citizens and foreigners? The walls come down. Oppressors and victims? In Christ Jesus, the walls come down. Taking down walls, though, can be a scary proposition. We no longer have a place to retreat to or to hide behind. We are exposed in the sense of being known as we are. Good or bad. Big or small.

Jesus is not just doing demolition work here. He is not trying to bring about a sort of spiritual anarchy. He’s working to raise a new structure, to join us together into a holy temple. Jesus is working to reverse the curse of Babel, first by healing our divisions and then by creating a new tower. This tower though, is built to God’s glory. Instead of striving to reach heaven from the earth, this temple is built to invite the presence of God, to be “a dwelling place for God.” This temple though, is not a physical structure but rather one that does not need walls to separate us into denominations or other categories.

Paul tells us that Jesus does all this through his own body. At least in part, Paul is talking about the crucifixion. On the cross, Jesus accepted the full weight of our pride and our contention, allowing his own body to be broken in order to show us the foolishness of our divisions and hostilities. Through Jesus we are “no longer strangers and aliens, but we are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God… in Jesus the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:19-21).

In the resurrection, Jesus not only witnesses to new life, but acts to reconcile all our divided factions to God “in one body through the cross.” In a sense, this is a natural extension of Jesus’ work of bodily healing throughout his earthly ministry.

In our gospel reading for today, remember how the crowds rush to meet Jesus, bringing the sick to lay along his path. The sick and injured come to him with nothing but their faith and their own weakness and vulnerability.

Jesus meets not only their needs to be healed, but their needs to be seen and acknowledged.

Sickness or disability in that culture was a sentence of separation. Likely it meant a life of dependence or even of begging. Certainly it meant exclusion from religious life, being declared unclean for temple worship(lepers), prevented from drawing near to the physical presence of God that the temple represented. Jesus instead brings God’s presence directly to those most excluded and most in need. Jesus does not let even the religious law stop him. He heals on the Sabbath. He heals in synagogues. We see the sick come to him to be healed there.

Jesus is healing more than bodily illness. He is healing division and exclusion. In fact, he is creating a new body, gathering together the crowds who have been like sheep without a shepherd, and bringing God’s presence among them. Teaching and healing, Jesus begins to assemble a new community bound together by faith in the nearness of God.

In the cross and resurrection, Jesus consummates all this work of teaching healing. He shows himself to be present even in surrender and suffering and death. He surpasses all those ills in the resurrection, and invites all of humanity to become part of his own body. He not only restores the temple of his own body in three days, but begins to shape all of us into the Body of Christ. In the cross, the two great metaphors for the church are united and find their basis: the church as the Body of Christ, and the church as the new temple of God.

We all are invited to join with the apostles and prophets in their self-giving role of building this new and holy temple. More, we are invited to hold each other up in service, prayer and worship, even as the stones of the temple together bear the weight of the whole.

This can only happen because of Jesus the cornerstone, who also happens to be the master architect. We may look at the church and see it terribly fragmented. We may look at our fellow Christians across the dividing line of denominations and worship styles and theologies, and despair of ever working together. Frankly, we may not want to be placed side-by-side with them in a new and unified structure. But remember this, though we are not called to like someone, we are called to love everyone. The strength of christianity is our willingness to sit in the pew and to come to the Table with those with whom we disagree. To remember in those acts that we are one body with one Lord and one Baptism.

If and when we come to seek healing, in humility and in faith, we will see that Jesus, who is able to heal our divisions, is also able to grow us into one body of many different sorts of members. And Jesus as our master-builder can make use even of our differences in order to create a perfect balance. He will work until the only walls that remain standing are the walls of one great “holy temple in the Lord.”

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

Fr. Terry Gatwood: Where is the Good News?

Sermon delivered on Trinity 7B, Sunday, July 15, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

Father Gatwood’s writer’s cramp continues and there is no written text for today’ sermon. Click here to listen to the audio podcast.

Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 6.1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29.

Fr. Philip Sang: Weakness: A Pathway to God’s Grace

Sermon delivered on Trinity 6B, Sunday, July 8, 2018, 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: 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13.

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

“I will boast of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me…For whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” – 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

The letter of St Paul to the church in Corinth that we read today prompts me to say a word about weakness. In our culture weakness is anathema, we don’t like it; it’s to be discouraged and to be avoided at all cost.

But there is some good news in weakness. What’s the good news about weakness? We’re more likely to see weakness as bad news. We don’t like to focus on our weakness; we prefer to talk about our strengths. When you go for a job interview, employers want to hear about your strengths, what are you bringing to the table, not your weaknesses. Keep your weaknesses under wraps. Dismiss them, minimize them, try to make them go away.

But weakness is standard equipment on every model of human being or society. We’re familiar with our weaknesses: fear, selfishness, judgmentalism, temptation, depression, disorganization, low self-esteem.

In our text for today, Paul says, “I boast of my weaknesses.” Paul is giving us a crucial insight into faith. He’s saying that his weaknesses are an important part of his faith. Paul had plenty of ego strength. It was obvious that he was enormously talented as a leader, theologian, and writer, but he says “To keep me from being too elated [prideful, arrogant], a thorn in the flesh was given to me.” We’ve long wondered what exactly was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” It was surely more than a tiny splinter stuck in his little finger. Whatever his ailment was, it lingered with him, and Paul prayed over and over for God to take it away. It was not removed. You see, even St. Paul got the answer “no” to his prayers. However, Instead, God gave Paul the strength to bear his pain. “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” It’s a paradox of faith: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Whatever limitation Paul faced, his weakness helped him rely in a deep way not on himself but on God. He began to see his weakness as a pathway to God’s grace.

Power is made perfect in weakness, the Scripture says. As a nation and as individuals, we find our inner authority, our spiritual center, only when we face our weaknesses.

That’s why Jesus was always hanging out with powerless people—those who were hurting and oppressed. His mission was to invite weak and wounded people, ordinary people, to enter the Kingdom, the Beloved Community of love, forgiveness, justice, and restored life. But his starting point was weakness.

Jesus’ own life was filled with weakness. In the Gospel lesson today Jesus is rejected by his own relatives. They took offense at him: “Is this Joseph’s son?” And the text says, “He could do no deed of power there, except he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” (Mark 6:5) Even as he was being rejected by his own people, he found some power in his weakness. He found that when he was weak, God’s grace came pouring into him and through him.

Jesus focused first on people who are weak. He was in the business of transforming weakness into strength. The question for us is whether we will allow God to turn our weakness into God’s strength.

Pain can become a source of healing. We can allow our pain to widen our sensitivity to others; we can allow our pain to connect us to the suffering of others and to activate our compassion. The central symbol of Christian faith is a cross, what do you see on the cross?—it was a symbol of weakness and defeat. But God turned the cross into a symbol of love— strength in weakness. A symbol of victory.

God is in the business of turning our personal defeats into victories, our disappointments into hope. But the first step is to trust that God will help us deepen our weakness until that weakness becomes a path to God’s strength.

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

Fr. Terry Gatwood: Seeds of Faith

Sermon delivered on Trinity 3B, Sunday, June 17, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

Father Gatwood has gone completely illiterate so there is no written text for today’s sermon. Click here to listen to the audio podcast.

Lectionary texts for today are 1 Samuel 15.34-16.13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5.6-17; Mark 4.26-34.

An Easter Sermon for (Not So) Ordinary Time

Sermon delivered on Trinity 2B, Sunday, June 10, 2018, 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: 1 Samuel 8.4-20, 11.14-15; Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4.13-5.5; Mark 3.20-35.

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

We recently entered “ordinary time,” the period after Trinity Sunday that runs through All-Saints’ Sunday and celebrates the ministry and mystery of Christ, God become human. During this liturgical season it is unusual for preachers to focus on resurrection because that topic is usually reserved for Eastertide. But you’re going to get an Easter sermon today because, well, I’m kinda unusual (I know, I know; you already knew that), because today’s Lectionary texts allow it, and because we live in a sin-sick world and need to be reminded on a regular basis about who God is and why we as Christians have a hope that is uniquely ours.

We would have to be utterly blind not to see that there is something wrong with God’s breathtakingly beautiful world. From natural disasters to personal illness to frustrated hopes and dreams to sudden catastrophes to living with the consequences of our sin to broken and dysfunctional relationships, we don’t have to be told that all is not right with God’s world or our lives. As we saw last week, in ancient Israel’s life as well as our own, everyone increasingly did what seemed right in their own eyes, which did nothing but bring about increasing lawlessness, anxiety, and disorder to their society and ours. When the creatures decide to tell their Creator they know better than the Creator, chaos, one of the primary signs of Sin and Evil, will surely follow.

Each of our lessons this morning speaks to this reality as well. In our OT lesson, e.g., God tells old Samuel that in demanding a king like the other nations, God’s people Israel were rejecting God, not Samuel’s leadership. And God commanded Samuel to tell the people that if they got a king, injustice and all kinds of other evil would ensue. The psalmist speaks about God rescuing him as he walks in the midst of trouble, especially from the fury of his enemies. And if we read the overarching story of Scripture carefully, we will see that our sin and rebellion against God not only results in our death, it also allows the powers of Evil to operate more freely in God’s world to corrupt and destroy it. As St. Paul tells us in Ephesians, our enemies are not flesh and blood, i.e., other humans, but the powers and principalities, i.e., the unseen forces of Evil, arrayed against us (6.12). To be sure, we usually deal with the human agents who cooperate with the dark powers, wittingly or otherwise. But our real enemy is the unseen forces of Evil that often control and/or manipulate sinful human behavior. As St. John writes, “…when people keep on sinning, it shows that they belong to the devil, who has been sinning since the beginning (1 John 3.8a).

If we understand this dynamic and acknowledge the real presence of Evil in God’s good world, enigmatic and mysterious as that can seem, we are ready to examine what is really going on in our gospel lesson. This in turn will help us appreciate what Scripture is trying to tell us, that God is not an absentee landlord who cares nothing about his tenants and who turns a blind eye to our cries. To the contrary, our acknowledgement of the real presence of Evil in God’s world and our lives makes us want to cry out to the Lord in the manner of the psalmists: 

I cry out to God; yes, I shout. Oh, that God would listen to me! / When I was in deep trouble, I searched for the Lord. / All night long I prayed, with hands lifted toward heaven, but my soul was not comforted. / I think of God, and I moan,  overwhelmed with longing for his help. / Has the Lord rejected me forever? Will he never again be kind to me? / Is his unfailing love gone forever? Have his promises permanently failed? / Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he slammed the door on his compassion? (Psalm 77.1-3, 7-9)

Our gospel lesson testifies to the fact that God has both heard our prayers for deliverance from Evil and has acted decisively to defeat Evil be sending Jesus his Son to rescue us. That’s what this story is about and we need to have eyes and ears and minds of faith so that we don’t miss it. St. Mark never tells us explicitly that Jesus was performing an exorcism in the house but surely that was the case. We conclude this based on the exchange between Jesus and the religious authorities who had come down from Jerusalem to check him out. If Jesus wasn’t exorcising demons from an afflicted person, their criticisms of him make no sense at all, nor does Jesus’ response to their criticisms. Placing this story on the heels of previous exorcisms and healings, which in turn came after the story of Jesus’ victory over Satan during our Lord’s 40 days in the wilderness (Mark 1.9-14, 21-32), St. Mark surely wants us to see that in these exorcisms, Jesus is extending his initial victory won over Satan in the wilderness, i.e., Jesus has bound the strong man, Satan, and has begun to plunder Satan’s house. Jesus, God’s Son and Messiah, is the stronger man and through him and his work, God is going about defeating the powers and presence of Evil. St. John tells us the same thing in his first epistle, except much more boldly. He states that, “The Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3.8b). Of course, St. John makes this claim immediately after writing that those who still sin belong to the devil as we saw earlier. From this we can reasonably conclude that release from Sin’s power over us through the Son of God, and only the Son of God is part of defeating Evil. But how?

The cross, of course. In addition to the exorcisms and healings our Lord performed during his earthly ministry, signs that he truly is God’s Son and Messiah, the NT writers are adamant that on the cross God defeated the powers and principalities, but in a most surprising way. God didn’t send in the tanks. God sent his only Son to take on himself the full brunt of Evil and bear the punishment for our Sins, thus further breaking the power of Evil. We therefore have nothing to fear in this world or the next because we believe that in the blood of the Lamb shed to cleanse us from our sins, we are reconciled to God, our only Source of life, and freed from the power of Evil and Sin. And when we are freed from the power of Evil and Sin we are therefore freed from the power of Death because as St. Paul writes elsewhere, the wages of Sin is Death (Romans 6.23). By dying for us in a shameful and godforsaken manner, the Son of God freed us from the dark powers who hate us and want to destroy us (Romans 8.2). Even more remarkable is the fact that God did all this for us while we were still his enemies (Romans 5.6-9).

All this is the Good News of Jesus Christ and is part of the Easter proclamation. But before we look at the heart of the Easter proclamation contained in our epistle lesson, let us stop and consider what this all means for us. First, a word about the unforgivable sin about which Jesus talks in our gospel lesson. I know it has caused a lot of anxiety in faithful Christians. Have we committed the unforgivable sin? The short answer is no, unless you attribute the mighty acts of healing and power performed by Jesus, exorcisms included, to Satan himself. Knowing most of you as I do, I think you all can breathe a sigh of relief and let go of this particular anxiety, because that was the context in which Jesus spoke about blaspheming the Holy Spirit. 

Second, Jesus’ claim to have bound the strong man (Satan) so that Satan’s kingdom could be plundered, i.e., that he was reclaiming God’s good world from the forces of Evil, is also meant to alert us to the reality that the world is full of spiritual dangers. “Go out there with your eyes open,” we hear him say. “Expect to be tempted. Realize that when bad things happen, evil powers may well have a hand in them. Don’t naively suppose that life ought to be like a leisurely afternoon at the beach and then blink in surprise when some sort of evil explodes into the middle of your existence.” Jesus announces that we live in a world held hostage by formidable evil powers, powers always on the prowl, but Jesus has the power to defeat them. He hasn’t defeated them completely, of course. In fact, I was reminded of this reality in a terrible way while writing this sermon. It is precisely at this point I received the news of Dawn Dunlap’s death yesterday. Now I am not suggesting the powers of Evil were behind her death, only that we live in a world where bad things can and do happen, even to good people. So while the evil powers have been defeated, they have not been fully vanquished. That won’t happen until the Lord returns to consummate his work won in his death and resurrection. This can be a challenge to our faith and it is here we must return to the psalmist who has cried out in desperation and anger, asking God where God is and why God allows evil to exist. The psalmist, of course, doesn’t receive an answer to his why questions. Instead he engages in holy remembrance. He remembers who God is and God’s mighty works on behalf of God’s people. Listen to him now:

I said, “This is my fate; the Most High has turned his hand against me.” / But then I recall all you have done, O Lord; I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago. / O God, your ways are holy. Is there any god as mighty as you? / You are the God of great wonders! You demonstrate your awesome power among the nations. / By your strong arm, you redeemed your people. (Ps 77.10-11, 13-15a)

God’s people Israel were to remember God’s rescue of them from their slavery in Egypt. For Christians, our go-to remembrance is Jesus’ death and resurrection for the reasons we have just talked about along with the mighty acts of power like Jesus’ exorcisms and healings. 

Third, the presence and power of Evil in God’s world, combined with our utter helplessness to free ourselves from our slavery to Sin and Death remind us we are dealing with powerful, alien forces who hate us and want to destroy us. If we are to be conquerors, therefore, we must rely on help from an outside power who loves us and wants to heal us, especially from the ultimate evil of Death. The NT teaches us, and we believe, that that help comes from God the Father himself who sent his only Son to die for us and free us from our slavery to Evil and Sin, and who broke the power of Death by raising Jesus from the dead that first Easter morning. As St. Paul tells us in our epistle lesson and elsewhere (cp. especially Romans 6.3-11), we are united to Christ in a death like his so that we can also be united to Christ in a resurrection like his. In other words, we share Christ’s reality, both in this world and the next. We did nothing to deserve it, but God offered Christ to us anyway because of God’s great love for us. Do we have the good sense to accept this most precious gift in the world? I pray we do, my beloved.

I can hear some of you saying right now, “I just can’t imagine any of that: God’s love for me, the strange way God defeated Evil, and the resurrection of the dead.” Well of course you can’t. None of us can, not even those of us who actually believe the gospel. We can’t imagine it precisely because this is about the God who raises the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist (Romans 4.17), not us. Last time I checked, none of us can do either of those things; so yes, it is unimaginable in that regard. But it’s true, despite our inability to imagine the power and mercy and love and grace of God behind it. When by God’s grace we do believe the Good News of Jesus Christ and learn to have a realistic view of Evil in the world, we are given the power to overcome that Evil and to persevere when it afflicts us as it inevitably will. 

This is what St. Paul was talking about in our epistle lesson. He had been defending his ministry to the Corinthians because it looked so weird to them. He talked about power in suffering for Jesus. He talked about dying to self and living for Christ, proclaiming nothing but his cross. St. Paul wasn’t a handsome, sexy leader. To the contrary he had suffered terribly for his Lord. And because some in the Corinthian church couldn’t imagine this is how God has chosen to rescue us from Evil, they questioned St. Paul’s legitimacy as an bona fide apostle of Christ.

In response, St. Paul tells them (and us) that he doesn’t lose hope or heart despite his immense suffering on behalf of Christ. In fact, he tells us that when we are faithful to Jesus we can expect to suffer too, and sometimes mightily! That is when we must stop and remember what God has done for us in Jesus’ death and resurrection. He’s rescued us from the enemy and our slavery to the evil powers so that even if we are killed, we have nothing to fear. Paul is not telling us he never had anxiety or fear. Read what he says in 2 Corinthians 1.8-11 about being crushed and overwhelmed in Asia beyond his ability to endure, even to the point where he expected to die. So St. Paul is not offering us some magic elixir full of happy juice that will suddenly make our troubles and sufferings disappear. No, St. Paul is offering us something much better: union with the crucified and risen Lord who has conquered the dark powers and all that can truly harm us, and claimed us as his own. That, proclaims St. Paul, not to mention countless Christians after him, is enough to help us persevere when we are afflicted by Evil because we know our eternal future is secure even if the fleeting present is still chaotic.

And what is that future? Resurrection! New bodily life patterned after our crucified and risen Savior. When St. Paul speaks of things seen versus unseen, he is not talking about the physical world versus the spiritual world (heaven), denigrating the former and exalting the latter. He is talking about the present world in contrast to the future world, the new heavens and earth, with its new type of physicality that will include us with our resurrection bodies that will be impervious to sickness, suffering, sorrow, or death. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God demonstrated decisively that death had been defeated. It was the turning point in history! And Jesus’ resurrection is a foretaste of our own resurrection because as we have seen, as Christians we are united with Christ in a resurrection like his. We have this promise, despite our ongoing sin and wickedness and rebellion against God because we are united to Jesus in a death like his, where he broke Sin’s power over us and spared us from God’s justice being imposed on us, thanks be to God! Amen? If this future hope is not enough to sustain you in times of darkness and suffering, my beloved, I don’t know what can. Let us therefore ask the Holy Spirit, whom God gives us to strengthen and guide us, to give us the faith to believe the unbelievable (in human terms) and to imagine the unimaginable (again in human terms). Let us love and forgive and encourage each other as we proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, and enthroned as Lord over the entire creation, to a world that desperately needs to hear it. And let our proclamation sustain us in our own sufferings because we know we are proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, which means we are proclaiming the defeat of all that is evil, especially Death, now and for all eternity. That proclamation, my beloved, will preach during Eastertide and any other season as well. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

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

The Word of the Lord Was Rare in Those Days (and Ours)

Sermon delivered on Trinity 1B, Sunday, June 3, 2018, 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: 1 Samuel 3.1-20; Psalm 139.1-6, 13-18; 2 Corinthians 4.5-12; Mark 2.23-3.6.

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

What are we to make of the strange and intriguing story found in our OT lesson today? What can it possibly have to do with us? Much, because underneath the intrigue and the terrible act of judgment pronounced on old Eli and his sons lies a message of hope and we all could certainly use a fresh infusion of real hope.

Before we look at the actual story, some context is needed to help us interpret it correctly. This story is set in the time of the judges in Israel. Israel’s great leaders, Moses and Joshua, the men whom God chose to lead God’s people out of their slavery in Egypt and to conquer the land God promised to their forefather Abraham, were dead and Israel had no one to lead them. Given our corrupted human nature, the results were predictable. The Israelites did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord instead of being his faithful image-bearing people to bring God’s healing and goodness to the land, and God punished his people for their evildoing by bringing new conquerors to oppress and enslave them. The people in turn would cry out to the Lord, who in his great love and graciousness raised up leaders in Israel called judges, to lead God’s people and free them from their oppressors. Interestingly, some of the judges whom God raised up were themselves deeply flawed individuals, Samson being the poster boy, but God used them anyway to bring freedom and relief to his persistently rebellious people. This in itself should give us hope that God can use even us, deeply flawed as we are, to help achieve God’s purposes. The writer of the book of Judges sums up the period this way: “In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes” (Judges 21.25). 

We would have to live with our heads buried in the sand not to understand what the writer was saying about the darkness the enfolded Israel without a godly leader who would encourage God’s people to live truly as people of God because we too live in a land where people do increasingly what seems right in their own eyes. When we do what is right in our own eyes, darkness and chaos inevitably follow because we are hopelessly corrupted and sin-sick. So, for example, we have jihadists who murder innocents to achieve some sense of perverted justice in their own eyes. We have young people who shoot up schools, in part to achieve a sense of justice for being left out and/or ignored or bullied. We are asked increasingly to endorse sexual relationships and gender confusion in the name of tolerance and love, all the while ignoring the fact that these things run contrary to God’s created order and will surely not turn out well overall. We have folks who take to social media to say racist, sexist, and hateful things about those they do not like. We don’t argue ideas anymore. We try to shame and discredit those with whom we disagree because doing so seems right in our own eyes. We turn a blind eye to all kinds of injustice and evil in the world and come up with all kinds of rationalizations to justify our own questionable moral and ethical behavior. And Christians are not exempt from any of this. Look no further than the fiasco that has engulfed some of the old-guard leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention over their treatment of women who have been abused or raped because these men were doing what seemed right in their own eyes. This isn’t a white man’s problem. It is a human race problem because as Saint Paul reminds us grimly, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God in whose Image we are created (Rom 3.25). In addition to the hopeless condition of our sin-sickness that prevents us from pulling ourselves up by our own moral bootstraps, we are a nation increasingly susceptible to this phenomenon of doing what seems right in our own eyes because for years now we’ve been told to think for ourselves. We’ve been urged to reject the wisdom and teaching of our various traditions and look what it has brought us. Not all is bad, of course, and some traditions need to be challenged, especially when they have become distorted by folks doing what seems right in their own eyes. That’s one of the points of our gospel lesson after all. But in the areas of moral and ethical behavior, we are essentially no different from the people of ancient Israel. We are more interested in doing what seems right in our own eyes than seeking to obey the word and wisdom of God as revealed in Scripture. No wonder the word of the Lord was (and is) scarce and visions far and few between.

This was the historical context for our OT story today. If that weren’t bad enough, old Eli had two sons who had apparently turned the Tabernacle of the Lord, the very place where God chose to live with his people, into a brothel (with stuff like this, who needs reality TV?). As the writer explains earlier, “Eli was very old, but he was aware of what his sons were doing to the people of Israel. He knew, for instance, that his sons were [having sex with] the young women who assisted at the entrance of the Tabernacle” (1 Samuel 2.22). Eli rebuked his sons, but not in a way that got them to change their behavior, and he apparently did nothing further to stop this serious problem from occurring. It seems that even the priestly family was doing what seemed right in their own eyes. With all this in mind, is it surprising that the word of the Lord, i.e., God’s guiding presence, was rare in those days? We see the same thing happening in our country as people increasingly refuse to submit to the life-giving power of the word of the Lord and do what seems right in their own eyes.

Hey Father Maney! I hear some of you saying. You told us this was supposed to be a sermon about hope. If this is your idea of preaching hope, please stop and let us slit our wrists. That kinda seems to be what is right in our own eyes. Patience, grasshoppers. If we are not willing to take a hard look at our own reality, we will hardly be in a position to see hope when it presents itself. Despite the darkness that enveloped God’s people, despite the fact that the word of the Lord was scarce in those days (and ours), the writer reminds us that God had not totally abandoned God’s people in judgment because that is not who God is. God did not create us for destruction. God created us for relationship and life. And so we are told that the Lord’s lamp, a symbol of the very presence of God, had not gone completely out. God spoke to the young boy Samuel, who despite being dedicated to the Lord by his mother Hannah (1 Samuel 1.19-28), did not initially recognize the Lord was speaking to him, precisely because the word of the Lord was scarce. It was so scarce that it took a groggy Eli three times to recognize that it was God who was speaking to the boy. Once Samuel responded to God, however, I’m pretty sure he wished he hadn’t because the first word Samuel heard was an oracle of judgment against his beloved mentor, Eli, and his family. What a predicament for the youngster! God was ready to bring about the hope of a new beginning but first a terrible ending had to take place. God will not be mocked. We must realize that doing whatever seems right in our sin-sick eyes will not lead to our healing and restoration. The world, including parts of Christ’s Church, is in the mess it’s in precisely because we are not willing to submit to God’s wise leadership over us contained in God’s word. We are too busy trying to cling to equality with God and have been from the start!

But God does not abandon us because God is faithful to his created order (us included) and because God loves us, despite our rebellion and the judgment it brings. We must remember that stories like this fall under the overarching story in Scripture of how God is going about rescuing us from our death-producing sin and the evil it unleashes in the world. Even when the darkness of our sin and rebellion threatens to totally consume us and we wonder why God has abandoned us or how God could possibly love us in the first place, stories like this remind us that God is still in charge of God’s created order and is actively seeking us out to have a life-saving relationship with him. As the psalmist reminds us in our psalm lesson this morning, God is actively and intimately involved with us, even while we are being formed in our mother’s womb (listen if you have ears)!

As God’s people in Christ, we are reminded of God’s love and care for us in the death and resurrection of his Son, who died for us while we were still God’s enemies (Romans 5.6-11). Saint Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson that the light and love of God always shines in our hearts, despite the darkness that dwells in us and the world that seeks to snuff out God’s light and life-giving love for us. As the apostle also reminds us, we have life only by dying to ourselves, only by actively putting to death all that is in us that is actively opposed and hostile to God. We can’t do this on our own, of course. We do it in the power of the Spirit who lives in us and who makes our risen Lord available to us every day. The folks of Samuel’s day did not have this privilege. God only poured out his Spirit on a select few, mainly the prophets. But at Pentecost that all changed and now all believers have an Advocate, God himself, to defend us against the Accuser and his minions (and ourselves). This lifelong, difficult, and often messy process of putting to death our desire to be God’s equals so that we can do what seems right to us allows us to share in Christ’s life-saving death on the cross. And when we share in Christ’s death, we also get to share in Christ’s resurrected life, as Saint Paul reminds us in today’s lesson, Rom 6.3-5, and elsewhere. We are not saved by our works, by our status or our money or our power or—I know this is hard for you who are looking at me to believe—our looks. We bring nothing to the table that gives us hope for life with God, either in this world or the next. We have this hope only in the death and resurrection of the Son of God, whose story is contained in Holy Scripture and whose presence is available to us in the power of the Spirit. Without this hope we still live in darkness. Without this hope, frankly healing services like today’s are nothing but a farce.

So here are two of many things to reflect on this week from this story of Eli and Samuel. First, God never imposes God’s will on us. God created us for relationship with God and each other and invites us to accept his invitation. If we choose to enter that relationship we must also be willing to submit to God’s authority contained in Scripture and revealed supremely in Jesus Christ. It’s never a good thing for us to think for ourselves when it comes to matters of God and God’s word. We must call on the Spirit and the collective wisdom of Christ’s Church to help us know God. Second, there are times in our lives and in our culture (like today) where it seems that God has abandoned us. The word of the Lord is scarce and visions are few, i.e. it appears that God is far away and doesn’t care about us or our plight. The story of Samuel and Eli suggests otherwise. God is always present and acts in sometimes very surprising and unexpected ways. After all, who expected the Creator of the universe to become human and die a terrible and shameful death on a cross to rescue us from our sin and its resulting death? Of course, the enemies of the cross seek to silence us and we can expect to be harassed and even persecuted for proclaiming the word of the Lord, and that can make us afraid. And in the context of our healing service, we become afraid when we come to the Lord for healing and nothing apparently happens. When we become afraid, we must ask the Spirit to reveal Jesus’ presence to us and to open our minds and hearts to God’s word, which is critical for our faith. After all, the last book of the Bible (Revelation) was written by a man exiled by the Roman authorities for his faith in Jesus. There he wrote about the eventual victory of God and his Christ over the powers of Evil and Death. God will judge all that is wrong with God’s world and that includes us. But we aren’t afraid because we are people who believe in the power of the cross and God’s love poured out for us there. That faith, that hope, and that love unite us with our resurrected Lord and remind us light and life are our destiny and present reality, not darkness and death. And that story is contained in God’s word. So hang on to that hope, my beloved. Encourage each other as you proclaim it to the world because you know you are proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, 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. Philip Sang: Celebrating the Unity of the Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit

Sermon delivered on Trinity Sunday B, May 27, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 6.1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8.12-17; John 3.1-17.

Trinity Sunday – the day when we celebrate the Father Son and Holy Spirit, three persons in one God – yet interestingly this is the one festival in the Christian year that does not relate to events that have happened or that will happen in time.

Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Passiontide, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost all relate to specific events in Christ’s life on earth. But Trinity Sunday is different it refers to a reality that has no date and it leads us to ask – when did God become the Holy Trinity? Was he always the three-in-one creator, redeemer and sustainer was he always Father Son and Holy Spirit? A difficult question I don’t intend to try and answer this morning!

What we do know is that Trinity Sunday is the essential reminder, coming round once every year, that we cannot manage God – we cannot even imagine him. How can three be one? It defies both logic and understanding for if we could understand God – contain him – then he would cease to be GOD. When we are dealing with theology and faith we are always dealing with something more than we can cope with. We are dealing with things too wonderful for us to know – and we speak of things which we do not understand. God will always be beyond the capacity of our human minds. As Rowan Williams has said – we can but “let God be God”.

However this does not really let us off the hook! We live by faith as well as knowledge and it is FAITH that teaches us that God is indeed three in one, Father Son and Holy Spirit. This is spelt out clearly in our collect this morning when we pray that we may be led, ‘by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity and in the power of the divine majesty to worship the Unity’

We can acknowledge it by faith even when we cannot understand it by knowledge. The unity of the Trinity is what holds it together. The ‘three-in-one’, when together, makes the whole. Each part is necessary and without all three it is not whole – it is not complete – it lacks integrity. For God, in the unity of the Trinity, is the epitome of integration and completeness. So it is for us the supreme example of utter integrity, integrity meaning completeness, honesty, authenticity. And the opposite of which is dis-integration, brokenness, less than fully honest, less than whole.

And we only have to look around us to know that we live in a fractured and disintegrated world. Yet, within this world, we are called to become real and authentic, whole people, believers who live, as it were, in two necessary dimensions and to strive, with God’s grace, to integrate the two into one – the flesh and the spirit – the human and the divine – the earthly and the heavenly – within time and in eternity.

And our supreme example, our model, is of course Christ himself. Looking at Jesus we see a man – and we see God – two realities in one integrated life. The earthly and the heavenly become perfectly integrated. From his poor and humble birth to his prophetic life on the margins and ultimately by his resurrection – the life of Christ expresses the Father’s decision to make himself visible to all. So in looking at the man Jesus we see God himself, a human person who becomes a sacrament of God. Christ is the representative of the human race before God. We are promised that, by the transformation of grace, we may live in Christ as he lives in us. So we too, are to become sacraments of God to the world. We are never going to fully understand how it works because we can not have God’s perspective on it all. ALL we DO know is that, through the gift of the spirit, we are called to pray, to trust and to live with the integrity before God (to live ‘holy’ lives) that leaves the door open to let things come together so that God’s love can come through.

We believe in a God who is creator of all things visible and invisible, a God of the here and now, AND in the life that is to come. This is in fact something of deeply practical and personal meaning, it is about the possibility of an integrated life. We have seen yet again, in the stories of Easter, Jesus, in his resurrection appearances, doing what he always did, talking, eating, loving, making God present in his actual presence, in voice and touch. So God reveals himself as Trinity – from His inaccessibility in the Old Testament, where he is hidden in the ark of the covenant and in the temple and only approachable by a few special priests – to the New Testament where in the human person of Jesus, by his incarnation, He becomes accessible in one place and in one time and to a relatively small number of people and then at Pentecost, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, He becomes accessible to all people, and for all time. God has breathed into his disciples, and into us, his ‘spirit’, the breath of life, so that we are equipped to do what he does – to speak with his voice to the world. So the revelation in the Trinity is complete. God is one integrated whole.

And so on this Trinity Sunday we have a renewed opportunity to look again at the supreme model of unity, integrity and wholeness – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s all very well but what, we may ask, has all this to do with our Gospel reading. How is the story of Nicodemus relevant to us on this Trinity Sunday? It’s certainly not immediately obvious! Looking at the story in more detail we learn that Nicodemus was an intellectual, a member of the prestigious Sanhedrin, not prepared to be seen coming to Jesus in broad daylight so coming by night. It appears that he couldn’t rest until he had heard Jesus first hand. We know that he came out of professional curiosity, with a willingness to learn, starting from the premise that Jesus must be genuine or he would not be preaching and healing as he did. It was a good start and Jesus built on it to such effect that Nicodemus was later, as we learn from St John’s Gospel, not only to speak out for justice in the Sanhedrin, but also later on, to give generous practical help to Joseph of Aramathea in attending the body of Jesus after the crucifixion.

So Nicodemus was a man of compassion with a legal and enquiring mind. A man used to weighing up evidence with a passion for truth and justice. His encounter with Jesus was an encounter of mutual respect and courtesy as we see from the fact that they each refer to the other as ‘Rabbi’. It was a meeting full of genuine concern with important issues. Nicodemus it seems was a man of utter integrity. And yet he was still not able to make that final leap of faith, to accept the whole of Jesus’ person and teaching. There was one part of Nicodemus that just could not understand or accept the reality and necessity, or even the possibility, of being ‘born again’, of living in both the world of the flesh AND the world of the spirit. There was a part of him that held back and just couldn’t handle what Jesus was telling him.

And perhaps many of us are in the same position. Are there parts of the gospel that we cannot handle or accept? Can we really accept the baptism of the spirit, of being born again? I would suggest that to be fully integrated Christians we must both accept it and also live it. Our readings make this clear. Jesus says ‘no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit’ and in our reading from Romans ‘if you live by the flesh you will die – but if you live by the spirit you will live’ and ‘all who are led by the spirit are children of God’.

So we are called to live not only in this world of the body but also in the spirit, in eternal life in this world and the next, in the here and now and in eternity. But what does this actually mean? At face value it seems to mean that we are to value the things of eternal life, things of God, above things of this world. To live by God’s truth rather than by worldly standards. This is certainly true.

But maybe it’s even more fundamental than that and we have to go one step further. If we are to live in the spirit, in eternal life, then life cannot end when our bodies die. Physical death cannot be the end. So in view of this we must live our earthly lives with our eyes firmly focused, not on the horizon of the death of our bodies, but always on the horizon of everlasting life with God himself whom, we are promised, we shall see ‘face to face’. If our sights are set on that eternal horizon it cannot but determine the way we live now, the decisions and choices we make, the way we relate to one another and, above all, the way we relate to God himself. It will be dictated by the long view, with bodily death an event on the way to full knowledge and life with God.

And our example of how we might try and do this is of course Jesus himself. He is our model for living in this present dimension of time and space, constricted as we are like him in an earthly body, but also with eyes firmly fixed beyond this world and on eternal life with God, beyond the grave. And if we are to live as best we can as Jesus did, we must take his whole life as our example, not just some aspects of it, the bits we find easy and comfortable. We must also take into account the example of his suffering and death. The cross, His and ours, is a necessary part and indeed to be welcomed. If we too want to live as closely as we can to Christ, we need to take to heart Jesus’ saying ‘unless a grain of wheat dies – it cannot bear fruit’ so we too must welcome the sufferings that come our way, as well as the joys, and pray that we may learn to rejoice in all things and to see them as opportunities to identify more closely with our Lord, to be enabled to worship our Trinitarian God with authenticity and integrity.

So let our prayer on this Trinity Sunday be that we might, little by little, become more fully integrated and Christ-like people, People who praise God the Father, the creator, who gave us bodies to live in this created world People who praise God the Son, who through his incarnation, his life in this world, his teaching and suffering, brought us salvation People who praise God the Spirit, who leads us beyond this world and into eternal life.

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