Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Easter
All Saints' Church

I’m not sure how many of you caught the number of times the word “love” or one of its cognates appeared in our Collect, Epistle, and Gospel this morning, but the actual number was 41 times. When a word appears that many times over, one might begin to think that the author is trying to get across a particular point, and in fact, this is clearly the case. Also, one might think when something like this comes up for a preacher it would be natural to think that the sermon would revolve around this one word, and that is partially true this morning. Yes, I am going to speak about God’s love toward us, our love towards God and the completion of that trinity of ideas, our love toward mankind. However, one point that I want to weave into this sermon is something that might get lost when we examine passages such as these.

In addition to the 41 times that love appears in the Propers for the day, another theme, a bit more subtle comes through and that is the notion of perfection, completeness, or fullness. One of God’s promises to us is that we are inheritors of something larger, more grand, more glorious, more spectacular than we can ever imagine. The collect this morning solidifies that thought twice over when the opening petition declares that God has prepared good things that surpass all of our understanding for those who love Him. We also receive the assurance that what we are to obtain exceeds everything that we could ever want or desire. One of the joys of knowing what lies ahead is the freedom that it allows us here and now. Baptist minister John Piper once said, “…don't make the mistake of thinking that future-oriented, future-sustained joy limits present usefulness. It doesn't limit it. It liberates it. If your future is glorious and sure (which it is in Christ!), you don't live for money or power or fame. You don't have to grasp and snatch and chase pleasures that are slipping through your aging fingers. You are free to live for others now. You are free to be another kind of person than the kind that lives for this world. If your hope is glorious and sure, you will seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these other basic things will be added to you (Matthew 6:33). Your love will be genuine. It will be radical, risk-taking, sacrificial because of the joy set before you.”

John makes an important link between love and perfection in our Epistle lesson. Twice he speaks of love being perfected, and I think the critical piece is the manner in which this happens. In both cases, the only way that the love of God within us is perfected is when it pertains to our love toward others. Certainly the first piece is that we love God, but John makes it clear that the only way that love is made perfect is if we share it. Personal piety is wonderful, but if it doesn’t manifest itself toward others, then it is incomplete and imperfect.

The other time in this morning’s Epistle that John uses the word perfect is in relation to fear. We are living in fearful times. In worldly terms, there is more uncertainty, more apprehension, more hopelessness than seemingly ever before. Just this past Thursday and Friday, General Motors and Chrysler Corporation announced that they would not be renewing the franchise agreements with over 2,000 car dealerships. We’ve been hearing stories such as these for months now. Everyone in this church this morning who had saved for the future in the Stock Market has noticeably less than they did two years ago. We are sending forth from our parish three young people who have completed their High School education, and have a future that lies ahead of them. Are we sending them forth fearful, or hopeful? How should we be sending them forth?

St. John is not giving us some nice platitudes to rest our fears upon when he writes, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth our fear; because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” How do we flesh out these words? When things begin to collapse around us, how do we put these words into practice?

The message of the Bible is a constant reminder that we are called to be radically reoriented toward God, and all that He gives us. Far too often our hopes and sense of security rest in the things of this world, and as we know all too realistically those things are temporal, and can never provide us perfect security. Our true freedom comes when we can truly grasp that all that we have has been given to us on loan from God.

Job understood this completely when everything was taken from him. When the messengers reported to Job that his flocks, his servants, his home, and his children had all been destroyed, Scripture says that, “Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” I can assure you with 100% confidence that when my IRA statements come in over the past year and a half, the last thing I’ve done is worship, or declare “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” I can think of other thoughts going through my head, but words of thanksgiving were not some of them.

That’s because in that instance I’ve gotten my priorities wrong. Rather than being thankful for what I still have I cursed what I had lost. And yet, I’ve still never lost what’s truly important, what’s perfect, and will ultimately last forever!

Again, this is all a part of reorientation, and changing our mindset toward that which is perfect.

Jesus’ words as recorded in John’s Gospel this morning continue to push us toward a type of love that seems so foreign and incredibly challenging – which of course, it is. One of the attributes that Jesus speaks about is completeness and being made whole and full. The text says, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.” Even at the end of his life, Jesus is establishing a foundation that we are intended to build our lives upon. He is making clear that his desire is that the joy that He already knows and embodies might remain with us forever, so that we might taste and see that joy as well. And He doesn’t just want it to be enough to get by, he wants it to be full and complete. The word that Jesus uses here when he speaks of our joy being full has the connotation of “bringing to completion that which was already begun.” There is a sense of that fullness being the end-result or consummation of something that lies outside of ourselves – which in fact it really is.

All this discussion of perfection and being made perfect and our joy being full and complete brings me ultimately, and as it rightfully should, back to the cross. If we think back to the readings for Holy Week when we hear again the words of our Lord from the cross, the last word that Jesus speaks tie all of this together. John is the only Gospel writer to record the one word in Greek which is normally translated, “It is finished.” The curious thing about that word in Greek is its remarkable similarity to the words John uses in our lesson this morning which speaks about love being perfected in us. It is no stretch at all to render the words of Jesus from the cross as “It is perfected” as easily as it would be to translate them “It is completed” or “It is accomplished.” All of those possibilities are available, and look what light that sheds on our texts this morning.

Jesus’ work on the cross is what makes all of this possible. The love that Jesus exhibited when he shed his blood, died in our stead, and bore our sins brings everything back to perfection. Our Lenten journey a few months ago began with the words, “Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made.” We pray those same words in the third collect for Good Friday as well. The fingerprints of perfection are still there underneath all of the dirt, grit, and grime that we’ve heaped on through our manifold sin and wickedness. Thanks be to God that at the last judgment, God will see us not by what we done and left imperfect, but rather through the perfection of the work of His Son.

I’m not sure where I heard this, but it certainly makes sense. A person was asked how he would define Heaven and Hell, and he answered with the following words, “My idea of Hell is spending eternity face-to-face with God. My idea of Heaven is spending eternity face-to-face with God with Jesus standing in between.” I hope you see the difference.

We are left with the charge and mandate to embody and live out what we have heard this morning. We are called to take that joy that we have received from Jesus Christ and not bottle it up, and hoard it for ourselves, but allow it to permeate all that we say or do. The only natural response to that type of love is to give thanks to God for that gift through our worship of Him, and then share it with others.

Then, and only then can we truly know what it means to have his love perfected in us, to comprehend the notion that perfect love casts out all fear, and that what God has given us is intended to fill us to overflowing. I leave you with a rhetorical question that I hope you will truly ponder – both as you approach this altar to receive the Blessed Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, and as you depart from this service this morning:

What would the world begin to look like if we received this love to the fullest, and then shared it with our fellow man each and every day of our lives?

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After Easter
All Saints' Church - Thomasville, GA

I’m sure that many of you are fans of C.S. Lewis, and his classic work, The Chronicles of Narnia. With the Hollywood release of both, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, Lewis’ fiction has become more accessible these days, and I imagine is attracting new readers to the other works in the 7 volume set. One of the lesser known volumes of the Chronicles is book four, The Silver Chair. I’ll have to admit this is one that I have not made it through completely, but I’ve started reading it many times over. In light of this morning’s collect and 2nd lesson from the 14th Chapter of St. John’s Gospel, the beginning of The Silver Chair serves as a wonderful tandem to what we have heard in our service this morning.

The book opens with a new character Jill Pole and one we met in the previous book named Eustace Clarence Scrubb. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lewis’ first sentence of the book begins with these lines, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Scrubb had been to Narnia before, but Jill had not, and the two enter Narnia as they are being chased by bullies, and seek solace behind a door in the high stone wall that led to an open moor on the other side. While normally locked, the two children discover to their amazement that the door is unlocked and upon going through the opening find themselves not in the moor, but in a strange new land.

It is in this strange new land that Jill comes face-to-face with the great lion – Aslan. Of course, Jill has no idea what to make of this creature, but throughout her ordeal of entering Narnia, she becomes aware of her dire thirst, and begins to search diligently for the source of the one sound that permeated her new surroundings – the sound of running water. As she emerges from an opening in the woods, her eyes confirm the sounds in her ears. She spots a stream “bright as glass, running across the turf a stone’s throw away from her. But although the sight of the water made her feel ten times thirstier than before, she didn’t rush forward and drink. She stood as still as if she had been turned into stone, with her mouth wide open. And she had a very good reason; just on this side of the stream lay the lion.”

If coming up to the stream and finding the lion sitting there wasn’t enough, the lion begins to speak to her, and bids her to come and drink if she is thirsty.

“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion.
“May I – could I – would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at his motionless bulk, she realized she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to – do anything to me if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

The passage we heard from John’s Gospel this morning is part of a section known as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. These four chapters contain the sayings of Jesus that do not appear anywhere else in the Gospels. Our collect for today brings in a line from the 14th chapter that directly precedes our passage regarding the promise of the Holy Ghost. Jesus has just told his disciples that he is going to prepare a room for them in His Father’s house which contains many rooms. He tells them that they know the way where He is going, to which Thomas declares, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus then replies with the line we heard in our collect this morning, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”

On this Mother’s Day, I think it is meet and right that we should celebrate and remember one of the great mothers of all time. It is a joy to examine the life of someone who wanted nothing more for her son than for him to embrace the joy and love of the source of light and life in the person of Jesus Christ; someone who lived and truly believed that Jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. St. Monica was the mother of one of the greatest theologians of the Western Church, and clearly the foremost voice of Orthodox Christianity in the first millennium AD – I speak of course of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo.

However, Augustine’s life as a follower of Jesus Christ was later coming, and his early life was a source of great turmoil and distress for his dear mother. Monica spent countless hours in prayer and fasting for her son, and earnestly longed for his conversion to Christianity. She was grieved over the fact that he had fallen into the clutches of the cult-like heretical group known as the Manichees. Her grief was so profound that she would actually weep over his sins. One kind bishop assured her one day saying for her to depart in peace, and know that, “it is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish.” Certainly we all want the best for our children, and I’m sure that many of us have shed many tears on behalf of our beloved children. However, it is a most profound sort of love that Augustine’s mother would shed so many tears and with such frequency over her eldest son that he might come to know and embrace the joy of salvation through Jesus Christ alone.

Monica had a keen understanding of the love of Christ, and went about showing that love to her family. She was the wife of a pagan man, who shortly before his death converted to Christianity. Knowing that her husband died a believer, she spent the remainder of her life praying for the conversion of her son. She had experienced the power that comes from knowing that you are redeemed and cleansed through Christ’s shed blood. She wanted that same experience for Augustine. Thankfully for the Church, Monica and Augustine came under the pastoral care of St. Ambrose of Milan, and he was baptized in 387 AD, the same year his mother died.

This past Monday was the fixed date on the Church Kalendar when we commemorate Monica’s Feast date. Our tradition is steeped in the observance of the various feasts and fasts of the church year, and it is a wonderful occasion to remember a mother as grand as Monica on Mother’s Day. Her devotion to her Lord is a testimony to us all, and even in her dying days, she was never far from her Saviour.

Augustine and one of his brothers were planning a trip back to the northern shores of Africa from Milan when Monica fell ill. She had a vision in a state of semi-consciousness where she told her sons that they would have to bury her there. They were terribly grieved that they would not be able to give her a proper burial at home, but her response shows the depth of her love for God. She told the brothers, “It does not matter where you bury my body. Do not let that worry you. All I ask of you is that, wherever you may be, you should remember me at the altar of the Lord.” She was asked if she was fearful of leaving her body in an alien land, and she replied with these words, “Nothing is far from God, and I need have no fear that he will not know where to find me, when he comes to raise me to life at the end of the world.”

St. Monica was truly a mother whose concerns lay outside of her. She was always wishing for the salvation of her family, and she was able to die in peace knowing that both her husband and son Augustine died with their salvation secure. She knew at the deepest levels that salvation came through one source – Jesus Christ. She took to heart the passage from St. John’s Gospel that Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only source of life; she wanted others to experience that same reality as well.

After Jill drinks from the stream and receives the most refreshing water she had ever tasted, the great lion explains to her some of the great mysteries of Narnia, and why she was brought there. She thought that there had been some big mistake, and that she had been confused with someone else. Aslan bids her to speak her thoughts, and she says the following words, “I was wondering – I mean – could there be some mistake? Because nobody called me and Scrubb, you know. It was we who asked to come here. Scrubb said we were to call to – to Somebody – it was a name I wouldn’t know – and perhaps the Somebody would let us in. And we did, and then we found the door open.”
“You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,” said the Lion.

Jesus told his disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”

Jesus chose each one of us for His special purpose, to bear witness to Him, to be bearers of the Fruit of the Spirit. As we heard in John’s Gospel, we were promised, and have received the Holy Spirit as our Counselor, Advocate, Guide, and Comforter. He dwells within us, empowering us for the work that we have been given to do. He dwells within us so that we might be faithful mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, children, employees, students, and friends. He dwells within us so that we might know with all assurance and certainty that when we sin and fall short of God’s glory, that our forgiveness is guaranteed when we seek God’s mercy and pardon. He dwells within us so that He might guide and direct us as we seek to conform our lives and wills into the image of our Heavenly Father. He dwells within us so that the love that abides within the Three Persons of the Holy and Blessed Trinity might abide in us as well; that we might let that love shine forth in our lives, so that others might see it and be drawn into that love as well – that they might know Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and proclaim Him as their Lord and Saviour.

Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, which is in Heaven.