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

Sermon delivered on Trinity 8B, Sunday, July 22, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 7:1-14; Psalm 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fr. Terry Gatwood: Where is the Good News?

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

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

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

Fr. Dwight Longenecker: The Trump Blimp and the Roots of Rage

I watched with curiosity the big protest against Trump in London this week.

As regular readers will know, I’m not a big fan of Mr Trump, however what we saw in London really had very little to do with Donald Trump.

Something else was going on which was much more interesting that Trump, a blimp and a crowd of angry people.

What was interesting was the anger. I watched a few interviews with protesters and there seemed to be a constant theme of rage simmering below the surface. The interviewer asked, “What specifically do you dislike about Trump and his policies?”

The replies were most often incoherent, sentimental, ignorant, inaccurate or all of the above.

The most cogent reply was from a young woman who said with a big smile, “I don’t know. I’m just angry.”

This is where it gets very interesting. Why the anger? Britain, like the USA, is one of the most privileged, affluent and aspirational countries on earth. As in the USA, if you want to get ahead and find happiness and you are not hindered by circumstances beyond your control, you can improve your life. Why the anger?

The boy is on to something. Read it all.

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

Sermon delivered on Trinity 6B, Sunday, July 8, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Independence Day 2018: Lincoln on the Declaration of Independence and the 4th of July

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

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

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

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

Some good stuff here. See what you think.

Independence Day 2018: Today in History

From here:

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

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

Another Prayer for Independence Day 2018

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

A Prayer for Independence Day 2018

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

David Brooks (NYT): Anthony Kennedy and the Privatization of Meaning

In this sentence, which became famous as the “mystery of life” passage, there is no sense that individuals are embedded in a social order. There is no acknowledgment of the parts of ourselves that we don’t choose but inherit — family, race, social roles, historical legacies of oppression, our bodies, the habits that are handed down to us by our common culture.

There’s no we. We are all monads who walk around with our own individual opinions about existence, meaning and the universe. Each person is a self-created choosing individual, pursuing individual desires. There is no sense that we are part of a common flow connecting the past, present and future; instead, each of us creates our own worldview anew.

The first problem with this definition of freedom is that it pushes society toward a tepid relativism. There are no truths, only “concepts.” You define your concept of the meaning of the universe, and I define mine, and who are any of us to judge, let alone impinge upon, that of another? Furthermore, it’s a short road from getting to define your own truth to getting to define your own facts.

Couldn’t agree more. In fact, I don’t think Brooks goes far enough in his meaning of life argument—we humans only find meaning to life when we recognize we are God’s image-bearers with all that that entails, starting with learning how to follow Christ—but that doesn’t detract from his piece. See what you think.

Read it all.

July 2018: The Power of the Gospel

We sat down to table and the officer began his story: “I have served in the army ever since I was quite young. I knew my duties and was a favorite of my superiors as a conscientious officer. But I was young, as were also my friends, and unhappily I started drinking. It went from bad to worse until drinking became an illness. When I did not drink, I was a good officer, but when I would start drinking, then I would have to go to bed for six weeks. My superiors were patient with me for a long time, but finally, for rudeness to the commanding officer while I was drunk, they reduced my rank to private and transferred me to a garrison for three years. They threatened me with more severe punishment if I would not improve and give up drinking. In this unfortunate condition all my efforts at self-control were of no avail and I could not stay sober for any length of time. Then I heard that I was to be sent to the guardhouse and I was beside myself with anguish.

“One day I was sitting in the barracks deep in thought. A monk came in to beg alms for the church. Those who had money gave what they could. When he approached me he asked, ‘Why are you so downcast?’ We started talking and I told him the cause of my grief. The monk sympathized with my situation and said, ‘My brother was once in a similar position, and I will tell you how he was cured. His spiritual father gave him a copy of the Gospels and strongly urged him to read a chapter whenever he wanted to take a drink. If the desire for a drink did not leave him after he read one chapter he was encouraged to read another and if necessary still another. My brother followed this advice, and after some time he lost all desire for alcoholic beverages. It is now fifteen years since he has touched a drop of alcohol. Why don’t you do the same, and you will discover how beneficial the reading of the Gospels can be. I have a copy at home and will gladly bring it to you.’

“I wasn’t very open to this idea so I objected, ‘How can your Gospels help when neither my efforts at selfcontrol nor medical aid could keep me sober?’ I spoke in this way because I never read the Gospels.

“‘Give it a chance,’ continued the monk reassuringly, ‘and you will find it very helpful.’

“The next day he brought me this copy of the Gospels. I opened it, browsed through it, and said, ‘I will not take it, for I cannot understand it; I am not accustomed to reading Church Slavonic.’

“The monk did not give up but continued to encourage me and explained that God’s special power is present in the Gospel through his words. He went on, ‘At the beginning be concerned only with reading it diligently; understanding will come later. One holy man says that “even when you don’t understand the word of God, the demons do, and they tremble”; and the passion for drink is without a doubt their work. And St. John Chrysostom in speaking about the power of the word of God says that the very room where the Gospel is kept has the power to ward off the spirits of darkness and thwart their intrigues.’

“I do not recall what I gave the monk when I took the copy of the Gospels from him, but I placed the book in my trunk with my other belongings and forgot about it. Some time later a strong desire to have a drink took hold of me and I opened the trunk to get some money and run to the tavern. But I saw the copy of the Gospels before I got to the money and I remembered clearly what the monk had told me. I opened the book and read the first chapter of Matthew without understanding anything. Again I remembered the monk’s words, ‘At the beginning be concerned only with reading it diligently; understanding will come later.’ So I read another chapter and found it a bit more comprehensible. Shortly after I began reading the third chapter, the curfew bell rang and it was no longer possible for me to leave the barracks.

“In the morning my first thought was to get a drink, but then I decided to read another chapter to see what would happen. I read it and did not go. Again I wanted a drink, but I started reading and I felt better. This gave me courage, and with every temptation for a drink I began reading a chapter from the Gospels. The more I read, the easier it became, and when I finally finished reading all four Gospels the compulsion for drink had disappeared completely; I was repelled by the very thought of it. It is now twenty years since I stopped drinking alcoholic beverages.

“Everyone was surprised at the change that took place in me, and after three years I was reinstated as an officer and then climbed up the ranks until I was made a commanding officer. Later I married a fine woman; we have saved some money, which we now share with the poor. Now I have a grown son who is a fine lad and he also is an officer in the army.”

—The Way of a Pilgrim

What a wonderful story of the multifaceted ways in which Christ works in our lives! The issue here is alcoholism, but don’t restrict the lesson to that. Christ can heal any affliction if we let him. Notice first how Christ uses human agency (the monk) to introduce the young soldier to his Gospel. Notice the monk’s persistence and the faith he has in the transformative power of the Gospel in people’s lives, a faith based, in part, on past experience.

Next, pay attention to how Christ used circumstance instead of understanding to stay the young soldier’s hand from drinking. He read the Gospel without understanding it, but was prevented from going on a drinking binge because he had lingered in his quarters to read it.

Finally, mark how understanding occurs—through persistent reading. Ask anyone who reads the Bible regularly and systematically and you will hear this same answer. God grants understanding to humble minds willing to submit to his word (as opposed to trying to make his word submit to their agendas) through our persistent reading of his word. God doesn’t beat us over the head to make us learn (usually). Instead he uses ordinary people and circumstances along with our own efforts to speak to and transform us. That may not be sexy enough for some of us but it is much more effective over the long haul

If you are struggling with your faith, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this story and its lessons. Here is indeed balm for your soul!