From the Sermon Archives: More Than We Can Hope For or Imagine

A sermon for Epiphanytide.

Sermon delivered on Epiphany 2C, Sunday, January 16, 2022.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 62.1-5; Psalm 36.5-10; 1 Corinthians 12.1-11; St. John 2.1-11.

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

What are we to make of that strange but compelling story about Christ changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana? What might we learn from it as Christians who seek to be faithful disciples of our Lord in a world going increasingly mad? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

We come to our gospel lesson by way of our OT lesson. In it we note the desperation in the prophet’s voice as he resolves to give God no rest until God makes good on his promise to restore his people. In last week’s OT lesson—which Tucker ignored because he’s a Loser and likes to make my preaching job more difficult, but I digress—God himself had promised to end his people’s exile in Babylon and restore them to the promised land (Is 43.1-7). Now here we are, several chapters later in Isaiah, and God had apparently not fulfilled his promise to Israel to end their exile. And we all get what this is about because we too are waiting for God to consummate his promises to us in Jesus Christ. Simply put, between the increasingly insane demands and lies of wokery, the strident language coming from our leaders, and the ever-increasing division, rancor, and lawlessness in this nation, we are flat worn out. Now depending on how we view God—whether we think God is fundamentally for or against us—this waiting can cause us to lose hope and/or stop believing that the promises of God to liberate us and his good creation from the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death are true. Neither is a good choice for us as Christians because then we are effectively calling God a liar. Others of us want to roll up our sleeves and work harder to bring in the Kingdom on earth as in heaven to get things moving in the right direction. Notice carefully that Isaiah did none of these things. Instead, he resolved to persevere in prayer like the persistent widow in Jesus’ parable (Lk 18.1-8).

Why am I spending time with this? Because if we lose hope or stop believing the promises of God or attempt to take matters into our own hands, we will eventually be defeated by the dark powers and/or our own fallen nature. If in the end we do not have a vision of God’s new heavens and earth that is robust enough and extravagant enough to help motivate us to keep our eyes on the prize, our faith will always be in danger of being broken by the next setback or catastrophe that strikes us or the world in which we live. And we all get why this is a problem. Think about that prize in your life on which you set your sights, be it work or school or athletics or love or fame or whatever. It was/is big enough and compelling enough for you to do whatever you had/have to do to achieve it. You probably were/are wiling to endure any setback, persevere against all odds, and sacrifice mightily to achieve your prized goal. We need to strive likewise in our faith journey to help keep it strong and vibrant. As our Lord Jesus was fond of reminding us in many of his parables, if we are content to pursue the lesser things of life, how much more should we pursue the greater things of life, like eternal life in God’s new creation? 

And now we are ready to turn to our gospel lesson today because it is the prize on which every Christian should set his/her sights, a foretaste of what is in store for us as God’s beloved and redeemed children in Christ. Before we begin, I want to clarify that when I just talked about pursuing a prized goal, I was certainly not suggesting that we are responsible for our salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth as we saw last week when we looked at the grace of baptism. Salvation comes solely from the Lord, but it does require a response—after all, faith is more than a set of convictions, it demands a response—and if we stop believing the promises of salvation in Jesus Christ, we no longer have the ultimate prize to look forward to because without Christ we are no longer God’s redeemed children. 

In our gospel lesson, then, we see the first of seven “signs” in St. John’s gospel, seven being the biblical number for completeness. Signs in St. John’s gospel refer to Jesus’ miracles, but they are not just supernatural acts. They are significant acts that point us to something greater. Here we see the astonishing extravagance of God manifested in Christ at this wedding in Cana. The wine has run out, a social catastrophe that could have serious legal consequences for the host, and the mother of our Lord asks him to rectify the situation. Please observe carefully that nothing happened until the servants obeyed Mary’s command to, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2.5). Remember that. At first our Lord apparently rebuffs his mother’s request (more about that later), but ultimately he delivers a whopper, producing the equivalent of 600-900 bottles of the finest wine! 

So what is St. John trying to tell us? Among the many things we could talk about, first we note the theme of the wedding/marriage covenant, a biblical theme that denotes the gracious call of God to his people Israel in the OT and ultimately to all people in and through Jesus Christ. Of course this covenant also describes the intimate relationship between God and his people, a relationship broken by Israel’s sins and ours. No relationship in all creation is more intimate than the relationship between a husband and wife at its best. It is the restoration of this relationship that the prophet sees as the fulfillment of God’s promises for his people in our OT lesson (Isaiah 62.4-5). What could be better news for hurting and broken people who are alienated from God and each other, then and now, than to hear that God loves us as his spouse despite our infidelity? In this wedding/marriage theme we find security, belonging, protection, forgiveness, and healing, among others. And we are encouraged to embrace the love of God for us made manifest in his Son Jesus Christ and to be made new again in our relationship with Christ in and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, the wedding feast is an integral part of a wedding where we celebrate the newly-formed union of husband and wife because weddings are meant to be public affairs. Scripture celebrates likewise with its various images of the wedding feast or Messianic banquet where God’s people will celebrate their union with their rescuer and savior, the Messiah, whom Christians know to be Jesus of Nazareth. This theme is by no means an exclusive NT theme. Listen to this description of God’s great future banquet from an earlier chapter of Isaiah, a passage that is frequently read at funerals:

In Jerusalem, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet with clear, well-aged wine and choice meat. There he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth. He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears. He will remove forever all insults and mockery against his land and people. The Lord has spoken! In that day the people will proclaim, “This is our God! We trusted in him, and he saved us! This is the Lord, in whom we trusted. Let us rejoice in the salvation he brings!” (Isaiah 25.6-9, NLT)

We note here the extravagance of God’s grace and generous heart on display like it was when Jesus turned the water into wine. People of the world will gather at God’s banquet to celebrate their liberation from all the darkness of this world and to feast on the finest, well-aged wine and choicest meat, symbols of God’s good creation. None of us deserve an invitation but God invites us anyway. And those who have the good sense to accept the invitation will celebrate the end of their exile and enjoy no second-rate food and drink—we are not talking metaphor here—but the finest food and drink from God’s storehouse of grace. St. John is pointing us to the same promise in our gospel lesson this morning, thus he calls Jesus’ action a “sign.” As the psalmist proclaimed in our lesson, God gives us drink from the river of his delights (Ps 36.8)!

Second, we note that in providing this finest wine Jesus tacitly approves things that make life meaningful and pleasant: relationships, sexual fidelity in the context of marriage, community, hospitality, meals, family, and celebration, to name a few. Contra to those who look for every reason to make our relationship with Christ a lifeless, dour, and grim experience, our Lord will have none of that nonsense in this story. When we are redeemed and healed by Christ, we have no reason to be dour and stingy. Christ gives our mortal life meaning and purpose, even as we live in the darkness of a fallen world and our sinful desires. When we love each other and work at developing healthy and wholesome relationships with all kinds of people, especially the people of God, the promise of this story is that we will find abundance and delight in doing so because we obey Christ. Engaging in the above activities is part of living the abundant life our Lord told us he came to bring (Jn 10.10). Nothing else will do it for us. No one other than Christ can give us the joy of love and the delight found in giving generously of our time, talents, and resources for the sake of others. To be sure, there is plenty in this world to make us sad and beat us down. But the hope and promise of having a real and lively relationship with our risen Lord can overcome the darkest darkness because it reminds us that life, wholeness, health, goodness, and abundance are the reality, not scarcity, sickness, alienation, hurt, or death, thanks be to God! Can I hear an Amen??

Last, the foretaste of the Messianic banquet that will be ongoing in God’s new creation reminds us to keep our eyes on Jesus the prize because the ordinary things of this life will be transformed when he returns and made more beautiful and abundant than we can ever imagine, just like the new wine Jesus made. Think about the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen—husbands, this is a good time to turn to your wife and tell her she is that most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, it’s a good old-creation, anti-doghouse practice—and then try to imagine things more beautiful and abundant than that, i.e., try to imagine the unimaginable. This will give you a clue as to what awaits us in God’s new heavens and earth. I don’t know all that that entails, but I do know that our resurrected bodies will be inexpressively beautiful and without defect or sickness or any kind of malady. We will drink the finest wines without becoming intoxicated and we won’t desire to become intoxicated because we will be enjoying unbroken communion and fellowship with God the Father and the Lamb. There won’t be an addictive or lonely bone in our new body. The intimacy we enjoy only partly now, we will enjoy in full then. We won’t worry about being unloved or abandoned by God or others because we will be living in the light of God’s presence and the Lamb’s forever! I’m sure my puny imagination does not do justice to God’s new heavens and earth in trying to describe our future life. But one thing is certain, we get a glimpse and foretaste of the extravagant love and generosity of God in this first sign at Cana. 

Our future, of course, is made possible by the final sign in St. John’s gospel. Spectacular as this first sign is, the most powerful sign of Jesus is his death and resurrection, where the dark powers are broken and our slavery to Sin with its attendant sickness and alienation are forever destroyed. When Jesus told his mother that his hour had not yet come, he wasn’t pointing to his death, but later in the gospel this was the hour about which he consistently spoke, the hour that couldn’t happen before its time. Without Christ and his sacrificial death and resurrection, we have no future on which to keep our eyes focused because we would still be living in our sin and death would therefore remain unconquered (it’s no coincidence that St. John tells us this creation of new wine happened on the third day). Without Christ’s death and resurrection we would have no motivation to live in the manner he calls us to live. Thankfully, because of God’s extravagant love for us, we do have a real future and hope to sustain us in the midst of our darkness and sorrow (cf. Jeremiah 29.11). When we obey Christ, we allow ourselves to live life and live it in the abundance of God’s extravagant love and grace first revealed by our Lord at Cana. 

So what’s this all mean for us as Christians? First, as St. Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson, we are to celebrate in ongoing and diverse ways the gifts of healing, wholeness, and life given us by God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no reason for any Christian to live a joyless life, even in the midst of sorrow. Having a joy that is not contingent on the circumstances of life will go a long way in helping us deal with our sorrows when they come. 

Second, we get a taste of the future real deal (new creation) each week when we come to the Table and feast on our Lord. That’s why we serve you fine port wine and bread. It mirrors imperfectly Christ’s banquet in the new creation where bitterness is no more. When you take in Jesus at the eucharist, he should be sweet to your palate and leave you wanting more because of Who he is and what he has done for you. And here’s a little self-check to help you assess your hope in Christ: As you return from the Lord’s Table and/or when you leave worship, would people mistake you for wedding guests or party goers? If not, I challenge you to examine your new creation theology because chances are it is lacking in significant ways. 

Last, it means we are to take our relationship with each other seriously and celebrate those relationships, along with our relationship with God, whenever we can. How we treat each other as family members matters to our Lord and it should matter to us. The relationships we enjoy are part of God’s extravagant love for us and we are called to both celebrate them and take them seriously. They help us flourish as God’s human image-bearers!

Let us therefore continue to pray for God’s kingdom to come in full on earth as it is in heaven and for Christ to give us the grace to be obedient to him so that we will never turn his extravagant wine into water on our watch. After all, the only reason we have to celebrate is God’s extravagant and gracious love for us made known supremely in Christ and him crucified. So go celebrate God’s Good News in Christ and make others wonder what is your secret so you can explain it to them. Maybe even invite them to have a glass of the finest wine with you at the wedding feast of which you are a part so that they too can experience the new eschatological joy you do. In doing so you will also find it to be the needed balm for your soul to help you transcend the death-dealing and soul-destroying business as usual of this world that wears us all out. Keep your eyes on the prize who is Jesus and dare to imagine the unimaginable world he promises to usher in, God’s new world that defies and transcends our deepest longings. To Christ be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

The Baptism of Christ 2023—Dying and Rising with Christ: Why Your Baptism Matters

In celebration of the Feast of Christ’s Baptism (and our own). Read the lectionary texts below before the sermon. From the sermon archives.

Lectionary texts: Acts 8.26-40; Psalm 118.19-24; Romans 6.3-11; St. Matthew 28.16-20.

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

Today is a huge day in the life of our parish family. Not only do we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine’s and receive and confirm several new family members, we will baptize our newest baby terrorist and beloved in Christ, Maggie May, into his family, (sorry Sweet Baby James, there’s a new kid in town) and I want to direct my sermon primarily to her. Yes, yes, I know she is only almost three and I regularly confuse you adults when I preach. But any child who tells her parents at that age that she needs to be baptized knows the Lord, and probably better than most of us. So I will trust the Lord, along with her parents, godparents, and the rest of you, to compensate for my, um, awesomeness to bring about needed understanding in the years to come. I’ll try to make it so easy to understand that even a bishop will get it! Of course the rest of you ragamuffins are welcome to soak up the great wisdom I impart along the way. Now that I have insulted everyone here, I can proceed with the sermon forthwith.

Maggie May, your parents have made the wisest and best decision of your young life. Ever. On your behalf, they have declared that you will reject what St. Paul called the first Adam—the old person living in you despite your young age—and like new clothes, put on the second Adam, Jesus Christ himself. But what does that mean? It means that the power of Sin will not control you, that you will choose life over death and will not want to live your life in ways that demonstrate you don’t like God by acting in ways that are contrary to his will for you as his image-bearing creature. Instead, your parents are declaring for you that you will choose to follow Christ and be where he is because you believe him to be God become human, the only true reality and Source of life, and that you want to live with God forever, starting right now. In biblical terms we call this repentance: where you will choose to turn from a life lived for yourself to a life lived for God. You will choose to kill off in you all that makes you God’s enemy, or as St. Paul puts it, you will crucify your sinful nature (a lifelong practice), but you will realize you cannot do this in your own power or strength. When you are baptized your parents are declaring for you that you will realize you must rely on the power of God working in your life in and through the Holy Spirit to help you do all this so that you can live as a fully human being and that your life orientation will point to something (or more precisely Someone) greater than yourself. They are also declaring for you that you will realize this is a free gift from God despite your unworthiness to receive it, but receive it you will because it pleases God the Father to give it to you out of his great love for you. That’s what dying and rising with Christ means. It means you know Jesus and are reconnected to your Source of life. It means you understand that only in Christ’s power can you overcome Death. I am fully confident that all this will happen as you come of age because you know Jesus.

But here’s the thing. If you are like me, you will also at times find what St. Paul says to be a real head scratcher. Perhaps you will want to say to him with me, “St. Paul, are you crazy? I still do things that don’t please God. I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. How can you say I’ve died to sin?” To which St. Paul would reply, “It’s not about you Maggie May, it’s about the power of God at work in you.” That’s the key. The power of God working in you, invisible to our senses but there nonetheless. And I know you understand this at some level already, even at your tender age.

St. Paul knew very well that being united with Christ does not make one a perfect person. But that is not what St. Paul is talking about. He is echoing what he wrote to the Colossians when he said that “[The Father] has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness [where we are separated from God and without real life] and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom [from the power of Sin] and forgave our sins” (Col 1.13-14). This is the power of God at work in us to rescue us from sin and death and bring us into the kingdom of his promised new creation that one day will come in full at Christ’s return. God did this for us out of his great love for us. We did nothing to deserve this gift nor can we earn it. In our own right we are hopelessly broken, unworthy and incapable of living as God’s true image-bearers. This is what the power of Sin has done to us and unfortunately you will understand this all too well one day. But God loves us too much to let us go the way of death that never ends and so God has acted decisively in Christ to break Sin’s power over us on the cross and transfer us into his new world via Christ’s resurrection. This is what God’s grace and power look like; and your baptism signals, in part, your acceptance of that grace and power, even you don’t fully understand it. We can’t earn God’s grace but it is ours for the taking because of the power and love of God. And what God wants, God gets; and nothing, not even the power of Sin or the dark powers, can overcome God’s power made known and available to us through Jesus Christ our Lord. It’s a done deal, even if it may not always feel like that to us. 

But Christ’s death and resurrection were not feelings. They were and are the real events that made known supremely the power of God to intervene in our lives on our behalf to rescue us from ourselves, our foolishness, our folly, and our slavery to the power of Sin and Death. We don’t create a new reality; rather we believe the reality exists. Christ has died for us and been raised from the dead to proclaim God’s victory over Sin and Death, and when we are united with Christ in a living relationship with him at our baptism, St. Paul promises in our epistle lesson that we too share in Christ’s reality, whether it feels like we do or not. Again, notice nothing is required of us except an informed faith. In other words, we look at the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection and know it to be true so that we learn to trust the promise that has not yet been fulfilled in us to also be true. 

How does this all happen? St. Paul doesn’t tell us how, only that it does happen beginning with our baptism. When we are baptized we share in Christ’s death and are buried with him so that Sin’s power over us is broken (not to be confused with living a sin-free life, something that is not mortally possible because as St. Paul reminds us in verses 6-7, we are not totally free from sin until death). We reject sin and can no longer live like we hate God because we have been transferred into a new reality, God’s new world that started when God raised Christ from the dead. So in our baptism we begin our new life with Christ (cf. 2 Cor 5.17), flawed as that will look at times. You have been given a great gift in the death and resurrection of Christ and will be joined together with him in a new and different way at your baptism. And where Christ is, there you will be with him. If this isn’t Good News, I don’t know what is. And how do I know all that I have told you is true? Because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, Maggie May, and I know you know his risen Presence! Alleluia!

So you have died with Christ and are raised with him, even at your ripe young age! You have been delivered from the dark empire of slavery to the empire of freedom and life and light, the Father’s kingdom. Now what? Well, for starters it means you no longer need to be afraid as you grow older. You have peace with God, real peace, a peace that was terribly costly to God, and you also have life that cannot be taken from you. Sure your mortal body will die, and you’ll understand what that means when you grow older, but that’s nothing more than a transition until the Lord returns and raises you from the dead and gives you a new body to live in his new world. As a baptized Christian you have no reason to fear death because you know Christ is the Resurrection and the Life (John 11.25) and you know that where he is, there you will be with him by virtue of your baptism that signals his great love for you and his power to rescue you from Sin and Death! It means you will reject living your life in ways that tell God you don’t want anything to do with him. It means you will reject false realities and will be willing to speak out boldly against them. It means you will be willing to love even the most unloveable people (and unfortunately you will come to know your fair share of them), starting with yourself. It means you will be willing to speak out against injustices of all kinds. It means you will have compassion for people, realizing they are without a Good Shepherd who will love and heal them just like he is loving and healing you, and so you will be willing to share your baptismal faith with them. There’s more to this reality, but certainly not less. 

Your baptism also means you are welcomed into and will agree to become part of the family of God in Christ (the Church), because you understand God created you for relationships and that you cannot live out your Christian faith by yourself because that is how the world, the flesh, and the devil get together to pick Christians off and get them to reject God’s free gift of life won through Christ. The power of God living in you right now is often made known in and through other people, and just as we rely on family to help us when things go bad in our life, so too must you rely on your parish family to help you stay the course. That means you will agree to worship with us, study Scripture with us, feed on our Lord’s body and blood each week to have Christ himself nourish you, weep with us, rejoice with us, and everything in between. I think you already understand this at some level and You’ll grow in your understanding of what this means as you grow older. Your baptism is a tangible reminder that God the Father has claimed you in and through God the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit to make you Christ’s own forever. Like any healthy relationship, Maggie May, God will never force you to love him and gives you the freedom to choose whom you will serve. Today your parents declare for you that you are choosing to serve Life and not Death and all that that entails, even if you don’t fully understand right now. Who among us does? Congratulations, my dear one. I couldn’t be happier for you. Glory to him whose power working in you is infinitely more than you can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus forever and ever. Alleluia!

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

Christmas Eve Sermon 2022: Why “Rejoice and be Merry” at Christmas?

From the sermon archives.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 52.7-10; Isaiah 11; Hebrews 1.1-12; John 1.1-14.

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

Merry Christmas my beloved! During this past Advent season we looked into the darkness of this world and your lives with the eyes of faith. We preached on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell, and also invited you to meditate on these things with faith in the goodness of God’s justice and power to act on our behalf. Tonight we begin the great Christmas celebration. But why do we celebrate Christmas on the heels of Advent? Why “rejoice and be merry”? This is what I want us to look at this evening.

We celebrate Christmas on the heels of Advent because Christmas announces definitively what the prophets proclaimed long ago: That God would come into the world to rescue all creation from the Curse, and us from his terrible but just judgment on our sins, that although we all must endure death and stand before the judgment seat of Christ because of our sins, eternal separation from God the Father, i.e. Hell, is no longer our destination because we are covered by the Blood of the Lamb shed for us. Christmas announces in no uncertain terms what Isaiah and the writer of Hebrews proclaim in our OT and epistle lessons tonight: God’s salvation has begun in the birth of our Savior. This is God’s light and power shining in the darkness of our lives, not human power that inevitably must fail. This is God coming to rescue us from Death, Judgment, and Hell so that we can live with him forever in heaven, the promised new creation. Christmas announces that creation matters to God our Creator, that humans are supremely important to God because God became human to rescue us from that seeks to destroy us. Christmas begins to reveal in ways the OT prophets could not the character and heart of God the Father because God chose to reveal himself to us in ways our puny and fallible minds could finally understand so that we could begin to obey him and love him in ways we simply couldn’t before Christ was born. This too is the light shining in the darkness as St. John announces in his gospel, and try as the dark powers will to snuff out Christ’s light, they will fail utterly because nothing is more powerful than the power of God.

But the birth of Christ this night at Bethlehem is not what we really celebrate, lovely and sentimental as we have made it. No, Christmas points us inevitably to Good Friday and Easter, because on Calvary Evil was defeated and our sins dealt with forever, and the empty tomb proclaims that Death is shattered, one day to be abolished permanently when our Lord Jesus returns to finish his saving work. This is the light shining in the darkness, the power of God at work, but in ways we never expected or even wanted. Being the proud, fallen creatures we are, we would have preferred that God left us alone so that we could fix ourselves. But since we know in our heart of hearts that is not possible, we instead preferred God to defeat our enemies in ways we are used to, with shock and awe (while sparing us in the process, of course). But this is not God’s way of salvation because to save us by shock and awe would be to participate in evil itself by imitating its ways. Christmas announces that our God has indeed come to bare his mighty arm so that all the nations will see God’s salvation. But because it is God and because of the Father’s eternal love for us, God chose to defeat Sin, Death, and Evil without using the weapons preferred by the world and the dark powers and principalities. Instead, God chose to take on our flesh and die a most foul and shameful death so as to condemn our sin in the flesh without having to condemn us. God continually surprises by giving us so much more than we can ask or desire. Why should we not rejoice and be merry, even in the face of darkness?

This requires faith, of course, but not a blind faith. It requires a faith that is informed by the overarching story of God’s rescue plan, a plan announced when God called Abraham to be the father of God’s people to bring God’s healing to the world, and ultimately in the coming of God himself as a human being to seal the deal. And because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead we have no good reason to doubt God’s narrative contained in Scripture and proclaimed by Christ’s body the Church. God’s rescue is not yet consummated but it is complete because it is God himself who is the chief actor and agent of salvation. This is why we light candles and sing God’s praises. This is why a weary world rejoices and can find merriment in the midst of desolation. God himself has announced his mighty rescue by becoming a baby born of a Virgin in fulfillment of ancient prophecy that God is with us, Emmanuel, in any and every circumstance of this mortal life, especially in the darkness of our lives.

In this dark age heightened by fear and uncertainty due to the rapid breakdown of our culture with its increased strife, crime, inflation and other economic woes, as well as personal loss and hurts many of us have suffered and/or continue to suffer, we need to pause and set our minds on the light, on things that matter most. Christmas allows us to do just that. Christmas announces that the darkness does not have the final say. We remember the promises of God we looked at during Advent, that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and destroy Death forever, that God will end all strife and alienation and every form of evil forever. None of this would be possible had God not chosen to insert himself into our history as a human being to deal with the darkness on his own terms. We look forward to the new heavens and earth but we also celebrate tonight that we have been given a preview of heaven touching earth. Jesus Christ was born to die for us so that we no longer have to fear Death and Judgment and Hell. God has declared in his actions that he loves us despite the fact that we are essentially unlovable because of our sin-sickness and ongoing rebellion against God. Christmas proclaims that we no longer have to be afraid despite the darkness that swirls around and in us. In Christ, God has conquered the darkness for us so that we have a legitimate chance to live in God’s light, now in this mortal life and in the age to come when we will enjoy unimaginably sweet and ecstatic fellowship with God by being granted the privilege of living in God’s direct presence forever. Christmas invites us anew to remember our baptismal vows and put on our Lord Jesus Christ, i.e., to imitate Christ in all our thinking, speaking, and doing, shedding our own filthy rags in the process because we come to realize those rags lead us to poverty, sickness, alienation, loneliness, death, and judgment. Christmas invites us to walk with the risen Christ all our days and in doing so to find joy and purpose and meaning that are based not on the circumstances and chances of life but on the tender love of God the Father for us. We believe all this because we believe Christ really is risen from the dead and therefore we also believe he is busy putting his fallen world and creatures to rights, even as he is available to each of us in the power of the Spirit, just as the NT promises.

In practical terms, then, how might we live in the light of Christ so that the darkness does not overcome it? As we have seen, to learn to live in the light of Christ we must first and most importantly learn to recognize its (or more precisely his) presence and power in our life. We learn this chiefly by engaging the Scriptures regularly, studying them and listening to faithful preaching, regular worship, and partaking in the sacraments of the Church, especially holy Eucharist. When we do these things regularly and intentionally we are trained by the Spirit to recognize, for example, that Christ was born even as a bloodthirsty tyrant, Herod, sought to exterminate his life almost immediately after he was born but failed. Children tragically were slaughtered but the evil of this world did not end Christ’s life before its time and so the world had a chance to live. The darkness could not overcome the light because God the Father is in charge. This in turn helps us deal with the darkness in our lives equipped with the eyes and heart and mind of faith that have been trained for spiritual warfare that inevitably is waged against us. Without a firm conviction that Christ’s light and power shines brightly in his world to heal and rescue it (and us) from the iron grip of Sin, Evil, and Death, we will never be able to imitate him on a regular and ongoing basis because we will lose heart and hope. 

But when we are equipped with a life-changing faith that is centered on Christ we are able to imitate his light. Every time we refuse to submit to the zeitgeist and disordered values of this age that dehumanize and destroy people’s lives in the name of “liberty” or identity, Christ’s light shines through us, even when we are called haters and bigots (how wanting people to give themselves to God’s order, i.e., to the light of Christ, is hatred while insisting that we follow our own disordered desires to our eternal destruction is never explained to us; funny how the darkness sometimes works). Every time we choose to forgive rather than retaliate when we are wronged or spoken about harshly or unfairly, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we are willing to forgive ourselves, refusing the darkness’s invitation and our own fallen inclination to self-condemn, instead repenting and going forward convinced that Christ still loves us no matter how egregious our sin or failure [insert your sin], Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we continue to confess Christ as our Lord and remain convinced that he still is in charge, no matter how great the darkness that swirls in and around us, Christ light shines through us. Every time we seek to imitate God’s generous heart and share ourselves, our time, and our resources with those in need or who suffer for various reasons, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we talk to others about our faith in Christ and how it makes a difference for us, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we grieve as people with hope rather than in hopelessness, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we choose to love instead of hate, to be selfless rather than selfish, to seek to honor Christ in all we do, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we love each other as a real and true parish family despite our mutual annoyances and fallibilities—things that have the ability to separate and alienate and destroy relationships—Christ’s light shines through us and the darkness that inevitably arises to crush us will never succeed. We may lose our life for the sake of Christ but even then we gain it, and eternally. None of this is for the faint of heart, but it is for those of us who realize that without Christ’s light we are dead men and women walking and we are therefore willing to give ourselves and way of living to Christ.

This is why we celebrate Christmas and can rejoice and be merry. God became human to die for us. It is the beginning of the fulfillment of St. Paul’s bold and astonishing claim in Romans 11.32 that, “God imprisoned everyone in disobedience so he could have mercy on everyone”! If that is not worthy of our highest praise and thanksgiving, not to mention our best celebration, I don’t know what is. This is the light of Christ shining in our darkness, healing us and promising to make all things new and right, ambiguous and mysterious and messy as it looks in this mortal life, but ours fully, clearly, and unambiguously in the age to come. It is the only light that can truly heal and satisfy. Nothing else can, not our bright lights or money or gift-giving or parties or power or toys. Only the light of Christ can truly save us from the darkness of this world and give us real purpose for living. Let us therefore resolve to rejoice tonight in the midst of our darkness, thanking God our Father for the great gift of himself so that we can be his forever. It is a precious and immeasurably valuable gift from our loving Creator and Father. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. May the light of Christ always shine brightly in our darkness. Merry Christmas, my beloved. 

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

Grieving at Christmas

Merry Christmas!

I suspect many who have lost loved ones to death or alienation or suffered from illness or other kinds of brokenness or loss will struggle with this greeting/sentiment. I’m one of those people and know first-hand (again) that our emotions and grief don’t always put us in sync with a happy and festive holiday spirit. If you too are one of those folks who are dealing with grief or loss or brokenness this Christmas I would like to offer you my sincere condolences because I know something of your pain and sorrow. But I also want to offer you some real Christian (Christmas) cheer to help you grieve as those who have hope—the sure and certain expectation of things to come, not wishful thinking—this Christmastide.

The Church has just finished observing the season of Advent with its hope and promise of the Lord’s return to finish the saving/reclaiming work he started at his First Coming (think Christ’s mighty works, teaching, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension). When that day arrives and our Lord Jesus returns with great power and glory, we believe that God’s perfect justice will finally be fulfilled, including most importantly the abolition of death. What can be a more just solution to the massive injustice of death than resurrection and eternal bodily life lived directly in God’s loving Presence? Living in God’s direct Presence ensures that we will enjoy perfect communion with God, which means complete bliss, free from sorrow or separation or illness or brokenness or death, the likes of which we have never experienced before because the human race (with the exception of Christ) has not lived directly in God’s Presence since our first ancestors got expelled from Paradise (Genesis 2-3). Nothing in all creation can ever produce the kind of healing God’s Presence produces.

And of course tonight we begin to celebrate the 12 days of Christmastide. Christmas, among its many promises, reminds us that we humans—body, mind, and spirit, the whole package—matter to God. We know this because God became one of us to rescue us from our slavery to Sin and Death. Without Christ’s birth we would be people with no future and ultimately no hope. But Christmas announces the historical reality of God’s intervention in human history for our sake and thus announces that we who believe in Christ ARE people with a hope and a future (cp. Jeremiah 29.11). Christmas is the visible and historical manifestation of God’s love for us his image-bearing creatures and indeed all of creation.

So if you are one who struggles to be merry this Christmastide because you are dealing with significant loss or brokenness in your life, remember this: As you simultaneously celebrate Christmas and grieve your own loss, whatever that loss may be, please remember the above promises and take hope in the midst of your grief. By all means grieve, but grieve as one who has real hope because you belong to Christ. I can tell you all this with confidence because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. You can stake your life (and joys and sorrows) on that and I urge you to do so if you haven’t already.

Listen and understand if you have ears to hear. Merry Christmas!

Gavin Ashenden: Mourning the Loss of Our Queen and All that She Embodied

Before his conversion to Roman Catholicism Gavin Ashenden was an Anglican priest and bishop as well as former Chaplain to the Queen. I fear his concerns are real and true. From Christian Today:

Queen Elizabeth listening to speeches by others at the Home Office last month.

It used to be the fashion to address a monarch as His or Her ‘Most Christian Majesty’. In the case of Elizabeth II, that was the most appropriate description. People have discussed her longevity, her family, her good judgement; but behind the length of her reign, and the reason why she found herself so dearly loved, was her Christian character.

Alongside a life constructed and sculpted by faith is the congruence that the demise of Christian faith in the public sphere may take place in parallel to her own personal demise…

As the society she ruled over constitutionally grew more heterodox and hedonistic, the dignity and integrity that she embodied both personally and constitutionally resonated with a contrasting moral and existential value which was nurtured by her relationship with God – her sense of vocation as his servant, placed within the royal family to serve both him and her nation – and her love of Christ, whose Spirit renewed her daily.

The mourning that will accompany her passing will be a grief not only for a remarkable woman, a treasured mother, a dignified grandmother and a much-loved Queen, it will also include a sorrow for the passing of a Christianised culture whose deepest and most noble virtues she represented and embodied. In every sense it is true to say of her, we shall not see her like again.

Read it all.

What to Do When it Appears God Has Abandoned You

Sermon delivered on Trinity 2C, Sunday, June 26, 2022 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 texts below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; St. Luke 9.51-62.

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

This morning I want to focus on our psalm lesson. What can we learn from it? How can it help us in our faith journey? Before we answer these questions, I want to read the first part of the psalm again from a different translation as I think it brings added clarity to the psalmist’s complaint:

I cry out to God; yes, I shout. Oh, that God would listen to me!/ When I was in deep trouble, I searched for the Lord. All night long I prayed, with hands lifted toward heaven, but my soul was not comforted./ I think of God, and I moan, overwhelmed with longing for his help./ You don’t let me sleep. I am too distressed even to pray!/ I think of the good old days, long since ended,/ when my nights were filled with joyful songs. I search my soul and ponder the difference now./ Has the Lord rejected me forever? Will he never again be kind to me?/ Is his unfailing love gone forever? Have his promises permanently failed?/ Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he slammed the door on his compassion?/ And I said, “This is my fate; the Most High has turned his hand against me” (Psalm 77.1-10, NLT).

So have you ever cried out to Lord in despair? If you are old enough you surely have. Some of us cry out to the Lord in despair over the state of our nation and the strident voices and lawlessness that are becoming increasingly prevalent. Some of us cry out to the Lord in despair over the “joys” of aging or over a catastrophic illness or over the desperate situation in which we might find ourselves or our loved ones. Whatever the reason for our cries, like the psalmist we who have a relationship with God search for him in hopes that God will comfort us or heal us or relieve our despair. After all, God is all-powerful, right? He raises the dead and creates things out of nothing. Nothing is too hard for him! And indeed, oftentimes God answers our prayers and we then proceed to go about our business acting like we don’t need God at all. But sometimes like the psalmist experiences, God seems to be strangely or even terrifyingly absent. We search for healing or peace or comfort or a sense of God’s presence and find none. If God’s perceived absence lasts too long our doubts and fears can grow like the psalmist’s did. We can’t sleep. We are overwhelmed with longing, desperately wanting God to answer his prayers. And then we ask the awful questions. Has God abandoned us forever? Has God rejected us forever? And more personally, has God stopped loving me because I am so rotten? In the past God has answered my prayers for help and has comforted me. But now? Where is God? Why doesn’t he hear my desperate prayers? Why will God not show me any compassion? All these questions can lead the psalmist and us to this terrible conclusion (not to mention a crisis of faith): God has turned his hand against me, i.e., God finally sees me as I really am, a sinner undeserving of his love and grace, and refuses to help me. Anyone here ever gotten to this point in your relationship with God? I did 22 years ago and I almost took my life as a result. This is very serious stuff about which we are talking and if you are in that boat right now, I encourage you to reach out to your priest, your family, and/or your friends, especially if they are Christians, because God can and does use human agency to heal and comfort us.

St. Paul understood how this all works. In our epistle lesson he reminds us in no uncertain terms that our sin-sickness causes alienation between God and his image-bearers and that alienation can produce the kind of emotional and spiritually dark state the psalmist experienced and we experience, whatever the issue was and is. So what to do? The psalmist along with the rest of Scripture tell us. We are to remember. We are to remember God’s promises to his image-bearing creatures in general and his people Israel in particular, promises to act on our behalf, to free us from our slavery to the power of Sin and our own fallen nature with its corrupted desires. St. Paul catalogues a sample of the fruit of our sinful nature in our epistle lesson: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and all the other fruit of our alienation from God and each other that our slavery to Sin produces. But the psalmist remembers God’s power to act on our behalf, to free us from all kinds of slavery, and that’s why he remembers. He remembers especially God’s mighty act of deliverance for his people Israel when he brought them out of their slavery in Egypt and through the dark and terrible waters of the Red Sea to eventual freedom. God did this. God acted in Israel’s history because God loves his people and is gracious to them, even though they are unworthy of his great gifts. Likewise with us as God’s people in Christ, the reconstituted Israel.

Why else would the psalmist in his desperation seek to remember God’s mighty acts in the past? Why must we do likewise? Because they are proof positive that God does not abandon his people; rather, God acts on our behalf, undeserving as we are, because God loves us and is gracious toward us. Israel did not deserve its liberation. The people demonstrated that when they started grumbling about wanting to return to their slavery almost immediately after God liberated them! You can read that sad and compelling story in Exodus and Numbers. Nevertheless, God acted to free them, even though God knew beforehand what they were going to do. 

For Christians, of course, we are to remember God’s mighty acts of love and power demonstrated enigmatically on Calvary but definitively when God raised Christ from the dead. In Christ’s Death and Resurrection, God did a much greater thing than he did for Israel at the Exodus, jaw-dropping as the latter was. In Christ’s Death and Resurrection God freed us from our slavery to Sin’s power, the stuff St. Paul spoke about above, and defeated the darkest, most evil power of all—Death. But God the Father did not stop there. As Christ told his disciples at the Last Supper, after he had Ascended, he would not leave them (or us) as orphans and without hope or God’s power in this mortal life. No, we have the unseen Risen and Ascended Christ interceding for us at God’s right hand, NT language that proclaims Jesus is Lord over all, as well as the Holy Spirit who makes Christ available to us and intercedes on our behalf, even when we can only groan in desperation, not knowing what to pray for or how to ask for something. All of these gifts from God are real and they demonstrate God’s love for us and his willingness to act on our behalf. 

As a result we are no longer slaves to our fallen, sinful selves. To be sure our fallen nature rears its ugly head from time to time. After all, the very act of doubting God’s love for us is a product of our alienation between God and each other! But as St. Paul tells us in our epistle lesson, God does not leave us to our own devices. No, we are set free from our slavery to Sin and ruled by the Holy Spirit who empowers us and helps us to live and be as God created us to live and be, surely the mightiest of all God’s acts! The proof is in the pudding of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Whenever these fruit manifest themselves in our lives, we have proof that the Holy Spirit is alive and well in us, i.e., God is present and active in our lives, even when we consciously experience his absence. So like the psalmist, we as God’s people in Christ need to remember how God has acted on our behalf and how God continues to manifest his power in our lives, unlikely as that power appears to the unbelieving world. This is why the psalmist and the rest of Scripture tell us to remember. Why God seems to be strangely absent in our lives at times nobody knows. Why God doesn’t answer our prayers as we ask or seems to ignore our desperate situations nobody knows. What Scripture does tell us is that in all the ambiguities and mysteries and unanswered questions, God’s absence isn’t necessarily a sign God has abandoned us or is punishing us, although the latter is sometimes true, especially when we go off the rails for extended periods of time. But God never rejects a humble and contrite heart. Ever. God never rejects our sincere penance. Ever. God never ultimately rejects us unless we ultimately reject God. Christ’s Death on the cross is proof of that, thanks be to God! 

So what do we do when we are in desperate times, wondering if God has abandoned us? Well, many of us try to tough it out on our own. Instead of remembering that God is faithful to his people, we seek human solutions to alleviate our desperation. How’s that working out for you? I know it never has worked for me. No, as we have seen, we are called to remember, both collectively and individually, and then to rely on each other to remind ourselves that God never leaves us alone. In other words, we are to love each other and be there for each other when we sense God’s absence, just the way all healthy families help each other in good times and bad. Never underestimate the power of godly folk to help lighten your load as they walk with you through the dark valleys of life. The very act of remembering and relying on each other help us focus on God instead of ourselves. It reminds us to be patient and to trust God to act on our behalf in God’s good time and ways. That’s not easy for us god-wannabes but it is the only real option we have if we are not to totally lose heart and hope. When we remember, we are reminded that God is not some inconsistent ogre who delights in torturing us or who behaves erratically toward us as we do toward God and each other. God loved us enough to become human and die for us to free us from his just condemnation and an eternity apart from him, even while we were still sinners and his enemies. If God loves us that much, why would God abandon us now in our darkest hours? St. Paul comes to this exact conclusion in his letter to the Romans: 

If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since [God] did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? [Therefore] 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—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 8.31-32, 38-39, NLT).

In this mortal life there are always going to be desperate times. When those desperate times occur in our lives Scripture tells us to double down in our efforts to focus on God and put our trust in him, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how dark the valley. God may not rescue us as we expect or hope, but we all have the assurance that God has indeed rescued us from the gravest danger of all: Death and eternal separation from him. God has broken the power of Sin and Death and promises us an eternity with him in his new world, a world without Evil or Sin or Death, a world that is full of perfect life and health forever. Don’t let your fears and weaknesses rob you of the spectacular hope contained in this promise, my beloved. Remember instead God’s willingness and ability to act on our behalf and for our benefit. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

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

Christ’s Resurrection: Making All Things New

Sermon delivered on Easter 3C, Sunday, May 1, 2022 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 9.1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5.11-15; St. John 21.1-19.

Today is my last regular Sunday to preach to you, my beloved (ignoring the fact that many of you consider that my preaching is enough to make any Sunday irregular). Fourteen years ago today I was ordained to the priesthood. Eleven years ago to the day, we started a home Bible study/eucharist that would eventually become St. Augustine’s. I don’t quite know where the last fourteen years have gone, or more precisely, how they have passed so quickly. But here I am on the verge of retirement, feeling very much like a washed-up old man and hot mess, and so I am resolved to pack fourteen years worth of sermons into one today. I’m guessing that will only take a few hours given my superb skill of summarization. I’m sure you are thrilled at the prospect. I see Father Bowser twitching already in giddy anticipation.

What are we to make of St. John’s strange story of Christ’s appearing to his disciples by the Sea of Galilee? What is St. John trying to tell us? How is this story relevant to us today, both as individuals and the Church? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

Hearing St. John recount Christ’s third resurrection appearance to his disciples, we get the distinct impression that something new has been accomplished, that things have really changed, and for the better. Jesus is the same, yet he is somehow different. Despite appearing to his disciples twice before (Jn 20.19-29), they still don’t recognize him at first. They knew it was him but yet there was something different about him, so no one dared ask him who he was. As one theologian has wryly observed about the nature of these appearances, after the resurrection you don’t find anyone casually slapping Jesus on the back and saying with a grin, “We’re so glad you’re back, Jesus!” No, Christ was alive and had carried his wounds into God’s new world, remaining the same. But he was different and because he was alive and transformed, everything else was new. But were things really new? St. John doesn’t tell us the disciples were busy proclaiming that Christ had risen from the dead and working enthusiastically to build his Church. No, they had apparently returned to their original vocation of fishing, and the story gives us the impression they had done so because they were either depressed and/or bored. Nothing new there. Where was the excitement from the Octave of Easter we read about last week? In our NT lesson, St. Paul was still breathing threats and violence against the fledgling church. Nothing new there. The world still scoffed at the disciples’ proclamation that Christ was risen from the dead. Nothing new there. So what was really new?

Before we answer that question, it is critical to our resurrection faith that we again pay careful attention to the bodily nature of Christ’s appearance in this story (cf. Luke 24.33-42). He stands on the shore and has cooked breakfast for his weary and discouraged disciples. He eats with them and talks with them. They can see him, hear him, touch him. Despite his transformed appearance they know it is Jesus because they recognize him primarily in his bodily form, not to mention his gentle kindness, thoughtfulness, and love. And here is the answer to our “what’s new” question. St. John, masterful and brilliant storyteller he is, is telling us in story form what the early Church proclaimed and what Jesus himself had told his disciples at the Last Supper—that in his Death our sins are forgiven, our wounds are healed, and we are made whole again. We are reconciled to God our Father and freed from our slavery to the power of Sin and with it, from Death’s tyranny. Yes, death will come to us all barring Christ’s return in the interim because all have sinned, but we will live and conquer Death because Christ lives and has conquered Death through his own Death and Resurrection, thanks be to God! Easter anyone?

How do you get all that from this story, you ask, and with a bit of snark? I’m glad you ask, despite the fact that I just told you. But it wouldn’t be right if you stopped arguing with me during my sermons after all these years. That would mean you have stopped being the quirky people that make up this nuthouse of a parish, the people I love so much. So to repeat, while St. John does not tell us these things in exposition, he tells us in personal stories. In other words, we see Christ’s victory over Sin and Death in the transformative power it has on those who belong to him. Take his encounter with St. Peter, for example. There is much to love about St. Peter because he is us. He had shot his mouth off on the night before Christ died, boasting of his undying loyalty to his Lord, only to deny him three times in a spectacular act of cowardice of which we are all capable, especially in the context Peter’s denials occurred. And afterwards he had rightly wept bitterly over his profound failure. Imagine now for a minute that Christ was not risen from the dead, that there was no possibility for reinstatement, for forgiveness, for personal reaffirmation after catastrophic failure. How would St. Peter have felt? Utterly devastated and remorseful, no doubt, with no chance of his failure being put to rights. We all know this because we’ve all lapsed in our resurrection faith on occasion. There’s no worse feeling in the world than knowing a massive wrong/injustice cannot be made right because of our sins and/or failures. But this is exactly the situation we would find ourselves in if Christ really is dead. We may love God and others, but we’ve all let God and others down. We’ve betrayed and denied God and others and failed to live as the holy people God created us and calls us to be, and if Christ is not alive we are still dead in our sins with no hope of resolution or forgiveness. 

But Christ is not dead. He is alive and now confronting St. Peter about his past sin. “Simon, son of John, do you agapao me more than these?” Agapao is the verb form of agape, the Greek word that means the highest form of love, the kind of love that is self-giving and seeks the absolute best for the beloved, the kind of love with which Christ loved his disciples and loves us. “Yes, Lord, you know I phileo you,” St. Peter replied. Phileo is another Greek word for love, but it can refer to a lesser kind of love, a brotherly, affectionate love that is not always self-giving. Back came the response: Feed my lambs (take care of my followers, the Church, Simon). A second time Christ asked his wounded and hurting disciple: Do you agapao me?, receiving the same answer. Yes Lord, you know I phileo you. Back came the response: Tend my sheep. A third time, matching the number of times St. Peter had denied his Lord on Holy Thursday, Christ asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you phileo me?” St. Peter was hurt by this third question, or perhaps the subtle change in it. We aren’t told why. “Lord, you know all things. You know I phileo you.” Back came the response: Feed my sheep. Now while there is much scholarly debate over the significance of Christ using St. Peter’s word, phileo, to ask a third time if St. Peter loved him, count me among those who believe St. John was too good a storyteller to have this be simply about semantics. Here we see our crucified and risen Lord meet St. Peter where St. Peter was emotionally with Christ at that moment. Surely St. Peter had learned from his unfounded bravado that he wasn’t the stud he fancied himself to be, nor did he love his Lord as he thought. He had failed catastrophically the man he loved more than anyone else, the man who had turned his whole life upside down. In telling us this tender and compelling story, St. John is surely telling us that this is how Christ and his resurrection are making all things new. Without forgiveness of sins on the cross, without a newfound freedom to resist Sin’s power, there could have been no real forgiveness. St. Peter, like us, would have remained dead in his sins and alienated from God the Father, doomed to utter destruction. But here was Christ, meeting his wayward and sorrowful disciple where he was, forgiving him and inviting him to take up the victory Christ had accomplished for him in his Death and Resurrection, and Christ does the same for us. St. Peter would accept Christ’s invitation by giving his life for the Son of God and so can we.

In telling us this story, St. John is surely telling us that the power of Jesus is typically not made known in stunning ways, in ways the world recognizes as spectacular, although there are notable and numerous exceptions to this rule. Christ making all things new is not about razzle-dazzle or eye-popping special effects that we love to see at the movies. Instead, it is about the quiet way of Christ with his people, with St. Peter, with you and me, agapaoing us in all our unloveliness, forgiving all our failures and betrayals and denials, recognizing our limitations, but also seeing our potential and putting us to work for him, despite who we can be, out of his sheer grace and love for us. There is nothing we have said or not said, thought or not thought, done or not done that is beyond the healing love and forgiveness of our crucified and risen Savior, nothing that will not eventually be put to rights, even if we must wait for it to be put to rights in God’s new heavens and earth. If you cannot find real hope, real comfort, real healing in this reality and promise, my beloved, surely you are to be pitied most of all. St. Paul found it on the road to Damascus, St. Peter found it in our gospel story today as have countless other Christians across time and cultures. Let us join this happy and forgiven throng so that like the psalmist in today’s lesson, we too can make the bold proclamation of conquering death through Christ our own!

And how does this apply to Christ’s body, the Church, to us together? It is quite appropriate that today’s gospel lesson was the appointed text because it is the promise and power of Christ making all things new, even with all its ambiguity and perplexities, that allows me to leave the people I love so much. Make no mistake. Human leadership, good leadership, is massively important for any family. But human leaders come and go and I am no different from anyone else in that regard. We are a healthy, thriving parish with a bright future, and while I have played some small part in that, the fact remains that we are this way because we make Christ our true Head and Leader. We believe in his promise to meet us where we are in all our changes and chances of life, in all our fears and hopes and dreams and failures, and he promises to lead us through even the valley of the shadow of death. This is what allows me to retire with confident hope for you our beloved family, because I know Christ lives and is present here among us, making all things new, transforming the old.  

My dearly beloved, don’t ever lose sight of this reality and promise. Christ seeks you out, no matter who or where you are, and promises to bring you home one day to a world where there will be no more sorrow or sighing or sickness or alienation or madness or folly or separation or death. We can stake our individual and collective lives on this promise if we continue to respond faithfully to the means of grace that make Christ available to us in real and living ways: Bible reading and study, prayer, confession, sweet fellowship of all kinds (don’t forget to party and enjoy the blessings Christ showers on you), and regular partaking of holy communion. All these things open us to Christ’s risen reality and Presence in and through the Holy Spirit. We have all died and been raised to new life in Christ in our baptism, and we are yoked to him forever, thank God. In Christ is our hope, our present, and our future. In him we find comfort in our sorrows, God’s tenderness, forgiveness, new life in our failures, and a deep abiding joy in all things because we belong to Christ. Imitate this great love as he commands us. Beloved, make this old man happy and proud by responding to Christ’s love with boldness and courage and hope. Remain faithful to him who delivers you from Sin and Death, and never abandon the faith once delivered to the saints, the true apostolic faith. Don’t be worried about your future as God’s family here at St. Augustine’s without the Maneys because you have Christ and he will never abandon or desert you. He is busy making all things new, yourselves included, both now and in God’s new world to come, a world that Christ’s resurrection announced and inaugurated. God bless you, my beloved. I thank God for blessing me with the massive privilege of being your rector for all these years. Toots and I are thankful to have been part of this holy and very quirky family and I am thankful to be yoked to you in Christ forever. We love you more than you’ll ever know. 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. 

Upon A Hill

Three men shared death upon a hill,
But only one man dies;
The other two—
A thief and God himself—
Made rendezvous.

Three crosses still
Are borne up Calvary’s Hill,
Where Sin still lifts them high:
Upon the one, sag broken men
Who, cursing, die;
Another holds the praying thief,
Or those who penitent as he,
Still find the Christ
Beside them on the tree.

—Miriam LeFevre Crouse

Easter: Seeking the Living Among the Living Instead of the Dead

Sermon delivered on Easter Sunday C, April 17, 2022 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 10.34-43; Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15.19-26; St. Luke 24.1-12.

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

In our gospel lesson this morning, St. Luke tells us the women followers of Jesus, the same ones who witnessed his burial on Good Friday, went to his tomb to finish anointing his dead body. There they are confronted by two angels who ask them why they seek the living among the dead, why are they looking for Christ in his tomb? The question reverberates throughout history and applies equally to us as Christians today. Are we seeking the living among the dead or the living? This is what I want us to look at this Easter morning.

At first blush it is understandable why the women were looking for Jesus in his tomb. They knew, like we know, that dead people don’t come back to life. We, like they, still go to cemeteries to mourn our dead and think about them. In recounting this story St. Luke is reminding us that none of Christ’s first disciples expected him to be raised from the dead. The men were in hiding, afraid of being arrested by the Jewish authorities and sharing the fate of their crucified Lord. The women were braver but they weren’t coming to Christ’s tomb expecting to find it empty. They all knew, like we know, that death has the final say. That’s why so many of us, sadly including some Christians, seek the living among the dead. We desperately seek human solutions for the problem of Death in an effort to find some meaning and purpose in life or to discover what it means to be human because we all know dead people don’t come back to life. But in the end our efforts are utterly futile. 

What does this seeking look like? Some seek life by accumulating wealth. We work our brains out to make as much money as possible so we will have enough when we retire. Some seek the living among the dead by trying to acquire power and influence, either socially, economically, and/or politically, thinking that will satisfy us. Some seek the living among the dead through drugs or booze or porn or gambling, anything to take our minds off the real problem of the human condition with our sin-sickness and alienation from God. Some of us pin our hopes on medical and technological advancements, hoping they will save us. Then of course there are identity politics of all kinds, where we are encouraged to find ourselves by identifying with our race or gender (fluidity) or sexual preferences or political party or ideology. Doing so will help us find our true inner selves we are told. All of this, of course, is in direct contradiction to the biblical testimony and truth that our sin-sickness has made our hearts, the center of our will and being, desperately sick and beyond our ability to repair (Jer 17.9). Simply put, we are slaves to the power of Sin and where there is slavery to Sin, Death must follow. None of us can escape this reality and it shows. We are more alienated and isolated from each other than ever before. With all of our fantastic technology and medical advancements, we are more anxious than ever. We are afraid and angry, not to mention dazed and confused. We are this way because we seek the living among the dead, human solutions to our problems with no real hope or future. So this morning as we celebrate the living among the living, the Risen Christ, I ask you: Are you seeking the living among the dead or the living? Are you looking to human solutions and/or trusting yourself to be the solution to the root problem of human sin and the alienation from God and each other it causes? If you are, you are most to be pitied.

St. Paul was not among this crowd, at least after the Risen Christ confronted him on the road to Damascus. He stopped looking for the living among the dead, stopped trusting in his own Jewish pedigree and rich theological knowledge. No, he looked for the living among the living. He kept his eyes on the Ultimate Prize of Christ, who is the Resurrection and the Life, the one and only way to the Father. Why is this important? Because only God has the power to defeat the power of Death and as St. Paul also reminds us, it was through Christ’s saving Death on the cross that God chose to rescue us from the power of Sin and Death. Christ died for us so that we might have our relationship with God restored and therefore live, imperfect as that restored relationship is in this mortal life. As St. Paul tells us in our epistle lesson, Death came through a human and therefore God chose to fix the problem through a human, but in the most unlikely way, by becoming human and dying for us to reconcile us to himself. Even today Christ’s cross remains scandalous to many, Christians included. None of us likes to think we are totally reliant on God’s love, mercy, and grace to heal and restore us to God, but we are and that’s exactly how God chose to free us.

St. Luke tells us essentially the same thing in our gospel lesson. The angels rebuked the women, not because they were afraid, but because they didn’t believe Christ when he was alive and told them about the necessity of his saving Death and Resurrection. This was all firmly rooted in Scripture and the events of the past days were no accident; they were foretold. God wasn’t taken by surprise. No, this was God-ordained, the Father working with the Son to rescue us stubborn and rebellious people from our slavery to Sin and the universal power of Death that results from our sin. The Father and the Son didn’t wait till we got our act together. They acted preemptively to rescue us out of their great love for us. This is why Christ’s Death and Resurrection are the turning point in history. Until that time, we were all helplessly and hopelessly lost. Death and Hell were our final destinations and this was intolerable to God our Creator and Savior because God did not create us to destroy us. What good parent does that?? And so Christ came to die for us as the Scripture foretold, and in raising Christ from the dead, God vindicated his Death on the cross and destroyed the power of Death in the process, God be thanked and praised! The women should have known this (as should have the men). But they didn’t for whatever reason. And so they sought the living among the dead. They never anticipated that first Easter Sunday. 

Many of us still don’t and like them we remain afraid. But we needn’t be if we keep our eyes on the prize of Resurrection and new creation. And let’s be clear about the nature of our Ultimate Prize. Resurrection is about the continuity of bodily existence, albeit in radically new way. We’ll look at this more in two weeks. For right now, when the angels spoke of Christ being raised from the dead (as did Christ’s first followers) they had in mind bodily, physical existence, not some ephemeral disembodied state, the stuff of gnosticism and other new age religions. As St. Peter proclaimed in our NT lesson, the disciples ate, drank, and spoke with the Risen Lord. You don’t do that with a disembodied spirit. And as St. Paul proclaimed in our epistle lesson, Death is not finally destroyed until Christ returns to finish his saving work and the dead are raised. Our loved ones who have died in the faith of Christ are safely in Christ’s care and protection in heaven (Phil 1.21-23), but they are still dead and remain so until the time Christ gives them their new bodies patterned after his own. Resurrection is emphatically not about dying and going to heaven. It is about new bodily existence where we have bodies that are fitted to live in God’s new heavens and earth, a world that will surely be inexpressibly beautiful because God our Father is inexpressibly beautiful, a world where sickness and sighing and alienation and fear and anger and sorrow and madness and incompleteness are no more. More importantly, whatever that world looks like it will be a world where Death is abolished forever and we will never be separated from our loved ones who have died in the peace and love of Christ, no matter how hard their mortal death might have been. Best of all, we will never be separated from God our Father again the way we are now. As our first human ancestors enjoyed intimate fellowship with God in a way none of us can ever experience because of the Fall as we saw last night, so God promises to live directly with us in all his glory and we will be allowed to live in his direct Presence, all because of Christ’s saving Death on the Cross. It is the prize above all prizes, a prize that makes the prizes we strive for pale in comparison; it is worthy of our best striving, labor, and efforts to follow Christ and his Way. Nothing else will do because nothing else ends in life. This promised new world is made possible only by the love and power of God. None can attain it on their own, only by the mercy and grace of God manifested through Christ. When we keep our eyes on this prize, we are truly looking for the living among the living because we are looking at the only Power who can give us eternal life, Jesus Christ, our Crucified, Risen, and Ascended Lord. Resurrection is not a concept, my beloved, it is a person, and his Name is Jesus Christ, the only Son God. Without him we have no hope for real life, either in this world or the next, and all our other efforts to find life and meaning and purpose are utterly futile. When we seek the living among the living, i.e., when we seek to give our lives and ourselves totally to Christ and live as he calls us to live, it is imperative that we keep our eyes on this prize of Resurrection and new creation. I cannot speak for you, but whenever I have taken my eyes off this prize, my search for the living invariably results in me looking for the living among the dead instead of the living. Listen if you have ears to hear.

But how are we to experience the Risen Christ today? Nobody witnessed the Resurrection. Like many Christian interpreters, I am convinced this is because the Resurrection is beyond our ability to see or understand. As we have just seen, it comes from the realm and power of God. And God in his perfect wisdom has ordained that not everyone in Christ’s day would be able to see the risen Lord as St. Peter attests in our NT lesson. Only a select few were allowed to see Christ after his death and even those experiences stopped after awhile as St. Paul attests in 1 Cor 15. So how are we to believe that Christ is raised from the dead? The angels and the rest of the NT tell us. So does the collective and shared experience of the Church. The Resurrection was foretold in Scripture; it is the result of the power and promise of God and that is how we can experience the Risen Christ today. Whenever we read and study and meditate on what Scripture has to say about Christ and believe it, he becomes available to us in the power of the Spirit. He is here with us this morning, God be thanked and praised! Do you sense his Presence? I do! Christ is also available to us when we come to his Table each Sunday and eat his body and drink his blood. We literally take Christ into our own bodies for him to do his healing will and work. This of course requires faith on our part, but that is how God has ordained it and we should not shrink from the Faith or feel compelled to apologize to scoffers for it. When the women told the disciples that Christ was raised from the dead, the disciples considered it an “idle tale,” pure nonsense. They weren’t ready to seek the living among the living because they did not believe and trust in the power of God. The same thing often happens to us when we proclaim Christ crucified and raised from the dead to those who do not know him. Many will consider our proclamation an idle tale, pure nonsense—until they meet Christ in the Scripture and sacraments and see how he works in and among his people. They will know him by our love, our hope, our fearlessness, and our bold faith in Christ, i.e., our faithful seeking of the living among the living, not the dead. 

Let us therefore resolve, especially during this Eastertide, to seek out the living among the living by keeping our eyes fixed on our Ultimate Prize of Resurrection and new creation. Let the world see how we love each other and take care of each other (not to mention what a grand party we are having in the process). Let others see the joy that radiates from our reading the Scriptures and receiving our Lord at Table, in our celebrations and yes, in our mourning and lamenting. We are a people with a real hope and a future, the only hope and future, the kind the world does not know and cannot have until it surrenders to Christ. We all must choose, my beloved. Do you know fully that Scripture is the word of God with its proclamation of Christ crucified and raised from the dead and trust it so that you stake your very life on it? Do you experience Christ in the Eucharist and in the power of the Holy Spirit who lives in each of us and collectively? How we answer these questions goes a long way in helping us decide where we seek the living and our zeal for proclaiming Christ to the world. May we always seek the living in the Risen and living Lord. Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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

Holy Week 2022: An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday

What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.

The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his Cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: “My Lord be with you all.”

And Christ in reply says to Adam: “And with your spirit.” And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”

“l am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.

“I command you: Awake, sleeper, | have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; | am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and | in you, together we are one undivided person.

“For you, | your God became your son; for you, | the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, | who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, | became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, | was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.

“Look at the spittle on my face, which | received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which | accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.

“See the scourging of my back, which | accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.

“| slept on the Cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

“But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; | will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. | denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now | myself am united to you, | who am life. | posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now | make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

“The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.”

Dare We Party During Lent?

Sermon delivered on Lent 4C, Laetare Sunday, March 27, 2022 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: Joshua 5.9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5.16-21; St. Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32.

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

Today is Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent (thus our fashionable pink/rose colored vestments). Laetare is the Latin word meaning to rejoice and our readings today all point us to reasons why as Christians we should. This is what I want us to look at this morning.

So why do we dare party during Lent? Well, because there is good reason to do so as all our readings attest. It is also consistent with the season of Lent. Does that surprise you? It likely will if you see Lent as a grim time where we are supposed to follow a bunch of rules we don’t really like or understand, but are told to follow them anyhow, things like much fasting and prayer, doing acts of mercy and being extra generous with our resources for the sake of others. But to think like this misses the entire point of Lent. We don’t observe Lent for its own sake. We observe Lent because it is precisely the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, repentance, and doing acts of mercy and charity that prepare us to live as the Easter people God calls us to be as followers of Christ, holy people! And as we shall see, the fifty days of Eastertide call for a continual party like no other party.

We start with our OT lesson. The geniuses who choose the texts for the RCL inexplicably leave off God’s command to Joshua to have all the males of Israel circumcised, the children of those whom the Lord had brought out of Egypt and who had died during Israel’s forty years of wilderness wandering. This is important because in so commanding Joshua to have the Israelite males circumcised, the Lord effectively commanded Joshua to renew Israel’s covenant with him so that they could enjoy the fruits of the covenant, the Promised Land. And in commanding Israel to renew its covenant with the Lord, God was also effectively commanding Israel to remember all the Lord had done for them and what the Lord was about to do for them. The old had passed away—freedom from their slavery in Egypt and God’s care for them in the wilderness so that his promise to them would be fulfilled—and the new was about to begin—life in the Promised Land, even before Israel had entered it! Israel’s shame, whatever the Lord meant by that, was now gone. They had escaped Egypt, a world power, and had survived forty years in the wilderness despite their rebellion against God. They had renewed their ancient covenants with God and were now in the position to claim God’s promise in full. No wonder the manna stopped. That was of the old order. From now on the Israelites would live off the fat of the land!

And we can relate to ancient Israel’s story because it is our own. While we have not had to endure a literal wilderness for forty years we know what it is like to live in the wilderness of our mortal life with its joys and sorrows, alienation and fear, and loneliness even within community. Like ancient Israel we have been both faithful and faithless in our lives and we know what it feels like to sense God’s absence even as God remains near to us. We too have seen our loved ones die. We too have experienced frustration of all kinds as well as broken relationships in our quest to find fidelity and relationships that are real and enduring. Yet even in the midst of our wilderness, we know God is merciful and faithful, quick and even eager to forgive us, especially when we confess our sins and faithlessness and rebellion to him as our psalm this morning attests. God is always faithful and just and right. God cares for us as his image-bearing creatures and wants to bless us with a future and a hope. When we remember God’s faithfulness and his love for us, even in the midst of our faithlessness and wilderness wanderings, and when we consider our resurrection hope (more about that anon), is this not a compelling reason for us to party, even during this season of Lent?

But our hope as Christians is even more remarkable and breathtaking than God’s promise of land to the Israelites and we see this hope powerfully expressed in our gospel lesson this morning. The pharisees and scribes were grumbling that Christ was hanging around sinners and the low-lifes of his day. How can anyone who claims to be righteous do a thing like that?? Why do you party so much?? Our Lord responded with three parables, only one of which we read today. Again the RCL geniuses chose to omit key passages because the first two parables were about things lost: a sheep and a coin, and more importantly, heaven’s response to those things being found. What was that response? A party of course! Then Christ tells the most powerful of the three parables: the story of the lost son. Before we look at this we need to disabuse ourselves of the lie that some in our day have attempted to foist on us. Christ is emphatically not saying that sinners and low-lifes are simply to be accepted as they are. The lost sheep and coin are found after all. The prodigal comes to his senses and returns home. In other words, sinners must repent. But that is not the point of the parables. The point is that God in Christ loves a party that celebrates the restoration of life to the dead and a relationship with the lost. And because God celebrates this, so do all who dwell in his heavenly domain. As Christians we should take our cue from God our Father and the heavenly host.

The parable of the prodigal son is powerful enough and memorable enough that it needs little exposition. I would only add the following points to help us appreciate the depth of God’s love and mercy for us sinners expressed in the parable. When the prodigal son asked his father for his inheritance while the father was still alive, it was tantamount to the son telling his father that he wished his father were dead. If you are looking to see how cruel words can blow up a relationship, try telling that to someone near and dear to you and see what happens. The wounds had to have cut deep. Despite this the father honored his wayward son’s request and the boy promptly went out and wasted it on ruinous living. Finding himself in literally a life-threatening situation, the boy came to his senses and realized what an utter fool he had become. He had despised his father and his birthright as son. He had fed his pearls to the pigs and so decided to return home. Even here the boy’s motives for repentance were not exactly pure. He was trying not to starve to death in utter loneliness. But the son’s motives for repentance really didn’t matter to his father, who apparently never gave up hope that his wayward son would return home one day because he saw the boy returning and ran out to meet him. In first-century Israel’s culture, for a father to run in public to meet his son would bring utter humiliation on the father. They just didn’t do such a thing. But so deep was the father’s love for his son that none of that mattered. He ran to his boy and took him back unconditionally. All that mattered now was that the son was back home. The father’s dead son had been restored to life through repentance and a love that refused to let the rebellion and wickedness of the son stand in the way of the son being restored to his father. My beloved, in a nutshell is that not our story, yours and mine? And when we understand that the father’s actions would have brought on humiliation to him, this scene must also surely evoke for us an image of Christ’s utter humiliation of being crucified naked on the cross so that we might be reconciled to God. Great is the Father’s love for us! Yet how many of us like the older brother refuse to see and/or accept the Father’s great love for us made known in Christ? I don’t have time to deal with the older brother this morning but we dare not ignore the self-righteousness (and perhaps self-loathing) that prevented the older brother from celebrating the love and mercy and goodness of their father that restored a good-as-dead family member. Let us resolve not to do likewise in living out our faith in Christ!

But how do we make this parable our own? We aren’t part of ancient Israel looking for God to return to end our exile that this parable addresses in part. Or are we? Is there anyone here today, if you are old enough, who does not long for God to rescue us and those we love from our exile to Sin and Death? St. Paul in our epistle lesson has answers for us. We can make Christ’s parable about the prodigal son our own precisely because of what Christ has done for us in his Death and Resurrection. We have the hope of being rescued from Sin and Death because of Christ’s death on the cross, a Death that atoned for our sins, freed us from our slavery to the power of Sin, and restored us to a right relationship with God starting right now and lasting for all eternity. As we have seen before there is a great mystery in all this because all of us still sin in this mortal life, despite the NT’s claim that Sin’s power has been broken in us. Neither are we told how this all works, presumably because such knowledge is well above our pay grade and our salvation isn’t contingent on us having that knowledge. The NT simply insists that it is true and calls us to have faith to believe it despite its mystery and ambiguity and our unanswered questions. Like the ancient Israelites on the verge of entering the promised land, St. Paul calls us to look back to Christ’s Death so that we are able to look forward to the promise of Resurrection and new creation that Christ’s Resurrection signals. 

Note carefully that St. Paul is telling us exactly what Christ tells us in today’s parable. We are to come to our senses, i.e., we are to have faith that on the cross God has really dealt with our sins and the power of Sin decisively forever so that we have a future and a hope. That is why repentance is always in order. We look around at the emptiness of our lives and our vacuous thinking and rebellious living, all in the name of unbridled freedom and independence, just like the prodigal son. And God being God and our Creator knows we are helpless to right our own ship when it comes to our sin and the alienation it creates. Like the prodigal’s father, our Father longs for us to be restored to him, a restoration that is only possible through Christ’s Death on the cross. And so God desires our repentance, our turning away from ourselves and our own disordered agendas, so that we return to him to receive and accept his unconditional forgiveness. Our motives do not need to be pure (are they ever in this mortal life?). We need only to believe the promise is true and accept God’s forgiveness won through the Death of his Son for our sake. 

And because we are baptized Christians, we know by faith that we are joined with Christ in his Death and Resurrection. Like the ancient Israelites in our OT lesson, we stand on this side of the river that separates God’s fallen creation from his new creation by virtue of Christ’s Death. But we look forward to a future of new embodied life living in God’s promised new world without a trace of evil or sin or loneliness or sorrow or death or sickness or sighing, all because God is faithful to us and his creation. St. Paul had already experienced a foretaste of this reality. That is why he could no longer look at Christ from a human point of view with the possibility of mistaking Christ to be something lesser and other than he actually is—the crucified and risen Son of God who has rescued us from our exile to Sin and Death, freed us from our slavery to the power of Sin, and reconciled us once and for all to God our Father, the one and only Source of all life. God longs to enjoy the sweet intimacy he enjoyed with us in the garden before the Fall and promises to bring that reality about one day; that’s why he became human. Like ancient Israel before they crossed the River Jorden, we too wait with eager anticipation for our entrance into God’s new world, the new heavens and earth, to live there in God’s direct presence forever. This is why we can rejoice and party during Lent. We are on the right side of history (a favorite phrase of those today who definitely are not but who sadly think they are because they are enjoying momentary success; anyone without Christ is on the wrong side of history). We are counted among the redeemed, not because of who we are but because of Christ’s Death and Resurrection. We have a real and eternal hope and future, the only hope and future there is, my beloved. Is that not the best reason of all to throw a party??

As we head toward Pascha, the Great Easter Feast, let us therefore resolve to live as our Savior Christ commands us and to have the humility of our Lord, a humility that is the only antidote to self-righteousness, a humility based on the knowledge that without Christ and his saving Death, we are a people without a future and with no hope. Let us also use the remainder of Lent to do the things that will help us increase our faith, hope, and love in Christ’s power. Let us resolve to allow Christ rule to grow in our lives each day through prayer, fasting, self-examination, acts of mercy and charity, and repentance so that we may be ambassadors for Christ, engaging in the ministry of reconciliation with both humans and God, taking our cue from our crucified and risen Lord, so that those who do not know or believe in Christ may share in his brilliant hope and future. 

But let us also resolve to throw a fifty-day party starting on Easter Sunday. Now is the time to start planning for such a party. We should celebrate the power of the Gospel and plan activities that might cause the folks around us to ask why we are partying like we do, much like the naysayers asked Christ why he partied the way he did. There will be those who scoff at us and mock us. May God have mercy on them and forgive them their hard-heartedness. But there will be those who want to join the party with us, a party that celebrates both our lives here now and forever in God’s new world. Let us therefore resolve and plan how to honor Christ’s name during Eastertide and beyond and to celebrate with the host of heaven all that he has done for us to reconcile us to God the Father, to bring us from death to life for his love and mercy’s sake. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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

Will Willomon: Don’t Think for Yourself

I ran across this piece from Professor Willimon from 30 years ago. It still reads pretty well and he certainly is prophetic in places. Check it out.

Don’t Think for Yourself

Undoubtedly you have seen the movie The Dead Poet’s Society. In the movie an energetic teacher at an exclusive prep school is depicted as opening up the minds of his hung-up, privileged, young students by urging them to think for themselves. “Don’t trust what your parents have told you. Don’t trust what you have heard. The important thing is to think for yourselves,” he says. In one scene he rips up a textbook telling them, “Don’t listen to the experts; think for yourselves.”

A friend of mine noted that despite the movie’s claim that this teacher was somehow liberating his students from social convention, it would be hard to think of a more conformist and socially conventional message in today’s context than to give young people the advice to think for themselves. If there ever were a day when such advice was deemed radical, that day has passed.

Here’s how the president of Yale University welcomed the freshman to Yale last year. He told them, “The faculty can guide you. We can take you to the frontiers of knowledge, but we cannot supply you with a philosophy of life. This must come from your own active learning, from your own choices, from your own decisions. Yale expects you to take yourself seriously. Think for yourself.”

In other words, the university has absolutely no clue what you’re supposed to be doing here. Oh, we’ve got this smorgasbord of courses and professors. We’ve got this  graduate, well that’s really up to you. The important thing is that you think for yourself.

And it appears we are thinking for ourselves. A few weeks ago I received a shakily written letter from a woman in her late seventies. In her letter she enclosed a clipping from the Raleigh newspaper. (I think the Durham newspaper protected the citizens of Durham from this particular story.) The article described how during the gulf war American troops had buried alive 700 to 800 Iraqi soldiers in their trenches. One of the Gls said, “By the time we got there, there was nothing but hands and arms sticking up out of the sand.”

In her letter, she said, “Why did we not hear about this? Have you mentioned this in one of your sermons? Have you mentioned this in one of your prayers? Where is the moral voice of the church?”

One possible reply is, “Look lady, it’s called war. The old rules just don’t apply. it’s always a nasty business. Besides, when it comes to burying people alive, you’ve got your opinions, I’ve got mine. The important thing is that each of us thinks for ourselves, right?” Ironically, when I got her letter, I had been reading this new book, The Day America Told the Truth. That book says that 91 percent of us admit we lie routinely. Thirty-one percent of us who are married admit to having an extramarital affair lasting over a year. Eighty-six percent of youth lie regularly to their parents, and 75 percent lie regularly to their best friends. One in five loses his or her virginity before the age of 13. 2,245 New Yorkers were murdered by their fellow citizens last year, an increase of 18 percent. Two-thirds of those asked about religion said it plays no role in shaping their opinions about sex. It’s a lie here, an extramarital affair there, and before long it’s hands and arms sticking up out of the sand. We are thinking for ourselves.

Now an alternative epistemology is asserted in today’s text from Jesus and from Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 6:6-8: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you’re at home and when you are away….Fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (NRSV).

These words in Deuteronomy refer to the words of the law of Israel; Torah. A better translation of torah than “law,” I suppose, is “teaching” — the teaching of Israel. Or more literally, the finger pointing in the direction: Torah is not so much the law that we’re not to break as it is the divine finger pointing us in the direction we ought to walk. Torah.

Interestingly enough in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus is asked about life’s big questions, he simply refers them to Deuteronomy, to Torah. Good Jew that he was, Jesus simply said, “Look, you know the answer. We’re to love God with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves.” This is Torah, truth.

You may not know a lot about Jesus. You may not be clear on everything he said and did. But today’s text says if you know this about Jesus, it’s about all you need to know for now: love God with everything you’ve got to the very depths of your soul and your neighbor as yourself. Class dismissed.

People who follow Jesus, just like those in Israel before us, are people who do not bow down to other gods, be they called by the name Eros, January, Mars, IBM, Amway, or USA. We’re just real funny about who we’ll worship. We do not use labels like faggot, kink, nigger, or broad, preferring instead to refer to people as sister or brother. We have a very odd notion of who our next-door neighbors are.

Love God with everything you’ve got and then your neighbor as yourself. Take these words, advises Deuteronomy, and teach them to your kids. Paint them over the door to your dormitory room. Brand these on your forehead. Tattoo them on your biceps. Take these words and just drill them into yourself so that you won’t forget.

Here we come into a collision with an alternative way of knowing, a culturally disruptive epistemology. Alas, you have been the willing victims of a mode of education that has taught you always to locate the normative answer exclusively within your own experience, as though your experience, particularly your racial, gender, cultural experience could yield insight on the spot. Think for yourself.

And that’s why most of my sermons begin with your experience, because I have a hunch that’s the only thing you really trust. So I begin my sermons always groping around for some point of contact with what you already know.

But Torah always begins with what you could not know unless somebody had told it to you: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one.” Don’t think for yourself.

Thinking in Israel and with Jesus begins as an auditory act. Notice these verbs: hear, listen, speak, tell. Unlike Yale or many of my sermons, Israel did not expect her young to devise insight via personal conjuring. You don’t have to be the author of your own faith, for here is a massive faith that lies way outside the limited confines of your individual psyche.

Israel’s sons and daughters don’t have to invent the secrets to life. Their parents loved them enough to tell them the secrets. And it is no coincidence that in today’s text, wisdom is depicted as an exchange between an elder and someone of the younger generation as the giving of an intergenerational gift. Being 21 years old is just way too tough without having to make up the world as you go.

Think of the stance you’re going to assume here at the Lord’s table, with hands outstretched, open, empty, eager, ready to receive the gift of bread and wine. That is the primary biblical posture for how you get wise, for Torah-like wisdom.

Parenting and education in our day have become little more than the management of conflicting truth claims — a process of cool consideration of diverse alternatives, some of which may be true. But not here. Not in the middle of Deuteronomy. Not at the feet of Torah.

Joshua told Israel, “In the future, when your daughter asks you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ you are not to reply, ‘Well, they may mean that the Lord might have brought us out of slavery and chose us to be obedient to his way. And then they might not.’” No, in this Torah curriculum there is only the nervy, pushy, passionate assertion of truth that is reliable and coherent and confident in the face of chaos, narcissistic subjectivity, hands and feet sticking up out of the sand.

I agree with that great theologian Oscar Wilde who said, “About the worst advice you could give anybody is ‘be yourself.’” Don’t think for yourself.

As Walter Bruggemann says, “Torah is not just for children.” (Enemy is not just a danger for the young.) It may surface in what is now conventionally called the crisis of midlife (listen up alumni) or anywhere else. All persons of whatever age face the threat of darkness. Bruggemann says everybody needs some time of homecoming, when you can return to those sureties that do not need to be defended nor doubted. That’s what Torah is; it’s homecoming.

A Torah-less world in which there are many gods and no neighbors is a world just full of idols and enemies. Maybe that’s why we’re so fatigued as we rush breathlessly from one worship service to another. Before long, after you’ve bowed down at enough altars, the only posture you know is that of bowing. So accustomed have we become to submitting to so many different gods – the nation, the corporation, my own ego — all the while rattling our chains and pitifully asserting how free we are.

Since we’ve learned to bend ourselves before so many altars, there is almost nothing to which we will not stoop. It’s a lie here, a deceit there, until we are quite able to walk past the hands and arms sticking up out of the sand without even a twitch of conscience.

The Durham city council has become us all over. With no Torah-induced neighbors, the world is driven only by competing, savage self-interest. Even the people under our own roofs become our enemies. The office becomes a battleground for the war between the sexes. Cultural chaos leads to ethical immobility. We don’t make many big moves — having nowhere to stand, we can’t make big moves. A recent Duke graduate asked his old man late one night when he went back home, “Look, I’m getting ready to go out into life. Tell me what you know. Go ahead, tell me if you know something.”

For this touchingly child-like request, he received an hour of ramblings, a confession about how his old man had an affair with his secretary and how he hated his job, and he’d love to chuck it all and move out into a cabin in the woods, and he really despised his marriage, and he couldn’t trust any of his friends.

“Man, you are messed up,” said the son. “I’m supposed to be asking you for advice?” Now he’s reduced to thinking for himself.

Torah asserts a countercultural way of wisdom that is intergenerational, public, counter-cultural, historical. The beautiful thing is you don’t bear the burden of having to think for yourself. Every time you walk in this building, the chapel, and especially today on All Saints, a host of predecessors leans down out of the windows and tries to speak to us, if we’ll dare to listen. They stare down at us from the windows begging to show us the way — saints.

Saints are people who manage to love God more than life itself. They manage to love neighbor more than self and thereby find true life. Saints are people who just push their way into our modest present and make the God-question and the neighbor-question the only interesting intellectual questions. Christians are those who’ve learned to think with the saints, and thereby we think much more creatively than we could if we’d been left to our own devices.

St. Francis, Martin Luther King, Teresa of Calcutta, Gideon, Mary — they help us to think beyond ourselves. They help us to think despite ourselves and thereby in this act of holy remembering and saintly thinking, new options are envisioned. We are encouraged; a new world not of our own devising is offered to us. We get some big ideas. Torah and the saintly lives thereby produced is a kind of intelligence by proxy.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, “I stand in awe of two things: the starry heavens above and the individual law of morality within.”

I’m still awed by the starry heavens.

©1992 William Willimon

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