Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sermon for Trinity XII – Proper 17B
All Saints’ Church
August 30, 2009

“The Battle of Life” is a metaphor which almost all men at some time in their lives realize and own as true. It suggests a picture which recalls to almost every man his own history, if his has been at all an earnest life. We may think that it has not been so with other men; we may look at some bright and smiling life, and say with something of envy, with something also almost like reproach in our tone, “Lo, life has no battle for him! Behold how smooth and easy all the world has been for him!” The man himself knows better. And we, if we come close to him, can see the scars, nay, we can hear the battle of his life still going on. But whether we come close enough to him to know the real truth of his life or not, we know the truth about our own. Life is a battle. Forever on the watch against our enemies, forever guarding our own lives, forever watching our chance for an attack upon the foe, – so we all live if we are earnest men.”

With these words the Rt. Rev. Phillips Brooks begins his sermon delivered on All Saints’ Day 1885 entitled “The Battle of Life” on the passage we just heard from St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians.

How many of us have ever really thought, really contemplated, really dwelt upon the reality that we are constantly at war? We are in a perpetual battle with forces we cannot see, but are as real as us sitting in our pews in this church this morning. Some times they come when we least expect it, and from directions we never could have imagined. Many times we can sense that something isn’t quite right, but we’re not sure what it might be. Often the battles occur when we think things are moving along smoothly, and all is actually well with the world.

So what do we do with a passage like this one – putting on God’s armor? Do we treat it as if it were only ancient Biblical language from days gone by, and think that language like this doesn’t apply to us anymore?

I would say that thoughts such as these are incredibly dangerous because passages like this one should cause us to take notice, and might offer some keen insights into our lives and our personal struggles.

It’s quite tempting to make comments or try and convince ourselves that we just don’t talk about stuff like Powers of Darkness, Spiritual Warfare, sin, Satan, and the like. That’s what those fundamentalist churches worry about. We’re too refined and dignified to think that those things are real and truly exist to do us harm.

My friends, these forces are real, they do exist, and we had better think about them in our Christian life.

Martin Luther certainly believed they were real as he wrote these famous words:

“And tho’ this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us;
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us;
The prince of darkness grim, We tremble not for him; His rage we can endure,
For lo! His doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.”

Our Lord wrestled with these powers of darkness before his ministry ever began. Should we not also expect to wrestle and struggle with these very same forces? Should we ever get so complacent that we would ever tempt the Tempter and say, “this spiritual warfare stuff just doesn’t happen to me?”

If that were so, why would there be any reason to make the following proclamation at the Baptism, “We receive this Child into the congregation of Christ’s flock; and do sign him with the sign of the Cross, in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully fight under his banner, against sin, the world, the flesh, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end.”

That statement made within the context of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism makes no sense whatsoever if we ever believed that we were not in constant battle with forces which desire to destroy not just the body, but the soul. Jesus declared to his disciples as he was sending them out, “…fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both body and soul.”

One of the two overarching themes Dr. Brooks addresses in the full context of his sermon revolves around two questions: Do we know who or what our enemy truly is; do we know what his weapons are?

Do we know who our enemy is?

St. Peter seemed to know quite well when he wrote in his first epistle, “Be sober, be watchful, your adversary the devil prowls like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world” (I Peter 5:8).

The enemy isn’t just a simple cat who wants merely to play with and toy with its prey, but rather the enemy is depicted as a fully developed lion who seeks to devour and destroy. Satan’s ultimate goal is to destroy us. He wants us to finally collapse into the very essence of what he tempts us with. If he has his way with us, we no longer become just a sinner, but sin itself. We become lost in a world of darkness that is ultimately a life lived with no hope.

What are our enemy’s weapons?

Just about anything!

It’s amazing that some of the most joyous parts of our Lord’s creation have been turned and distorted into a fashion that is a means for our destruction rather than our enjoyment.

The enemy is the master of twisting the things of this world, and attempts to warp our thinking so that we can no longer distinguish what God has intended for good, and what He intended for garbage. C. S. Lewis speaks of this most clearly in his book The Pilgrim’s Regress when the main character, John, who is actually Lewis himself, encounters the spirit of the age, and reason comes in to rescue him.

So what is our source of protection and guard against such an enemy?

We must heed the words of St. Paul, and be prepared to put upon us the whole armor of God. We must do so each and every day.

I’m not sure if any of you have ever had dreams such as these, but in a moment of full disclosure, I’ll have to admit that I’ve had dreams of being caught in public without clothing. First of all, let me promise you that these are dreams!

There is actually a known phobia – gymnophobia which is the fear of being nude in public. One website I consulted on this topic mentioned that only the fear of public speaking and fear of failure topped it in their list of most common phobias. I’m not sure of their statistics, but if there is a named, known fear of being nude in public, why do we not suffer from it spiritually as well? It should terrify us each and every day if we are not armed with the armor of God. We’ve already established the point that we are constantly waging war against the world, the flesh, and the devil. We need to put on the proper clothing for that battle, and not attempt to do so unclothed.

Each of the pieces of armor describes Jesus himself, who in fact withstood these forces of evil and darkness and prevailed. We must put on the one and only things that will give us a chance to win a battle that is otherwise un-winnable. St. Jerome declared, “From what we read of the Lord our Saviour throughout the Scriptures, it is manifestly clear that the whole armor of Christ is the Saviour himself. It is one in the same thing to say ‘Put on the whole armor of God’ and ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.’”

When Satan tempted Jesus he was trying to convince Him to turn inward and not to the Father for strength; our trials embody the very same basis of tempting to turn inward for strength to resist these trials and temptations.

In the desert Jesus struggled with Evil – capital E evil itself. We wrestle with the manifestations of the Evil One in whatever form or fashion it takes.

One of the feasts of the Church year is the confession of St. Peter. Peter declares that Jesus is in fact the long awaited Messiah that the prophets proclaimed and all of Jewish history pointed to. After Peter makes his declaration, Jesus says to Peter that “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you.” St. Peter could not have made this revelation about our Lord if it were not for the supernatural forces at work outside of him. It is interesting to note that just a few verses later Jesus tells Satan to get behind him because flesh and blood was driving his thinking and not the Spirit of God that had helped him make the ultimate declaration of his faith.

One of the great treasures of Anglicanism is our hymnody. One of the gifts we have given to the larger Church has been the hymns of Charles Wesley.

“Come thou long expected Jesus,” “Lo! He comes with clouds descending,” “Hark the herald angels sing,” “Jesus Christ is risen today,” “Love divine, all loves excelling,” just to name a few. Certainly Charles Wesley believed and taught that we were in a constant war against Satan and his spiritual forces. He has left us a clear statement of who we are fighting against, and as we know, who will ultimately win.

“Soldiers of Christ, arise, And put your armor on,
Strong in the strength which God supplies, Thro’ his eternal Son;

Strong in the Lord of hosts, And in his mighty power:
Who in the strength of Jesus trusts Is more than conqueror.

Stand then in his great might, With all his strength endued,
And take, to arm you for the fight, The panoply of God.

From strength to strength go on, Wrestle, and fight, and pray:
Tread all the powers of darkness down, And win the well-fought day.

That, having all things done, And all your conflicts past,
Ye may o’ercome, through Christ alone, And stand complete at last.”

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sermon for Trinity X – ’28 Propers
All Saints’ Church
August 16, 2009

This morning’s Gospel lesson from the last few verses of Luke 19 is one that really needs the entire chapter to set the stage for what is going on. Actually, it needs the entire Biblical witness, but we’ll settle for the first of chapter 19.

Whenever I think of Luke 19, I am always reminded of the song I’m sure many of us sang in Sunday school or Vacation Bible School about Jesus and Zacchaeus. As we know from the story, of all the people that Jesus would have picked to eat dinner with upon his entering Jericho, Zacchaeus should not have been anywhere near the top of the list. However, as Jesus has done throughout his earthly ministry, he has completely upset the status quo and thrown all semblance of what is perceived as right and wrong on its head. Zacchaeus, being a chief tax collector, was the worst of the worst in the eyes of the Jewish people. Luke is specific in pointing out this particular detail just to show how scandalous Jesus’ actions really were. Tax collectors were hated because they were responsible for seeing that money was collected and funneled to Rome, but more than that, they made their living by skimming off the top of what they collected and made their living through shady means. They were stealing from people in order to line their own pockets and there was really nothing anyone could do about it. The chief tax collector would “earn his keep” by overseeing the work of the regular collectors and thus make a living through the same crooked means, and as Luke points out, he got very rich doing this for a living.

Luke records no other dialogue between Jesus and Zacchaeus other than the summons to come down from the sycamore tree in order to make preparations for Jesus’ arrival for dinner. However, there is something in the summons that truly changed Zacchaeus’ heart. For the next words recorded are of a humble man who freely gives away out of his goods to the poor and wishes to make restitution to everyone he has cheated and defrauded. He even goes far beyond what the law required, and those who he had cheated in his lifetime he would repay four-fold. Jesus then acknowledges who this man truly is and the promises that are truly his to enjoy. He says that he is a true son of Abraham – a member of the Covenant people and an inheritor of salvation. Jesus then makes a promise for us all to hear – that he has come to seek and to save the lost. This of course was the point that he tried to get across in last week’s Gospel in the Parable of the Two Lost Sons.

Luke follows the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus with the Parable of the ten minas. There is so much happening in the parable and multiple layers of interpretation enough for several sermons. However, this morning I merely wish to provide the overall story as continued background for the Gospel lesson we heard a few minutes ago. In the parable the king puts ten people in charge of his goods and then goes off into a far country. He entrusts them to grow and multiply the money they have each been given in order to provide an account for what they’ve done when the king returns. When he returns and calls the servants and asks for an account of their progress, the first two he calls had multiplied their gifts, the first 10 fold and the second 5 and in turn they are rewarded for their good work. The last servant returns the mina to his master with these words, “Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief, for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit and reap what you did not sow.” With these words the master says that the servant has in fact condemned himself. This is one of those parables in which Jesus issues some of the most stern warnings and condemnations toward those who reject him and his teaching.

The next thing that we hear following this parable is Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Even after all that Jesus has said and done throughout his ministry the Pharisees reject what is happening before their eyes and implore Jesus to silence his disciples. Even though many of those who are cheering as Jesus goes by do not understand what he is about to do in Jerusalem, they at least recognize or perhaps feel in their hearts that the promises of God just might be unfolding right before their eyes. Israel’s Messiah is returning to reign on Mt. Zion, however, this is about to culminate in a manner no one could have imagined. Jesus offers a glimpse into the magnitude of the event when he tells the Pharisees that if His disciples were silent that even the stones would cry out. The purpose of creation and all that God made is to worship this King who now comes in humility and is in fact the Lord of all.

Now I realize that this is allot of background information, but it is crucial to see what led up to our Gospel passage this morning. Jesus is now approaching Jerusalem and he knows that it will be for the last time. He realizes that all of history is about to cross a threshold in just a few short days, and yet so many have never really heard what he’s been saying or doing. He realizes that the religious authorities who were entrusted with the promises that God had made to Abraham were squandering them, and making them a barrier or hindrance rather than something beautiful and a source of hope. They grumbled mightily that Jesus would extend this Good News with someone like Zacchaeus, after all, they had been loyal and faithful for all these many years. Again, this sounds just like the older brother in last week’s parable.

The servants in the parable who grumbled and said that they did not want this master reigning over them were the very ones who returned their mina upon his return, and had nothing to show for it. Now, in their defense, I’m sure the handkerchief was folded meticulously and I’m sure it was made of the finest linen, but the wrapping was merely an empty shell. I’ll bet they thought that this form was much more important than its true function.

These were the same people who were admonishing the crowds as they cheered Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem and told them to stop praising this carpenter’s son from Nazareth whose father and mother we know. Little did they know that this unassuming man who was riding on a donkey into Jerusalem was about to make the ultimate sacrifice and atone for the sins of the entire world.

All of this background information is crucial and necessary and helps us grasp in some faint way Jesus’ reaction when he crosses over the Mount of Olives and sees the temple in the distance. Tears and lament fill our Lord’s eyes and heart as his earthly mission is drawing to a close. He cries out with these words, “would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace.”

Those very ones who are about to put Jesus to death by the sword are about to have that same sword crush them as well. Just one generation after Jesus the temple would again be destroyed and the sword will again rip through the People of Israel. Jesus’ message of peace is being rejected and those that reject it will reap the damning consequences.

Jesus’ tears turn again to anger and frustration as he witnesses the vulgar display of religion for sale. The very people who have come to Jerusalem with humble hearts – some once a year or for some a once-in-a-lifetime experience – are being robbed, cheated, and exploited by the religious establishment who represent the Father’s promises and serve in His temple night and day. These were the very people who Jesus wept about as he crossed the mountain and came toward the temple.

What do we think about as we hear of the emotion of our Lord as he weeps and laments over those who are lost and choose to stay that way? Should we not also weep over those who will not hear the Good News of the Gospel? Should it not grieve our very souls to know that there are those who reject this message of peace and hope and life eternal? If it broke Jesus’ heart should it not break ours as well?

We have been entrusted with the story of salvation, and we are each called to share that story with the entire world. Then our Lord’s tears of sorrow might be turned into tears of joy as we proclaim with boldness those same words that greeted him as he rode into Jerusalem – Hosanna to the Son of David, Blessed is he who cometh in the name of the Lord!

*******Citations available upon request********
Sermon for Trinity IX – ’28 Propers
All Saints’ Church
August 9, 2009

During my first year of seminary I had the opportunity to attend a Biblical Preaching Conference where The Rev. Dr. Paul Zahl was the keynoter giving a series of 3 lectures concerning Biblical Preaching. The audience was almost exclusively Episcopal priests in various stages of the ministry, from those who were nearing retirement to folk like me and others who were just embarking on the journey of the priesthood. Robyn and I were parishioners of Dr. Zahl’s at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, so I was quite excited to see and hear him again. One of the things that Dr. Zahl said in one of his lectures has stuck with me now almost 5 years later, and does so with crystal clarity in light of this morning’s Gospel lesson. Paul said this and I quote fairly loosely, “I hate preaching. It’s like a Golgotha each and every time I step into the pulpit.” Not sure how that quotation strikes you, but those are not exactly the kinds of things that one wants to hear when he hasn’t really delivered any sermons before, or for those who have preached a lifetime of them. What is he saying and what does that have to do with what has commonly been called the Parable of the Prodigal Son?

To begin with, I think, like many other commentators on this passage, the parable has been mischaracterized to single out the repentance of the younger son. There’s no doubt that the younger son plays a significant role in Jesus’ teaching because the majority of the verses deal with him as opposed to his brother. However, this parable is not simply one about a wayward son, but rather, it is one about 2 lost sons. A more appropriate title should be the Parable of the Two Lost Sons, or perhaps more accurately the Parable of the Loving Father.

This is perhaps one of Jesus’ more well-known parables, and one that we have grown up hearing in church. I’m certain that we’ve all heard a number of sermons preached on this unique teaching of our Lord that is found only in Luke’s Gospel. As Bishop N.T. Wright once said humorously in a talk he was giving on the Historical Jesus, “whenever we hear in church hear begins the eleventh verse of the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke – ‘Jesus said, A certain man had two sons, and’ we immediately switch off and begin to wonder if we switched off the oven before we left for church.” However, this parable, like so many others, could almost be read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested on a weekly basis and never lose its ability to convict us in our walk with the Lord.

Since most of us do not read Scripture from the perspective of a 1st Century Palestinian, we tend to miss some of the underlying themes that would have confronted someone from this area from the start. First of all, the scandal of this parable hits us right off the bat. As Dr. Wright says, “sons do not ask fathers for cash down before their death.” The effects of the younger son’s question has the effect of cursing his father, wishing he were dead and out of the way so that he might have the inheritance that would have been due him. According to the book of Deuteronomy the rules and regulations regarding inheritance was spelled out in detail and the oldest son would have received 2/3 of the father’s goods and the younger 1/3. With the inheritance divided amongst the two brothers, the younger one sets off and journeys into a far country.

A quick side note here. One of the biggest problems with hearing this parable read in the context of the liturgy is that it is usually isolated from the first 10 verses of chapter 15. The reason that those first 10 verses are important is that the two parables which precede it help set the stage for the larger parable of the two sons. Those being the parable of the 1 lost sheep out of 100 and the parable of the woman and the lost coin. Another detail is contained in the first 2 verses of chapter 15 which gives the context in which Jesus is telling these stories. Chapter 15 opens with these words, “Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. 2And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.” There is a mixed audience of religious outcasts and religious authorities. This is a very important point to note, and will give additional meaning when the parable of the two sons reaches its climax.
All of the Old Testament prophets had a message that was never far removed from the minds of the Jewish people. They were always reminded that the Covenant that was made with Abraham would eventually led them home where they would no longer be exiles, and that God would reign as their King. Even though the Israelites were no longer physically in exile as they were in Babylon or Egypt, they were still enslaved by the rule of Herod and the outstretched arm of Rome. They were technically still foreigners in their own land.

Jesus was always masterful in his use of the images, signs, and symbols which would have evoked deep meaning with his hearers who would open their ears to what he was saying. By the very mention of phrases such as “feeding swine,” “journey into a far country,” “Father, I have sinned” he is intentionally going to touch something deep within his audience. The people would immediately begin to put the pieces together and figure out quickly that Jesus is talking about the Exodus and return to the Promised Land. The symbols spoke loud and clear, and his message would be one of Redemption and Return even if those words don’t appear explicitly in the text.
The theme that is most often extracted from this parable is of course the most obvious that no matter how bad or disastrous our life becomes, we are never beyond the saving grace of God – The Father of the two sons. Even when we have reached rock bottom and we’ve resorted to feeding pigs in a pagan land, whenever we come to our senses, recognize our brokenness, and come home, the grace of God is not waiting on the front porch, stomping his feet, saying, “well you’ve gone and done it again.” No, the grace that comes from a father such as this one says, you were lost, but now you’ve been found, you were dead, but now you are alive again!
Certainly there are times in our lives when we’ve all been guilty of being the younger son, squandering what we’ve been given, and tried to do it on our own.

However, the greater sin I believe comes after the return of the younger son.
Here is the place where I see myself concurring with Dr. Zahl in admitting that preaching can be a Golgotha experience. I hear this parable again, and I relate not so much to the younger son, but more often with the older.
If we only spend time looking at the younger son, we miss something that I believe befalls us all more often than we’d like to admit. From the parable itself, here is what we know of the older brother.

• He heard the music and dancing, and wouldn’t even go investigate things himself, but sends a servant instead.
• He was angry and would not go in
• He expresses his anger in terms of what he has done all these many years in service to the father
• Refers to the younger son not as his brother, but rather as his father’s son
• Complains that he never received any reward or party for being faithful

As is often Jesus’ custom, he never ties up all of the loose ends. Have you ever pondered the question, “did the older brother ever go into the party?” Certainly within the pages of Scripture we don’t find the answer, but if I were to venture a guess I would say that he probably did not. This is why I mentioned a few minutes ago that it is important for us to know who was hearing this parable and what they must be thinking. Pharisees had already made comments regarding who Jesus was eating with and fraternizing with. It’s painfully obvious who the older brothers are in this story.

The older brothers are the ones who were saying to themselves…
• We’ve been keeping the Torah to the Nth degree since birth
• We’re the ones who make sure that the sacrifices are done perfectly and in order in the temple
• We’ve made sure that our hands were clean, and that we would never defile ourselves by hanging out with the wrong types of people

Jesus tells them through the Father’s words that they’ve in fact had all of the promises of God from the very beginning and never realized them for what they were. They lived their lives from the perspective of someone who only kept the rules in order to reap some type of reward at the end. I’ll only do X so that I can receive Y. Jesus is saying that their perspective is all wrong. The keeping of the law shouldn’t be done just to earn points or punch tickets to get into heaven. The keeping of the law should be done because it was a part of who God was. If we love God, then the natural outworking of that love should cause us to do everything possible to manifest that love.

If we are truly honest, how often does our Christian walk look something like that of the older brother when we’ve asked questions or made statements such as these?
• Don’t I deserve this since I’ve been faithful and haven’t been like that particular sinner over there?
• This will make me look good in front of that person whether we’ve thought it consciously or not.
• I’ve sure done my good deed for the day
• I wonder if anyone saw me do that
Please don’t hear me making statements such as these without including myself. I realize that throwing stones in glass houses makes very big messes, and I am as guilty as anyone.

One of the greatest points to take from this parable is to note the posture of the Father. In both instances the Father makes the point to go out to meet both sons. He doesn’t wait for the younger son to get to the house, but rather, runs out to meet him while he’s still a great distance off. He’s been looking for him, and as soon as he sees him, he rushes out to welcome him home. The Father also leaves the party that he’s thrown for the younger son and goes out to meet the older son. He does it lovingly and compassionately, and then leaves the response for the son to make. He can’t make it for him. The older son must decide whether he can forgive his brother or not. He has to decide whether to come into the party or not. Most importantly, he has to decide whether he can call him brother again – or not.

This is the hardest thing we can ever do because it causes us to swallow our pride and accept grace for what it is. The world we live in today is no different than the one that heard this parable for the first time. The grace of the Father still seems as scandalous today as it did then.

The older brother thought that his works would earn him favor and merit with his father, and that he should be recognized for what he had done in the past. The younger brother knew he had nothing to show for what his life had become, and came to his father in the only posture that he could – that of a servant. Jesus told his disciples that he came not to be served but to serve. He said that he came to seek and to save that which was lost.

Here is the story of two brothers – both lost, and in need of salvation. We are those very same brothers, lost and in need of salvation. Our Father is waiting for our return from that far country, so that we can enter in to the banquet that he has prepared for us to enjoy. Will we heed that call, and come home, or come in, whichever the case may be?

******Citations available upon request*******

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Sermon for Trinity VIII – 1928 Propers
All Saints’ Church
August 2, 2009

One of the hardest things about reading Holy Scripture is the reality that our experiences, culture, upbringing all affect the way that we read and then interpret what the text is saying. Eisegesis is the process where we read something into a particular text based upon many of those factors I just mentioned. Basically, we’re reading into it what we want to hear, or worse, we have already decided what it really says before we begin. One the attributes about Holy Scripture is that it is the Living Word of God, and if it is living, one of our goals should be to have the Scripture interpret us and dissect us as hearers more often than the other way around.

This same thought crossed my mind when I read the collect appointed for today when our prayer opens with the line, “O God, whose never-failing providence ordereth all things both in heaven and earth.” What exactly is the word ordereth getting at?

It’s certainly very easy to fall prey to the temptation to think when things go very, very wrong in our lives to say to ourselves, “Ah Ha, if God so ordered everything here on Earth, then He’s to blame for this mess I’ve gotten myself into.” Or, perhaps from another angle, “Why did God allow this particular event to happen to me in my life?”

However, I think we need to take another look both at what the word ordereth means in this context, as well as, the collect as a whole.

First, in order to end up at the right place, we really need to start at the right place. The phrase itself is an acknowledgement about who God actually is. It is an appeal to the reality that all Order comes from one particular source, and that source is God. If we take time and carefully study Genesis 1 and 2, one of the overarching themes that comes across is the particular order by which God creates out of nothing.

One particular Study Bible I consulted has this subheading for Gen 1:1 – 2:3, “God’s creation and ordering of heaven and earth.” Sounds remarkably like our collect this morning.

The editors went on to say, “The book of Genesis opens with a majestic description of how God first created the heavens and earth and then how he ordered the earth so that it may become his dwelling place. Structured into seven sections, each marked by the use of set phrases, the entire episode conveys the picture of the all-powerful, transcendent God who sets everything in place with consummate skill in conformity to his grand design. The emphasis is mainly on how God orders or structures everything.”

Cambridge physicist and Anglican clergyman John Pulkinghorne said that one of the most important points to extract from Gen 1 can be summed up in the eight-fold repetition of the six words, “And God said, ‘let there be…’”

Before God spoke, that which we know about our world, our universe was chaos and disorder. After God spoke, order displaced disorder, and we continue to live in the Light of God’s handiwork.

Misinterpretation occurs when we neglect the whole of the story. In the beginning God ordered all things rightly, and then gave man one simple command – do not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet, the three-fold temptation took hold, and Eve saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desired to make one wise. She ate of the fruit as did Adam, and the course of human events was altered in an instant. The one thing that Adam and Eve never knew was that in their attempt to become wise and like God they were attempting to exchange their view of order for God’s. They simply saw the forbidden fruit as pleasing for food, beautiful to behold, and possessing something they thought they had to have. It did not work then, and it certainly doesn’t work now. Doesn’t that sound familiar in our own lives? We see something we simply can’t live without; something forbidden comes in an awfully enticing package; all I need is just this one item more.

It happens all too often, we exchange God’s order for our own, and usually it comes with undesirable results.

God calls each of us to live our life striving to conform to His Will – His Order.

From the very beginning, he gave us the example for the right ordering of the family. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” These same words from Genesis are quoted by Jesus as recorded in both Matthew and Mark, as well as, by St. Paul in his epistle to the Ephesians. The right ordering of husband and wife is a direct commandment from God. Jesus also adds a clinching caveat, “Those whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” When man and wife come together in the bond and covenant of Holy Matrimony, God binds the two into one, and they are no longer the same as they were before. The two have become one flesh. This is why the Church treats Holy Matrimony as a Sacramental rite, and thus so much more than just a service of the church.

One of the critical components of the right ordering of the family is that God is the central focal point of that relationship. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks conveyed this in an article he wrote dated 7/25/09 entitled “We must guard love in this world of easy pleasures.” He opens with these words:

One day I was called on to officiate at two funerals. The families involved were old friends of ours, but they lived in different parts of London and did not know one another. In both cases, the wife had died after a long and happy marriage. One couple had just celebrated, and the other was just about to celebrate, their diamond wedding [anniversary].
What was striking was that both husbands said the same thing to me, in virtually identical words: “I loved her as much as the day we first fell in love.” To hear that once, after 60 years of marriage, would have been rare. To hear it twice on the same day seemed like more than mere coincidence.
Both couples were religious. Prayer and going to the synagogue, celebrating Sabbath and the festivals, and giving time and money to others, were integral to their lives. They knew that in Judaism the home is as sacred as a house of worship. Did these things, I wondered, have something to do with the strength and persistence of their love?
We tend to think that emotions, especially one as capricious as love, are simply what we feel. We don’t choose our likes and dislikes, our fears and joys. They catch us unawares. They can hold us helpless in their grip. The words “passion” and “passive” are related. So we conclude that we can’t help feeling what we feel.
Recent developments in psychotherapy suggest otherwise. Cognitive behavioural therapy is based on the premise that what we feel is influenced by what we think, and we can change the way we think. Positive psychology has had success in turning pessimists into optimists by reframing people’s perceptions. Martin Seligman, the pioneer in this field, calls pessimism “learnt helplessness”, and what can be learnt can be unlearnt.
So it is with love. Someone who believes that marriage is “just a piece of paper”, that sex comes without commitments, and that pleasure is the measure of all things, will have one range of emotions. One who believes that marriage is a sacred covenant, that love is inseparable from loyalty, and that what we love we make sacrifices for, will have another. Because they think different thoughts, they will feel different things.
…He concludes with these words that I believe connect what I’ve been alluding to this morning.
To see love as the force that moves the Universe, to love God and know that God loves us, to celebrate love in ritual and song and know that it means constancy and faithfulness, to understand that love gives and forgives, and to see in the birth of a child the love that brings new life into the world: these give love a better chance. And in a world of easy pleasures, short attention spans and fragile relationships, love needs a better chance.
That is what faith does. Sanctifying love, it protects it from the thousand temptations to which it is daily exposed. That day when I heard two old friends in the midst of grief speak of a love undiminished over time, I thought of Dylan Thomas’s famous words, “Though lovers be lost, love shall not; and death shall have no dominion”, and knew that loving God helps us to love one another.
Why do we hear each and every time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist either the Decalogue or the Summary of the Law? The only way that we can begin to comprehend the grace of God in Christ’s Body and Blood is through constant re-ordering of our lives and wills toward God. Lives lived centered on the Great Commandment will then begin to embody what the rest of our collect speaks about, and prays for.

If we go back to our collect for this morning, the only way we as individuals can ever discern what is harmful for us and what we need to put way is if we acknowledge our necessity to call upon the One who ordereth all things in heaven and on earth. Then and only then, will we begin to receive those things which are profitable for us.

God’s desire is to bless us more than we can ever imagine. Those blessings came with a price, and they still do. It means as St. Paul told the Ephesians that they and we must constantly put off our old self and be renewed in the spirit of our minds and put on the new self (Eph. 4:22-23). It means that we must take up our cross daily and follow Christ. It means exchanging our interpretation of order and exchanging it for God’s. If we are humble enough to do so, then our Lord allows us to receive those good things which are profitable for us, and will ultimately last for all eternity.

****Citations and footnotes available upon request****
Sermon for Trinity VII – Proper 12B
All Saints’ Church
July 27, 2009

At some point in time during seminary I came across a paper written by The Rev. Dr. Grant LeMarquand entitled “The Case of the Missing Comma.” I don’t remember if someone directed me to read this short essay, or if I simply stumbled upon it myself, but it has always stuck with me, and I wish to share some of his insights with you this morning. If the title of the article struck you as odd, the entire thrust of his work deals with a punctuation mark.

One of the overarching themes of the Epistle to the Ephesians is the connection between Christ and His Church. In the few verses we heard this morning from the fourth chapter we heard references to Christ’s headship; that our growth and development as Christians happens because we are bound to Christ; the Church is Christ’s Body and we are individual members of that body; we also hear about specific ministry workers within the church and their role within the larger community.

Dr. LeMarquand’s paper deals with the two verses almost in the middle of the passage we heard this morning. Starting at verse 11, Paul switches gears a little bit, and speaks about some of the ministers who will function within the Church, and their role in the advance of the Gospel. He says that some will be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers. The scholars who have studied this text in great depth do not believe that this should be treated as an exhaustive list of leaders within the Church. After all, none of terms from which we derive our three-fold order of ministry of deacon, priest and bishop, are found in this list. If you look over the list of 5 ministers noted here, this does seem like a fairly limited group. The one term which has a bit more of a global connotation is the evangelist in the sense that all of us are called to be bearers of the Good News or as the Greek word literally means – Good Messengers.

The question for Dr. LeMarquand begins to arise with the next verse. Take a look at the printed text in your bulletin as we look at this a bit further.

Verse 12 speaks of these 5 ministers having a specific role to play, and the things that they are called upon to do is work for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of ministry, and for the edifying of the body of Christ. I tried to speak it so as to emphasize the pauses that the commas in our text imply. If you begin to unpack this verse in this light, I hope you begin to see what is happening.

Certainly as a priest in God’s Church one of my specific roles is doing everything that God gives me the ability to do to see that those within my cure are constantly striving for perfection. To put that in theological terms, I am called upon to help you and me along the lifelong journey of sanctification. Sanctification is the constant striving for holiness or as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Mt. 5:48)

The third item in this list is also a function of the pastoring and teaching roles of ordained ministry when Paul speaks about the edifying of the Body of Christ. Whenever the Holy Eucharist is celebrated, whenever the Holy Scriptures are expounded upon in a sermon, whenever parishioners are being prepared for Confirmation, the edifying of the Body of Christ is taking place.

Sorry for so much background, but I thought it was important to lead up to this critical point. In our text the phrase “for the work of the ministry” is set off as a clause by itself.

Who is being called upon for the work of the ministry here?

Is it the list of 5 special folk mentioned in verse 11, or is this a case where perhaps a comma shouldn’t be here at all, and does it refer to the saints who are being perfected?

Side note here…the original Greek manuscripts and texts of the New Testament had no punctuation marks, no breathing marks, no stress marks, and just to make things even more interesting and difficult, there were no spaces between words. All of the all upper case characters of a Greek text were continuous strings of characters. You can imagine how difficult it would have been to have a working text of the original language, let alone what we have in front of us today. Scholars using the best information at their disposal added punctuation marks at a much later date and our English translations have brought them over.

Back to verse 12 again and the case of the missing comma. Listen to these verses again if I simply eliminate that one comma and see if the message sounds any different:

11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12 For the perfecting of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:

If this is in fact the case, Paul is conveying what Jesus was teaching all along. The work of the ministry, the sharing of the good news, is not restricted to just a few who happen to be involved in the governance and ordering of the Church. Instead, the work of the ministry is for everyone! The main reason that the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers exist is the empower those within the Church to carry out Christ’s message to the entire world. If this isn’t the case, then the 3rd point, the edifying of the Body of Christ doesn’t really make sense. Think about it this way. If the Church is Christ’s body, and we are individual members, aren’t we required to have a function in the body? If my arms just arbitrarily decided to go on strike one day, would my body be edified? More importantly, what if one of the major organs did the same thing, I don’t think the results would be edifying in the least.

We as Christ’s body must act like members of Christ’s body.

Dr. LeMarquand in his paper drives this point home with clarity:

If we choose the second option, the tripartite division, we are in effect saying that God has called certain persons to lead the church by equipping the saints,3 doing the work of ministry, and
building up the body of Christ. Quite a number of our Bible translations, by the simple insertion of a comma after the word ‘saints’, make it look as though Paul was saying exactly that. There is, however, one glaring problem with this approach: it can turn congregations into spiritual consumers and put the burden of God’s work in the world squarely on the shoulders of the
religious specialists, the clergy. The church (that is, the church as it is, rather than as it should be) has sometimes been described as a being like a football game: thousands of fans in the stands, all desperately in need of exercise, watching a much smaller number of players on the field, all desperately in need of rest! The clergy do the ministry, the congregation receive the ministry? The New Testament knows of no such arrangement.
Rather, when the New Testament speaks of ‘ministry’ what it means, first and foremost, something that God does in Christ. The word ministry means ‘service’ and it is the unanimous
opinion of the New Testament documents that Christ is The Servant.

…the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)

… though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of human beings. (Phil 2:

It is the servanthood, the ministry of Jesus Christ that is of first importance. The New Testament always speaks first about what He has done for us, not what we can do for Him, for ourselves, or for the world. ‘The ministry’, if it belongs to anyone, belongs to Christ.

Our work as the church must point in one direction, it must point to Christ. Like a compass that always gives us our bearing in relation to North, our lives as Christians must likewise point to Jesus. Paul points us in this very direction when he begins the fourth chapter of Ephesians with these words:

1 I therefore, the prisoner of the Lorda, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, 2 With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; 3 Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; 5 One Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

Here is what we have to share with the world:

One body
One spirit
One hope
One Lord
One faith
One baptism
One God and Father of all

Let us with boldness go out and perform the work of ministry for the building up of the body of Christ that we have each been called to do.

****Citations and footnotes available upon request****
Sermon for Trinity VI – Proper 11B
Preached at All Saints’ Church – Thomasville, GA
July 19, 2009

“But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved), raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

In 4 short verses St. Paul packs an absolutely mystifying amount of theology for us to try and grasp and absorb. The inspiration of the Holy Spirit is a glorious thing to behold, and He gives us an example of that mystery in this section of the Epistle to the Ephesians this morning.

A particular aspect of theology that our passage this morning addresses is eschatology. Eschatology is a term that describes that area of theology dealing with the end of time, or the last things. For some, eschatology becomes the last chapter in most theology textbooks, relegated almost to appendix status. The opening paragraph of Joseph Ratzinger’s book by the same name clarifies this point for us, but asserts that eschatology is so much more than just a footnote.

For centuries eschatology was content to lead a quiet life as the final chapter of theology where it was dubbed “the doctrine of the last things.” But in our own time, with the historical process in crisis, eschatology has moved into the very center of the theological stage. Some twenty years ago, Hans Urs von Balthasar called it the “storm-zone” of contemporary theology. Today it appears to dominate the entire theological landscape. A recent synod of the German bishops published a confession of faith under the title “Our Hope” – thus placing faith itself in hope’s perspective.

These words of Benedict XVI were first penned in German in 1977. So what exactly does this have to do with our passage this morning, and more importantly, what does it have to do with us?

The passage that I read when I began was not actually part of the lectionary section, but I had it added in. The framers of the lectionary sometimes astonish me with what they leave out, and this is one of those very times. Do we not need to hear that we are in fact dead creatures, with no hope, no future except through the grace, mercy, and love of Jesus Christ? I certainly need to hear that, and I need to hear it often.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, our hope, our faith and our future, finds its culmination and resting point not in a destination, but in a person. It is found in Jesus Christ.

Look at what would have been excluded if the first section of Ephesians 2 had been left out of this morning’s lesson. First, we hear an echo of our collect which speaks about the abundance of God’s mercy and His great love for what He has made. We were dead in our sinful state with no hope and no future, and God has raised us to a new life in Christ. Now, try and follow here because this is where the link to eschatology comes in.

There is a perspective to the statement that we have been raised to a new life in Christ that tells us that this has already happened and is to be experienced now. However, as believers in the resurrection of the dead, as espoused in the Creeds, we know that this has not fully been realized yet – there is certainly more to come. So here is the situation, how do we reconcile these two positions?

I believe we do so in the very same way that we live out the words of the Lord’s Prayer – Thy Kingdom Come. We don’t say these words with some futuristic nostalgia in mind, nor do we say them in terms of an unrealistic utopia that leaves us lacking or despondent.

In the first section of Ephesians 2, St. Paul diagnoses the human condition with absolute clarity. The great thing about Paul and Jesus is that they don’t leave us simply diagnosed, but they show us the cure. What would it be like to go to the doctor and have him tell you that you have a disease, but that his job is now over since he’s found the problem and simply says, “Let’s live with it?” That’s not any kind of diagnosis with any hope attached to it. You want the doctor to diagnose the problem, and follow-up those words with, “Here’s how we’re going to fix it.”

Many of you probably remember the movie that came out 20 years ago Dead Poet’s Society staring Robin Williams. That even makes me feel old saying it came out 20 years ago. Mr. Keating, the new English professor, arrives at Welton Academy for boys, and on one of his first days in class he takes him through the hallway of the school to look at the pictures of those who had gone before them and to listen to their stories. As he asks them to look deep into those pictures and listen to their stories he whispers in the background one of the watchword phrases of the entire movie carpe diem – seize the day.

In a secular context, seize the day is exactly what wear hear all around us. In a Christian context we are called to do the same thing, but we are called to do it with a difference.

The secularistic worldview embraces carpe diem because it says this is all there is so you better enjoy it while it lasts. The rich man in the Gospels was the poster child of this worldview even in Jesus’ day and age.

In 1980 English journalist and poet Steve Turner penned these words, and in my view sums up the secularist worldview quite well.

We believe in Marx Freud and Darwin
We believe everything is OK
as long as you don't hurt anyone,
to the best of your definition of hurt,
and to the best of your knowledge.

We believe in sex before, during, and after marriage.
We believe in the therapy of sin.
We believe that adultery is fun.
We believe that sodomy is OK.
We believe that taboos are taboo.

We believe that everything is getting better
despite evidence to the contrary.
The evidence must be investigated
And you can prove anything with evidence.

We believe there's something in
horoscopes, UFO's and bent spoons;
Jesus was a good man
just like Buddha, Mohammed, and ourselves.
He was a good moral teacher
although we think His good morals were bad.

We believe that all religions are basically the same--
at least the one that we read was.
They all believe in love and goodness.
They only differ on matters of
creation, sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation.

We believe that after death comes the Nothing
Because when you ask the dead what happens they say nothing.
If death is not the end, if the dead have lied,
then it's compulsory heaven for all
excepting perhaps Hitler, Stalin, and Genghis Khan.

We believe in Masters and Johnson.
What's selected is average.
What's average is normal.
What's normal is good.

We believe in total disarmament.
We believe there are direct links between warfare and bloodshed.
Americans should beat their guns into tractors
and the Russians would be sure to follow.

We believe that man is essentially good.
It's only his behavior that lets him down.
This is the fault of society.
Society is the fault of conditions.
Conditions are the fault of society.

We believe that each man must find the truth that is right for him.
Reality will adapt accordingly.
The universe will readjust.
History will alter.
We believe that there is no absolute truth
excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth.

We believe in the rejection of creeds,
and the flowering of individual thought.

"Chance" a post-script

If chance be the Father of all flesh,
disaster is his rainbow in the sky,
and when you hear

State of Emergency!
Sniper Kills Ten!
Troops on Rampage!
Whites go Looting!
Bomb Blasts School!

It is but the sound of man worshiping his maker."

This post-script is certainly no recipe for hope. The Christian Gospel on the other hand is the only thing that can counter this sentiment, and do so with clarity, conviction, and courage.

As Christ’s disciples we embrace carpe diem because it is a foretaste of what is to come. We heard that expressed in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians this morning when he told that church that they would experience immeasurable riches of God’s grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. What’s critical to understand about this statement is that it does speak of the life to come, but it also speaks of life here and now.

One of the big debates in eschatology is the difference between future eschatology and realized eschatology. As the names would indicate, future eschatology has not been realized yet, and is still to come at some point in time in the future. Realized eschatology is that which has happened in the past, is happening now in the present and will continue to happen in the future.

When we hear the phrase Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven used in Scripture or in passages like this mornings from Ephesians does it mean something yet to come, or something that has already been ushered in and dwells with us? Almost every time the answer is a resounding YES!

It’s both at the same time even though we are dealing with what many like to refer to as the already, but the not yet.

Finally, I wish to ground this in something that we experience and partake in as the Church - the Holy Communion. Eschatology comes back into the picture again, and Scripture declares that every time that we eat this bread and drink this cup now, we proclaim the Lord’s death in the past, until He comes again in the future in power and glory.

In that one event, all of time collapses into the here and now. In so doing, we are catching an ever so small glimpse into the Heavenly banquet where we will on day dine at the Lord’s Table.

“Through the Eucharist…the Church proclaims its faith in the Lordship of Jesus and in the coming of the Kingdom. Through the Eucharist the Church manifests and more fully recognizes and deepens its unity in Christ. Through the Eucharist the Church sets a pattern for its own ministry to those in need and exposes itself thereby to judgment.”

Our Lord bids us to come to His Table with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart, which is the only acceptable way for us to come before the Almighty. The grace we receive as we partake of Christ’s Body and Blood provides us the nourishment to go forth from here and faithfully bear witness to the One who feeds us in this Blessed Sacrament. We are daily sent out into the world to share this message of hope to a world that desperately needs to hear it. Come to our Lord’s Altar, and receive the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation – the greatest gift we could ever receive.

****Citations and footnotes available upon request****