Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sermon for the Proper 16 RCL
St. James Lutheran Church – Brunswick, GA
August 22, 2010

I want to thank Pastor Webb for the invitation to join you this morning to celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Baptism of Grant Brian Coolidge, and the opportunity to preach within the context of this glorious service. To Kim and Carl, I extend my most profound gratitude to you in asking me to share in this even in your lives as we welcome Grant into the Body of Christ – the Church. It is a sacred moment that we share together as the gathered body of the faithful believers to take part in one of the two direct commands of Jesus. In the church we celebrate and most highly regard the two Dominical Sacraments – Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. These two were directly instituted by Christ himself, and He commands us to continue to celebrate them in our common life together.

In this service today we incorporate them both, as a new member is formally and sacramentally brought into our midst, and as we come to be fed by our Lord’s most precious Body and Blood. For Carl, Kim, Cohen, Grant’s grandparents and extended family, and most directly the members of this parish, we are all charged with the awesome responsibility of seeing that Grant is instructed, nurtured, and framed in the faith that we have made on his behalf this morning, but one day will take for his own, and declare them as a mature professing believer. Then he will join with us and receive in faith the Blessed Sacrament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It is good and proper that we should hear those solemn vows of baptism again and reflect upon them to ensure that we not forget what our bounden duty is to ensure that Grant is brought up to live a life in the service and love of His Creator, His Redeemer, and His Lord.

Our Gospel lesson for today helps us see where this goes terribly wrong. When Pastor sent me the appointed lessons I noticed that this passage from St. Luke was new to the Lectionary. This particular story is one that most would be unfamiliar with outside a personal reading of Luke’s Gospel. This story is also unique in the sense that it is only found in Luke and the other three Gospels have no record of this healing miracle.

As we see from our text Jesus, as was his custom, was teaching in an unnamed synagogue on the Sabbath. Jesus was doing what a good Rabbi and teacher should do, take his place in the reading and expounding upon the Scriptures.

Into this unnamed synagogue there is an unnamed woman who has suffered from a spirit that has crippled her for eighteen years. She has been permanently hunched over and has not been able to stand up straight for almost two decades. As the King James version records, “[she] could in no wise lift up herself.” Please hold that thought in your mind as we continue in the story. We don’t know if anything was said or if there were any other exchanges between Jesus and the woman other than Jesus sees her.

What a wonderful line of Scripture. Jesus saw her. Jesus sees us as well. He sees us in all of our infirmities, in all our sinfulness, in all our raw humanity. Jesus sees us. He doesn’t just see us, He goes one step further, He calls us to Himself like He did the woman. Jesus said, you have not chosen me, I have chosen you. He made the first move. Jesus then goes even one step further and provides an escape route, with a source of healing and wholeness. So he declares to the woman that she has been loosed from her infirmity. He laid his hands on her and her condition immediately changed.

I almost hesitate doing this, but I really must point out a place where I completely disagree with the NRSV’s handling of verse 13. In the text you heard read and have before you it says that after Jesus spoke and touched her that the woman stood up. Most of the time the way the translators render a particular verb form there isn’t a significant shift in meaning, let alone a theological implication. In this case here, I think there is a most important part of the story that would otherwise go unnoticed. The verb in this sentence is actually in the passive voice, and if you dig deep, and think back to high school English and Grammar, I know for some that might be a painful experience, the passive voice means that the subject isn’t doing the action, but rather it is being acted upon by an outside agent. In this case, see if you don’t hear the difference. If we translate this as a passive we would have “and immediately she was made straight.” She didn’t just stand up, she was given the ability to stand up, and it came from outside herself. She was incapable of doing it on her own, she needed help from without, and guess what folks, SO DO WE!

We don’t possess of our own volition the ability to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. That’s why we brought Grant here this morning. He comes here to receive that which by his nature he could not receive save through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. One of the prayers in the Lenten Season that we pray goes as follows:
ALMIGHTY God , who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.

Therefore, this morning, we come to receive again that which we cannot obtain on our own. We bring little Grant to receive cleansing from the stain of Original Sin through the waters of baptism, and we all come to receive the nourishment through our Lord’s shed Body and Blood. It is also appropriate that it be done in the Lord’s house.

As I mentioned earlier, here is the point in the story where things went totally wrong. The leader of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus would condescend to do work on the Sabbath, something that the Fourth Commandment strictly forbade.

This woman, presumably a member of the community, was doing the one thing that she was bidden to do on the Sabbath, be present in the worship of God. She was coming to the true place of healing, the only place where she might receive the gift of God’s Word proclaimed in her midst. Receiving a miracle was most certainly the last thing on her mind, and the Providence of God placed her in the path of His Son. The leader of the synagogue totally misunderstood the meaning of the word work. It was the most appropriate place for the woman to be healed and the most appropriate day for it to happen. Should not the power of God be revealed when the faithful are assembled to worship? Absolutely! That’s why it’s appropriate that we should assemble together in the Breaking of Bread, and in the admission of a Child of God into Holy Mother Church.

We’ve done good work here this morning. Through God’s Holy Spirit, we’ve started Grant on the path toward life, toward life eternal, toward life with His Creator and Heavenly Father.

When the woman who was set free from her infirmity, and was made straight she did the only thing that was meet and right for her to do – she worshipped God. Through the power of repentance, reconciliation, and amendment of life, we too are being set free from our infirmities as well, and are being set straight as we strive to be holy as our Father in Heaven is holy. In that light we too should imitate that woman from this morning’s Gospel and do the only thing that is appropriate in response, to come and worship Almighty God, to whom we honor, praise, laud, and glorify, both now and evermore.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sermon for the Feast of the Assumption
August 15, 2010
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA

In my sermon two weeks ago, I mentioned a quotation from Dr. Paul Zahl regarding preaching for him personally, and how he hated it because if he were truly preaching to Gospel, and actually convicting himself in the process the entire experience was a Golgotha in which he was constantly being confronted with his sinfulness and his need for redemption. One of the points he wanted us to recognize was that in order for the preacher to be authentic he truly had to know himself, and part of the exercise true Gospel centered, Biblical preaching was the genuine need for self-examination and acknowledgment of our own sinfulness in order to help connect the message of Scripture to those sitting in the pew. However, the pulpit is not the preacher’s confessional booth. It is not a place for me to unload my stuff upon you all, and for me to work out my own personal issues.

I’m not going to break that rule this morning, but I am going to make a point of self-disclosure. If someone had told me that when I was growing up attending a parochial school affiliated with the PCA, and being influenced by a staunch evangelical priest in Montgomery, that I would be standing here this morning having written a sermon for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I would have told you that you were absolutely out of your mind. For some, that may come as a shock because of my Anglo-Catholic propensities and fervent love for catholic faith and order. For others, you may have grown up in the Bible Belt, and anything that wreaked of papalism or Romism you reject outright, and I had better get somewhere quickly because even mentioning words like the Assumption has already put me in hot water. For some, you might still be trying to remember what that Assumpta-whatever word was that?! Whichever the case may be, I pray that we all might allow what we heard from Holy Scripture a few moments ago to permeate our thoughts this morning, as we seek to allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us through Word and Sacrament.

The feast that we commemorate this morning is certainly one that evokes a variety of thoughts and emotions. One thing that we do know about this feast is that there is no direct record of its occurrence in Holy Scripture. We cannot quote chapter and verse that says that Mary, like Elijah or Enoch, did not die a physical death. We do however lean heavily on the teachings of the church and Apostolic Fathers for much of the extra-Biblical material that have remained since the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. We read these writings through the lens of Holy Scripture, and where it does not disagree, we are free to believe or reject those teachings. Our own Articles of Religion in the back of the Prayer Book declares that we may freely reject those beliefs that cannot be proven by Holy Writ and not require them as essential elements necessary for salvation.

So what gives here? Why on earth would we put forward something like the Assumption of both body and soul of the Blessed Virgin Mary as something to be celebrated and pondered this morning?

For me personally, I believe that a teaching such as this one should lead us not on a quest to figure out its validity, but into a greater recognition of the majesty and awe of Almighty God. After all, that is the primary aim of mankind – the worship and adoration of our Creator. In my humble opinion, this is the centerpiece of this feast day because it helps draw a direct link between our Yes to God and the Grace that flows from the Godhead.

On All Saints’ Day 1950, Pope Pius XII, declared as Roman Catholic dogma, that “By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, they declare today the Dormition of the Theotokos. Dormition is another word for falling asleep, and they teach that Mary did die a natural death, but on the third day following her death that she was resurrected, both body and soul, and has passed through judgment, and awaits with all the church expectant the general resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come as we say in the Creeds.

What do Anglican say?

Exactly what you would expect we would say – Yes. The official position of the Anglican Church is not one requiring dogmatic assertion to the Assumption of Blessed Mary, nor do we reject it as anathema, or something to be disbelieved. “The Anglican-Roman Catholic agreed statement on the Virgin Mary assigns a place for both the Dormition and the Assumption in Anglican devotion.”

Back to my question a few minutes ago, so what? What on earth does this feast day have to do with me?

I’m glad you mentally asked that question because I hope that this begins to answer those questions.

One of the attributes that can be gleaned about Mary from Holy Scripture is her roles as the quintessential example of what saying yes to God looks like in the face of utter peril. As we usually discuss during the Season of Advent, Mary faced the seemingly insurmountable challenge of being found pregnant during her betrothal to Joseph, and his knowing that the child she was carrying was not his. In that culture, betrothal was a legally binding obligation, and to speak quite literally, Mary would have been seen as damaged goods. In the eyes of the world, who was going to believe that she was in fact telling the truth and had not fornicated with another man resulting in the child that was growing within her? The penalty for her unfaithfulness could have meant her stoning to death for violating the sacred bonds of betrothal and her forthcoming marriage.

We have no idea what could have been going through Mary’s mind – all we know is that she pondered them in her heart. In the face of scorn, shame, dismissal, rejection, persecution, Blessed Mary declares, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word.” That is quite frankly a remarkable statement. For a girl her age, she exhibits a depth of faith far beyond her years. It is no wonder that when she goes to visit her cousin Elisabeth who is also pregnant that there is a recognition of that depth when she declares, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” Mary then goes on to praise God in the words that are said at each recitation of the service of Evening Prayer, the Magnificat that we heard just a few minutes ago.

One of the dogmas of our faith is the belief in the dual nature of Jesus, his complete divinity and complete humanity. God’s plan for salvation was that He would enter time and space and become a man so that one day our humanity might be redeemed forever and we might live with God for all eternity. Part of Jesus’ dual nature was what he inherited from his mother. God showered one woman with unimaginable grace to be the bearer of His Son, and thus the title that has been rightly attributed to her is the Theotokos or God bearer. When seen in this light, I don’t find it a difficult stretch at all to believe that if God were to shower her with His grace when she bore the Saviour of the world in her womb that He might also shower her with His grace at the end of her life and receive her body and soul to dwell with him for eternity.

Whether one believes whole heartedly the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or rejects it outright, we should still see in Mary an example that we all might hope to emulate. This is certainly not something that must be believed as a matter of Christian dogma, and I’m fairly sure that one’s position on the Assumption isn’t part of the entrance questionnaire for heaven.

What we can take away from this Feast day is the example of one woman who walked with and followed her son Jesus all throughout her life, who wept at his feet when he breathed his last, and following his resurrection declared his glory to all the world. That, brethren, as Christian disciples is the model that we all must follow, each and every day of our lives.