The Power and Promises of God

Sermon delivered on Lent 2B, Sunday, February 28, 2021 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 17.1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22.23-31; Romans 4.13-25; St. Mark 8.31-38.

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

In one way or another our readings this morning focus on the power and promises of God and the faith needed to appropriate them. Why are the power and promises God vital for us as Christians? First, because they make us properly focus on God instead of ourselves, and second, because we live in a world that appears to be spinning out of control at an increasingly alarming rate; and if we do not believe in God’s power or promises, sooner or later the world’s insanity and darkness will take us down with it. Simply put, when we focus on the power and promises of God, we will have hope that God really is in charge and things will turn out precisely as God has always intended, sometimes despite our best efforts to defeat those promises! But when we focus on our own limited and ephemeral power, the basis of our hope is far more tenuous. This is what I want us to look at this morning.

We begin with our OT lesson. In it we see God once again promising Abraham that God would make him the father of many nations, giving him descendants too numerous to count. This despite the fact that Abraham was nearly 100 and his wife Sarah was 90, way too old to bear children. Keep in mind that Abraham had heard God promise him offspring for almost 25 years (Gen 12.1-4) and this latest reiteration of the promise would surely have forced him to decide if he really still believed in the promises of God. From a strictly human perspective there would be no reason to believe God. Abraham had heard this promise for a quarter century. Most of us get impatient after 25 seconds let alone 25 years! And the biology was all wrong. We all know 90 year old women don’t get impregnated by 100 year old men. Had Abraham relied on conventional human wisdom he would have scoffed at God’s promises—and as a result have no future, no hope. Old age was already on him; all he had to look forward to would be increasing infirmity and death. In fact, while the author does not tell us this explicitly, we know from the story that Abraham and Sarah did struggle with God’s promises of progeny because they took the matter into their own hands and Abraham ended up having a son through Sarah’s slave, Hagar. Were they simply being impatient with God (who could blame them after such a long time had passed?) or did they simply lose faith in the promise? We aren’t told. What we are told is that this part of the story did not have a particularly happy ending for the parties involved. This is typically what happens when humans refuse to trust in the promises and power of God. 

But we are talking God’s power and promises and God’s promises will not be denied. Despite their momentary relapse into doubt and despair—two of the many symptoms that always accompany unbelief and lack of trust in God’s power, promises, and character—God still made good on his promise. Sarah would deliver Isaac, the son of the promise. But that was later. Here we are told that Abraham believed God would be good to his word because he fell on his face in worship and trust. Furthermore, we are told in the verses immediately following our lesson that both he and Sarah laughed, not the cynical laugh of derision we see from people who don’t believe in the power and promises of God, but laughter from an old man and woman who had seen a future with no hope and promise transformed into a future with a hope and a promise by the faithfulness and power of God. As St. Paul tells us in our epistle lesson, Abraham trusted in God’s promises, i.e., he had faith in God, despite the apparent hopelessness of his situation because he trusted the power of God, the God who gives life to the dead and who calls into existence things that do not exist. For this God, nothing is too hard to accomplish. Nothing. When we have this kind of faith, a faith that trusts in the power and promises of God no matter how desperate or impossible the situation, we are assured that God will turn our tears into laughter just like he did Abraham’s and Sarah’s.

Contrast Abraham’s trust in the power and promises of God to St. Peter’s in our gospel lesson this morning. In the verses immediately preceding our lesson, by God’s grace St. Peter had declared boldly that Jesus was the promised Messiah, God’s anointed one who would deliver Israel from its oppressors and establish God’s kingdom on earth. St. Peter, like many of his contemporaries, believed that God’s Messiah or Christ would overthrow Israel’s enemies using conventional means: might and power. There was no room in their Messianic thinking for a crucified Messiah. The notion was incoherent and therefore simply not conceivable. Combine this with the sure fact that St. Peter loved Jesus deeply and wanted the best for him, both as a man and as God’s Christ, and it is not surprising that St. Peter responded as he did to our Lord’s dire prediction that he must suffer and die a Godforsaken and utterly degrading death by crucifixion. God forbid this happen to you, Jesus! Here we see in this powerful and poignant interchange between the Lord and his chief disciple a very different kind of faith emerging. Instead of looking at the power and promises of God that Scripture had foretold, St. Peter relied on traditional human wisdom and convention to rebuke his Lord. And in doing so, Christ turned his laughter into tears by calling him Satan! What just happened? 

It’s likely that Jesus didn’t believe St. Peter to actually be Satan, but rather that in his own misguided expectations and concern for his Lord, St. Peter had allowed the the Accuser (Satan) to tempt Christ from going to the cross, thus thwarting God’s promise to redeem humanity from our slavery to powers far greater than Rome or any worldly power: the powers of Sin and Death, powers that have enslaved humankind ever since our first ancestors rebelled in the garden. This is how Satan typically operates. He plays on our fears, thoughts, emotions, and proclivities to corrupt us and others in an attempt to thwart God’s will. In this case Satan knew, as did our Lord, that the cross was the only way to win our freedom because it was God’s appointed way, a way that ran contrary to and shamed conventional human wisdom (cf. 1 Cor 1.18-25). Avoid the cross and the enemy is not defeated. Go to the cross in cooperation with the will of the Father, and the enemy’s power is undone and Satan and his minions are defeated.

God had promised Abraham that he would bless and restore fallen humanity through Abraham and his descendants, but they had failed the faith test almost immediately after God delivered Israel from their slavery in Egypt. Soon thereafter they built a golden calf to worship in the absence of their leader Moses. Now God had come to his people in the person of Jesus to deliver them himself and as we saw last week, Jesus passed the first wave of temptations he faced in the wilderness. But Satan was not finished. Having failed the first time, Satan tried to tempt Christ again, this time using Jesus’ trusted friend to derail his great saving task of dying for the ungodly, for you and for me, so that we could be rescued from utter destruction. Unlike Abraham and the psalmist, who showed his faith in God’s ability to turn suffering into joy—our whole psalm lesson flows from the verses that preceded it, verses that spoke of the unjust suffering of God’s faithful servant to redeem God’s people, verses that our Lord cried out as he felt God’s abandonment for the first and only time in his life—St. Peter did not trust in the power and promise of God, and Satan used St. Peter’s protestations for his own wicked purposes. But as Christ then warned his disciples and us, that’s not how the power of God works to fulfill the promise of life. You want life? Jesus asks. Then lose it. Give your life to me. Deny your fallen self with its myopic and selfish desires. Take up your cross instead and follow me in my way of self-giving love because only in me can you find life and hope and a future. Dare to proclaim me as the only way to escape death and utter destruction. Do justice. Love to show mercy, and walk humbly with me, your God. You will suffer greatly when you follow me because the world and its powers hate me and won’t go down without a fight. You will be persecuted, humiliated, mocked, scorned. But here’s the thing. In your suffering you will find life, both here and hereafter. But first you must trust my promise and how I will bring it about, even if you don’t fully understand how my power works to fulfill the promise. Only when you trust me fully by giving me yourself and your life can I turn your tears into laughter and give you a future and a hope. It is the only way.

These stories confront us and challenge us to examine the depth of our faith and trust in the power and promises of God. We live in perilous times. We are cursed by a wicked disease that simply won’t go away. It isolates us and makes us afraid. We wonder where God is in it all. Many of us fear for our nation, for its present and future. More and more extremist and utterly godless ideas are being pushed as viable solutions to our problems. The cancel culture is out of control, attempting to consume everything and everyone that gets in its way. If we don’t toe the line, we can expect to be silenced and shamed. Do we really have a hope and future in this kind of environment? And what about the Church with its scandals and decreasing attendance, at least here in the West, and its increasing departure in some quarters from the faith once delivered to the saints? What is our future as Christians who live in an ever increasingly secularized and hostile culture? How can we live faithfully? Do we really have a future and a hope as God’s people? Paradoxically, how are we to live faithfully in exile in our own back yard? The short answer is that we must have the kind of lively faith that produces a trust in the power and promises of God so that we do know that we have a hope and a future. But how do we do this?

If we are to have a living faith and trust in the power and promises of God, we must first remind ourselves regularly what is God’s promise for us as Christians. Our hope and future is new creation, God’s new heavens and earth fused together under the just rule of Jesus Christ where death and sin and evil and sorrow and sickness and brokenness and new bodily life go on for all eternity. It is a rule made possible and launched by Christ’s death and resurrection and promised only to those who believe in the promise and live their lives accordingly in this life. The promise of new creation gives us a future filled with life and joy and meaning and purpose. Yes our mortal body will die barring Christ’s return to finish his work before that day. But as Christ promises us in St. John’s gospel, he is the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in him will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in him and believes in him will never ever die (11.25-26). If we really don’t know the promise of God to heal all things and make them new or we don’t believe he has the power to raise the dead, we can never hope to have our tears turned to laughter. Without God and his power, we are doomed to a life of utter hopelessness and despair, the brief periods of respite, pleasure, and success that we sometimes enjoy notwithstanding. Why? Because the powers of Sin and Evil are not defeated. We remain in our sin and death must reign. There will be no happy endings. Real justice, perfect justice, will never be achieved. Our hurts and wounds and sicknesses and alienation remain because our slavery to Sin remains unbroken. The promise of new creation, a promise based on the power of God alone, is the only balm that can ever truly heal because only then will all the wrongs be put to rights so that we are completely healed from all that bedevils and sickens us. 

If we are to know this power we must know the Author of the promise, Jesus Christ and him crucified and raised from the dead. We come to know him through regular worship, prayer, Bible reading and study, and fellowship. We come to know him by wrestling with the unlikely power of God made manifest in Christ’s crucifixion. We come to know him by feeding on his body and blood each week so that our body, mind, and spirit are strengthened and refreshed by his power. This is a great challenge to us because we are wired through the Fall to trust no one but ourselves and our own power and cleverness. But that produces death and sorrow. We see it in Abraham’s descendants—time does not permit me to talk about the litany of bad living that would make any modern-day reality show pale in comparison—and our lives every day. Each day that we choose to trust ourselves rather than the promises of God, we die a little more and edge closer to eternal oblivion. We realize, even if we refuse to admit it publicly or to ourselves, that like Abraham we are 100 years old, irrespective of our actual chronological age, and our future is bleak and impossible. But if we know the One who creates out of nothing and gives life to the dead, if we know his love for us because we have seen and believe his cross and empty tomb, if we see his power demonstrated in countless ways in our lives through the power and Presence of his Spirit, we are able to overcome and develop a lively trust so that we know we have a future and a hope, the future and hope of a new creation. This is the regular challenge for us as Christians, especially during Lent. We are called to put to death all that is in us that makes us shrink from God so that we deny his faithfulness and do not trust him or his power or promises. We are called to abandon our tepid faith and to live our lives gladly in ways that proclaim Christ is Lord and that without him, no one has life in them. No one. 

If you don’t know where to start in this task, try this. Examine your life to see whose will you seek in all that you do, things big or small, yours or God’s. If you find yourself compartmentalizing your life in ways that only partially honor and demonstrate trust in God, this is where you must begin the painful task of killing off your fallen self with God’s help. The stakes are enormous, my beloved, and the cost is great; it requires that you come and die. But so are the rewards; and so we count it all as gain because we believe, by the grace of God, in the power of God and his promise to rescue us from Sin and Death—if not always from the vicissitudes of life—so that we can live with and enjoy our blessed Lord’s presence for all eternity. Only the power and promise of God can give us this hope. This Lenten season, may we all find our faith in Christ strengthened so that we may live out and proclaim this faith boldly each day of our lives in the power of his love and Spirit. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

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

February 22, 2021: Happy Birthday, Mr. President

Today is George Washington’s birthday. He would be 289 years old! To our great detriment, Americans are forgetting about our first president. This is sad, in part, because without him, there would not likely be the USA that we know today. Let us hope and pray the cancel culture crowd does not succeed in wiping his name and memory out. That would be a horrible tragedy and injustice for our nation. Do yourself a favor and learn about this extraordinary man with whom God blessed this country.

To the world’s amazement, Washington had prevailed over the more numerous, better supplied, and fully trained British army, mainly because he was more flexible than his opponents. He learned that it was more important to keep his army intact and to win an occasional victory to rally public support than it was to hold American cities or defeat the British army in an open field. Over the last 200 years revolutionary leaders in every part of the world have employed this insight, but never with a result as startling as Washington’s victory over the British.

On December 23, 1783, Washington presented himself before Congress in Annapolis, Maryland, and resigned his commission. Like Cincinnatus, the hero of Classical antiquity whose conduct he most admired, Washington had the wisdom to give up power when he could have been easily become dictator. He left Annapolis and went home to Mount Vernon with the fixed intention of never again serving in public life. This one act, without precedent in modern history, made him an international hero.

In the years after the Revolutionary War, Washington devoted most of his time to rebuilding Mount Vernon, which had suffered in his absence. He experimented with new crops and fertilizers and bred some of the finest mules in the nation. He also served as president of the Potomac Company, which worked to improve the navigation of the river in order to make it easier for upstream farmers to get their produce to market.

Read it all or pick up this book and really get to know the Father of our Country.

Father Philip Sang: Life in the Wilderness

Sermon delivered on Lent 1B, Sunday, February 21, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

Father Sang gets all whiny and pouty when he has to submit a written manuscript of his sermon. He learned that from Father Bowser before he retired. We don’t want that so click here to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25.1-9; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15.

Lent 2021: Abbess Egeria Describes How Catechumens were Instructed in 4th Century Jerusalem

Fascinating. It was no easy or light thing to become a Christian in those days.

I must also describe how those who are baptized at Easter are instructed. Those who give their names do so the day before Lent, and the priest notes down all their names; and this is before those eight weeks during which, as I have said, Lent is observed here. When the priest has noted down everyone’s name, then on the following day, the first day of Lent, on which the eight weeks begin, a throne is set up for the bishop in the center of the major church [behind the site of the cross], the Martyrium. The priests sit on stools on both sides, and all the clergy stand around. One by one the candidates are led forward, in such a way that the men come with their godfathers and the women with their godmothers.

Then the bishop questions individually the neighbors of the one who has come up, inquiring: “Does this person lead a good life? Obey parents? Is this person a drunkard or a liar?” And the bishop seeks out in the candidate other vices which are more serious. If the person proves to be guiltless in all these matters concerning which the bishop has questioned the witnesses who are present, the bishop notes down the candidate’s name. If, however, the candidate is accused of anything, the bishop orders the person to go out and says: “Let such a one amend their life, and when this is done, then approach the baptismal font.” He makes the same inquiry of both men and women. If, however, some are strangers, such people cannot easily receive baptism, unless they have witnesses who know them.

Ladies, my sisters, I must describe this, lest you think that it is done without explanation. It is the custom here, throughout the forty days on which there is fasting, for those who are preparing for baptism to be exorcised by the clergy early in the morning, as soon as the dismissal from the morning service has been given at the Anastasis [site of the empty tomb]. Immediately a throne is placed for the bishop in the major church, the Martyrium. All those who are to be baptized, both men and women, sit closely around the bishop, while the godmothers and godfathers stand there; and indeed all of the people who wish to listen may enter and sit down, provided they are of the faithful. A catechumen, however, may not enter at the time when the bishop is teaching them the law. The bishop does so in this way: beginning with Genesis and going through the whole of Scripture during these forty days, expounding first its literal meaning and then explaining the spiritual meaning. In the course of these days everything is taught not only about the Resurrection but concerning the body of faith. This is called catechetics.

When five weeks of instruction have been completed, they then receive the Creed. The bishop explains the meaning of each of the phrases of the Creed in the same way as Holy Scripture was explained, expounding first the literal and then the spiritual sense. In this fashion the Creed is taught.

And thus it is that in these places all the faithful are able to follow the Scriptures when they are read in the churches, because all are taught through those forty days, that is, from the first to the third hours [6am-9am], for during the three hours instruction is given. God knows, ladies, my sisters, that the voices of the faithful who have come to catechetics to hear instruction on those things being said or explained by the bishop are louder than when the bishop sits down in church to preach about each of those matters which are explained in this fashion. The dismissal from catechetics is given at the third hour [9:00am], and immediately, singing hymns, they lead the bishop to the Anastasis, and the office of the third hour takes place. And thus they are taught for three hours a day for seven weeks. During the eighth week, the one which is called the Great Week [Holy Week], there remains no more time for them to be taught, because what has been mentioned above must be carried out.

Now when seven weeks have gone by and there remains only Holy Week, which is here called the Great Week, then the bishop comes in the morning to the major church, the Martyrium. To the rear, at the apse behind the altar, a throne is placed for the bishop, and one by one they come forth, the men with their godfathers, the women with their godmothers. And each one recites the Creed back to the bishop. After the Creed has been recited back to the bishop, the bishop delivers a homily to them all, and says: “During these seven weeks you have been instructed in the whole law of the Scriptures, and you have heard about the faith. You have also heard of the resurrection of the flesh. But as for the whole explanation of the Creed, you have heard only that which you are able to know while you are still catechumens. Because you are still catechumens, you are not able to know those things which belong to a still higher mystery, that of baptism. But that you may not think that anything would be done without explanation, once you have been baptized in the name of God, you will hear of them during the eight days of Easter in the Anastasis following the dismissal from church. Because you are still catechumens, the most secret of the divine mysteries cannot be told to you.”

—Pilgrimage, 45-46

Ash Wednesday Sermon: Grace, Guilt, Gratitude

Sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Joel 2.1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; John 8.1-11.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40 day season we call Lent. It is a time for self-examination, penitence, self-denial, study, and preparation for Easter. Our Commination Service earlier today reminded us that something is terribly amiss in God’s world and our lives, that without the love, mercy, goodness, justice, and power of God, we remain hopelessly alienated from God and each other because we are all slaves to the power of Sin, that outside and malevolent power that is too strong for any of us to resist on our own power. And if we are not reconciled to God, we are undone forever in ways too terrible for us to imagine. Lent therefore is a time for us to focus not so much on ourselves but on the power of God manifested most clearly in the cross of our Lord Jesus. So tonight I want us to look at the dynamic of forgiveness and reconciliation that God the Father makes available to all through the work of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, the interaction of grace, guilt, and gratitude. Until we understand this dynamic and what we are up against, we can never hope to observe a holy Lent (and beyond).

If we ever hope to be reconciled to God our Father so that we can live with him forever, we must first acknowledge our utter helplessness to fix ourselves so that we are no longer alienated from God. This means that we must first have the wisdom and humility (signs of God’s grace) to acknowledge the fact that we are all slaves to the power of Sin, that malevolent power that was unleashed in God’s good world when our first human ancestors rebelled in paradise. Too often we speak of our sins and think of them as misdeeds or acts of wrongdoing, the root cause of our alienation to God. This diminishes the problem of Sin to an absurdly reductionist level. This thinking implies that we can get right with God by simply adjusting our behavior or changing our thinking on certain things or making better choices—the current darling of excuses for our feel good culture. This is a fatal mistake on our part, however, because it implies that we can fix ourselves and our problems, that if we repent of our bad choices or thinking or behavior, our sin problem with God goes away. But the whole of Scripture makes very clear that there is something vastly more sinister going on. There is something desperately wrong in the world and our lives and we know it in our bones if we have the courage to be honest with ourselves. We don’t have the ability to defeat the power of Sin in our lives and we delude ourselves if we think otherwise. Don’t believe me? How are you doing with your new year’s resolutions six weeks on? Or how about those sins you confess? I bet you never do them again after you confess them, do you? Or how about your resolution to do better in your life? How is that working out for you? Try as we may, if we are honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that our efforts matter very little when it comes to turning away from our sins. Why? Because we are up against a power that is far greater than us, a power that seeks our destruction and undoing as God’s image-bearers, a power that must ultimately lead to our permanent death. The sins that we focus on are not the root cause of our alienation from God. Rather, just as a fever is a symptom of a larger problem, not the problem itself, our sins reflect our slavery to the power of Sin, again defined as an outside and malevolent force that has enslaved us. We acknowledged this very starkly in our Commination Service this noon when we acknowledged that without the cross of Jesus Christ and his presence in our lives, we are condemned to utter and complete destruction forever. This should both humble us and scare the hell out of us—literally. Until we get our thinking straight on this, we will surely have and live out a half-hearted faith (at best) because we live under the delusion that we can fix ourselves so that we are pleasing to God and set ourselves up for a self-righteousness complex. When we think like this, we inevitably dismiss the cross of Jesus Christ and the life-saving gift God the Father offers us all in and through his Son. But when we understand that Sin is a power we cannot overcome on our power and there is nothing we can do or say that will change our status before God, we are ready to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead.

This calls for us to be sober in our thinking about the power of Sin and see it as God sees it—a force that corrupts and destroys God’s precious image-bearers and good creation. This is why God hates Sin and this is why we can expect to receive God’s wrath on our sins: they are symptoms of the problem that God hates. God is first and foremost a God of love and if that is true, God must also be a God of justice. Why? Because God cannot and will not ultimately allow anything or anyone in his creation to continue corrupting it and his image-bearing creatures. God loves us too much to allow us to be victims of injustice and all the evil that flows from the power of Sin. Since we are powerless to break Sin’s grip on us, and since God is the only person who can free us from our slavery to it, God must intervene to destroy Sin and set things right, the very essence of justice. Otherwise, we would be doomed to be forever in Sin’s grip, catastrophically and permanently separated from God’s eternal love for us and excluded from God’s great heavenly banquet he has prepared for us so that we can enjoy him forever. It means that we would forever be trapped in our worst selves and that violence, greed, selfishness, cruelty, rapacity, suffering, hurt, brokenness, and alienation would continue to rule unchecked in our lives and God’s world. If God really is love, God cannot let this state of affairs go on forever, and when we understand this we can begin to see God’s justice as a positive thing. If we are going to follow God, we have to be sure that God loves us enough and has the requisite power to put all things to rights. To be sure, punishment is involved in this making-right process, but the overall thrust of God’s justice is restorative and healing because the heart of God his merciful, kind, generous, and loving. God does not create us to destroy us (What parent looks at his/her newborn baby for the first time with the intent of destroying it? The notion is absurd. If we fallen humans don’t think like this, why would God? Makes no sense!!); God created us so that we can enjoy him and rule his world faithfully and wisely on his behalf. 

This knowledge will also help us think clearly about the dynamic of repentance and forgiveness. As we have seen, because we are helpless to free ourselves from our slavery to the power of Sin, our repentance is not enough to reconcile us to God because we will continue to sin even with repentance. Repent or not, unless our slavery to Sin is broken, we are doomed to continue living in the power of Sin. This is the guilt part of the dynamic or repentance and forgiveness. We see this clearly in our OT and gospel lessons tonight. The prophet calls God’s people together to collectively repent of their sin of idolatry, the worship of false gods that inevitably leads to all kinds of sins that will provoke God’s anger and wrath (idolatry is a primary sin because sooner or later we become what we worship). If God’s people turn away from (or repent of) worshiping false gods and turn to the one true God, then there was hope that God might relent on executing his wrath on his sinful people. Here we are reminded that we dare not presume God’s mercy on us, that God is free to show us wrath or mercy quite independently of what we resolve to do (or not do). In other words, God’s mercy is not contingent on repentance. The prophet believes God will be merciful because God has revealed his character to his people: God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. If God relents on punishing his people for their idolatry, it will be because of who God is, not because God’s people have repented. 

Likewise in our gospel lesson. Notice that our Lord forgives the adulterous woman before calling her to repentance (go and sin no more). In this case God the Son showed mercy before the woman changed her behavior, reflecting the heart and character of his Father. This is the grace part of the grace, guilt, and gratitude dynamic of forgiveness and reconciliation between God and humans. Grace—God’s undeserved blessing, goodness, bounty, mercy, and forgiveness on us—precedes our awareness of sin, not vice-versa. This is because God’s character is eternal, preceding our slavery to Sin. In fact, without God tugging at our heart and mind, we would be unaware that we are alienated from God and stand under God’s just condemnation of our sin. Why? Because sin is a theological concept. People whose lives are devoid of God have no awareness that their behavior is offensive to God and that they are slaves to Sin’s power. Don’t believe me? Just check out Twitter or listen to the extreme rhetoric of self-righteousness that accompanies the sense of warped justice that invariably accompanies human thinking and behavior without the intervention of God. Simply put, if the Holy Spirit is at work in us he will make us aware of our awful unmediated state before God and our own sinfulness, our awareness of his Presence not withstanding. But here’s the thing. The moment we become aware of our sin captivity, we are already standing in God’s grace, ready to receive God’s healing love, mercy, and forgiveness because of God’s eternal nature! We see this dynamic expressed powerfully in the old favorite hymn, Amazing Grace. John Newton, who wrote the hymn, was a slave trader whose eyes were opened to the wickedness of his sin by God’s grace. He was a wretch who was saved, a man lost but now found, by the grace of God that preceded his evil deeds, a grace that called him to repentance. God’s grace always precedes our repentance because God and God’s character always precede us. God makes us aware of our slavery to Sin and the chasm it creates so that we will turn to him and let him heal and rescue us from our slavery.

And how did/does God do this? In the cross of Jesus Christ as St. Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson. Here is the essence of the Good News of Jesus Christ. God became human to suffer his own just and right punishment on our sin and wickedness himself so that God could spare us from suffering his wrath and eternal condemnation that would lead to our destruction. In the process the power of Sin is broken in us, only partially in this life but fully in the next (a topic for a different day and sermon). Our knowledge of the power of Sin and our slavery to it makes us realize that we don’t deserve this kindness and mercy. None of us do. But it is ours for the taking if we only have the humility and wisdom to believe it to be true, despite the fact that we cannot fully explain how God accomplished this all in the cross of Christ. But because we believe that Scripture is the word of God, we believe the promise to be true. God’s undeserved mercy, grace, love, and forgiveness lead us to a sense of profound and deep relief and gratitude because we realize we are no longer under God’s just condemnation and there is not a thing we did to deserve it. This is the gratitude part of the dynamic of God reconciling us to himself in Christ. We see it powerfully illustrated in our gospel lesson and we should take our cue from it. Imagine you are the woman who was dragged before Christ. You know your sin because you know God’s law; God has made himself known to you through it. And so you expect the worst, a death sentence for your sin of adultery. You are braced to feel the stones strike your body, slowly and painfully killing you (not unlike our sin does to us over the course of time). And then comes a remarkable surprise. Jesus pronounces you not guilty, despite that fact the he and you both know you are guilty of an awful sin. You have experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness, not because of who you are, but because of who God is. How would you feel? Stunned? Relieved? Grateful? All of the above and more, no doubt! He tells you to go and sin no more (he calls you to repent of your adultery), but his forgiveness is not contingent on that. Certainly the vast majority of us would be grateful for this reprieve and our gratitude would likely serve as ongoing motivation for leaving the adulterous life. She, like us, would certainly have to recall her sin and the great gift of forgiveness because life, well, gets in our way and distracts us so that we forget. That’s why we recall our sins and God’s mercy shown to us in Christ, not to make us feel bad (although that is really unavoidable on occasion), but to make us remember the love, mercy, grace, and faithfulness of God applied to our wickedness. When the woman remembered Christ’s intervention on her behalf, was she grateful? Did her gratitude help motivate her to repentance? We aren’t told, but our own experience suggests that it can and does, and this is what God desires from us. In this story, Christ does not tell us to suspend moral judgment by challenging those who brought the woman to him. Instead, he was exposing their hypocrisy and evil intent to trap him. In doing so, he was able to show mercy to the woman caught in adultery, calling her to repentance and giving her the motivation we all need to live our lives in imitation of our Lord and Savior, the essence of repentance and faithful living. 

This is what it means to observe a holy Lent and beyond, my beloved. We are called to reflect on the fruit of the dynamic of repentance and forgiveness in our lives. We are called to understand that to be reconciled to God means trusting in the power, mercy, love, and character of God revealed supremely in Jesus Christ and not our own perceived (and often delusional) abilities to make ourselves right with God. It means we see clearly the truth about the human condition and our standing before God without the intervention of Christ. We needn’t fear the truth because the truth always sets us free to love and serve the Lord, thanking him for his love and kindness and justice, and asking his mercy and forgiveness when we miss the mark as we attempt to imitate him in the power of the Spirit as we live out our lives together. May we all observe a holy Lent and sing God’s praises with grateful hearts forever and ever. 

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

Lent 2021: Prayer, Fasting, Mercy

There are three things by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself.

When you fast, see the fasting of others. If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry. If you hope for mercy, show mercy. If you look for kindness, show kindness. If you want to receive, give. If you ask for yourself what you deny to others, your asking is a mockery.

—Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 43

Lent 2021: Abbess Egeria Describes Fasting in 4th-Century AD Jerusalem During Lent

When the season of Lent is at hand, it is observed in the following manner. Now whereas with us the forty days preceding Easter are observed, here they observe the eight weeks before Easter. This is the reason why they observe eight weeks: On Sundays and Saturdays they do not fast, except on the one Saturday which is the vigil of Easter, when it is necessary to fast. Except on that day, there is absolutely no fasting here on Saturdays at any time during the year. And so, when eight Sundays and seven Saturdays have been deducted from the eight weeks—for it is necessary, as I have just said, to fast on one Saturday—there remain forty-one days which are spent in fasting, which are called
here “eortae,” that is to say, Lent.

This is a summary of the fasting practices here during Lent. There are some who, having eaten on Sunday after the dismissal, that is, at the fifth or the sixth hour [11:00am or noon], do not eat again for the whole week until Saturday, following the dismissal from the Anastasis [site of the cross]. These are the ones who observe the full week’s fast. Having eaten once in the morning on Saturday, they do not eat again in the evening, but only on the following day, on Sunday, that is, do they eat after the dismissal from the church at the fifth hour [11:00am] or later. Afterwards, they do not eat again until the following Saturday, as I have already said. Such is their fate during the Lenten season that they take no leavened bread (for this cannot be eaten at all), no olive oil, nothing which comes from trees, but only water and a little flour soup. And this is what is done throughout Lent.

Pilgrimage, 27-28

A Prayer for Ash Wednesday 2021

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing you have made
and forgive the sins of all who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts,
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may obtain of you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and ever. Amen.

Presidents’ Day 2021: George Washington’s Birthday

Washington’s Birthday was celebrated on February 22nd until well into the 20th Century. However, in 1968 Congress passed the Monday Holiday Law to “provide uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays.” By creating more 3-day weekends, Congress hoped to “bring substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the Nation.”

One of the provisions of this act changed the observance of Washington’s Birthday from February 22nd to the third Monday in February. Ironically, this guaranteed that the holiday would never be celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, as the third Monday in February cannot fall any later than February 21.

Read it all.