A Prayer for Memorial Day 2020

Adapted from here:

Eternal God,
Creator of years, of centuries,
Lord of whatever is beyond time,
Maker of all species and master of all history —
How shall we speak to you
from our smallness and inconsequence?
Except that you have called us to worship you in spirit and in truth;
You have dignified us with loves and loyalties;
You have lifted us up with your loving-kindnesses.
Therefore we are bold to come before you without groveling
(though we sometimes feel that low)
and without fear
(though we are often anxious).
We sing with spirit and pray with courage
because you have dignified us;
You have redeemed us from the aimlessness
of things going meaninglessly well.

God, lift the hearts of those
for whom this holiday is not just diversion,
but painful memory and continued deprivation.
Bless those whose dear ones have died
needlessly, wastefully (as it seems)
in accident or misadventure.
We remember with compassion and thanksgiving those who have died
serving this country in times of war.

We all must come to bereavement and separation,
when all the answers we are offered
fail the question death asks of each of us.
But we believe that you will provide for us
as others have been provided with the fulfillment of
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”
because we believe that you have raised Jesus our Lord from the dead
and conquered death itself,
and that you have given us the privilege
of sharing in his risen life as his followers,
both now and for all eternity.
We offer our prayers and thanksgiving
in Jesus our risen Lord’s name. Amen.

Father Philip Sang: Joy and the Power Drawn from Goodbye

Sermon delivered on the Feast of the Ascension (transferred), Year A, Sunday, May 24, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

Father Sang has apparently lost the ability to write so there is no manuscript of today’s sermon. To listen to the audio podcast click here.

Lectionary texts: Acts 1.1-11; Psalm 93; Ephesians 1.15-23; Luke 24.44-53.

Feast of the Ascension 2020: N.T. Wright on the Ascension of Jesus

The idea of the human Jesus now being in heaven, in his thoroughly embodied risen state, comes as a shock to many people, including many Christians. Sometimes this is because many people think that Jesus, having been divine, stopped being divine and became human, and then, having been human for a while, stopped being human and went back to being divine (at least, that’s what many people think Christians are supposed to believe). More often it’s because our culture is so used to the Platonic idea that heaven is, by definition, a place of “spiritual,” nonmaterial reality so that the idea of a solid body being not only present but also thoroughly at home there seems like a category mistake. The ascension invites us to rethink all this; and, after all, why did we suppose we knew what heaven was? Only because our culture has suggested things to us. Part of Christian belief is to find out what’s true about Jesus and let that challenge our culture.

This applies in particular to the idea of Jesus being in charge not only in heaven but also on earth, not only in some ultimate future but also in the present. Many will snort the obvious objection: it certainly doesn’t look as though he’s in charge, or if he is, he’s making a proper mess of it. But that misses the point. The early Christians knew the world was still a mess. But they announced, like messengers going off on behalf of a global company, that a new CEO had taken charge.

What happens when you downplay or ignore the ascension? The answer is that the church expands to fill the vacuum. If Jesus is more or less identical with the church—if, that is, talk about Jesus can be reduced to talk about his presence within his people rather than his standing over against them and addressing them from elsewhere as their Lord, then we have created a high road to the worst kind of triumphalism.

Only when we grasp firmly that the church is not Jesus and Jesus is not the church—when we grasp, in other words, the truth of the ascension, that the one who is indeed present with us by the Spirit is also the Lord who is strangely absent, strangely other, strangely different from us and over against us, the one who tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him—only then are we rescued from both hollow triumphalism and shallow despair.

Conversely, only when we grasp and celebrate the fact that Jesus has gone on ahead of us into God’s space, God’s new world, and is both already ruling the rebellious present world as its rightful Lord and also interceding for us at the Father’s right hand—when we grasp and celebrate, in other words, what the ascension tells us about Jesus’s continuing human work in the present—are we rescued from a wrong view of world history and equipped for the task of justice in the present. Get the ascension right, and your view of the church, of the sacraments, and of the mother of Jesus can get back into focus.

— N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope.

Feast of the Ascension 2020: Dr. John Stott on the Ascension (2)

There is no need to doubt the literal nature of Christ’s ascension, so long as we realize its purpose. It was not necessary as a mode of departure, for ‘going to the Father’ did not involve a journey in space and presumably he could simply have vanished as on previous occasions. The reason he ascended before their eyes was rather to show them that this departure was final.  He had now gone for good, or at least until his coming in glory.  So they returned to Jerusalem with great joy and waited – not for Jesus to make another resurrection appearance, but for the Holy Spirit to come in power, as had been promised.

—Understanding the Bible, 103.

Feast of the Ascension 2020: Dr. John Stott on the Ascension (1)

It is a pity that we call it ‘Ascension Day’, for the Bible speaks more of Christ’s exaltation than of his ascension. This is an interesting avenue to explore. The four great events in the saving career of Jesus are described in the Bible both actively and passively, as deeds done both by Jesus and to Jesus. Thus, we are told with reference to his birth both that he came and that he was sent; with reference to his death both that he gave himself and that he was offered; with reference to his resurrection both that he rose and that he was raised; with reference to his ascension both that he ascended and that he was exalted. If we look more closely, we shall find that in the first two cases, the active phrase is commoner: he came and died, as a deliberate, self-determined choice. But in the last two cases, the passive phrase is more common: he was raised from the tomb and he was exalted to the throne. It was the Father’s act.

—The Exaltation of Jesus (sermon on Phil. 2:9-11)

Feast of the Ascension 2020: A Prayer for the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus

O God the King of glory,
you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ
with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven:
we beseech you, leave us not comfortless,
but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us
and exalt us to the place where our Savior Christ is gone before,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

From The Book of Common Worship

Feast of the Ascension 2020: Pope Leo the Great on the Ascension of Jesus

With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father. And so our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments. Our faith is nobler and stronger because sight has been replaced by a doctrine whose authority is accepted by believing hearts, enlightened from on high. This faith was increased by the Lord’s ascension and strengthened by the gift of the Spirit.

Proclaiming Christ During the Pandemic

Sermon delivered on Easter 6A, Sunday, May 17, 2020 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: Acts 17.22-31; Psalm 66.8-20; 1 Peter 3.13-22; John 14.15-21.

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

This sermon is a bit different from what I normally preach so I was feeling anxious about it until I realized that I am not subjecting you to Father Bowser’s or Father Sang’s preaching and I immediately felt better about myself and the sermon. Besides, given the delay of our worship service, only about a third of you will hear it anyway, so it’s all good!

As we continue to deal with the effects of this pandemic, our readings remind us that we have a wonderful opportunity to proclaim our resurrection hope to folks who are afraid or who wonder where God is in it all. This is what I want us to look at this morning. 

A word of clarification before I begin. When I talk about proclaiming Christ, I don’t have in mind you all jumping up in your respective pulpits and preaching a sermon. I have in mind the many opportunities we have in the circumstances of our various lives. There is great fear out there, my beloved, and we have the only real antidote to that fear. So in our conversations and interactions with others, when opportunities arise, let us take advantage of them, thanking God for giving us those opportunities to proclaim our Easter faith to others.

In our NT lesson, we see St. Paul proclaiming his resurrection faith to a society that was essentially ignorant of the one true and living God, the God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. While we don’t live in first-century Greece, we do live in a society that increasingly does not know the God we worship, and like St. Paul as he observed the various idols the Athenians worshiped, God will give us opportunities in this pandemic to connect with those who do not know Christ and witness to our Easter hope of resurrection and new creation.

How might we do that? Well, for starters we are to meet people where they are, just like St. Paul met his audience where they were. Many want to know if this pandemic is from God. While we must be very circumspect in answering this question because frankly none of us knows the entire answer to the issues it raises, we can say with certainty that God has allowed this pandemic to take place, even if God’s reasons for doing so are less clear. So the better question to ask, perhaps, is what spiritual resources do Christians have available to help us cope with this plague and sustain us with real hope? This we can readily share with those who are perhaps now more ready to listen to our message than they were before this pandemic struck, always keeping in mind St. Peter’s admonition to us to proclaim our faith gently and with reverence.

Like St. Paul did with the Athenians, a good place to start is to challenge society’s false gods. The Epicurean gods of St. Paul’s day made a roaring comeback with the 18th century Enlightenment movement. The false, largely monotheistic god of the Enlightenment is an absentee and fickle god who is hard to please and who doesn’t seem to care about the affairs of this world. This deist god of human invention is made popular by increasing biblical ignorance and capitulation to the Enlightenment movement that is essentially hostile to God. This false god gladly allows pandemics and other nasty things to ravage our world and its people because he is essentially a cruel and angry god, who cares little about creation; hence, he doesn’t get involved in human affairs. 

But if we spend any amount of time in the Bible and learn its overarching story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration—you do know what I refer to, right?—we quickly realize this distant, cruel god who gladly inflicts suffering and unhappiness on people is a false god and not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. As Christians we know how important creation and we are to God. After all, we humans bear his image and God created us to run his world on his behalf. While we have gotten that part terribly wrong, that isn’t about the nature of God; it’s about us and our sin and folly. But as both the Old and New Testaments proclaim, God loves his world and us and has promised to heal and redeem us, along with God’s beloved creation. The resurrection of Jesus Christ stands as living testimony to this truth. Our God cares deeply about us and the affairs of his world, and from the very beginning has actively sought us out to heal and restore us. We see God’s love made known supremely to us in Jesus Christ, crucified for our sake to restore us to God as St. Peter proclaims in our epistle lesson, and raised from the dead to announce death’s ultimate destruction with the coming new world. So first of all we are people with Good News, the Good News of God’s rescue of us, despite our hostility toward him and our ongoing rebellion against him. This is the God who promises to be with us always as our Lord himself declares in our gospel lesson. Here we have it. Jesus, God become human, promising to be with us always through the Spirit’s presence until he returns to finish his healing and saving work. Scripture is the story of our God who loves us and seeks us out to heal and restore us to himself. This God is actively involved in his world in the power of the Spirit and through his people, and this God flatly contradicts false narratives about an absent and uncaring god who actively seeks to punish us with pandemics and other catastrophes because he hates us. The world desperately needs to hear about this God, my beloved.

A second place to start witnessing our resurrection faith is to be willing to talk truthfully about the reality of death. As we saw two weeks ago, we Americans have lived in La-La Land when it comes to death. We deny it as best we can and prior to this pandemic we foolishly believed we are masters of our own destiny. If nothing else, this pandemic has shown us emphatically that we are not masters of our destiny and death is a constant reality. As Christians, we can bring to bear something that no one else can: the love, power, and promise of God to defeat and abolish death in and through Jesus Christ. We believe that on the cross, God made peace with us and dealt with our ongoing sin, folly, and rebellion once and for all. Much of that remains a mystery to us because we look around and see sin, folly, and rebellion everywhere we turn. But it is the NT’s proclamation that God has indeed dealt with all that separates us from him and makes us sick as a result, the ultimate sickness being death itself. We know this is true because God raised Christ from the dead to usher in God’s promised new creation and with it the abolition of death and everything evil. Because God does care about creation and us, God has acted decisively on our behalf to heal and restore us. Christ raised from the dead means that death will ultimately be abolished forever and the hope and promise of our baptism proclaims that because we belong to Christ we will share in his resurrection, learning as we do how to live as the truly human beings God created us to be, beings who reflect the love, goodness, mercy, and justice of God. We can’t do this on our own, of course, because we are too profoundly broken. But we don’t have to do it on our own because we are promised and have been given the very Spirit of Christ himself who helps heal us and shape us into his own likeness, and promises us that we will be his forever. No other religion proclaims the new creation and the resurrection of the dead and when we truly believe that this is our destiny, a destiny made possible by the love of God made known to us supremely in Jesus Christ, we no longer have to be afraid of death or of dying. Again, Christ himself promises to be with us, even in the valley of the shadow of death, so that even if the virus strikes us down, we are not separated from him. Hear St. Paul beautifully describe this unbreakable bond made possible by Christ’s death on the cross for us:

If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?  …No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow [nor Covid-19]—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.31b-39, NLT).

Here is great hope and power to help people deal with their fears during this pandemic. When we give our lives to Christ, we become resurrection people, whose destiny is life, not death. Mortal death comes to all humans because all have sinned and death results from sin. But God in his great love and mercy has conquered death for us through his Son and we no longer have to fear death or dying. None of us deserves this great love and grace of God, but it is available to anyone who is willing to enter into a relationship with our Lord Jesus. If this is not an appropriate conversation during this pandemic, I don’t know what is. Eternal life in a world devoid of any kind of evil or sorrow is a great antidote to the despair of pandemic. For the love of Christ, how can we remain silent?

Of course there are other ways to talk about our faith to non-believers and sadly not everyone will be interested or willing to hear us. But these are two good ways to start and the love of God demands that we try. When we do, we are assured that Christ himself is with us to strengthen us and use us to advance his good purposes in the world, despite its opposition to God and us. 

But before we can proclaim our faith to others, we have to know our own story well enough to proclaim it. That comes through regular Bible study together, prayer, fellowship, and worship. The Christian Faith is essentially relational and as with every relationship, our relationship with Christ requires us to do our part. While we have a God who loves us passionately and pursues us relentlessly, we will never know him or his love for us if we continue to run away from him or refuse to listen to his voice contained in Scripture, in the lives of our parish family and other faithful Christians, and in the Eucharist. When Christ tells us he will be with us in the power of the Holy Spirit, we have to learn what that looks and sounds like in the living of our days so that we can recognize his spiritual presence and voice. We learn this and receive guidance from Scripture, from the lives of his saints, in the Eucharist, and in studying his word. Just like married couples come to know each other more intimately with every passing year, so we too can expect to grow in our knowledge of Christ and appropriate his promises to us as time goes by. When we do, we discover that we actually are supremely loved by our Great Shepherd despite our unloveliness and learn to imitate his love to others. Whenever we forgive when no forgiveness is warranted, whenever we are generous to others where no generosity is deserved, whenever we learn to bless our enemies instead of cursing them, we are given power to grow in our knowledge of Christ, and when that knowledge grows, so too does our faith in his promise to us that we really are resurrection people whose destiny is the new heavens and earth where we will live in God’s direct presence and protection forever, thanks be to God!

So proclaim the Good News we must, especially if we claim to love God and others. But first we must come to know and believe our Story and make it our own by faith. As our psalm reminds us, we will not have all our questions and concerns answered in this mortal life because we must live and walk by faith, and faith requires an abiding trust in the power of God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and creates things out of nothing. But we can walk by faith, confident that God the Father in his great love for us gives us the resources we need to grow in our love and faith and so imitate his dearly beloved Son so that God’s will may be done on earth as in heaven. We believe this is true because we believe that God really did raise Christ from the dead, thereby demonstrating that all his promises are trustworthy and true. It is a spectacular promise and one the world desperately needs to hear, whether it knows it or not. Let us give thanks to God that he loves us enough and deems us worthy enough by virtue of the blood of the Lamb shed for us to call us to this great and sacred task. Let us resolve with all our might to be obedient to his call and proclaim boldly the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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

Richard Bauckham (Psephizo): Facing Death with Easter Hope

The eminent professor hits a home run. Worth your time and reflection.

…death is the subject that unavoidably confronts us all in a pandemic. Modern societies tend to avoid thinking about death. By comparison with the ways death happened in all pre-modern societies, we mostly give no more attention than we need to death. Most deaths happen in hospitals. Far fewer people die young or in the prime of life, and so death in general seems more like a natural end to a long life. Little is left of the rituals with which societies used to mark and deal with death, when people were expected to mourn in very public ways and for a conventional length of time. A black tie for a funeral is about all we have left. The accent has shifted from mourning to celebrating the life of the deceased, something that perhaps has value, but which helps us to ignore rather than deal with the stark negativity of death.

Of course, we know, if we think about it, that people are dying every day, every hour, every minute. But we do not think about it. Now we are confronted daily with that day’s toll of deaths to Covid-19 and the steadily mounting total. We have become aware of what a sad and lonely way of dying it is for many of those who die in intensive care. Death is always a solitary experience: only the dying person experiences dying, though others may suffer that person’s death. But the essential aloneness of death is terribly aggravated in these conditions. We are grateful that nurses in ICUs are able to give some human attention (not just medical) to their patients, but it is a harrowing experience for them. We seem to hear very little about hospital chaplains in the UK, and I simply do not know how far they are permitted access to those dying in ICUs. (By contrast a recent newspaper story about Italy highlighted the heroism of many priests, monks and nuns who put their own safety at risk in order to be with the dying.)

Read it all

Father John Jorden: Amid All of This Be at Peace! Really?

Sermon delivered on Easter 5A, Sunday, May 10, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

The Father Bowser Syndrome continues to spread and infect the clergy and guest preachers at St. Augustine’s. We therefore have no written manuscript to share, but you can listen to the podcast of today’s sermon by clicking here.

Lectionary texts: Acts 7.55-60; Psalm 31.1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2.2-10; St. John 14.1-14.