Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sermon for Septuagesima
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
January 31, 2010

This morning our Kalendar makes a shift as we depart from the beginning of our Church Year and the seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, and turn from the genesis which began in Bethlehem toward this journeys culmination and climax in Jerusalem. I will have to investigate this a bit further, but I’m not really sure I know why the Western Church after Vatican II made such massive changes to the ancient Lectionary of the church and departed from this Pre-Lenten season commonly known as the gesima Sundays. These three Sundays were structured to begin to move our thoughts from the celebration of the Incarnation toward the solemnity of the Passion. There is a great deal of wisdom in these three sequences of readings that we heard this morning and will hear over the next two weeks.

Now, I’m certain that you all have those passages of Scripture that either, make you scratch your head and wonder what is happening here, or think to yourself, “that doesn’t seem right.” In a moment of honesty, this morning’s Gospel is one of those very passages for me. The parable of the laborers at first glance looks like one of those instances where the reward doesn’t seem to be matched to the effort expended to achieve that reward.

Our capitalistic worldview says that we are rewarded based upon the work that we put into something. The only way that one can be successful is to work hard, put in an honest day’s work and receive an honest day’s wages. This country was founded on that principal and this morning’s Gospel seems to have something different in mind.
One important thing to note about parables is the point at which they begin. When Jesus begins his teaching through parables, he almost always makes a declarative statement such as, “the Kingdom of Heaven is like” or “the Kingdom of God can be compared to” and then expands his story in light of what he compares the kingdom to. If you take a quick glance at your bulletin insert, you’ll see what I’m talking about in this morning’s lesson. Jesus says, “For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man who….” Look what Jesus is doing here. The kingdom of heaven is being spoken of as a person. The point of the parable is as much about the man himself, as it is about his actions. I think if we begin with this important observation in mind it will help us leave some of our pre-conceived notions behind and allow us to hear what God’s Spirit wishes for us to hear.

Note also where this story appears in Jesus’ ministry. It’s no wonder that the ancient lectionary would use a parable from the latter half of our Lord’s ministry as he is moving toward Jerusalem and the cross, as we are about to embark again upon that same journey ourselves and prepare to keep a Holy Lent.

The parable opens in a fairly simple fashion with a householder going out to see if he can find laborers go out and work in his vineyard. He lays out for them the task at hand and they agree upon a wage that is suitable for the work that they are being asked to accomplish. The householder realizes that there is more work to be done, so at various time increments, he goes out again in hopes of finding more laborers for the work that he needs to accomplish. A subtle note here is that according to the story, it is only the first laborers that the householder even mentions a dollar amount to. Did you happen to catch that? The other laborers who were hired at third, sixth, ninth and eleventh hours were not given an amount, but rather the householder told them that he would, “give them whatsoever is right.” There appears to be no question on their part, but rather, they agree and go into the field to work. The first laborers reached an agreement on compensation; the subsequent laborers were content only to receive what was right.

When the day of labor was complete and the steward goes out to pay each man his wage, the householder tells him to pay them in reverse order of when they were hired. Obviously, we are being led quite clearly to make in our minds the same mistake that the first laborers did when they saw that they were going to reap the same reward as those who had only worked an hour. The scripture says that they, “murmured against the goodman of house, saying, ‘these last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.’” The whole concept of equal pay for equal work gets thrown out the window here. I’m afraid to admit, but I’m just like those grumbling early hires and say, this just isn’t fair. I should at least earn a little bit extra for laboring in Christ’s vineyard longer than someone who comes to Christ late in life and doesn’t hasn’t borne the burdens that I have, or earned the battle scars that I have, or endured scorn and ridicule from the world like I have. That’s just not right, and I can’t believe that God would do me that way. By golly, I’ve earned it.

The goodman of the house says nothing in reply other than to remind them that they were receiving the compensation that they had originally agreed upon. What right do they have to grumble and complain about the generosity and kindness of the man who hired them first? They received what they rightfully deserved.

We have to step back a minute and look at this again, and hear what our Lord wishes for us to hear. If a parable could be offered to define grace this would be one of the one’s mentioned. If we remember the definitions of mercy and grace, it will help us begin to see things a bit more clearly. Mercy is that attribute of God where we do not receive that which most justly deserve. Didn’t we hear something about that in our collect this morning? “O Lord, we beseech the favourably to hear the prayers of thy people: that we: who are justly punished for our offences, may be mercifully delivered by thy goodness….” As Austin Farrer points out, “the collect doesn’t say that we SHALL be punished for our offences, it says that we ARE punished for our offences.” He goes on to say that we are “not just punished but JUSTLY punished” for these offences. Save the mercy of God, the present and the future of that statement becomes a reality and we would experience that punishment for all eternity. God’s mercy is the only thing that allows us to at least lift our heads when we hear the Sanctus Bells in the Canon of Mass, and glimpse upon the grace of God that we feed upon in Christ’s Flesh and Blood.

Grace is that unexplainable gift that God lavishes upon us when He gives us that which we do not deserve. The laborers in this morning’s Gospel don’t really deserve a full’s days wage for only one hour’s worth of work. However, in the economy of God’s salvation that’s a textbook definition of grace. One of the things that we are to realize as we live our lives as Christians is the fact that Heaven doesn’t have degrees. It’s not like some saints have access to the Delta Crown Rooms in heaven, and the rest of us are relegated to the bagel stand out in the aisles. No, the ineffable joys that await us when we are reunited with our Creator is that we all are allowed to experience the awe, mystery, majesty and beauty of God, and we will do so with all of those saints who have gone before us and have preceded us in the land of light. Those saints who we commemorate, and attempt to emulate in our lives have earned no more of a reward than we hope to attain. We have no idea if the mother of the Sons of Zebedee, James and John, was there to hear this parable, but if she was there, she certainly didn’t understand, because immediately after this parable, and Jesus’ prediction of his passion, she comes up to Jesus and asks that her sons might be granted seats at Jesus’ right hand and his left. Matthew even softens this story a bit in having James’ and John’s mother makes the request. According to Mark’s gospel, the two of them have the audacity to make this request of themselves, and of course, Jesus makes the famous reply that it is not by his authority that he might grant admission to them to sit at his right hand or left hand, but rather, that they have earned themselves the opportunity to drink the very cup that Jesus is about to drink on their behalf. He bids them to come and die, not to atone for sins as Jesus will do, but to come and die to self, and live not for their own glory, but for the glory of God the Father. Jesus goes on to say at the end of Matthew 20 that he has come not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. The parallel verse to this one in John’s Gospel is what we will hear again on Maundy Thursday, where it says that Jesus got up from the table, girded himself about with a towel and began to wash the disciple’s feet. Amazingly, that wasn’t the lowest form of servant hood that Jesus would take on himself during his Passion. He would actually die so that we might taste death no more. As St. Paul declares in his second epistle to the Corinthians, “For He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”

This is a suitable posture where we might prepare our hearts, and minds, and wills to keep a Holy Lent. Pray to the goodman of the household words of thanksgiving that he has called us to serve and work in his vineyard, and let us give thanks for the reward that is ours to receive!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. +

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sermon for Epiphany III
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
January 24, 2010

It isn’t very often that we hear passages from the book of Nehemiah; in fact, this is one of only two times that it is the set Old Testament lesson for the day. With that in mind, I think it’s always helpful to anchor a passage in the full context of the story when we hear a few verses like we just did this morning. Our systematic reading of Holy Scripture in the lectionary does just that every week (a snapshot of Scripture at a time, and the job of the preacher, and the job of the congregation is to so inundate ourselves with God’s Word that we might be able to place ourselves once again within the full context of the story itself, and hear what our Lord wishes for us to hear.

That being said, I think some background information on Nehemiah is most important to ground this portion of the eighth chapter within the whole of the story.

The book opens with Nehemiah receiving news that the walls and gates of Jerusalem have been destroyed and the city is pretty much in ruins. When this news comes to his ears the Scripture says that he wept and mourned for days and continued fasting and praying for days.

The Book of Ezra which precedes Nehemiah is almost a parallel book told from two different perspectives concerning the People of Israel in their time of exile and return from Babylon. Ezra was the priest and Nehemiah was the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes and was an engineer. In the book of Ezra, when the sins of the nation come before him; he is praying before God it says that Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God…and the people wept bitterly.

For two different reasons these two men come before God with an humble, lowly and obedient heart for the grievances that have been brought before them.

So Nehemiah comes before King Artaxerxes and he looks gloomy and sad, and the king asks him why he looks so dejected if he is not sick. He responds and tells the king that he can no longer hide his grief and sorrow that it is wrong for him to sit in lavish luxury in the palace of the king while the place where his forefathers was buried was lying in waste and ruin and his people were great trouble. The king then asks what he would have him do, and Nehemiah first prays to God, and said, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I might rebuild it.” The king follows up this request with a simple reply, how long will you be gone, and when will you return? Nehemiah gives him a time frame, at which time the conversation gets quite interesting. Nehemiah then makes a request, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah, and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress of the temple, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.” The Scripture then says, “And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me.”

Do we really recognize the incredible turn of events here?

Nehemiah first asks for permission to go and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Even though King Cyrus of Persia had allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile under Nebuchadnezzar, they were a captured people, and certainly this could be perceived as a step toward autonomy and potential separation. In the time of Ezra, there were those who had been opposed to the rebuilding of the Temple and Altar of the Lord, and work on that project was ceased for a time. Nehemiah no doubt knew that he was asking allot with this request and yet, the Good Hand of God was upon him, giving him the courage to speak and the words to declare.

Not only does the king grant him the request to go, Nehemiah goes one step further and really pushes the envelope. He has the fortitude to not only ask for letters assuring him safe travel, he asks the king to pick up the tab for the building project. You talk about your perfect example of OPM, Other People’s Money, Nehemiah hits the jackpot here!

Throughout all of this, the Scripture says that the good hand of God was upon him. Why was the good hand of God upon him? Nehemiah was not doing this for his glory; he was doing it for God’s.

Not only was the hand of God upon him in his request from King Artaxerxes to go and rebuild, and do so on his nickel, the hand of God was upon him in safely accomplishing this task in record time. In the sixth chapter of Nehemiah, we hear the following words, “so the wall was finished…in 52 days.” The wall around the city of Jerusalem was built in 52 days. With the exception of shows like Extreme Makeover, you can barely remodel a bathroom in 52 days! Yet, against sentiment from detractors who wished for this project to halt, the people of Israel completed the unthinkable in less than 2 months. And for their hard work, this is how they were perceived by their detractors, “And when our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.”

Do you remember what the people said to themselves when they began to build the Tower of Babel as recorded in Genesis?

“Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

They wanted to make a name for themselves and wished for the honor and glory to be heaped upon themselves. They wanted to cluster in one place, rather than be fruitful and multiply and fill the whole earth as God commanded in the beginning of Creation. They wanted to do the very thing that we see today more than anything – raging secularism that has no need for God, and that all the ingenuity they need is contained within. When God saw what they were doing, he said, “Let us…confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

In the passage we heard this morning, that very concept of understanding appears three times in these ten short verses. For, after the people had completed the task they set out to accomplish, they didn’t stand around gazing at what they had done, and heap praises upon themselves. No, they called upon the priest Ezra, and they said to him, please read to us the story of the Covenant – read to us Our Story! So Ezra brought out the Law to everyone who could understand what they heard. Notice that phrase is repeated twice two verses in a row.

The people of Israel knew that it was meet and right that they would glorify God for the great benefits he had now just bestowed upon them, and that their prosperity would stem from their adherence to God’s Law. They were embodying repentance and transformation as they recognized that their exile into Babylon was a direct result of attempting to do things their own way, attempting to make a name for themselves apart from God, turning away from the Law, and trusting in their own goodness and abilities. It had failed them once, they did not want to fail again.

It says again that, “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”

Jesus takes the scroll that is given to him, and unrolls it to a portion of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and begins to read in the Synagogue in Nazareth, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” Jesus sits down, all eyes are fixed upon him, and he makes the most remarkable claim, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Even though our text says in the verse following that everyone spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words coming from his mouth, the audience didn’t understand anything coming out of Jesus’ mouth.

The people of Israel in the time of Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the wall understood the Law of God, as was reiterated in our passage this morning. Those in the synagogue at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry didn’t have a clue as to what he meant when he declared to them in some of his more direct words that they were witnessing the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, and they were called to play an integral part of that work.

Unfortunately, they were like those poor folks who tried to build the Tower of Babel, and attempted to make the Kingdom of God fit their agenda rather than modifying their agenda to fit God’s. They read into the story what they wanted to hear, and they cast Jesus out of the Synagogue when he began saying things they didn’t want to hear. They didn’t want to hear that God’s New Covenant was for the whole world. They wanted the rest of the world to get what they deserved as being outside the Old Covenant. They failed to hear and understand that their role was the be the vehicle through which God was acting, and that they were to be the Light of the World, they were to be the Salt of the Earth, they were to be that City set upon a Hill.

That kingdom the Jesus proclaimed at the outset of his ministry has broken through, and we bear witness to that fact. Jesus comes to us in all of our spiritual poverty, and lavishes us with His grace and mercy that we neither merit nor deserve. He comes to us in the prison of sin that surrounds us every day of our lives, and loosens those chains, and swings open the iron gates of the cell. He takes our blindness, when we are unable to see what he has called us to behold, and restores us to gaze upon his glorious majesty. He promises that when we are persecuted and oppressed for righteousness sake that he will proclaim liberty to us, and will continue to do so. We have this promise, made by God, and sealed with His blood. It is proclaimed to us each and every time we gather in His name to hear his Most Holy Word, and gather around His table to receive the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.

We bid you to speak again to us Lord, so that he might truly have ears to hear, and that we might truly understand.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sermon for Epiphany II
St. John’s – Moultrie, GA
January 17, 2010

This morning’s Gospel lesson brings us to one of the miracles of Jesus that is only found in John’s Gospel. Actually, since it is only found in John’s Gospel, and since John doesn’t use the word that is normally translated “miracle” in his record, I’ll use the word that more aptly describes the event – the changing of water into wine was the first ‘sign’ of Jesus in John’s Gospel. In fact, the first half of John’s Gospel has been described by commentators as the Book of Signs with the latter half of the Gospel known as the Book of Glory. Keep in mind though, these signs point to the Glory of God which finds its culmination in the cross where God’s reign finds its ultimate glory in the final defeat of sin and Satan. John mentions that this is the first of the signs of Jesus, but he doesn’t use a word in Greek that would imply the first in a list, but rather uses a word that stands out and is packed with meaning. John uses the word arke, which literally means ‘beginning.’ The reason I say that word would be packed with meaning is that is the second word that John uses to begin his Gospel, and it is how Moses began the book of Genesis – In the beginning - en arke.

As with all of the signs in John’s Gospel, we as hearers of the story after the fact must come to recognize that there is far more below the surface than simply the miracle for the miracle’s sake. Certainly one remarkable aspect of Jesus’ ministry was his ability to do remarkable things, miraculously heal the sick, give sight to the blind, restore palsied limbs to those who were lame, cure the deaf, and raise to life those who were both literally and figuratively dead. Yes, that is an attribute of our Lord’s divinity, and one that is enough for many to make them believers. But, for John and the seven signs that he records, there are hints of much greater magnitude below the surface, and I will touch on a few of those this morning.

Our text opens in a seemingly non-descript fashion with John stating that, “And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there.” If we unpack that statement just a bit there is more there than meets the eye. This “third day” event immediately follows another sequence of three days in chapter 1. After the prologue which we heard several times throughout the Christmas Season, we hear of the ministry of John the Baptist. On the first day we have the discourse between John and the priests and Levites where they ask him if he is the Christ and he tells them that he is not, but that One is coming after him, the latchet of his shoes he is not worthy to unloose. The next day John sees Jesus walking toward him and declares, “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.” The day following, the third day, John is standing with two of his disciples and declares to them, “Behold the Lamb of God.” With those words, the two disciples left John, and began to follow Jesus. Within a three day span, we have John make a declaration about who he was, and who he was not, and alludes to someone who is yet to come. The very next day he makes a declarative statement about who Jesus is, and what he has come to do. On the third day, it’s almost as if he realizes his hour has come, and it is time for him to decrease so that Jesus might increase. He lets his disciples go so that they might follow the One that they have all been waiting for. This third day would be the beginning of a new journey as disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.

It is not coincidental that our passage this morning begins with a reference to the third day because the sign that John records on this third day at a wedding in Cana of Galilee is only a shadow of one that will come 3 years later – the third day which we call Easter Sunday.

John also mentions that Jesus’ mother was there. You’ll note here that John doesn’t say that Mary was there, and in the dialogue which follows between Jesus and his mother, there appears to be a tone of disrespect, one that appears condescending. When Mary comes to Jesus to inform him that they are out of wine, Jesus responds by referring to his mother as ‘woman.’ In that culture, that was not a term of inferiority or disrespect. That title would have been normal and common, and thus only strikes us as odd because I can only imagine the reaction I would have gotten from my mother if I had referred to her as woman – it would not have been pretty!

Many have speculated that one of the reasons that they ran out of wine was because Jesus was bidden to come to the wedding, perhaps out of courtesy, and thus is brings several other unexpected guests as well in the form of his new disciples, Andrew, Simon, Philip, and Nathanael as we heard about in the preceding passage. Of course this is mere speculation because as we discussed in our class before Christmas on John’s Gospel, our author here is not necessarily concerned with chronology as he is with Christology. The story behind the story is what he’s after.

One of the wonderful themes throughout the Gospels is the grace displayed by Mary, and this story is no different. It’s no wonder that the church has placed such a tremendous amount of honor and respect for the Mother of God because of the humility that surrounds her throughout the biblical record. Even though Jesus says to her that His hour has not yet come, she still places complete belief and trust in her son and turns the situation completely over to him. Mary tells the stewards, “Do whatever he tells you.” She has no idea if Jesus is going to do anything or if he does what it might look like. She doesn’t concern herself with those details. For me, that is the hardest thing to do. How do I simply let go and rest in the comfort that God is in control? I would suspect that I’m not alone in that statement.

Jesus then directs the servants to fill the six stone jugs that were there for the rites of purification to the brim with water. I can see a major theological point to here regarding the presence of those jugs, and John’s attention to detail in mentioning them. We can see those jugs as a representation of the Old Covenant, the Law given by God through Moses and it still has significance and meaning. We don’t know how much water was still in the jugs, but we do know that Jesus commands that they be filled with water. In the very next chapter we will hear of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman and her quest for Living Water. When the water of the New Covenant that Jesus gives fills up the containers of the Old Covenant, something miraculous occurs. A change takes place, and does so with a difference.

When the steward is commanded to draw from the jug and taste, he discovers wine that he didn’t know where it had come from. He is so shocked that he rushes to the bridegroom, and compliments him on the quality. He says to him, “Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now.”

The steward declares that the wine that he has apparently saved for last is good wine. In Greek there are multiple words which give the connotation of “good,” and I don’t want to push this correlation too far, but I believe that it’s no mistake that the same word here is the same word that Jesus uses in John chapter 10 when he speaks of Himself as the Good Shepherd. It’s no coincidence that the Good Shepherd would produce Good Wine. That which emanates from His very being is Good. It’ also no accident that when the Good Shepherd, the Word made Flesh who spoke all of Creation into being would declare that it was kalos – it was good, no, it was Very Good!

Our passage closes with the phrase that this first sign of Jesus accomplished two important points – that it manifested forth His glory, and that his disciples believed on him. Everything that we do should be for the very same reason – that our actions might manifest forth the glory of God, and that we and others should believe on Him. A key point of St. Augustine’s theology of the charity and Great Commandment is that everything that we do in love should be to help others love God more and more each day of their lives. Our Lord desires that we love others in such a fashion that they might be drawn deeper into love and union with God. In turn this love is directed outward toward our neighbors, and creates a cycle that repeats back upon itself.

I will readily admit that this is the difficult work of discipleship. It is work that cannot be accomplished save the grace of Almighty God. On our own, this is an absolute impossibility. However, as our Lord declares, “with men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” How would our lives look like if we lived this every day? What would our families look like if we dared to try this? What would our nation become if we took on this risk?

I don’t really know, but I’m sure the results would eclipse my wildest imaginations, and I don’t know about you, but I’d love to find out!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sermon for The Sunday After The Epiphany
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
January 10, 2010

Last Sunday morning while most of us were here at church or visiting family or friends at the end of the Christmas break, a most interesting comment was made by Brit Hume of Fox News on the program Fox News Sunday which has provided an absolute firestorm of commentary on the Internet and blogs. The response has produced everything from facebook groups entitled “Thank you Brit Hume” to other groups calling for his firing and removal. For those of you who have not stumbled upon this on the Net, or didn’t hear about this, this is what Brit Hume said last Sunday morning:

“Tiger Woods will recover as a golfer. Whether he can recover as a person I think is a very open question, and it's a tragic situation for him. I think he's lost his family, it's not clear to me if he'll be able to have a relationship with his children, but the Tiger Woods that emerges once the news value dies out of this scandal -- the extent to which he can recover -- seems to me to depend on his faith. He's said to be a Buddhist; I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be, 'Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.'"

After a moment of awkward silence, fellow panelist Bill Kristol quipped, "Well, Brit's concerned about Tiger's soul, which is admirable, but I just made a more straightforward sports prediction, which was that he'll come back and win the Masters."

No, I’m not going to turn this sermon into a comparison of the doctrines of repentance and redemption between Christianity and Buddhism, but I am going to address those two issues of repentance and redemption in light of Christianity and one additional issue, on this the first Sunday following the Epiphany.

Last Wednesday evening, we commemorated the Feast of the Epiphany with our weekly Eucharist service beginning not in the bright lights of the sanctuary, but in a darkened church and in complete silence. The world in which Jesus’ life began was one of darkness. The people of Israel were living in the Promised Land but were not free because they continued to live under the occupation of the Romans and Herod, the puppet king put in place to keep the peace. They lived with the expectation as promised by the prophets that God would one day return to Zion and reign as king forever and ever. Certainly the lyrics of Handel’s Messiah begin to come to mind here. A baby was born in Bethlehem, and the heavens could not keep this fact silent. A light broke forth in the sky, and was of such magnitude that a group of astrologers and mystics from the East said one to another, “We are beholding something of a magnitude beyond our comprehension.” They were exactly right. Something beyond human comprehension had occurred, and did so according to a Divine Plan.

What should have been a most insignificant event, turns out to be the most significant event outside of Creation it’s self. A young couple arrives in Bethlehem, following the command of a pompous, egotistical, narcissistic man in Augustus, and while they were there have a baby born in a stable to be witnessed by a group of shepherds. Creation was being renewed, and Gentiles were the only ones who read the signs in the heavens and came to see what miracle had taken place.

We started the service last Wednesday in darkness, but finished in the light. We started in anticipation of what lay ahead, and departed being filled with Christ in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. We started in the darkness of the sin that besets us all, and left with the assurance of God’s forgiveness and redemption. There is no darkness so dark that can overcome the light of Christ Jesus our Lord.

That is what Brit Hume was talking about last Sunday when he graciously offered the Redeeming and Redemptive Blood of Christ to Tiger Woods. He wasn’t piling on to an already horrendous situation. Rather, he was offering Tiger a way out, and ultimately, the only Way out.

***Bill O’Reilly interviewed Brit Hume one night last week, and Hume made the follow-up comment, “Jesus Christ offers to Tiger Woods something the Tiger Woods desperately needs.” Mr. Hume, you just nailed the message of the Gospel, and how many of us are ready, willing and able to make that same proclamation? My prayers is that we all are.

However, we live with the reality that we will be persecuted for doing so. Society will despise us for making bold proclamations such as this and living out the Gospel mandate of spreading the Good News of the Gospel and fulfilling the Great Commission – just ask Brit Hume.

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann aired Hume's remarks and sneered, "WOW. Hume's attempting to inject religion in a discussion of Tiger Woods, and says one religion is better than another."

Dan Savage, a guest, agreed: "Being Christian is the best religion because it offers a 'get out of adultery free card, like Mark Sanford and David Vitter. It is an insult to Christianity. Didn't his mother tell him, 'Never discuss religion in public?'"

Olbermann described the "Peter Pan quality" of Hume's remarks, "Our God can beat up their God."

Tom Shales, who reviews TV for "The Washington Post," was also contemptuous "of his trying to compare two of the world's great religions...Is it really his job to run around trying to drum up new business? He doesn't really have that authority, does he, unless one believes that every Christian by mandate must proselytize?"

A blogger nailed Shales directly with this arrow, "You've managed to offend over 70 percent of Americans who call themselves Christian. I know you're probably an agnostic or even an atheist, so you won't understand, but 'proselytizing' is a tenet of Christianity. Ever read Matthew 18:19, sir?"

Bill O'Reilly gave Hume an opportunity to respond on his Monday show, asking if he was proselytizing, "I don't think so," replied Hume, adding, "Tiger Woods needs something that Christianity offers, forgiveness and redemption."

"Remember Chuck Colson, a leading light of Watergate?"

O'Reilly replied, "He made a true conversion."

And what did that conversion produce? Colson created Prison Fellowship, which over 30 years brought tens of thousands of volunteers into prisons, giving millions of inmates genuine hope for a new life. A single transformed life can impact millions.

Knowing that, Hume responded, "If Tiger Woods made a true conversion, we would know it. It would be a magnificent thing to witness."

It would indeed.

O'Reilly asked why Hume's observations sparked so many negative jibes at Christianity.

"It has always been a puzzling thing to me that if you even speak of Jesus Christ (and I did not use his name in my remarks), all hell breaks loose. It is explosive. I simply spoke of the Christian faith. But that triggers a very powerful reaction in people who do not share the faith and do not believe in it. It always has."

Jesus predicted this would happen: "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first... If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (John 15:18-20).

Many Buddhists have been puzzled by the controversy. They don't believe Hume denigrated their religion, but simply described it. As one Buddhist blogger put it, "Buddhism doesn't offer redemption and forgiveness in the same way that Christianity does. Buddhism has no concept of sin. Redemption and forgiveness in the Christian sense are meaningless in Buddhism."

Hume's critics are disingenuous in claiming to be offended by Hume's elevation of Christianity as a better answer than Buddhism. The fact is that Christianity does offer a better answer.

What prompted Brit Hume to offer the Christian faith as an answer? More than a decade ago, Hume described his own conversion and what motivated it: "I came to Christ in a way that was very meaningful to me," in the aftermath of his son's suicide.

Tiger Woods ought to explore the Christian faith and consider Brit Hume's compassionate advice. If he made a genuine conversion, went back to playing golf and being faithful to his wife and children - he would likely be forgiven by them in time as well as by his fans.

Tiger Woods could become his generation's Chuck Colson.****

There is one thing that Brit Hume left out of his statement last Sunday and a third point that Christianity offers over and against other faith traditions. Hope is one of the greatest gifts of the Christian Faith. When we lay a body to rest in the Burial Office we do not do so as people without hope, but with the following words, “UNTO Almighty God we commend the soul of our brother departed, and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the earth and the sea shall give up their dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his own glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.”

We live with both the sure and the certain hope that there is something far more glorious and wonderful that awaits us all at the general resurrection of the dead. This body which was sewn in corruption will spring forth in incorruption into the glorious body of Christ, and we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. This is what we have to offer to the world. The light which shineth forth into the darkness is alive in each of us. And as we say in our service, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven,” we continue to do the very thing we were created to do – to bring honor, glory, praise, and worship to our Heavenly Father.

****Source for passage marked with asterisks, Michael J. McManus from

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Sermon for Christmas II
St. John’s - Moultrie, GA
January 3, 2010

As you all know, the life of our church revolves around the two most holy days of the Church Kalendar, those being Christmas, and Easter. I find it most interesting that on this second Sunday after Christmas, when we are over half-way through the Christmas Season, we’re already looking toward Lent, and Easter. Why do I say that you might be asking? If you look again at the Collect appointed for today I think you will see why I would make a statement such as that.

Our Collect today opens with an acknowledgment that sounds a great deal like the Collect appointed for Ash Wednesday, in which we pray, “Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made…” The most penitential season of our Church Year, in which we are preparing our hearts to return again to the events of Holy Week, we are reassured that God still remembers the “goodness” of creation, and that has not changed on account of our fallen and sinful state. The very fact that God declared in Genesis that all of creation was “good” and that final declaration that all that God created was “very good” is not undone with the Fall. Creation from that point forward is marred and its luster is now faded, but the goodness that was there from the beginning was not destroyed. The very fact that God’s Spirit dwells within each of us, and that God breathed life into us solidifies that very fact.

Now on the Second Sunday after Christmas, the theme of our goodness comes back again when we prayed just a few moments ago, “O God, who didst wonderfully create, and yet more wonderfully restore, the dignity of human nature.” Through the Incarnation of Christ, our image is changed, and we are now a new Creation in Christ. I think it’s most important to note, who is doing all of the work here. It is God who created the dignity of our humanity in the first place, and it is God who restores that nature as well. We bring nothing to table in that regard, and can do nothing other than respond to the grace that has been shown toward us by a loving and merciful God.

How does this happen? What exactly is God doing here?

First, and most importantly, we must acknowledge that what is happening here is a profound mystery and one that requires faith rather than fact to begin to understand. St. Augustine, the revered Bishop of Hippo who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, said, "I believe in order to understand" (credo ut intelligam). St. Anselm, who was enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093, echoed this: "I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand." Anselm’s mantra regarding the Christian faith can be summed up in three words, “Faith seeking understanding.” Clearly, these two men answered the question by emphasizing faith. If these statements are any indication, St. Augustine and St. Anselm held to what we hear in Hebrews: "Through faith we understand..." (11:3).

Moderns such as Richard Dawkins, author of the book The God Delusion, would argue that this is pure rubbish, and with all of the advances of science and modernity, we should be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt any and everything that ought to be believed, and the rest cast to the realm of the uneducated and backward. Philosopher David Hume once made the following claim:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

There’s a major problem with Hume’s argument. It fails its own test for validity. Just like I mentioned last week regarding the statement “All truth is relative,” the statement above collapses under its own weight. Does Hume’s argument contain any mathematical computations in order to probe the realms of any abstract reasoning – no, it doesn’t. Does the statement contain any experiments that can help deal with matters of fact and existence – no, it doesn’t. Therefore, doesn’t it fail its own test for validity? I say, yes, it does.

Our response should be one of humility and faith, and not one that requires proofs or scientific facts. If we come in such a posture, it’s amazing what understanding God begins to open up to us.

This restoration is required because we made a mess of things doing it our way, rather than trusting God for His. Because of Man’s pride we continue to rebel against God, and His will for us in our lives. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, pride occupies the lowest rung of hell because it is by far the hardest of the seven deadly sins to overcome. Whenever we make a concerted effort to truly acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness, more than likely pride is somewhere at the root of our misdoings. In the General Confession in Morning Prayer, we declare that, “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” The first of the beatitudes is “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Those who are poor in spirit realize the true poverty that comes from trusting in ourselves. The reward that comes from accepting a humble, lowly, obedient, and penitent heart is an inheritance beyond what we could ever imagine.

In our collect, Jesus comes in that very fashion. The only way that we can share in his divinity and divine life was because he humbled himself and partook of our humanity, shunning not the Virgin’s womb and took our humanity into his divinity. The very fact that this Season of Christmas celebrates the birth of the Christ Child should be evidence enough of the humble nature of the Messiah that we proclaim as our Lord and Saviour. That Jesus would come knowing that His very life pointed toward the cross and His death also declares the humility with which He would willingly submit His very existence to the will of the Father. Jesus declares throughout His ministry that He came not to do His own will, but the will of His Heavenly Father. We who bear the name of Christ must also humble ourselves and become like Him who submitted wholly to the will of God Almighty.

In our first lesson from Isaiah, the prophet declares that a new day is about to dawn for the people of Israel. For us at Christmas a new day has dawned for us, the people of the New Covenant as well. Our Lord has proclaimed liberty to the captives and opened the prison doors to those who are bound. We are held captive to the bondage of sin, and are bound by the desires of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Jesus comes to us again to proclaim that those chains of bondage have been forever broken, and we become slaves of Christ, as St. Paul begins many of his epistles. We have voluntarily bound ourselves to Christ and are slaves in the sense that we submit ourselves to an authority wherein we may abound with joy and thanksgiving.

In the current issue of Mandate, the bi-monthly publication of the Prayer Book Society, there is an article entitled, “Gresham Machen on the Christian Doctrine of Sin.” There is a copy of this issue in the tract rack by the side door if you would like to make a copy of that particular article. It’s amazing that the excerpt that was quoted from his book Christianity and Liberalism was penned in 1923. It certainly rings true today as much if not more so than it did almost a century ago. Here is how Machen treats the human condition, and in light of our collect for today, how our Lord transforms human nature into His image and likeness and away from what it had become.

In saying that Christianity is the religion of the broken heart, we do not mean that Christianity ends with the broken heart; we do not mean that the characteristic Christian attitude is a continual beating on the breast or a continual crying of “Woe is me.” Nothing could be further from the fact. On the contrary, Christianity means that sin is faced once for all, and then is cast, by the grace of God, forever into the depths of the sea. The trouble with the paganism of ancient Greece, as with the paganism of modern times, was not in the superstructure, which was glorious, but in the foundation, which was rotten. There was always something to be covered up; the enthusiasm of the architect was maintained only by ignoring the disturbing fact of sin. In Christianity, on the other hand, nothing needs to be covered up. The fact of sin is faced squarely once for all, and is dealt with by the grace of God. But then, after sin has been removed by the grace of God, the Christian can proceed to develop joyously every faculty that God has given him. Such is the higher Christian humanism—a humanism founded not upon human pride but upon divine grace.

We hear again the message of Christmas, and the Incarnation of our Lord, who stepped into the very creation that He made in the beginning. He came down to earth in the lowliest of forms so that we might reach unimaginable heights. He did so for us and our salvation in order that we might have life and have it abundantly both in this life and in the life to come. This, my brothers and sisters in Christ is Good News. It’s actually the best news anyone could ever hope to hear. And as we celebrated again our Lord’s birthday, we were the ones who actually received the greatest gift that has ever been given to man. Thanks be to God, for that unspeakable gift!