How’s Your Vision?

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Lent 4A, March 26, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: 1 Samuel 16.1-13; Psalm 23.1-6; Ephesians 5.8-14; John 9.1-41.

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

Today is Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent. Laetare comes from the Latin word meaning to rejoice. It marks roughly the midway point of Lent with its disciplines of self-examination, confession, repentance, and self-denial, and begins to point us to the joyous celebration of Easter; hence the rose-colored chasuble I wear this morning. So what in our lessons gives us reason to rejoice? In one way or another, each lesson is about seeing life in a different light, the light of God, and this is what I want us to look at this morning, focusing especially on our gospel lesson.

In the story of Jesus healing the blind man, we are confronted with the age-old question of why bad things happen to people. In typical biblical fashion, John is not much interested in answering the “why” question. Instead, John focuses on the “what”—what God is doing about evil. Jesus tells us as much. This man was born blind so that God’s works can be revealed, and then Jesus proceeded to heal the man In other words, we are invited to see God working in our midst to bring about fresh acts of new creation. God doesn’t tell us why all the bad things and evil exist in his world. Rather, God promises to right all the wrongs—a much more satisfactory answer in the final analysis—both partially now through God’s Messiah and his people (that would be us), and finally through a mighty act of new creation at our Lord’s Second Coming when God’s victory over evil won on the cross is finally brought to completion in God’s new world, the new heavens and earth. This is not the way the world sees the problem of evil. Those opposed to God are blind to God’s works and look for human solutions to combat evil, solutions that must inevitably fail because the power of evil and the human race’s slavery to Sin is greater than our efforts to overcome them.  So what about you? Do you believe in the power of God to bring about his promised new creation, even during your lifetime and through you? If so, you must live your life with hope, even in the midst of all that is so desperately wrong in God’s world.

But the story of Jesus and the blind man quickly leaves the problem of evil behind and we are confronted with yet another kind of evil: Spiritual blindness that results from human pride, and most of us are familiar with this problem. The religious authorities of Jesus’ day reject Jesus’ healing of the blind man as legitimate. Why? Because our Lord had the audacity to heal on the Sabbath, and for their money this was a sign of godlessness on the part of Jesus. No man of God would violate the Sabbath, even to heal! You see, these religious big shots were so sure of themselves and their interpretation of the Scriptures, that they were blind to the corrective truth Jesus was showing them. They put their trust in themselves and their training. They were learned men. They preached tremendously tepid sermons like Fr. Sang preached last Sunday. They had all the answers so that their minds were closed to the possibility that some of what they believed just might be wrong. And because they were blind to the truth, they ended up adjusting their picture of the moral universe to fit their misguided and sometimes flat-out evil views. But what John wants us to see is that only Jesus gets to define what is right and wrong because only Jesus is God become man. Only Jesus is the light of the world, and only in and through Jesus can we ever hope to have a real relationship with the Father. The blindness of the religious leaders ultimately caused them to strike a deal with death because they rejected Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is a sobering thing to contemplate.

That’s all well and good, you say. But we don’t live in Jesus’ day and we’re not religious big shots. We’re just ordinary losers. True enough. But the pride that existed in the religious leaders of Jesus’ day is alive and well in us today. Here are some test questions to help us assess how pride-infected we really are. Do we put ourselves over the authority of Scripture, over Jesus’ authority as Lord and ruler of this vast universe so that we too are blinded to God’s truth and authority over us? Do we, for example, hold views of sexuality that are consistent with the creation narratives and God’s intention for marriage? Or do we see ourselves as too sophisticated for the antiquated narrative that we find in Scripture? Is our conception of power more like the world recognizes, where we lord it over others to achieve our goals, or do we see power in self-giving love and service for the sake of others? Do we worship the one true God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, or do we worship ourselves or money or security or ambition or [insert your favorite idol here]? Anytime we try to rationalize why we don’t follow God’s commands, anytime we seek to be human in ways that are contrary to the ways of Jesus, the one true human, we demonstrate our blindness, especially when we talk about how superior is our knowledge and understanding of the ways of the world and tout our scientific, medical, and technological advances, along with their accompanying worldviews, as reasons why we must abandon or modify the authority of Scripture and our Lord Jesus’ authority over us.

And while most of us are aware of this kind of spiritual blindness, there is another kind of blindness that is also caused by pride, a blindness many of us are not aware of because we have repressed it out of fear of God’s judgment on us. It is a blindness that I personally have struggled with all my life, the blindness of not seeing Sin for what it is and therefore minimizing it. This in turn causes us to reject our radical and desperate need of the cross as the only real antidote to our sin-sickness and alienation from God. When we suffer from this kind of blindness, we are hopelessly and terrifyingly lost and alienated from God, because we have rejected the gift of God’s love, justice, and mercy offered freely to each of us. And deep down we know it because we have the accompanying anxiety to prove that we do.

So here’s another little quiz to help you assess if you suffer from this form of blindness. Do you see your sins as something that you can fundamentally correct if you simply try a little harder so that they can be properly resolved if you just repent of them? Do you see your sins as fundamentally a problem you have with following the rules (e.g., do this, don’t do that)? You know. If you would only make better choices you really wouldn’t have a problem with Sin in your life. If you answered yes to either of these questions, even partially, you have demonstrated your blindness to the problem and severity of Sin as an outside and alien power that holds us all as slaves. That is the essence of the human condition. And if we are slaves, then by definition we do not have the power to free ourselves from its grip. Not only that, we realize that God must do something about the power of Sin over us because it has the power to corrupt and destroy all the goodness in God’s creation and creatures, us included. How can a loving God possibly let Sin go unchecked? What kind of God would allow evil, Sin, and death to reign indefinitely in God’s world to corrupt and dehumanize his image-bearing creatures? Judgment anyone?

This is the power of Sin and this is why repentance, while necessary to address the particular sins we commit, is not the solution to the problem of Sin in our lives. We are its slaves and without outside intervention and help, we are all hopelessly lost and under God’s loving and just judgment. I see some of you starting to get fidgety. Fr. Bowser’s eyes have rolled up into the back of his head. Fr. Sang has boarded a plane to Kenya. Fr. Gatwood didn’t even show up this morning. We thought this was Laetare Sunday, dude. You know, rejoice? So what are we supposed to be rejoicing about? You’ve painted an absolutely grim and depressing picture for us. Well, thank you. I live to depress. To be sure, I have not given a reason for us to rejoice at this point. I’ve described bad news, awful news, not Good News. And I’ve also described what I fear is the condition many of us labor under because many of us are blind to our self-help addiction. If you are one of those folks, it’s time to really hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The only way to defeat the power of Sin is to introduce a power greater than it, and that power of course is God. God has indeed dealt with evil, Sin, and death, but God dealt with them in a way that requires us to shed the blindness of our self-love and self-loathing. The Good News over which we rejoice is the NT proclamation that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15.3); that Christ died for the ungodly, you and me, while we were still ungodly (Romans 5.6); that on the cross God has dealt a decisive blow to evil to break its power over us (Colossians 2.13-15), and has given us his Spirit to live in us to empower us to live as the truly human beings God created us to be (Romans 8.1-16). Only when the power of Sin is broken so that it can no longer make us its slaves do we have good reason to rejoice. But that’s exactly the claim of the NT! God loves us too much to let us be held as slaves to the power of Sin and by the time we realize we are its slaves, we also realize that God has already acted decisively on our behalf to break its hold on us. To be sure, we are not fully free from sin until we die (Romans 6.7). But as Fr. John Wesley used to say, for those of us in Christ, while sin remains it no longer reigns over us.

What I am talking about is the power of God at work on our behalf to free us from the power of Sin and to prepare us to be part of God’s promised new world where we will have new bodies and be free from all sin, evil, hurt, heartache, sorrow, sighing, or separation from God and each other. And astonishingly, God demonstrated this power in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Without having the eyes of faith that are not blinded by our human pride and fear of being judged, we can never appropriate this Good News. But when by God’s grace we realize that God has already acted on our behalf to free us from our slavery to Sin, how can we not rejoice? It means we can abandon our futile attempts at self-help to deal with the problem of Sin. It means we can abandon our doubts that God really does love us and has acted to claim us forever. No wonder Paul resolved to glory in nothing but the cross and Christ crucified! In it is our freedom and release from our bondage to fear, evil, Sin, and death. Do you have the vision of faith to claim this power?

This is essentially what Paul is talking about in our epistle lesson. He’s not telling us we have to follow a bunch of rules to be saved. He’s telling us just the opposite. He’s telling us to see the world in a fundamentally different way. God has already made us his. So how can we not be his light? How can we not, in the power of the Spirit (and only in the power of the Spirit), behave as people released from Sin’s power by the power of the cross? To summarize and close, then, the Good News of Jesus Christ is that we are freed from our bondage to evil, Sin, and death because God has acted decisively on our behalf to both free us and to put to right all that is wrong with this world. We must wait until Christ returns to see the full benefits of God’s saving act on our behalf. But rest assured, my beloved, it’s a done deal and that is reason for us to rejoice on this Laetare Sunday 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: Thirsting for God the Thirst Quencher

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Lent 3A, March 19, 2017 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 95.1-11; Romans 5.1-11; John 4.5-42.

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

Like many of you, I suspect, I enjoyed St. Augustine’s Bowling party. I also, like
many of you, I suspect, enjoyed watching a little bit of March Madness this week.
In between the segments of actual basketball playing, of course, we are treated to a
whole raft of commercials, many of which continue to use a lot of the imagery of
the athletes that we have just been watching. There is a lot of athletic imagery and
a lot of people engaging in sports activities and sweating, and a lot of what’s
getting sold in those commercials are beverages of various sorts. We sell a lot of
beverages in this country, and the interesting thing is that a lot of the beverages
that are being advertised are actually not beverages that replenish the water from
our bodies, rather it actually takes more ?uid out of the body than it is putting in,
and there are a lot of beverages that are like that.

Our Old Testament scripture lesson and our Gospel lesson this morning both focus
on the idea of thirst and both of them start at this level where we are talking about
our physical thirst and how we replenish our body with water. But they use that as
a metaphor for moving to a deeper level to talk about our spiritual thirst and how
we go about quenching the spiritual thirst that all of us have.

The metaphor that our lectionary text used reminds us that, like beverages, a lot of
the things that we use to quench our spiritual thirst are bound to disappoint us, and
that what we really thirst for at our root is an encounter with the God who made us
and calls us and seeks relationship with us. Our story from Exodus this morning
reads like the script from one of those commercials during March Madness, where
the people are hot and they’re tired and they need some refreshment, and they
complained yet again to Moses, “why have you let us out here in the desert to die?”
And just like whatever product is being sold, God comes in at the end of the story
with the product that refreshes them. But Moses points out the irony of the story
because the people have framed their question as, is God with us or not? And Moses points out that of course God is with us. He’s just led us to the Red Sea; he
is leading us to Mount Sinai. The people are not interested in whether God is with
them. They want the thing that God is going to give them. They want God for
utilitarian purposes of getting their immediate needs met.

This dynamic is also a part of the wonderful Gospel lesson about the Samaritan
woman that we heard from John. This is about the longest dialogue we have in any
of the Gospels, and it has so many interesting things happening that it’s hard to
know where to even start to unpack it. On one level, of course, it is yet another
story of Jesus breaking down barriers.

A man in Jesus’ time was not supposed to address a woman that he didn’t know,
and Jesus very comfortably just engages this woman to ask her for a drink. Also,
the Jews and the Samaritans were always at odds. The Samaritans were kind of an
offshoot of the Jewish community as the result of intermarrying between the
Jewish community in Israel and Assyrians who had conquered Israel several
centuries earlier. So the Jews always saw them on some level as traitors to the true
faith. So again, Jesus reaches across boundaries of gender and boundaries of
ethnicity and class to engage this woman in conversation.

Their conversation starts with Jesus simply asking her for some water and her
expressing some surprise that he has chosen to engage her. Jesus then used that to
move the conversation to a deeper level about what thirst is about and what we
really thirst for. But, as in the story of Nicodemus that we read last week, Jesus is
talking about the spiritual reality. She is still caught up in the physical reality,
wondering how he is going to get water when he doesn’t have a bucket, and she’ s
kind of sarcastic to him, “are you greater than our father Jacob who made this well
that you can give me this water?” But as Jesus continues to be in dialogue with
her, she responds in much the same way that the children of Israel responded to

Moses, which is very utilitarian, “Give me some of this water so that I will not
thirst and I don’t have to come to draw water anymore.” She doesn’t want to come
and draw water because of her sort of past.

All of the women of her town would come together to get water ?om the well
early in the morning when it was cool. She comes later in the day because she can
do it by herself then. She doesn’t have to stand the harsh stares of the other
women in her town, so she’s there because that’s when she can go. And Jesus, of
course, engages that very issue and asks her to bring her husband to come talk.
And she says again, “Well, I don’t have a husband.” And Jesus responds, “Well,
that’ s correct. You’ve had five and the guy you’re living with now is not your

So she realizes that something special is going on with this man, and she calls him
a prophet. But that doesn’t mean she wants to talk to him about this because it’s
awkward; it’s embarrassing. And so she does a classic Metropolitan move, which
is you get asked a question that’s a little bit close to home, and you turn it into a
theological issue that we can intellectualize. So she says, “Oh, I see you’re a
prophet,” and she starts to talk about this theological difference that the Jews and
the Samaritans have. One of the theological differences was where you worship:
the Jews felt that Jerusalem was where you worship, and the Samaritans were
comfortable worshiping up in the worship center that they created in the northern
kingdom. And Jesus, of course, knows a good sidestep when he sees one, and
addressed this issue very directly and says, “Listen, where we worship is not going
to matter in a fairly short period of time,” and, in fact, when John had written this
Gospel, the temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed. So Jesus says, “The time is
coming and in fact and now is, when the people who worship God are not going to
worship him in Jerusalem or here in Samaria. They’re going to worship God in
spirit and in truth.”

The issue is not a theological one. The issue is a spiritual one. It’s where are you
getting fed? Where are you receiving nourishment? Where is your thirst being
quenched? So she has gone to another level now and she realizes something else —
something bigger than she had even thought about — is starting to happen here.

And she tentatively starts to explore, is this the Messiah? Her response to Jesus is,
“Well, the Messiah will help us ?gure all that out when the Messiah comes.” And
then Jesus makes a very powerful and dramatic statement that happens again on a
couple of different levels. He starts off saying, “I am He who is speaking to you.”
Now that’s dramatic to begin with because Jesus never owns his own Messiahship.
He’s always putting that off. This is one of the very few places where he says, yes,
this is who I am.

But remember also that the Messiah for the Jews and the Samaritans was a human
person who is going to usher in God’s kingdom, a physical, temporal kingdom on
earth. Jesus owns that title of Messiah, but then he takes it to a level deeper
because what the Greek text says is simply “I am.” Our translators have added the
“he,” the objective, “I am He.” Jesus simply says, “I Am is the one speaking to
you.” I Am of course is the name of God. It is the name that God gave to Moses
when Moses asked, “Who shall I say sent me?” And God says, “Tell them I Am
who I Am.” So that when Jesus says, “I Am speaking to you,” he is saying yes,
there is the Messiah, but it’s God who is speaking to you right now, right here in
this place.

Jesus is saying, “You thirst, and the One who can quench your thirst is right here in
front of you, engaged with you, in dialogue with you, in relationship with you. I,
the Holy One, am here right now to quench that thirst.” Jesus moves past her
utilitarian hopes of getting some simple water. He moves past her brokenness and
her sinfulness and the things that separate her from the people in her community
and, she thinks, from God. He moves past her attempt to intellectualize what faith
is about and He says I am here for you right now, right in this place, and that’s all
you need.

All of us thirst. We all have a deep thirst at the core of our being that needs to be
quenched. And we keep trying to quench that thirst withall the wrong things,
things that will ultimately leave us thirstier than when we started. We try to fill
that void through consumerism. We try to give our lives meaning through our
work. We engage in addictive and compulsive behaviors. We do all kinds of
things just to quench that thirst that is within us, knowing that the only way that
that gets quenched is when we drink from the living water that is offered to us
through our relationship with God. But we can’t quite let ourselves trust that.

Lent is the time in our church year when we recommit ourselves to this
relationship with God who desires us. In our first two Sundays at the beginning of
Lent, what we focused on in our lectionary text is tearing down the walls that we
have put up between ourselves and God, and between ourselves and each other.

It’s a process that the great saints of our church called puri?cation. It’s getting rid
of the stuff that stands between us and God. As Lent continues, we shift the focus
a little bit to talking about the positive things that we can do to engage God.

At the end of our story in the Gospel of John, the woman at the Well leaves her jug
by the well as she goes back into her town to tell the people about this man that she
has met. And it’s a wonderful metaphor, in a story that is rich in wonderful
metaphors, of leaving behind all of the ways that We have been trying to quench
our thirst as we embrace the one thing that will quench our thirst.

The Gospel of John is a powerful one, and I would encourage you to go back
today or sometime this week, and take a look at this story in the fourth chapter,
because the way it is invites our participation. The Gospel invites us to listen to
Jesus along with the woman at the well, to hear her responses and to listen to
Jesus’ responses to her, and in that process, along with her, to get drawn into this
encounter with Jesus. The great I Am who loves us and seeks us, and desires us.

The story is a wonderful opportunity to engage in that process of setting aside our
need to get something from God, setting aside our embarrassment and our fears
about our sinfulness and our failure, and it invites us to set aside our need to
intellectualize and to simply be in the presence of the great I Am, the only thing
that can quench our thirst.

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

Family Membership: A Matter of Trust

Sermon delivered on Lent 2A, Sunday, March 12, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Genesis 12.1-4a; Psalm 121.1-8; Romans 4.1-5, 13-17; John 3.1-17.

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

Among the many things Jesus and Paul address in our gospel and epistle lessons is the idea of family membership and this is what I want us to look at today. How does one become a member of Abraham’s family? This is more than just an interesting rhetorical question because as our OT lesson reminds us without equivocation, it is through Abraham’s family that God intends to bless the families of the world. In other words, it is through Abraham’s family that God intends to right all the wrong in our world that human sin and the evil it unleashed has caused.

How then do we become members of this critically important family? For ethnic Jews, the answer is simple. Circumcision. This is the sign God commanded Abraham and his male descendants to perform to indicate that they were part of the covenant God made with Abraham and his family (Genesis 17.1-14). But a funny thing happened along the way. Because Israel was as broken as the people she was called to bless, God became human and entered history as Jesus of Nazareth to break the power of evil, sin, and death by dying on a cross for our sake. As John reminds us in our gospel lesson, God did this in Christ because God loves the world. God loves you and me despite who we are and wants to rescue us from the clutches of the dark powers that have enslaved us through Sin so we can be the restored image-bearing creatures God created us to be in the first place. And in doing this for us, God also reconstituted Abraham’s family around Jesus so that the entire race could be part of the family, not just ethnic Jews. This is how God always planned to bless the nations of the world, folks like you and me, thanks be to God!

And now we are back to Paul and our epistle lesson. How does one become a member of Abraham’s family reconstituted in Jesus? For the Judaizers of Paul’s day, the answer was simple. Acknowledge Jesus was God’s Messiah and agree to submit to physical circumcision and to follow the requirements of the Law. Only then could one hope to be part of Abraham’s family and the promise linked to it. One’s ability to follow the Law (the rules and regulations that had been developed over the years in addition to the Ten Commandments God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai) determined one’s standing with the family. In other words, the onus of membership was on the individual. As Paul noted elsewhere, for the Judaizers, the scandal of the cross was just too much (see, e.g., 1 Corinthians 1.18-25). They may (or may not) have believed Jesus to be the real deal, but they couldn’t get past the idea of a crucified and publicly humiliated Messiah. And so in their minds, if you were going to be a follower of Jesus, you had to do what good Jews did—agree to circumcision and to follow the Law to establish your identity in Christ.

Nonsense, scoffed Paul. If you want to be part of Abraham’s reconstituted family in Jesus, you must have faith that our Lord is who he says he is. Look at his life, death, and resurrection with eyes of faith. See that in Jesus God was putting to rights all that is wrong with this world and our lives, especially in conquering death. Believe even when it appears nothing has changed (the dead, after all, are still dead, so how can death be conquered?). Trust that in Jesus, God is being good to his word to Abraham to use him to bless the nations of the world and restore us to our right minds and place. In other words, Paul emphatically rejected the notion that the onus of proving one’s family membership rests with the children, with you and me. No chance, says Paul. This is God’s work, God’s doing, God’s initiative. And then Paul offers proof.

First he tells us to consider God’s call to Abram. But before we do that, we have to put that call in its proper context in the biblical story of God’s rescue plan for us. As we saw last week, our first human ancestors sinned in paradise and that got us kicked out of the garden and resulted in God’s curse on his good but corrupted creation and creatures. You can (and should) read about that in Genesis 3.1-24. Genesis 4.1-11.9 then recount the cascading effects of human sin. Cain murders Abel (Genesis 4.1-16). The sons of God mate with the daughters of humans (Genesis 6.1-8). Whatever that looked like, it was grievous in God’s eyes so that God spoke the terrifying words in Genesis 6.6 that he regretted making humankind because of our wickedness. This brought on the flood and its aftermath, culminating in the sad story of the tower of Babel, where humans once again tried to usurp the role of God and resulted in God scattering the families of the nations, bringing even more chaos and confusion to the human race (Genesis 6.9-11.9).

This is the reason for God’s call to Abram in our OT lesson. If you ever wondered what God is doing about all that’s wrong in God’s world, this is the beginning of the answer. God didn’t send in the tanks to defeat evil. God called Abram and his promised family, which ultimately included Jesus, to bless the world because God loves the world. And this is Paul’s point. The initiative is God’s not ours. Consider the story. When Abram was a pagan, God called him to go to Canaan. We aren’t told why God called this man. The text doesn’t say that Abram was a particularly holy guy who deserved God’s call. We simply don’t know that. We don’t know what kind of person he was. The text doesn’t tell us because the author frankly doesn’t care. It wasn’t (and isn’t) about Abram. It’s about God’s gracious and sovereign call to Abram to be a blessing to the nations. Neither does the text tell us why Abram trusted God. Apparently that wasn’t important either. The only thing that was important in the story was God’s call to Abram and Abram’s trusting response to that call. So at the tender young age of 75, this pagan packed up his bags and family and moved to a new land without any further direction or marching orders from God. Most of us would be too tired to get out of our rocking chairs at 75, let alone make a life’s journey to a strange and distant land. But Abram trusted God and obeyed, and as Paul tells us, that was pleasing to God.

One of the things we can conclude from this short story is that if God can call Abram, God can (and certainly does) call us. It’s not about our character, it’s about faith, our response to God’s goodness. From Abram’s story, we see that faith is much more multidimensional than we often think. To be sure, faith can involve an intellectual assent, as when we affirm that Jesus died for our sins. But as our OT lesson shows us, faith also involves trust and obedience. Abram’s faith would have been worthless if he had said, “I trust God, but I’m not going anywhere. I’m getting too old for that kind of nonsense, dude.” But Abram didn’t do that. Abram believed God’s promise to him and obeyed God, despite the glaring absence of details that we all crave in a massive life change like that. Simply put, what Paul is telling us is this. God invites us into his family. God initiates, we respond, not the other way around. Jesus tells us something similar in our gospel lesson when he talks about being born from above or born again. Babies don’t choose to be born into a family. Neither do adopted children choose to become part of a family. To be sure, the latter might have some say in the matter, but the fact remains that if the parents don’t decide to adopt, membership in that family doesn’t happen, despite the child’s qualities (or lack thereof). The parents have to initiate. This is why I find it highly ironic that we sometimes ask each other if we have been born again (or born from above), as if it is our choice outside of God’s gracious initiative. As Jesus reminds us, to be born again is indicative of God’s action, not ours. At best, we simply respond to God’s prevenient grace (grace that precedes belief) toward us.

And this should make sense to us because as we have talked about since Ash Wed-nesday, if it were up to us to prove we are qualified to be part of God’s family in Christ based on our own merits, we would be without a family. God gladly calls and invites us into his family because once again, God loves us just like he loved Abram. What we initially bring (or fail to bring) to the table really doesn’t matter to God. The only thing that matters is God’s love for us.

But here is where I suspect many of us are closet Judaizers. We might want to believe all this stuff about trusting in the promises of God as the criterion necessary for approval into God’s family, but at the end of the day, we secretly fear we have to do more to prove our merit so that God will want us to be part of the family. Funny thing is, God wants us to be part of the family despite who we are. God loves and accepts us as we are and has acted decisively in Jesus’ death and resurrection to free us from our slavery to Sin and death. But God loves us enough not to leave us where we are, and so God gives us his Spirit to live in us to heal and transform and shape us back into real human beings over time. This is God’s initiative and God’s power, not ours. Simply put, based on our own merits, none of us get invited into God’s family. Instead, we are called to trust God and his promise to make us part of God’s family in and through Jesus. And we are called to live out that trust.

But this is where it can get messy because like Abram, we’re not given a good deal of specificity to help us live out our faith, and this makes us anxious. How can we be certain we are getting it right? To be sure, we have the Ten Commandments and the Great Commandment to love God with all we are, and others as we love ourselves, to help guide us. But here again, this often isn’t good enough for our inner Judaizer. We feel compelled to make it all about us and our performance rather than God’s faithfulness and love for us and his world. Don’t follow the rules enough? Hell awaits. It’s all about following the rules. Must follow the rules (sound of heads exploding in the background). Where is the Good News in that way of life, my beloved?

But this is not what true faith is about. True faith knows the real character and love of the One we are called to trust. Does God judge? Of course God does. But for our good. And God is also gracious and kind and merciful. The cross is the eternal witness to this truth. Not only that, God has a track record for delivering his people. Think about the Exodus and about the times God relented from destroying his wayward and rebellious people Israel because God loved them. In other words, God gives us a reason to trust him. God created us in his image and wants us to live with him forever and enjoy him for the loving, wise, gracious, just, merciful, and generous Creator God is. And how do we show that we trust God and his promises? By being the fully human beings God created to be, our primary example being Jesus Christ. God calls us to stop trying to be God and to be his faithful creatures instead. He calls us to love others and be merciful to them, especially our enemies. God calls us to pursue justice and goodness and truth and beauty, to have our character shaped by God in the power of the Spirit and through the regular disciplines of prayer, fasting, Scripture reading and study, partaking in the eucharist, fellowship, worship, confession, and repentance (turning away from ourselves and back toward God). Is this easy or straightforward? Not a snowflake’s chance on water. We will suffer setbacks and distractions. We will take two steps forward and one step back. We will sometimes look for improvement in our character and moral life and see none. Evil still exists in this world despite the NT proclamation of its defeat. And this can be quite disconcerting, not to mention discouraging. But Jesus warned us it would be this way. The work and ways of the Spirit aren’t always so easy to identify and understand. Of course there is some clarity in the life of the Spirit, but there is also a lot we don’t get. For example, how do we know we have the Spirit in us, especially when we fail? Jesus tells us that answers to our concerns are elusive sometimes. Objective truth there is. Clear moral guidelines there are, of course. But there is also a lot of ambiguity so that we are sometimes perplexed and unsure how to proceed. Despite all this, Jesus calls us to trust him. I wouldn’t be surprised if Abram had these kinds of questions and concerns when he traveled to Canaan with only God’s promise that God would make him a blessing to the families of the world.

But Abram trusted and so must we. This is what the disciplines of Lent are all about—to help us learn to trust. This is why we must live our Christian lives together as God’s family called first through Abram and ultimately through Jesus our Lord. We need each other to remind us of the truth and reality of God’s love for us in Jesus, that God is on the move and in our lives, even when we cannot see or sense his movement or presence. To be sure, we will not have all the answers about living life in the Spirit that we desire. But as long as we are content to let God be God and trust God’s promise to heal and rescue us from all that bedevils us, both internally and externally, we can have a real and powerful faith and trust in God, a faith and trust that manifests itself in action that is consistent with that trust, despite the ambiguity that sometimes confronts us, and despite our occasional setbacks. We can trust God and God’s promises because we have read the story of Abram and seen all his desperate flaws. Despite those flaws, God remained faithful to Abram, just as God remains faithful to us. We have seen the cross and the empty tomb that testify to God’s great love for us, and we have the Spirit of the living God in us who testifies to the truth that God is good to his word and faithful in all his works.

This Lenten season, resolve to put to death, with the help of the Spirit, all that is within you that makes you want to be a closet Judaizer. Ask God to help you learn to trust him as you participate in the ordinary means of grace so that you are freed to love God for all God’s worth and to love your other family members as you love yourself. Dare to love those who are not yet part of God’s family enough to invite them to respond to God’s gracious call to them to join the family, and then dare pray for this to happen, believing it will. This is the essence of the Good News we are to live and proclaim, my beloved, during Lent and for all eternity. What an awesome privilege. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

This Day in Maney Family History

John F. Maney under a tree at Ufculme, EnglandOn this day in 1943 my dad, John F. Maney, was inducted into the army at the age of 20 (the tree in this picture under which dad sat is outside a house in Uffculme England that was used as battalion HQ. I have a picture of that tree 40 years later when dad and I visited in June 1984). A week later he left on a train from Van Wert, OH for Camp Perry on Lake Erie. What a way to start the decade of your 20s.

Living a Balanced Christian Life

Though it might be argued, theoretically, that a Christianity in which [people] know how to picket, but not how to pray, is bound to wither, theorizing is not required, because we can already observe the logic of events. The fact is that emphasis upon the life of outer service, without a corresponding emphasis upon the life of devotion, has already led to obviously damaging results, one of which is calculated arrogance. How different it might be if the angry activists were to heed the words found in The Imitation of Christ, “Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.”

The essence of pietism, by contrast, is the limitation of primary interest to personal salvation. Even today, by the highways, we can see signs paid for by somebody, which urge us to “get right with God.” The evil of this well-intentioned effort lies not in what it says, but in what it so evidently omits. The assumption is that salvation is nothing more than a private transaction between the individual and God and that it can be an accomplished, dated event.

—Elton Trueblood, The New Man for Our Time

Lent: 4th-Century AD Jerusalem Style

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.

—Abbess Egeria, Pilgrimage, 27-28

Lent: A Season to Focus on Living as Cruciform People of God

Sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017, 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 51.1-17; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21.

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

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a 40 day season we call Lent. It is a time for self-examination, penitence, self-denial, study, and preparation for Easter. In accordance with my invitation for us to keep a holy Lent, I want us to focus this evening on becoming cruciform or cross-shaped people. How can we use the Lenten disciplines to help us live our lives as people of God? To answer this question fully would require a LONG sermon because this is a complex subject, and while you are used to long-winded bloviators who occupy this pulpit (I speak of Frs. Gatwood, Sang, and Bowser, of course), I will be as brief as possible (as I am wont to do). Hopefully I can lay a solid groundwork for us to develop our thinking and theology during this Lenten season and beyond so that we can be open to God’s healing love and mercy as we grow into the likeness of Christ and have God’s image restored in us.

We start with our OT lesson tonight with its call to repentance by God’s people. The problem, of course, is Israel’s failure to be the people God called them to be, to bring God’s healing love and justice to bear on God’s sin-sick and evil-infested world as God called them to do through Abraham. God warns Israel through his prophet that they too will have to endure the great and terrible Day of the Lord, where God will finally put to right all the wrongs of God’s world. These kinds of warnings usually conjure up in us visions of an angry and vindictive God who is bent on (and indeed even delights in) punishing human beings for our moral failures. But this is to misread the text badly on several levels.

First, it is to misread the character of God. To be sure, the Day of the Lord promises to be awful for those who are unreconciled to God (hence, Paul’s exhortation to us to be reconciled to God in our epistle lesson). But the Day of the Lord is as much about redemption as it is punishment. Why? Because on that day, God promises to put to rights all that is wrong with the world. And we ought to understand this at a fundamental level. We look around at all that is wrong in this world—the suffering, hatred, selfishness, polarization, unfairness of things, to name just a few—and we yearn for a day when something will be done about it. That’s why we have human justice systems—to address wrongs and attempt to restore balance and harmony. But human justice systems, even if they were perfect, can only go so far. A murderer, e.g., might receive a just sentence, but the victim is still dead and his loved ones still suffer and grieve. Only God can execute justice fully and perfectly. Only God can put right the wrongs that we can’t, by, e.g., raising the murdered victim back to life. We should see God’s righteousness more as a verb than a noun. God’s righteousness  means that God’s justice is at work, putting to rights that which is wrong. Israel’s sin, as well as ours, is that they didn’t take God’s call to them to live out his righteousness (justice) seriously. When God finally does put all the wrongs to right, the whole creation will rejoice and sing (Psalm 96.10-13; Romans 8.18-25)! This is hardly an indication of a vindictive and blood-thirsty God!

A second way to misread our OT lesson (or any lesson like it in the Bible), is our failure to take seriously the nature of Sin. Many of us, myself included, were taught (incorrectly) that sin is nothing more than doing bad stuff or the wrong things. We want to catalog a list of sins for us to avoid and then go about about trying to avoid doing those things on our list. In this framework, sin is really nothing more than us making good choices and then following our list of dos and don’ts. And if sin is nothing more than this, we will inevitably conclude that God can easily issue a blanket pardon for all the times we’ve misbehaved. If this were true, why do we need the cross? Why can’t God just forgive our sins and everyone live happily ever after?

But to think this way ignores the biblical witness about the nature of Sin. The NT writers, especially Paul, see Sin as something much more sinister than breaking God’s rules. They see Sin as a malevolent force and power that enslaves us so that we cannot act as God’s true image-bearing creatures. Sin holds us in its power so that we really are unable to act rightly and justly as the fully human beings God created us to be to rule over God’s world. The power and dynamic of Sin is analogous to the unconscious impulses that drive our personalities in unhealthy ways, making us, e.g., perfectionists, abusers, addicts, schemers, bullies, fanatics, adulterers, and all the rest. This is not to excuse Sin but to understand its power to enslave us, and it is the biblical witness that the entire human race is so enslaved. That’s what is wrong with God’s world in a nutshell. The real problem is not the sins we commit, but the power that compels us to commit them and our inability on our own to break free from this power. Don’t believe me? How many New Year’s resolutions have you kept over the years? How’s that diet going or your efforts to break your porn addiction? The human race is enslaved by the power of Sin and when that happens, our relationship with God is fundamentally ruptured and we are lost because God cannot and will not countenance any form of evil. When we by God’s grace finally understand the awful truth about the power of Sin and its utterly corrupting and death-dealing influence in our lives, we will read warnings about the great and terrible Day of the Lord with new understanding (not to mention fear and trembling). And this is where the OT teaching about repentance falls short because as we have just seen, we are so thoroughly corrupted and enslaved that it is impossible for us to repent enough to remove God’s justice from being executed on us. We simply don’t have it in our power and we are part of the problem God promises to address when God promises to put to rights all that is wrong with God’s world.

Fortunately this grim and depressing reality is not the final word in God’s story of redemption and our lives, thanks be to God! The cross of Jesus Christ is the final word on the matter and must always be the focus of our thinking and living because we are called to be cruciform or cross-shaped people of God. The cross is the final word on Sin because it is the power of God to destroy the power of Sin in our lives. On the cross, we see God’s perfect love for us as well as his justice executed on our behalf. As Paul tells us, on the cross, God condemned our sin in the flesh, both our sins and the power of Sin in our lives that caused us to commit those individual sins, so that God would not have to condemn us. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Jesus, God become human, died for our sins, offering us God’s forgiveness instead of God’s condemnation. When by faith we receive the gift of God’s justice and love and accept God’s accompanying forgiveness, we are set free from the power of Sin. By God’s grace and in the power of the Spirit, God reorients our hearts toward doing God’s will and leads us to an obedience of righteousness, i.e., God leads us to act justly and in the manner God created us to act in the first place. The truth of the matter is this. We will either live for Sin if its power remains unbroken in us or we will live for God, when we accept by faith God’s gift of healing love and justice offered to us in the death of Jesus.

On the cross, God put all the world’s wrongs to right and bore the terrible brunt of God’s own justice himself by becoming human for our sake. In doing so, the power of Sin was broken, we receive God’s mercy and forgiveness, and are literally offered new life and real hope. Only God has the power to do this and it is the testimony of the NT that God has indeed done this on our behalf. Only when we begin to realize what God has done for us on the cross can we truly bear the fruit of repentance out of a profound love for God accompanied by a sense of release that must flow from a real and lively faith. God has already broken the power of Sin by offering us forgiveness on the cross. Our only appropriate response is repentance, the resolve to live our lives justly and rightly in the power of the Spirit.

But we want to protest. This can’t be true. God hasn’t broken the power of Sin. The world and our lives are still a mess! Well yes they are, at least from our limited and finite perspective. But we have the resurrection that testifies that one day when Christ returns in power and glory (the NT version of the great and terrible Day of the Lord), his victory over the power of Sin and the powers behind it won on the cross for us will be revealed fully. But that is a theme that must wait till Easter. Before we get to the resurrection, however, we must grapple with the cross and all for which it stands. Is this the Good News you believe in and live out or are you settling for something inferior? If you are, you are still having your very life and humanity sucked out of you.

The power of the cross, the power of the suffering love of God to destroy the power of Sin and offer us both his restorative justice and healing love, is the reason we must become cruciform people of God. And here is where the rubber hits the road and we can apply what we have just talked about. God calls us to be his suffering lovers to bring God’s healing and justice to bear on the world. It’s what Jesus meant when he told us we must deny ourselves and take up our cross if we are to follow him. But if we don’t understand the gravity of Sin, if we still look at sin as simply a list of dos and don’ts that can be addressed by our own self-help, we will resist our Lord’s call to suffer on his behalf for the world. This very mindset of minimizing the gravity of Sin and its power to enslave us is itself the very product of the enslaving power of Sin!

We all know how this goes. What’s all this fuss about Sin and sins, we ask our Lord? Why do you want us to suffer? We know a better way to do things! Everybody knows there is not enough to go around in this world so we have to look out for ourselves. Nobody else will. And if we have to act selfishly or unjustly to get what we need, who really cares? I care, comes the reply. I died for you so that you can be freed from being a slave to Sin so that you can act in truly human ways. But you insist otherwise. You want to be the master of your own life and destiny when doing so is impossible. I call on you to act justly, to take care of the oppressed and to have generous hearts. But you refuse because you do not know or trust me. And how can you  know and trust me if you don’t pray to me and ask me to show you my will for you as my people in your daily lives, both collectively and individually? How can you know and trust me if you don’t read my story in Scripture? How can you know and trust me if you don’t worship me in Spirit and truth or feed on me and proclaim my death until my coming again? And without know-ing and trusting me, you’ll act selfishly because without me you are still enslaved by your Sin.

But we protest. We don’t have time to read and study and pray and worship you. We have too many other responsibilities and things to do. We can’t be truly generous to the poor and needy. We have our own needs and wants. We have retirement to consider and $10,000 watches to buy so that people will know how truly rich and important we are. And besides, we’re really good people. We don’t do that many bad things.

Do you see the power of Sin and its corrupting influence at work here that leads to this mindset? In place of God’s generous heart, we are miserly. We look for reasons why we cannot do what we are called to do, from living our lives to finding a building we can make our parish home and base of operations, we are too quick to tell God and each other why we can’t deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him, i.e., why the status quo must be maintained. We know better than the Lord, right? And we sure know better than to seek his will in all things and then trust God to help us do his will for us, both as individuals and as God’s people together.

But when by faith we put our hope and trust in the cross of Christ, in what God has done for us and God’s world on it, we are promised and given a power to overcome the power of Sin and act as truly human beings. We are given the power to be generous and compassionate and forgiving and to act justly according to God’s economy, not our own. This is what it means to be a cruciform people and it will inevitably lead to our suffering, precisely because the world is enslaved to Sin and the powers behind it. Let me give you a quick example of what a cruciform life looks like. My wife was a principal at a local high school for several years. She felt God called her to the position and worked hard on behalf of underprivileged kids to help improve their lot in life by making sure they received a good education. But this was met with resistance for many reasons, most of which were self-serving and myopic. And so eventually she was given the choice of being fired or resigning. She chose the latter and was humiliated in the process. It was not pretty, trust me. Despite the wrong she suffered, good came out of it. Her school’s ratings improved along with the education her kids received. Did it change the world? No. Did she have to suffer because of her determination to act justly? Yes. She had to resign in shame, but that is by the world’s standards, not God’s. Paul would have understood this perfectly. He might have offered this counsel to my wife in her suffering and humiliation.

[You worked] with the weapons of righteousness [justice] for the right hand and for the left… You were treated as an impostor, and yet [were] true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—you are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

This is the power of God in our lives, my beloved, the power that enables us to live cruciform lives. As our Lord observed in our gospel lesson, it is a power that must be cultivated by prayer, fasting, living generous lives (look how we raised twice as much money for Fenny as we set out to do; that money did not fall from the sky, it came because God created generous hearts), and other acts of piety, sincere acts that seek to obey the will of God and not court the favor and approval of humans. This is the stuff of which Lent is made. This is the stuff of living faithful Christian lives. It is the power of God at work in us to transform us over time into the fully human beings God created us to be. It is the power of God to use our faithfulness to help right the wrongs of his good but fallen creation. It is the power to receive and live the Good News, now and for all eternity, thanks be to God! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

A Prayer for Ash Wednesday 2017

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.