Monday, February 28, 2011

Sermon for Sexagesima
St. John’s – Moultrie, GA
February 27, 2011

Last Sunday we heard the example from St. Paul about a runner who runs and trains to obtain the prize, and the boxer who hones his skills so that he is not just wildly striking at the air, but that his punches might strike actual blows. This notion of training and spring were gathered around the imagery of Spring Training and this time of Pre-Lent and Lent being a training time for the soul.

A second characteristic of spring that should be familiar to all of us here in South Georgia is the preparation of the fields for the planting of the spring crops. As I drive back and forth from Thomasville to Moultrie I see the buzz of activity in the fields that I pass between there and here and farmers diligently making sure that everything is in order, that the soil is properly tilled, weeded, cultivated, and prepared to receive the precious seed that he is preparing to cast. The farmer’s seed is his livelihood. Each growing season he isn’t afforded the luxury of being nonchalant about his preparation because the work that is done in advance will pay massive dividends when it comes to harvest time. If he does not do due diligence in preparing his field, the yield will be adversely affected.

We come this morning on the second Sunday of Pre-Lent, Sexagesima Sunday, to a most familiar and unique parable of Jesus. It is familiar in the sense that it is one of the very few parables that is found in all three synoptic Gospels, and the form is almost identical between the variations. That is significant in itself. It is unique in the sense that it is one of the rare instances where Jesus not only tells a parable, but fully exposits its meaning. Jesus’ hearers aren’t left to discover on their own what Jesus is talking about when he uses a parable to teach his disciples and followers.

Four types of soil are presented in Jesus’ parable and only one produces any results. And what results did it yield! Three of the four places where the seed fell produced nothing. In one instance it never had a chance. It would be the equivalent of walking out in the middle of Main Street and casting seed in hopes of it taking root. The seed would simply remain up on top of the ground, and would become bird seed. As the parable declares, the birds do in fact swoop in and consume that which falls along the path where there was no chance of it taking root.

In two of the four soils growth begins, but for different reasons never reaches the harvest. The first actually falls among rock that isn’t prepared to help the seeds reach maturity. It’s somewhat interesting that Luke is the only Gospel writer to say that the reason that the rocky soil is detrimental because of the lack of moisture. In his explanation of the parable, Jesus says that this type of environment can produce the beginnings of something positive, but one that has no future. This could be compared to driving along the road and seeing weeds and such growing in between the pavement and curb. You’ll see these weeds that never seem to go away growing in a place that doesn’t make sense. Even though you may have a shoot here and a shoot there, there is no real harvest to speak of. Also, if you think more about this image, the rocky soil provides no room to apply life giving water and nourishment because more tends to run off rather than soak in. There’s a chance for a beginning, but no opportunity for mature growth and a harvest.

The third soil is that which is full of other competitors for water, nourishment, sunlight, and the like. There are always other things that crowd out and choke out the very things we need for our spiritual growth, and this is the warning of this type of environment. We are always going to be confronted with the cares of this world. Yet, we are never to keep our eyes off the prize, and allow those cares to take precedence, and thus choke out the good seed that lies below.

Finally, the fourth soil is the only one that produces a harvest, and a bounteous one at that. It was soil that was free from being trampled underfoot, free from rocks that are so hard and confining they will not allow nutrients to penetrate or room to spread and grow, free from thorns and thistles and other obstacles that compete for the necessities to growth. This is good soil that was prepared, cultivated, weeded, tended, cared for, and ready for the seed that was cast upon it.

I believe one of the most important lessons to be learned from this parable is the fact that all of these types of soil are in close proximity to one another. It appears from close examination that there is always the danger of the good soil being corrupted and being trampled, or becoming filled of stones, or infiltrated with thorns and weeds. The diligence required of keeping the good soil good is a never ending process. If we ask any of the farmers here in Colquitt County they will tell us that they are engaged in a never ending battle with hindrances to the growth and harvest of their crops. There are always outside forces at work that introduce obstacles. The wind, birds, weather, God forbid vandals, all lie just around the corner to spoil that which is good.

Is our life not the same? Isn’t there always something that creeps in just when we are cultivating a renewed life of prayer, or study of God’s Word, or enjoying the grace that comes through the receiving of the Sacraments? The only way that we can reap an abundant harvest is if we constantly ask God to tend the soil of our lives. It requires work, and lots of it.

We are constantly at work confronting the many dangers that lie in front of us all. We are first in danger of carelessly hearing the word. “This lies at the threshold of the Christian life, and prevents even the entrance of the good seed. The word enters the ear, but never reaches the heart, and quickly passes away even from memory, being caught away by the spirit of evil or crushed by fresh tramplings of worldliness.”

The trials and tribulations of life endanger us. “Trial and temptation mark a crisis in the Christian life, and like the fierce sunshine scorches the shallow-hearted, while they only ripen those deeply rooted.”

Prosperity forms the third danger to growth. “These come with the cares, riches, and pleasures of later years, even when the seed has found lodgment and the blade has given promise. The plant of grace cannot grow in a thicket of worldliness which shuts out God’s light and air. These dangers are found as men “go on their way,” and against them we pray in the Litany, “in all time of our wealth, Good Lord, deliver us.””

“Our Saviour’s closing words seem to favour the interpretation above given the various stages of life and their special dangers. We need not ask which state of ground is ours, for we may resemble all in turn. There are no hearts by nature good ground. Those that are such have been made such by the ploughshares of God’s grace, by His deepening of our shallow soil, by His cleansing processes. Even the good ground hearers should advance in fruitfulness, and will even, like the bending ear, become more humble as they ripen. Here is, therefore, reason both for eternal effort and constant humility that we may hear; hold fast what we have heard; and bring forth fruit with patience.”

May the Lord cultivate the soil of our lives this Lent and beyond that the good seed that He sows might find the good soil that will ensure the abundant harvest that we are all called to produce.

*******Quotations above from The Harmony of the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels by Melville Scott.******

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sermon for Septuagesima
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
February 20, 2011

On Monday of this past week pitchers and catchers reported for the traditional opening of America’s pastime – Spring Training and the resumption of Major League Baseball. It’s been interesting to see many of my friends on facebook make posts counting down the days to opening day and the start of another season. While a fan of baseball I certainly don’t follow it to this level. However, I think that it’s important to think just a moment about this ritual that all athletes go through each year as they embark upon another year of competition on the field of play.

This past Monday was February 14 and opening day of the baseball season is not until April 1. That is 45 days of practice and preparation for the regular season – a season that lasts 162 games from April 1 until late September. For those who continue to the World Series you are looking at the potential for an additional 19 games taking the total to 181 if a team played the maximum number for a season.

That’s allot of work for a trophy and a title. It’s allot for a pennant and the title World Champions. These are folks who are work incredibly hard, put in the time, training, and discipline, embrace correction in order to improve and succeed at an even higher level than before. Baseball isn’t the only sport with a pre-season to help the athletes ease into the rigors of the season of competition that lies ahead. In fact, all the major professional sports have a number of weeks building up to the big day when everything counts, records matter, statistics are kept for all time.

If you noticed in the prayer book the title over the Propers today said “PRE-LENTEN SEASON.” We have a period of three weeks, today and two more Sundays before our annual pilgrimage through the season of Lent and the disciplines that we attempt to cultivate as we strive to keep a Holy Lent and recognize more fully the events that lie ahead during Passiontide. It is an attempt to embrace more fully the condition of man as that part of God’s creation that was fearfully and wonderfully made, and yet fell from that most intimate communion with our Creator. We will hear again on Ash Wednesday and every service until Palm Sunday that God does not hate anything that he made, and that still includes each of us in our fallen state of grace.

Our pre-season, if you will, is a time in which we can prepare our mind, our heart, and our will to the life that discipleship requires. The readings that we will hear over the next seventy days, Septuagesima basically means seventy and marks the countdown toward Easter. As we heard last Sunday, we need this time to continue on that lifetime vocation of being pure as our Lord Jesus is pure. Our life as disciples must involve a lifetime of discipline.

Just like the athletes who have begun spring training, we as Christians must begin the Pre-Lenten training that lies ahead.

St. Paul uses two different images in the Epistle that speaks about the work training that hopefully help us to recognize the dangers of a lazy Lent. He speaks about two different athletes as he describes the Christian life – one of a runner, and one a boxer.

From the image of the runner we see our journey as a race, not as a sprint or a short distance run, but that of a marathon. I don’t know if anyone here has ever trained for a marathon before. I’ve never trained for one personally, but I’ve been to Runner’s World dot com, and I can tell you that the regiment is structured and long to prepare to embark on a 26.2 mile endurance run. For most who train to run a race of significant distance, whether 10K, half or whole marathon, the prize for the vast majority is simply finishing. Knowing that the months of hard work, training, honing the body has paid off, and the runner crosses the finish line feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment that many never experience. First prize in an event such as these is not even on the radar screen, but seeing that completed time is what urges most forward.

Perhaps many recognize that proverbial laurel wreath that the top finisher receives upon finishing first is simply a perishable and corruptible earthly crown that will eventually gather dust and be forgotten. St. Paul in our Epistle this morning says that only one who races will obtain the prize, but that prize is an earthly prize, but a prize and an inheritance that is incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away. In the race that lies before us all, there are many winners, not just the one who finishes first. In actuality, there is only one winner, one who finished first, and in fact, he already possessed a crown of glory that was His from the beginning of time.

In our Lenten journey that lies before us, we must always remember that like the marathon runner, our training will require work, and lots of it. It will require study, prayer, fasting, alms giving, works of charity, and most of all worship. The training that we endure will drive us to continue to work even harder. Many who train for a race admit that the more they train, the more they want to train. I know whenever I’ve done any type of training such as this, and looking at me you might wonder if I’m actually telling the truth, I would agree. My motivation was somewhat skewed because I actually didn’t like to think about getting things going again whenever I took time off. The motivation to jumpstart things again was harder after a prolonged time off than the perseverance of keeping going.

Our Christian lives are no different. Think about the times in your lives when your prayer life is fruitful, worship truly speaks to your heart, relationships are fulfilling, and God is nearer than in times past. It causes you to want to pray more, study His word more, engage in works of charity and the like. This is when you can truly sense the work paying dividends, and it urges you onward. This time of Lent that awaits us beckons us to reflect more deeply and intentionally upon those aspects of our lives that require more structured training and discipline. It’s a time to make a more diligent examination of conscience and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and enlighten those areas that need correction.

One thing to keep in mind here is that the discipline of Lent is not optional. If we are going to wear and embrace the title of disciple, then the discipline of Lent is ours to accept and embrace wholeheartedly.

The other image that Paul puts before us is that of the boxer. The training of boxers and the training for runners is quite different. Long-distance runners aren’t necessarily concerned with short bursts of speed and energy, but need to know how to tap into their reserves toward the end of the race. Boxers on the other hand have only 3 minutes in the ring their opponents in each round and most are over in 10 rounds if they go the entire distance. Think about it. A boxer is only in the ring actually competing for a maximum of 30 minutes with a short break every 3 minutes. A marathon runner will whittle away the miles over the course of 3 or 4 hours depending on the average time per mile. The boxer must maintain a great degree of stamina in short bursts, and be constantly aware of changing circumstances.

Paul gives both examples because we are tempted to ask the question, so what is it? Is it stamina or is it strategy? Is it endurance or bursts of energy? As is so often the case, the answer is YES. It’s not an either/or situation, but a both/and. We must be prepared to encounter the temptations and assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil when they come upon us unawares, and we are in the midst of temptation before we know what’s happened. We must have the endurance, the patience, the temperance to continue to wage war against those besetting sins that we take into the confessional each and every time we kneel down before Almighty God. It’s both, and Lent is an opportunity to draw closer to the one who is the expert trainer in both disciplines.

Spring Training for the upcoming season of Major League Baseball began this past Monday. It is a time for those chasing the temporal crown as champion of America’s pastime to prepare their bodies for the rigors of the upcoming season. The Season of Lent, the spring training of our souls if you will, is upon us once again in order that we might prepare our mind, our bodies, and our wills to be conformed to the One that we hail as Lord, the One who is holy as we strive to be so, that we might obtain that crown of immortality that awaits all who call upon the blessed name of God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
February 13, 2011

I must admit, I’m a liturgics and Prayer Book junkie! I make no apologies for this, and if it’s some obscure little point of fact, the better.

There’s an interesting little caveat in the rubrics of the Prayer Book that I want to share with you as it pertains to our Church Kalendar and the appointed readings during the year. If you spend any time with the Propers as found in the Book of Common Prayer, you may notice that the structure is quite ordered and logical in its sequence. This is no accident, and it’s one reason that I for one find it to be a more superior Lectionary than the three-year cycle as adopted in the 1979 book. We can save the rationale for another time and place, but the beauty of the historic lectionary is this – the Church Year is broken into two halves, the period from Advent Sunday, the beginning of the year through Whitsunday, and the second half being Trinitytide. As one person put it regarding this sequencing:

The purpose of the first part is to display to us and enable us to re-enact the life of Christ. The liturgy makes us contemplate our Lord’s birth, miracles, death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. In a sense we are present with Christ’s family and disciples at the great moments of his life. We witness them and, like Mary, store them up in our hearts. (Luke 2.51)
The purpose of Trinity season is different. This period is meant to teach us how to live as disciples of Christ. We have walked with Christ, now we must learn to walk as Christ. We have witnessed the mighty acts of the Spirit of God in Christ, now we must learn how to live by that Spirit ourselves. Simply put, in the first period we review the great truths of our faith; and in the second we review how we ought to apply these truths in our daily lives.

I mentioned something about the rubrics that I want to point out. If you would turn to p. 224, you’ll see printed in italics the following words, “If in any year there be twenty-six Sundays after Trinity, the service for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany shall be used on the Twenty-fifth Sunday. If there be twenty-seven, the service for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany shall be used on the Twenty-sixth, and the service for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany on the Twenty-fifth. If there be fewer than twenty-five Sundays, the overplus shall be omitted.”

I’ll bet you didn’t have to guess that I love that word overplus, but sorry, I digress into my idiosyncrasies around the Prayer Book. I mention this only because of what I just mentioned about the Lectionary and the Kalendar. If these lessons ever need be substituted for Trinitytide, do they fit? Are they appropriate in the first half of the year when we speak of re-enacting the life of Christ, and his time on earth, as well as, when they would be read during Trinitytide as discipleship lessons? I’d say that they most certainly would. For we have in these readings a link or bridge if you will of time past, present, and future.

What am I getting at here?

If we take a look at the collect, epistle, and gospel lesson as an entity you’ll see that we have a look back at the epiphany past, the realization of how that first epiphany manifests itself in the Christian life of a disciple today, and the hopeful expectation of the epiphany yet to come.

First, we see the epiphany past or the snapshot of Jesus’ life on earth. Our collect prays that we might meditate and comprehend why our Lord became incarnate in the first place. Three reasons for are given, and they too are form an archetype of the trinity of the past, present and the future.

Jesus came first to destroy the works of the devil, Jesus past.

He came next to make us sons of God, Jesus present.

Finally, he came so that we might be made heirs of eternal life, Jesus future.

Time collapses in the person of Jesus Christ.

We then see the appropriateness of these lessons in the second half of the church year as they speak of our lives in the present as his disciples, walking as Christ in the present age. We call upon God to make us pure, as Jesus is pure. The theological name for this is sanctification. If we say that something has been sanctified it has been set apart, consecrated for a particular purpose, it is not merely secular but carries with it a divine sanction as well. As noted in the verb tenses here, there is always a striving and future component to our sanctification because this process is never complete on this side of life, but our entire journey as pilgrims is a life of purifying ourselves so that we slowly but surely begin to look like the one who is pure in His very essence.

Where these lessons continue one step further is that they invite us envision the epiphany that is yet to come and the life that awaits all who call upon the Name of the Lord. The collect concludes with those words of longing and expectation when we await our Lord’s coming again in power and great glory, not just that we might see it, but that we might be made like unto him in our redeemed form. As we recall from Genesis, God said, “let us make man in our own image.” That wonderful phrase that we sometimes hear proclaimed the imago dei – the image of God. When we are reunited to him we inherit as his children a kingdom that has a twofold nature that is beyond our human comprehension – eternal and glorious.

What makes all of this so remarkable is that all of this is not just a concept, or a notion, or a dream, but it finds its culmination in a person. As St. Paul declares Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is the one who was, and is, and is to come. What we are preparing to do in a few moments when we celebrate once again the Sacred Mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood in the present we are proclaiming the Lord’s death in the past until He come again in the future to reign for all eternity.

I find this notion of past, present, and future so captivating because it heightens within the notion of awe and wonder, and when those emotions become stimulated the only proper response is worship. The prophet Isaiah declares, “Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.”

We continue to be fascinated with time and its very essence because we are in time, and constrained by time. However, we are not intended to live that way forever. As the writer of Ecclesiastes declares, “God has written eternity on our hearts.” That means there will forever be within us a longing for home – a longing to be reunited to the One whose very dwelling place is eternity. C. S. Lewis helps explain this well when he speaks of our continued fascination by time and its passage. Our amazement of this phenomenon would be much like a fish who was constantly surprised by the wetness of water. That would be quite strange indeed, unless of course that fish were one day destined to live on land. What Lewis is saying here is that here on earth our very existence is encapsulated within time, but one day we will live for all eternity in the presence of the glorious majesty of Almighty God. Since God has written eternity on our hearts, blessed St. Augustine most succinctly but profoundly said, “for Thou has formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”

We come once again to a time of transition in our church from one epiphany to another. We are beginning our transition toward Lent and that time of intentional focus upon the saving work that our Lord wrought on our behalf. This is the time that we must be ever vigilant to concentrate more fully upon the epiphany of the present and strive toward that purity and holiness that was made manifest in Jesus Christ. Let us come and soothe the restlessness of our hearts by dwelling more intentionally with the one brings all existence, past, present, and future, into one glorious nature, that of the Incarnate Son of the Living God.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
St. John’s – Moultrie, GA
February 6, 2011

And Jesus said to his disciples, “As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.”

Jesus speaks to his disciples on a number of occasions about the final judgment of good and evil. The Bible is replete with passages which speak about putting things to right, and that in the end, God alone will judge His people. All three ancient Creeds of the Church express the same belief that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father: and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead. The Creed of Saint Athanasius goes further and states that after Christ’s second coming, “…all men shall rise again with their bodies, and shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.” No parables of Jesus are as clear regarding separation and judgment as the parable we heard this morning and two others which follow in St. Matthew’s Gospel – one regarding a net being cast into the sea and the separation of the good fish from the bad; the other from the 25th chapter of Matthew which deals with the separation of the sheep and goats, and the command of Jesus that whatever we have done to the least of our brethren we have done it unto him.

In the summer of 2008 when the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops was gathered, Bishop Gene Robinson was preaching at St. Mary’s Church in Putney, a suburb in West London. He began his sermon speaking about the emotion of fear. He said that many people today were caught in the grip of fear whether it was in regards to finances, violence, hunger, poverty, sickness, and quite simply an overall state of fear engulfed far too many people. About two minutes into his sermon Robinson said, “How discouraging that the Anglican Communion would be tearing itself apart because two men…” At that point, a gentleman stood up from the congregation, pointed his finger in his direction, and said the following, “It’s because of heretics like you sir. Because heretics like you preach the gospel but you depart from it.” Members of the congregation began clapping and many of his comments became inaudible, other than his admonition to go back to America, and repent, repent, repent. Eventually, the congregation began to sing a hymn, the rector stood up and announced the hymn number, and his comments were then drowned out by the organ and singing. Throughout it all, Bp. Robinson said nothing in response, and eventually ushers escorted the man outside. It was unfortunate to see the manner in which an unvested clergyman showed this man to the door, but apparently the service continued uninterrupted. After reading some news reports which have since come to light, it appeared that the rector was anticipating some sort of interruption, and apparently the hymn had been pre-selected just in case something like this happened.

Who is to accept the mantle, and bear the responsibility to call Bp. Robinson and many others for that matter to task for their perversion of the Gospel? Is it someone who stands up during a sermon, and admonishes the preacher to repent, and cease the preaching of heresy? Should it be bodies within our dioceses, within the House of Bishops, or perhaps another ecclesiastical authority within the wider Anglican Communion? Or should the man in the congregation have simply shaken the dust off his feet as a sign against Bp. Robinson and simply stayed away last Sunday morning?

Our Lord’s words from St. Matthew confront us. Jesus tells his servants that while they slept the enemy came in and sowed tares among the good seed. The servants ask the clarifying question of the man who sowed the seed, “Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? From whence then hath it tares?” In the account of creation, when God saw all that he had created, he said that it was very good. The seed that was sown was good seed, but Satan does everything within his power to corrupt and pervert God’s creation and the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ. He does so in the world and within the Church. Why? Because he knows that within the Church pride is such a strong emotion that we will do all in our power to circumvent God’s authority, and either attempt to rectify the problem by trying to remove the tares prematurely and thus destroying the wheat in the process, or we will try to do our own reaping and thus judge for ourselves. Clearly, Jesus tells his disciples that they have no reason to fear that this isn’t going to happen, or that they need to hurry the process along. God in his divine time will send his angels to gather the harvest together, at which time, the wheat will be separated from the tares, and order will be restored to His creation.

This means that within our lives and within our church, there is inevitably going to be tares along with the wheat. Knowing human nature as we all do, we are going to be tempted to try and rectify things ourselves. As Bishop J. C. Ryle points out, “this parable teaches us, that good and evil will always be found together in the professing Church, until the end of the world.” He goes on to say, “Do what we will to purify a church, we shall never succeed in obtaining a perfectly pure communion. Tares will be found among the wheat. Hypocrites and deceivers will creep in. And, worst of all, if we are extreme in our efforts to obtain purity, we do more harm than good.” There is an old saying that states that, a church is not a sanctuary of saints, but rather, it is a haven for sinners. The more we begin to think of ourselves as being pure wheat, with no tares, the further we depart from the truth. St. John tells us in his First Epistle, if we say we have no sin we are a liar and the truth is not within us. St. Augustine once said regarding this parable and regarding true Christian charity, “Those who are the tares to-day, may be wheat to-morrow.”

The message of the parable speaks first and foremost about God’s ability to judge right and wrong, and that we can rest assured of that fact. Secondarily it speaks to us directly about the judgment of others, and our sinful pride which says I’m right and you’re wrong. Which of us is not guilty? I certainly am! More times than I would care to admit, I readily assert my rightness over someone else’s wrongness. What I should be asserting is Christ Jesus’ righteousness, and that alone will convict the heart, and bring about change, and eventually the fruit of the Spirit.

Everyone who knows us should see the reflection of Jesus in our lives. A preacher I once heard make the assertion that the worst thing that anyone could say about a Christian is that you don’t really look any different from anyone else. How can we bear name of Christ, if we don’t begin to look like him. We are called to live in society, but we aren’t called to look like it. We should look different because we are different. We have been forgiven and we rest in that assurance.

There is the story of a man who would frequently go into a Church, never say a word, but would keep a constant gaze upon the figure of Christ on the Cross. One day, someone asked him about his prayer life, and his constant practice of coming to the church, and simply gazing upon the image of Jesus above the altar. He gave a remarkable response. He said, “I just come to look at him, and he looks at me.” The more time we spend looking at Jesus, the more we begin to look like him. How much time do we actually spend gazing upon Christ? How often do we take the time to gaze upon Jesus, ponder his gift of salvation for each and every one of us, meditate upon his Holy Word, in order that we can allow his gaze in return to bring about the transformation that he longs for us to have? I believe that the more we do that, the more we begin to start looking like Him. The more we gaze upon him, the more we will cease to look like the tares sown by the enemy, and more like the wheat that the Lord sowed with the good seed.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
St. John’s – Moultrie, GA
January 30, 2011

John, you aren’t going to believe what I just heard. There is a rumor going all around Galilee that this miraculous healer is traveling about, and he might just be coming to town. I’m not really sure what to think about this man because the rumors are flying. Supposedly he cast a demon out of this one fellow, and before he did, the demon called him the Holy One of God. Very strange to say the least.

I also heard that he went to the house of a couple of his followers, and one of the fellow’s mother-in-law was in bed with a terrible fever. He simply lifted her up by the hand and the fever left her and she began to go about doing her normal chores as if nothing was wrong. After that, everyone in town who had a disease, and those who suffered from demons came to him and they were all healed. Do you think that he might help you?

I could only imagine what was going through John’s mind upon hearing this news. For as long as he could remember, he had lived as an outcast. He was forced to wear torn clothing, had to shave his hair, live alone outside the camp, and constantly walked around shouting the same words over and over and over, “Unclean, Unclean.” I can’t comprehend the mental trauma associated with having to call out to each and every person you come in contact with to stay away from me lest you come too close. It wasn’t just a skin disease because you completely embodied the disease. Not only was the skin unclean, I’m sure that psychologically John felt that every fiber of his being was unclean. In a literal sense, John was a dead man walking. The most dreaded of these diseases caused the body to decay and die while the person was still living – if you consider that person’s existence living. Yet, John’s friend has just given him the first glimmer of hope he has ever experienced in his life.

Could things be about to change? Is it possible that this faith healer, this miracle worker might actually come close enough to my town to where I might actually get a chance to see him? But how is that going to be possible – I can’t get too close because he’s clean, and I’m not. Are there going to be crowds following him? I can’t worry about those things, all I can do is believe that this is my chance – this is only way that I might be rid of this dreadful disease.

And so, just as he heard, John sees a crowd coming into town. Tons of people he’d never seen in his life, and this one unassuming figure in the middle. It had to be him. This has to be the man that I heard was coming to town.

Should I run up to him? I certainly don’t want to accidentally defile someone as I try to get his attention. What should I do? What is he going to say? Can I really do this?

I have no idea if any or all of these thoughts ran through the mind of John. No, we don’t actually know the leper’s name, nor are we privy to any of the thoughts running through his mind as he prepared to meet up with this person he had heard about, and saw coming toward him. All we know are the brief words that are before us this morning. This story appears in almost the exact same form in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, and in all three instances, this miracle occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

There are two points that I want to leave you with this morning concerning the Gospel, and its implications for us in our lives as Christians.

First, it might seem odd for me to say that we are just like the leper. How so? It’s not like anyone here is forced to shave their heads, walk around with torn clothing, having to shout “unclean, unclean” wherever we go. How can we be just like the leper? Because at a much deeper level we share his same condition. His disease affected every part of his body. He was literally dying from the inside out. Because of the disease of sin, we too are dying from the inside out except ours isn’t a skin disease, it’s a soul disease. It permeates every fiber of our being and we are in no way capable of ridding ourselves of it. We are powerless in and of ourselves to help change our condition. That is why in the services of Morning and Evening Prayer, the General Confession states that “there is no health in us.” It is most unfortunate that that line was dropped from the ’79 Book because it clearly and honestly summarizes the human condition. What we inherited from Adam is something we will take to the grave. On this side of life we will constantly be waging war against the forces of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

We must emulate and follow the leper’s wise example. We must acknowledge that we are sick, diseased persons in the greatest need of a physician. We must confess that there truly is no health in us, and that sin robs us of life the way it was intended to be lived. When Adam and Eve sinned they were no longer able to live in union and harmony with God because they were now unclean, and forced to live as an outsider. They were forced to live beyond the walls of Eden, forced to wear clothes for the first time, and not literally, but figuratively forced to cry out “unclean, unclean” because their cleanliness was removed from them forever.

This brings me to my second and final point about this lesson. What Jesus did was so remarkable – not because of the healing (which was quite remarkable), but rather his gesture and words to the leper. First, when the leper assumed a posture of humility and knelt down and asked to be healed, Jesus did the unthinkable – he reached out his hand and touched him. There’s no way to know from the story how long the man had leprosy, but we can probably infer that it had been a very long time since he had been touched by ANYONE! He had lived in isolation ever since he was declared to be unclean, and was a prisoner of his own body. With one move, Jesus changed all of that. He reached out and touched him.

What this ultimately means for him, and for us as well, is that Jesus was willing to trade his cleanness for this man’s uncleanness. He was willing to trade places with this man so that he might go free. Jesus at the outset of his ministry is embodying the full substitutionary atonement – that he would give up his life so that we might ultimately live. He made it possible for us to return to the community and experience life lived to its fullest. He made it possible for the man to experience worship again. He made it possible for the man to know what it was like to be touched by another human being again. Jesus did it for this leper and he does it for us as well.

St. Athanasius in his treatise On The Incarnation makes a most profound statement that at first glance almost sounds heretical until you contemplate what he’s getting at, and what he’s ultimately saying. Regarding Jesus and his life Athanasius said that “God became Man so that man might become God.” St. Irenaeus said in his writings Against Heresies makes a similar point when he writes, “the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through his transcendent love, became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” Neither of these Church Fathers claims that we are assuming divine essence, but rather, through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross we begin truly to live out what it means to be “created in the image and likeness of God.”

Jesus was bearing everything that haunted this leper onto himself in order that he might live the rest of his life free from this dreadful disease. Jesus has born everything onto himself on the hard wood of the cross in order that we might live our lives free curse of the law, and might begin to live our lives as the created beings he intended from the very beginning.

As we draw close to Lent, may we contemplate the story of this leper, who drew near with faith, and asked the Great Physician to heal and cleanse him of his dreadful disease. May we also draw near to the Great Physician and ask him to heal and cleanse us from the dreadful diseases which haunt and curse us as well. For if we cry out to Him with a humble voice, and a contrite heart, we will hear him say to us in reply, “I am willing; be clean!”
Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany
St. John’s Church –Moultrie, GA
January 23, 2011

Over the past three weeks our Epistle lessons have been from the twelfth chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. The overarching theme of this chapter has been a calling of the faithful to cultivate that most wondrous of virtues – humility. On the first Sunday following the Epiphany we heard, “to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think.; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” Last Sunday Paul exhorted the Roman church to, “Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not….Mind not high thinks, but condescend to men of low estate.” Finally, this morning, we heard just a few moments ago some of the strongest words regarding humility. “Be not wise in your own conceits. Recompense to no man evil for evil….Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Humility and humbleness is perhaps one of the hardest virtues to achieve. After all, it was pride, the counter vice to humility that led to the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They were incapable of discerning the words of the serpent and fell victim to his temptation when he told Eve that she would not die if she ate of the forbidden fruit but rather that her eyes would be opened and that she would be wise, just like God. The sin of pride goes all the way back to the beginning. It was in fact Lucifer’s pride that made him incapable of remaining in his joyous state in the service of God as one of the angels. He was incapable of letting God be God, and wanted to share in the power that he felt he should be able to enjoy. Little did he know that much joy is found in the service and worship of Almighty God.

The former coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Pat Riley, recounts the story of how pride led to the fall of one the great dynasties in professional basketball in the 1970’s & 80’s. In his book The Winner Within he offers these words of caution for those who let pride take over, and are unable to rejoice in a state of humility.

The [Los Angeles Lakers] won the NBA Championship [in 1980], and they were recognized as the best basketball team in the world. They began their 1980 – 1981 season considered likely to win back-to-back championships. But within weeks of the season opener, Magic Johnson tore a cartilage in his knee, and he needed a three-month recuperation period. The team and the fans rallied, and the remaining players played their hearts out. They determined to make it through that period without losing their ranking. They were winning seventy percent of their games when the time began to draw near for Magic Johnson to return to action.

As his return grew closer, the publicity surrounding him increased. During time-outs at the games, the public address announcer would always say, “And don’t forget to mark your calendars for February 27th. Magic Johnson returns to the lineup of your World Champion Los Angeles Lakers!” During that announcement, the other players would look up and curse. They’d say, “We’re winning now. What’s so great about February 27th?” As the day approached, fewer and fewer things were written or said about the players who were putting out so much effort. All the media attention was focused on the one player who hadn’t been doing a thing. Finally the 27th came, and as they clicked through the turnstiles every one of the 17,500 ticket holders was handed a button that said, “The Magic Is Back!” At least fifty press photographers crowded onto the floor while the players were introduced. Normally only the starters were introduced, and Magic Johnson was going to be on the bench when the game began. But he was nevertheless included in the introductions. At the mention of his name, the arena rocked with a standing ovation. Flashbulbs went off like popcorn. Magic Johnson was like a returning god to the crowd that night.

Meanwhile the other players who had carried the team for three months and who were totally ignored, were seething with jealousy, resentment, anger, and envy. They were so resentful that they barely won the game that night against a bottom-of-the-bucket team, and eventually the morale of the entire team collapsed. The players turned on each other. The coach was fired. And they eventually lost their opening game of the play-offs, having one of the most disastrous records ever.

Riley said, “Because of greed, pettiness, and resentment, we executed one of the greatest falls from grace in NBA history. It was the Disease of Me.”

We find ourselves in a world in which this type of story is no longer the exception it has become the norm. If you noticed, this was 30 years ago. Think about how things have continued to move in this direction over the past 3 decades. Far too many folks worship not the Blessed Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, but the existentialist trinity of me, myself, and I.

C. S. Lewis speaks of pride in the following manner in Mere Christianity:

There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. I have heard people admit that they are bad-tempered, or that they cannot keep their head about girls or drink, or event that they are cowards. I do not think I have ever heard anyone who was not a Christian accuse himself of this vice. And at the same time I have very seldom met anyone, who was not a Christian who showed the slightest mercy to it in others. There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it in ourselves the more we dislike it in others.

Pride can be called root of all sins. It has been defined as the excessive love of one’s own excellence. The Prophet Isaiah declares, “Woe to them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight.” The Book of Judges concludes with the condition of the people of Israel who were mired in their own pridefulness, “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”

If there is one person alone who could remotely exhibit any sense of pride it would be God alone. After all, he is fully complete in His own essence. He could most certainly exult in His own magnificence, and yet, He is the very one who humbled himself to depths that we can only contemplate. He was humble enough to come to Earth in the most frail of forms, as a baby, and his first night was spent not in a King’s palace, but in a feeding trough for the animals. As we say in the Te Deum, “When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man: thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.” St. Paul declares in the Epistle to the Philippians, “And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”

Pride is what eats away at us, and humility is the virtue that we must be called upon to cultivate. It is perhaps the hardest of virtues to attain because it is the counter to the worst vice, and yet, there are many who have done so. How difficult it is for us to not receive the accolades, to bow to someone else, to faithfully play second fiddle. Most conductors will say that is the most difficult instrument to play in an orchestra. Yet, it carries with it a most important role. As we heard in the lessons from Advent, John the Baptist was the greatest to ever fulfill that role.

British pastor George Duncan summarizes this so well when he says:

“Think for a moment how often we come across those whose worth is seldom recognized buy men, but I am sure will never be overlooked by God, and will certainly not go unrewarded. Many are prepared to recognize the prominent part played by Simon Peter among the disciples, but forget that if there had not been an Andrew who ‘brought him to Jesus’ there would never have been a Peter! The church universal give thanks to God for Paul, the greatest Christian who ever lived, but forget that if there had not been a Barnabas there might never have been a Paul!” Duncan goes on to ask his readers how many of them recognize the name of Albert McMakin. But Albert was the young man who invited and took sixteen-year-old Billy Graham to the evangelistic services in which he accepted Christ as his Savior. “So before there could be a Billy there had to be an Albert."

The question that remains is are we willing to be the person that God calls us to be even if it means assuming the most humble of postures? Let our prayer be that God might quench in us insidious vice of pride, and instill within the glorious virtue of humility.