Monday, October 26, 2009

Sermon for Feast of St. Luke
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
October 18, 2009

There are many instances when I believe that we Americans got it right when we revised our Prayer Books and parted ways with the Mother Church of England. Certainly there were some fairly easy changes that absolutely had to be made such as prayers for George our King. After 1776 that really didn’t seem to fit too well any more.

When the colonies achieved independence from England, the American church had a slight problem in that she had no bishops to be able to ordain new clergymen. To further complicate matters, one of the requirements for ordination in the Church of England was the swearing of an oath of allegiance to the crown, and for newly elected bishop Samuel Seabury of New York, this was unacceptable. After a series of delays, Seabury was not discouraged, but rather, appealed to his ingenuity and headed north to Scotland where three nonjuring bishops consecrated him to the episcopate. In exchange for his consecration, Seabury promised them that he would utilize the Eucharist service from 1637 Book of Common Prayer from Scotland, rather than the 1662 book from England when the American church was crafting its first Book of Common Prayer in 1789. The Eucharistic canon from Scotland is much more Catholic in its theology, and that carries over into our American books as well. Even though the order is a bit different, the Eucharistic canon that we use every Sunday morning here at St. John’s is much closer in theology to the Church of Scotland than to the Church of England. Perhaps I’ve stumbled upon a Christian Education topic for later this fall!

In light of this morning’s collect, commemorating the Feast of the Evangelist St. Luke, I must tip my hat to the English version of the collect appointed for today as opposed to the one that appears in our American Prayer Books. Their version prays as follows:

ALMIGHTY God, who calledst Luke the physician, whose praise is in the Gospel, to be an Evangelist, and Physician of the soul; May it please thee, that by the wholesome medicines of the doctrine delivered by him, all the diseases of our souls may be healed, through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Two clauses within this collect stand out to me as a wonderful diagnosis of the human condition. The best thing about its diagnosis is the fact that it leaves us with a solution to our problem.

One of my heroes in Anglicanism is The Rev. Dr. Paul F. M. Zahl. Dr. Zahl was the Dean at the Cathedral of the Advent in Birmingham, AL, and Robyn and I had the opportunity to be parishioners of his when we were newly married and living in Birmingham. After leaving Birmingham he was Dean of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA, and most recently retired as Rector of All Saints’ in Chevy Chase, MD. One of the books that Paul co-authored with Fred Barbee was a series of reflections on the Collects of Thomas Cranmer in honor of the 450th anniversary of the publication of the Book of Common Prayer. These reflections are a must own for Anglicans, and I will gladly share that title with any of you if you would like.

One of the things that Dr. Zahl would stress in his preaching and teaching was the fact that Jesus’ entire ministry was a teaching of law and then grace. He would always stop right there. One of the great temptations within some streams of Christianity is to get the original order correct, but then feel compelled to heap on more law. There’s only one problem with that. Jesus never heaped on more law, why should we?

What do I mean here?

As St. Paul expands upon most clearly in his epistle to the Romans, he fully understood that the more the law was preached, the more defeated he felt; he realized how far short he came to measuring up to God’s standards; actually, he says that the more the law came in the more he felt tempted to break it. Isn’t that the case with you and me?

As a child growing up, whenever my parents told me not to do something, the temptation to do just that entered my mind. It would have never dreamed of watching that particular television program, or reading that particular book, or whatever else they didn’t want to do. But just as soon as they said no, my mind said, why not? Why can’t I do that? What kind of fun will I be missing out on by not doing it?

The law comes in and increases that trespass that is within. The only way to overcome that trespass is through grace. Grace is the only thing that can change hearts, and minds, and wills. The law will never do it, and that is why the correct order and the only order that works is to preach the law, and then preach a Gospel of Grace, and leave it there.

From a practical sense, telling our children not to drink, or smoke, or have sex outside of marriage, or experiment with drugs, or any other vice doesn’t work if all we do is condemn them with a simple NO. We have to leave them with grace, and then let the Holy Spirit do his work in their lives.

Our collect this morning emphasizes just this, and does so in a most beautiful way.

It clearly portrays the human condition as one that is sick and in need of healing. The prayer acknowledges that our souls are diseased. Our souls actually are infected with a terminal illness for which there is no human cure. The prognosis is fatal.

However, the collect says that St. Luke proclaimed the “wholesome medicine of doctrine.” The doctrines that we believe and proclaim embody the very medicine that will help cure what ails us.

I can’t remember the number of times in our current church climate that I’ve heard someone say that we don’t have to worry so much about doctrine - we just need to leave that up to the theologians. There’s a major problem with that line of thinking. If you look at what the word theologian means, it includes each and every one of us. It’s not just those who teach at seminary or write massive volumes of work. The word theologian is the combination of two words which literally mean - the words of God. All of us who speak about God, or read about God, or speak to God are theologians. That means that doctrine had better be something we think about, read about, and pray about.

St. Luke has presented one particular Gospel record of the comfortable doctrines of our Lord Jesus Christ. These doctrines have been upheld by the Church for two millennia and shape who we are as Christ’s disciples. We submit our hearts, our souls, our minds to these teachings in order that we might know our Lord more each day.

One of the things about Anglicanism is the fact that we don’t have a confessional statement like the Lutheran Church which clearly states our official church doctrines. We don’t have a Magisterium like the Roman Catholic Church. What we have are our Anglican Formularies in the Book of Common Prayer, the 39 Articles, and the Ordinal. If someone says they want to see our doctrinal formulas, we show them our Prayer Book. When someone asked Paul Zahl that question, he would tell them to read the collects in our prayer book. Why would he ask them to do that? He did so because Archbishop Cranmer understood the Gospel in a wonderful way, and his gift to the church catholic is in the compilation of the collects that we still pray each and every day.

He completely understood that the Good News of Christ was the presentation of the law in all of its attributes, and then a presentation of the Grace of God. This coming week, I would suggest you take some time to read and pray the collects in our prayer book. As you are reading and praying them, notice their structure, and see if you don’t agree with me. The prayers and petitions we make to God acknowledge who we are as sinners, and then appeal to His grace and mercy. Then and only then can we have a heart open to hear what He commands, and then strive to live that out every day of our lives.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sermon for Trinity XVIII – Proper 23B
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
October 11, 2009

I’m not sure if anyone is like me in this regard, but I really don’t like passages of Scripture like the ones appointed for this morning! Blasphemy you might be saying. How can our priest say that he doesn’t like God’s Holy Word written, the basis upon which we have recorded the saving work of God through His Son Jesus Christ? The reason that I make a comment such as this is because I believe that this is one of those instances where I find myself squarely in the crosshairs of Jesus’ message and I know that He’s talking directly to me, asking me to take an inventory of my own life as His disciple. Let me expand on this a bit more.

This Gospel lesson from St. Mark is one that I am sure has troubled many a Christian over the years because of the topic it addresses – our money or finances. Let me put your fears to rest right now, I am NOT delivering a stewardship sermon on my second Sunday morning with you! However, I believe that there is a message here that reaches so much deeper than just finances.

This story, which has come to be known as the Story of the Rich Young Man, appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. This is significant in and of itself because the majority of the Gospel record has parallels in at least two Gospels, but there are far fewer that appear in Matthew, Mark, and Luke in almost identical form. This passage from Mark 10, and almost all of Mark 10 for that matter, is one of those instances.

I always find it interesting whenever I encounter a passage such as this one to look and see if I happen to notice any differences between the three versions that stand out, or might provide an insight that would go missing if it we didn’t have the different accounts. One of the interesting attributes of St. Mark’s Gospel is the fact that it is the shortest, and its action moves rather quickly from one situation to the next. Mark uses a literary technique peculiar to his Gospel through the use of the phrase, και ευθυς in Greek normally translated, “and immediately.” That one word ευθυς appears in the New Testament 60 times, and 41 of those times occur in Mark. Even though it isn’t always translated “immediately” the overwhelming majority of the times it is used in Mark is to signal a change or shift in the situation, and the story is moving toward its next event.

With that in mind, one would think that Mark’s Gospel would be somewhat light on the details in favor of brevity in order to keep things moving. However, there are several instances where Mark gives us some wonderful details that go lacking in either Matthew or Luke’s telling of the same story. In this story of the rich young man, Mark gives us three subtle points that he alone was inspired to record.

The first difference occurs right at the beginning of the narrative. Mark tells us that, “a man ran up and knelt before [Jesus].” Matthew says simply that a man came up to Jesus, and Luke records the story from the perspective of one of the religious rulers. Look at how differently Mark portrays the man in the story. Two things jump out right off the bat – the man runs to Jesus, and kneels in a posture of respect or adoration. Mark gives us these two insights, and thus, we must ask ourselves the question, why?

In one sense, I truly believe that the man here wanted to know if something was amiss in his life, was he doing something that might possibly hinder his soul in the afterlife. Was he missing something that he should have known, and was there something he could correct in his life?

On the other hand was the man doing what we often do, and that is, compare ourselves to others, or make statements such as, “well, I haven’t done anything really bad,” or “I’m not as bad as he is.”

This reminds me of a story I once heard about two brothers who lived in the wild west in the middle of the nineteenth century. The two brothers were known hoodlums and caused trouble wherever they went. Their reputation preceded them, and people often went in the other direction whenever they walked down the street.

One day one of the brothers died and the surviving brother went to the local minister and asked him if he would do his brothers funeral. Just to sweeten the pot, the brother said that he would deposit a check for $5,000 into the church’s bank account if he would do the service and at some time during the eulogy mention that the deceased brother was a saint. The minister thought about it for a minute and told the brother he would be glad to do the service for his brother.

The day of the funeral arrived, and surprisingly the church was packed simply to see and hear what might happen during the service. At the time for the eulogy the minister walked down and stood right in front of the casket and began with the following words:

“The man that lies before you was a crook. He was a liar, a cheat, a swindler, a womanizer, and an all-around sorry excuse for a human being. However, compared to his brother, he was a saint!”

This funny little story is only meant to prove one very important point – comparison to others for our goodness, or rather, our lack of badness, doesn’t work. Our comparison should be toward one standard and one alone. When we compare ourselves to that standard we come up woefully short, and then, and only then are we able to understand the concepts of grace, mercy, compassion, and love, in a new and redemptive light. Then we are able to seek God’s guidance and we seek to conform our lives and our wills toward His which is the only source of life and hope.

After the man responds to Jesus’ words that he had kept all of the commandments since his youth, Mark then gives us a glimpse into Jesus’ heart of compassion when he records in verse 21, “And Jesus looking upon him loved him.”

Two things can be gleaned from this phrase.

First, our Lord takes great joy with those who strive with all their faculties to keep His commandments. As the Psalmist says, “Blessed is the man whose delight is in the Law of the Lord.” God certainly loves anyone who seeks to do his will. There is an important point to note here. We do this as a response to what God, through Christ, has already done for us. It’s certainly not so that we can earn God’s favor. One of the last lines in the Eucharistic canon asks that God not weigh our merits, but rather pardon our offences. We will always come up short, but striving do to God’s will brings delight and joy to our Father.

Second, Jesus loves those who recognize that there is always more to be done, and wish to know his will more and more. Jesus says as recorded in Luke’s Gospel, that there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repenteth (Luke 15:10). He loves those who come with an open and penitent heart to hear what wonderful things He has in store for them and their lives.

However, as we know from the story, coming with an open heart, and heeding what God wishes and desires are two different things. The third difference coming in Mark’s Gospel comes at the end of our passage this morning. After Jesus tells the man that he needed to sell all that he had, give it to the poor, and come and follow him, Mark tells us that the man’s “countenance fell.” That term is used nowhere else in the Bible, and I think we all have a mental picture of what that might have looked like. I’m sure each of us can probably recall an instance when we knew we were caught, or we just heard something that we really didn’t want to hear, and our demeanors change and it spreads all the way across our faces.

The reason the man goes away sad and dejected is due to his large number of possessions, and couldn’t think of parting ways with them. The man was more tied to the things of this world rather than what Jesus had in store for him for all eternity. He could not do what the collect for fourth Sunday after Trinity asks, “that we might so pass through the things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal.” The rich man confused the two, and lost the better portion.

How often do we also place security in our possessions, rather than in our Lord? I opened this sermon by saying I didn’t like passages like this one because I know that I’ve been found guilty, and come up lacking in God’s eyes. I recall any number of occasions that I have placed far too much stock in the things that won’t last instead of what I know in my heart to be the one thing that is most important.

I think it’s critical to truly hear what Jesus is saying here.

He is not saying that possessions are bad.
He is not saying that money is bad.
He’s not saying that being his disciples mean that we no longer use the gifts and talents that he has entrusted to us.

He is saying that we must constantly inventory our hearts and make sure that there is nothing there which hinders our walk with Him. He is saying that he wants to use those good things of this world with us to further the good things He has in store for His creation.

Don’t hear me say that this is easy because it isn’t. G. K. Chesterton once said that that the problem with Christianity is not that it’s been tried and found wanting, but rather it’s been found to be difficult and left untried. The man in our story couldn’t do it. Our Lord asks us is we have the courage to give him everything, trust Him with all that He has given to us, and follow Him wherever He leads us. If we have the courage to do so, the rewards will last forever.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Sermon for Trinity XVII – Proper 22B
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
October 4, 2009

There are occasions for a preacher when the appointed lessons seem to be so perfectly matched. This morning’s lessons happen to be one of those times. However, when I read them, I asked myself a question – why this morning? Why this time in the Church Year?

I’m not really sure that I have an answer to the question why we hear them this time during the year, but I think that they are terribly important for us to hear, and also hear on this morning as we begin a new relationship together.

I wish to begin by saying how honored I am to have been called as your Rector. I am humbled to be standing in this pulpit and preparing to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries in a few minutes not as a supply priest, but in your midst as a servant and also as spiritual head of this wonderful congregation. My family and I very much look forward to the days, months and many years ahead.

In looking at our lessons this morning, there seem to be two matched themes which go hand-in-hand with one another. It certainly wasn’t difficult to pick up on the theme of marriage and divorce that is matched in the lessons from Genesis and Mark. The other theme is found in the link between Psalm 8 and Hebrews 2. The theme that comes out of those two lessons deals with mankind and how important we are as the pinnacle of God’s creation.

Certainly there are at least two separate sermons here if I were to speak just on marriage, or just on humanity in God’s eyes. However, I want to address these themes together and why I believe that these are appointed to all be read together.

For me, the place to begin with these Propers is with the Psalm. The Psalmist asks, “What is man that thou art mindful of him; and the son of man that thou visitest him?” That question is one of the most intriguing in Scripture, and certainly bears light to the theme which we heard from the Epistle to the Hebrews.

In our world of religious pluralism, relative truth, materialism, and any other “ism” you care to include it is an absolutely stunning thing to comprehend that God would come down from heaven and become a man, live and die as one of us, and be subject to every form of temptation and suffering as we do. One of the dogmas of our church states that Jesus had two natures – one completely divine, and one completely human. This dogma is crucial because it addresses two fundamental points for us as sinful human beings.

First, Jesus’ divinity addresses the issue that we believe in a God who is actually capable of saving us. If Jesus were not 100% divine how would he be able to save us? Only God is able to save us from our sins, and we affirm in all three of our creeds that Jesus is in fact completely God.

Second, Jesus’ humanity addresses the issue of what does Jesus save us from? N.T. Wright once said in a lecture that the fact that Jesus took on flesh, and lived as a man keeps us from manufacturing a Jesus who just seemed to move about 6” off the ground and never really got his hands dirty. This certainly isn’t the Jesus we read about in the New Testament, and it certainly can never be the person we worship as our Lord.

As the Epistle to the Hebrews declares, “Surely he did not help angels but rather the descendents of Abraham; therefore, he had to become like his brothers in every way, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God to expiate the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Jesus did not shun the Virgin’s womb and became subject to suffering in order that we too who suffer and struggle in our own lives daily.

The reason that I began by addressing the theme of mankind is so that the marriage theme would make sense in this context.

Not only does God in His infinite wisdom and grace become one of us, he does so with the intention of entering into a relationship with us so deep, so profound, and so mysterious as that of a marriage.

The opening lines of the service for the Solemnization of Holy Matrimony begins with the following: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this company, to join together the Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church…”

God gave the Sacrament of Marriage at the beginning of creation, and was actually instituted prior to man’s fall. Even in our innocence, as the marriage service from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer states, God gave us His intended ordering for all mankind with the union of one Man and one Woman in a sacred bond and covenant.

That sacred bond and covenant has been extended to us as well. Throughout the New Testament our Lord spoke of His relationship with mankind as a marriage between Himself, the Bridegroom, and us His bride, the Church. The spotless Bridegroom is forever waiting for his Bride. Throughout our lives we constantly strive for that holiness and sanctification that will make us ready to meet the Groom when the cry goes forth at midnight proclaiming that He has arrived.

I conclude with a short story that made it through my e-mail several months ago. Perhaps some of you saw it as well.

On a busy morning around 8:30am, a gentleman of around the age of 80 entered the emergency room of his local community hospital. He needed to have stitches taken out of his thumb, and did not have the money nor the insurance to cover a regular doctor's visit in order to do so. Yet, he seemed to be in a hurry, looking anxiously down at his wrist watch.

A young intake nurse on the floor noticed that he seemed rather nervous, and asked if he was in a hurry. "Yes," he said. "I have an appointment at 9."

The nurse took his vitals and asked him to sit out in the waiting room, knowing fully well that it would be a few hours before anyone could help him. Seeing that he was so preoccupied with the time, and since there were no other patients waiting to be checked in behind him, she decided to take a look at his wound. Upon examination, it was apparent that he had healed well. She talked to her supervising physican, asking for permission to go ahead and remove the stitches for him.

While removing the sutures and redressing the wound, she asked the gentleman if he had a doctor's appointment at 9.

"No," he replied. "I just need to go and see my wife at the nursing home for breakfast."

The nurse asked politely about her health, in a casual, conversational manner.

"Well," he said, "she has been there for some time now. She caught Alzheimer's, so I couldn't take care of her on my own anymore."

"Will she be angry with you if you are a little late?" asked the nurse.

"No, I guess not." he replied. "She doesn't even remember me anymore or recognize who I am. She has not known me for five years or so now."

The nurse was surprised to learn this information. She asked, "Yet, you still go to see her for breakfast every single morning, even though she has no clue who you are?"

He smiled at her in a knowing, wise way, patted her on the hand and said, "Yes honey. She may not know me, but I know her!"

Certainly there are times when our Lord continues to visit us when we don’t know or recognize Him. However, His faithfulness is the true source of hope that we can forever lean upon in our lives. Christ will never forsake those who call upon His Holy Name, for He has made a vow and covenant with us that He is who He says He is, and has done for us that which we are incapable of doing for ourselves. He has purchased for us an inheritance that surpasses anything we can ever imagine or comprehend; He bids us to say yes to His marriage proposal, and share that Good News with all.