Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sermon for Trinity II – Proper 7B
June 21, 2009 - Preached at St. John’s – Moultrie

One of the most critical dialogues between Jesus and His disciples occurs when Jesus asks them two unbelievable questions. In all three Gospel accounts, it appears that Jesus is alone with the 12, and he asks them the first question, “Who do men say that I am?” Depending on which Gospel record we are following, the disciples either say John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets risen from the dead. The answers that the disciples give at least conveys that the people are realizing that something strange, something different is taking place. They are beginning to put some of the pieces together – Jesus is starting to look like what we have been waiting for, longing for, yearning for.

Back in the time of Moses, the people were looking for someone extraordinary to come. As recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses declares, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers – it is to him you shall listen….And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.”

Jesus then follows up this first question with perhaps the most important question ever asked, “But who do you say that I am?”

Ultimately that is the question that each of us has to answer personally for ourselves. St. Peter gives the answer that summarizes all of Christology, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” The Kalendar of the ’79 BCP has a Principal Feast Day Church Year designated to commemorate what is known as the “Confession of St. Peter” in January. Jesus comments on the remarkable nature of Peter’s answer when he says that flesh and blood had not revealed this to him, but rather the Father had done this remarkable thing. All of the Bishop’s of Rome have followed in St. Peter’s footsteps with the intention that they would boldly proclaim that statement regarding Jesus’ identity as well.

The Rev. Don Armstrong who is an Anglican priest in Colorado wrote a book which is a compilation of several talks revolving around the topic, “Who do you say that I am?” He chose this as the title of his book because he wanted to play that question off of what many in society and in the church would rather the question to have been. He says that too often we lose track of the question, “Who do you say that I am?” and re-work the language a bit. He says that we have reached a point where the question has been changed to Jesus asking “Who do you want me to be?” There is a fundamental flaw with this wording because in this instance we are no longer starting with God, but with our selves. We become the “master of our own universe” so to speak, and everything begins to spiral out of control from that point forward.

In St. Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians, he stresses this exact same point. Fr. Armstrong’s book could have used our Epistle lesson this morning as his jump-off point because it works in a similar vein. Paul writes that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. As we observe many of the battles within the Church today, it sounds to me like we think that God was in Christ reconciling himself to the world. This is a completely backward notion because if that were the case, there would have ultimately been no need for the cross. If God’s intention was to simply make Himself compatible to the world, then the atonement makes absolutely no sense at all. H. Richard Niebuhr summarizes this scenario best when he speaks in the following light as a rebuttal to the liberal gospel which creates, “A God without wrath brought to men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” Former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once said that he has always wondered why there was any need to crucify the Jesus of liberal Christianity.

Far too often we hear stories that are complete reversals. Our desire for absolute autonomy and unabated individualism has led to a complete contradiction to Paul’s words when he says that One – Jesus Christ has died for all, and therefore all have died. We no longer live for ourselves, but rather we live for him who died and rose again from the dead.

As followers and disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to live for others. This is the true definition of Christian Charity – the agape love that concerns itself most with the needs of others. For those of you who are married, that is the type of love you promised to exhibit in the vows you made to your spouse. For those of you who are parents, that’s the kind of love we show to our children. For those of us who has a neighbor who is in need, or suffering, or despondent, that is the kind of love we are called to show to them.

Paul goes on to admonish the Corinthian Church to be Christ’s ambassadors to the outside world. Today, some are called to be ambassadors of Christ to those on the inside as well. We have an immense responsibility to communicate the love of Christ to everyone we come in contact with.

One of the greatest obstacles for many to believe the message of the Gospel is very nature of sin, and evil, and suffering in the world. How could an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful, all-merciful God permit the things we see on television every day to go on? What are we to make of the rampant sin that confronts us each day? Someone made the assertion that sin should be the one doctrine of the church that absolutely everyone must believe in because they need only open their eyes to the world in which we live. The last sentence from our Epistle this morning bears some incredible light on those very pertinent questions.

Paul says that, “for our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Right off the bat, we hear why the cross had to happen. It was for our sake. God was not going to let us, his creatures who had marred and completely stained his glorious and good creation wallow in the mess we had made for ourselves. Jesus didn’t just save us from our sin, He became sin. Do we really comprehend the magnitude of that statement? Jesus actually became sin. No he didn’t succumb to sin, or engage in sin, but rather, what he did for our sake and on our behalf was become the complete antithesis of God’s goodness, mercy, and righteousness. He bore the image of what God was not on the hard wood of the cross, and He did it for you and for me.

One of Jesus’ last words from the cross were the first few of Psalm 22. Jesus proclaims, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Dr. Ravi Zacharias once said that Jesus uttered those words from the cross so that we would never have to! I think he’s spot on in that regard. I believe at that moment, God was unable to bear to gaze upon and see what his creation looked like that had so completely turned in upon itself. The Son was bearing upon his shoulders the weight of a world which basically was saying, God, we have no need of you.

That’s the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis. The people had a common language and had determined that they were going to make a name for themselves apart from God based upon their works and deeds. They were attempting to create a world for themselves devoid of a need for God. In many respects, with our common language of the interconnectedness and the Internet, we might just be doing the exact same thing all over again.

This passage from II Corinthians speaks about a concept that we are called to engage every day of our lives. We are to seek reconciliation with our fellow man. Our exhortation before the Confession of Sin is a statement of that desire. We are to be in love and charity with our neighbor in order that we might make a holy confession and present ourselves in an acceptable manner in order that we might worthily receive the Blessed Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. This phrase is repeated every week so that our being reconciled to God and our admonition to be reconciled to one another might be constantly before us.

Reconciliation is not a compromise – especially in matters of the Truth of the Christian Faith.

Reconciliation is not simply a consensus of all options

Reconciliation is not a “why can’t we all just get along” mentality

Reconciliation only happens in Christ. Reconciliation only happens when we all believe that we share a common bond with all of mankind that we are sinners in need of redemption, change of heart, and amendment of life. Reconciliation only happens through a person – Jesus Christ. Through the person who bore all of the sins I have ever committed or ever will commit on the cross in order that I might become the righteousness of God.

He doesn’t say that we already are the righteousness of God, but rather that we might someday become that righteousness. In theological terms, that is what we refer to as sanctification. As God’s creatures that have a part of our Creator in us, we are to bear the image of our Holy Father to all the world. There is only one time where an adjective is used three times in succession to refer to its noun modifier, and it happens right here. We worship a God who is Holy, Holy, Holy. That threefold repetition is there as a hyper-descriptor. If that is the image of the God we worship and serve should we not strive to look more like that each and every day of our lives? We have seen the source of that holiness – we come to meet him again in the Blessed Sacrament. Our lives as Christ’s ambassadors is to live in that light, so that others might see it and come to live in it as well.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sermon for Trinity I - Proper 6B
June 14, 2009
All Saints' - Thomasville

This morning’s Gospel lesson we heard two different parables of Jesus in which he describes the Kingdom of God. The first parable speaks of our inability to understand or comprehend the fact that so much of the Providence of God and the in breaking of His Kingdom is so far removed from us, that we merely see the manifestation of most of it in our lives, and that so much of it happens well beyond our control.

The second parable presents us with one of the two different instances where our Lord uses a mustard seed as a descriptor of something larger he wants his hearers to comprehend. In our passage today, the mustard seed is compared to the Kingdom of God and the other is a reference the mustard seed describes the size of our faith. It seems like the phrase we hear more often speaks of mustard seed size faith; I don’t recall hearing many references or stories about the Kingdom of God being compared to a mustard seed, but Jesus makes that very comparison in Mark’s gospel this morning.

The first parable about the seed growing secretly is particular only to Mark, and the parable of the mustard seed appears in all three synoptic gospels. This is significant because Jesus uses parables quite a bit in His ministry and in the almost 40 parables recorded in Scripture only 3 of those are found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Certainly when this occurs within the Gospel record, there is usually a peculiarity within one of the accounts that provides a particular insight or emphasis which bears further examination.

The Markan version of the mustard seed parable is no exception. For the most part, the three accounts are identical. Luke’s version is slightly different from both Matthew and Mark, but I will save that difference for next year when the Lukan version of this parable comes up in the Lectionary. However, the point of difference between Mark and both Matthew and Luke occurs at the very end of the passage. All three speak of the birds being able to make their nests, but Mark adds one detail that I find quite interesting. Matthew and Luke speak of the nests being made in the trees branches. Mark says that the birds are able to make their nests in its shade.

Some might think that that is a very minor detail and really quite insignificant. However, if you look at the parable as a whole and some of the other Biblical references to shade, I think that Mark is doing something very interesting here.

For example, in the book of Ezekiel we find the parable of the Eagles and the Vine. The political future of Judah is explained in fable-like form, and we hear the following words from the prophet:

"Thus saith the Lord GOD; I will also take of the highest branch of the high cedar, and will set it; I will crop off from the top of his young twigs a tender one, and will plant it upon an high mountain and eminent: In the mountain of the height of Israel will I plant it: and it shall bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a goodly cedar: and under it shall dwell all fowl of every wing; in the shadow of the branches thereof shall they dwell" (Ez. 17:22-23).

Certainly some of Jesus’ hearers would have caught this comparison, and realized that the message from Ezekiel sounded remarkably allot like what they were now hearing. Even though there is almost 600 years between these two messages the main point of both is identical. In the Kingdom of God, true shade, true rest, true comfort comes when we dwell and make our home in God’s loving embrace. In Ezekiel’s day, he was speaking about a time to come, Jesus was telling his hearers that the time was now.

Think too about the story of Jonah. Jonah is sitting on the outskirts of Ninevah and is whining and moaning that the people of actually heeded his warnings, listened to his prophesies, repented of their sins, and turned to the Lord. God sends a great gourd which grows up in a night to give him shelter or shade from the scorching sun. Jonah is thankful for this gift from God, but if you remember the story, the next day God sends a worm which attacks the gourd and it withers and dies, and Jonah now mourns the loss of his shade. He is so distraught that he prays to God that he might die for he says that would be better than continuing to live. God’s response sounds strikingly similar to the first parable from this morning’s Gospel. God says to Jonah, “Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night” (Jonah 4:10). Jesus is stressing in his teaching what Jonah seemed to miss. We can control so little in life, yet we can take great comfort in placing our trust in the One Source that controls everything. The beginning of Psalm 91 anchors this theme with these words: “WHOSO dwelleth under the defence of the Most High, shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say unto the LORD, Thou art my hope, and my stronghold; my God, in him will I trust” (Ps. 91:1-2).

In each of these instances, every time that I mentioned the word shade or shadow, the same word that is peculiar to Mark’s rendering of the parable of the mustard seed is found in these Old Testament references as well. The service of Compline has as one of its responses, “Hide me under the shadow of thy wings.” In all these cases, we are seeking to find our home and abode in God.

Both of these parables have very practical applications for us today. I’m sure many of us are concerned about the financial stability and well-being of our country; we are worried about the violent outbreaks both at home and abroad; we are concerned about our Church and the attacks on the Truth from within and without; we fear what it will be like to wake up the morning after losing a spouse, or sibling, or parent, or child. These emotions are real, they are not without grounds. One of the things that make them real is the power we can allow them to have, and how they can grip us almost to the point of paralysis. However, I believe what Jesus wants us to hear today is that much of what we fear is what we cannot control. Many of the things which concern us the most are things that God is begging us to turn over to Him so that we might face them with His guidance and judgment.

20th Century Protestant Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote one of the most famous prayers of the modern age, The Serenity Prayer. I’m sure that most of you know the abbreviated form of this beautiful prayer, but I want you to hear the full version of this prayer.

"God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen."

I wish to close with a portion of a homily delivered by Peter Chrysologus on the parable of the mustard seed. If that name is unfamiliar to you, I’ll have to admit it was unfamiliar to me as well until this past week. He was a man who lived in the 4th and 5th Centuries, and served as Bishop of Ravenna in Italy for roughly 17 years. He was known as the “Doctor of Homilies” because of his short but thought provoking talks. Pope Leo XIII declared him a Doctor of the Church in 1729 and his Feast Day is celebrated in the Roman Church on July 30.

God desires that we sow the seeds of the Kingdom in our hearts so that we might find rest for ourselves, and then in turn, sow those same seeds with others. Jesus’ ultimate goal was to seek and to save that which was lost. We were once lost, and have now been found. Our calling is point others to Christ Jesus our Lord so that they might find rest in the shade that God provides.

"It is up to us to sow this mustard seed in our minds and let it grow within us into a great tree of understanding reaching up to heaven and elevating all our faculties; then it will spread out branches of knowledge, the pungent savor of its fruit will make our mouths burn, its fiery kernel will kindle a blaze within us inflaming our hearts, and the taste of it will dispel our unenlightened repugnance. Yes, it is true: a mustard seed is indeed an image of the kingdom of God. Christ is the kingdom of heaven. Sown like a mustard seed in the garden of the virgin’s womb, he grew up into the tree of the cross whose branches stretch across the world. Crushed in the mortar of the passion, its fruit has produced seasoning enough for the flavoring and preservation of every living creature with which it comes in contact. As long as a mustard seed remains intact, its properties lie dormant; but when it is crushed they are exceedingly evident. So it was with Christ; he chose to have his power concealed….Christ became all things in order to restore all of us in himself. The man Christ received the mustard seed which represents the kingdom of God; as man he received it, though as God he had always possessed it. He sowed it in his garden, that is in his bride, the Church. The Church is a garden extending over the whole world, tilled by the plough of the gospel, fenced in by stakes of doctrine and discipline, cleared of every harmful weed by the labor of the apostles, fragrant and lovely with perennial flowers: virgin’s lilies and martyr’s roses set amid the pleasant verdure of all who bear witness to Christ and the tender plants of all who have faith in him. Such then is the mustard seed which Christ sowed in his garden. When he promised a kingdom to the patriarchs, the seed took root in them, with the prophets it sprang up; with the apostles it grew tall; in the Church it became a great tree putting forth innumerable branches laden with gifts. And now you too must take the wings of the psalmist’s dove, gleaming gold in the rays of divine sunlight, and fly to rest for ever among those sturdy, fruitful branches. No snares are set to trap you there; fly off, then, with confidence and dwell secure in its shelter."

Citations available upon request