Monday, March 21, 2011

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
March 20, 2011

The first three Sundays in Lent deal with the devil, demon possession, and the demonic influences among us. As I mentioned in a sermon last year at this time, we don’t like to talk about demons and spiritual warfare. We’d like to pretend that that is the stuff of old times and we don’t have to worry about this outdated topic. After all, most Biblical exegetes today say that most of the people who suffered from demon possession in Biblical times were probably just epileptics and this was the language they used to speak of them having a seizure.

I’ve actually witnessed someone having a seizure as the result of a brain tumor, and to be completely honest it scared the hell out of me. Seeing this happen to a co-worker with Georgia Power made me see how one would think this type of medical episode must come from the devil himself.

The Scriptures are replete with stories of the power of darkness and demonic forces, and we are beyond arrogant and foolish to pretend it doesn’t still happen today. Our very baptism service speaks explicitly about our receiving of the grace to manfully fight under Christ’s banner against the world, the flesh, and the devil. One of my favorite hymns and perhaps one of yours as well confirms the demonic influences are alive and well against which we must do constant battle. The third stanza of Martin Luther’s great hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God contains these words:

And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

One little word should bring the fall and demise of the Prince of Darkness. So what is that one little word? It’s not just a word, but it’s the Word – the Word that was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. The word, the Word – capital W, the name is of course Jesus, Yeshua, Joshua which literally means the Lord saves or the Lord’s salvation.

In our Gospel lesson for today that speaks about demon possession of a Canaanite woman’s daughter, we see the power and salvation that does in fact come from that name – the name of Jesus.

If you will allow me to backtrack just a bit, let’s ground what’s happening here by what has transpired before this episode. I think it will help us understand the woman’s words to Jesus and His harsh sounding words in return.

At the end of Matthew 13 we have Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth and those famous words, “a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” Chapter 13 closes with the words, “And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.” Keep that last statement in mind because its counterclaim will come out in our passage we heard this morning.

The next chapter of Matthew contains the death of John the Baptist, the feeding of the 5,000 (which we will hear about on the Fourth Sunday in Lent), Jesus’ walking on water, and the miraculous healings and tremendous outpourings of faith by those in Gennesaret. Jesus is in some of the remotest regions of the Promised Land, areas quite removed from Jerusalem by a fairly large distance.

I mention this only because of how chapter 15 begins. It says that Pharisees and Scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem to harass him about the hand washing habits of his disciples. Jesus explains to them that it isn’t what goes into the body that defiles it, but what comes out that causes trouble.

In our lesson today we have him traveling to Tyre and Sidon which was one of the furthest and remotest places from Jerusalem, and as William Barclay points out, “the only occasion on which Jesus is outside Jewish territory.” He has actually travelled to Phoenician territory and thus into Gentile lands. As Barclay puts forward Jesus is trying to have some time away from the hand washing police and the pure food club that truly was the bane of Jesus’ existence.

So, Jesus has come into Phoenician territory and a Canaanite woman comes to Him seeking a miracle for her demon possessed daughter. Perhaps Jesus’ reputation has preceded Him and she knew that He was the miracle worker and healer that she had heard rumors about. However, at closer look there is more here than meets the eye.

First of all she calls Him by His rightful title of kurios or Lord. That by itself isn’t overly significant, but combined with the fact that she used the messianic title, Son of David, it is quite significant.

Combining Jesus, with Lord and Son of David is an acknowledgment that the long-awaited Messiah was right there in front of her. And to that acknowledgment, Jesus answers her not a word.

The disciples are annoyed with her and beg Jesus to simply send her away. Jesus’ response here is quite interesting considering where he had just travelled from and where he was at the moment. He tells her that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.

At closer inspection there is something remarkable about that statement – Jesus is outside Jewish territory. He’s not in Israel anymore. He’s on the outskirts and yet there are those out there who see him, acknowledge him, and call upon Him as the Messiah and Saviour.

To this, Jesus responds in what are stinging words where He says that it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. The woman is undaunted by this response and replies with words exhibiting the most humility imaginable. She says in response, Yes Lord, but even the dogs have a chance to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.

She has no problem admitting that she is an outsider, an outcast, not part of the Chosen people, a Gentile, a dog. Yet, she replies with no indignation whatsoever, but that nourishment comes from the master’s table, even if it is just a crumb or scrap that happens to fall.

Jesus praises this Gentile woman’s faith and her daughter was healed immediately. If you remember what I said a few minutes ago that Jesus could do no miracles in his own hometown. The hometown folks were the part of the house of Israel and they did not have faith through which He could work miracles. Thus, they suffered in being deprived of their native son’s power.

Jesus wanted for the chosen people to know Him, acknowledge Him, and believe on Him. They would have none of it, and thus, Jesus does go to find some of the lost sheep of the house of Israel, except many of them were outside the Promised Land. The lost sheep of the house of Israel is anyone who would call upon the Name of the Lord, proclaim before all mankind that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God, and that there is no hope, no salvation, no life, no nourishment apart from him.

This Canaanite woman was bold enough to make this proclamation on behalf of her demon possessed daughter and she was instantly healed. May we be bold enough to make that same proclamation in the midst of the trials and tribulations that we face in this life! May we be bold enough to make this proclamation so that we might not seek solace simply from the crumbs which fall from the master’s table, but that we might have a seat at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb that awaits all who place their trust, their hope, and their life in the One who was sent to seek and save that which was lost, the lost sheep of the house of Israel of which you and I claim adoption as His children, and heirs of all that the Master has promised since time immemorial for those who love Him.
Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
March 13, 2011

When I was in seminary and taking a course in Homiletics, which is the study of preaching, my instructor used a box, divided into four quadrants to judge and assess our sermons. She was looking at them critically so that with work and practice we might be able to craft an effective message week after week, and allow us to answer some fundamental questions about the message we are given to deliver.

The first quadrant was the actual exegesis of the text itself. Exegesis is simply a word that means what do you read from the text itself, what are the words actually saying. This is the plain and simple meaning of the particular passage with all of its nuances pertaining to language, grammar, syntax, etc. If you ever examine a detailed commentary there is always a section that gives this type of information, and is quite useful in examining a section of Scripture in more depth and detail.

The second quadrant is what she called “the human condition then.” This was an exercise of trying to put one’s self into the context of a first century hearer of the story. How would someone have heard what Jesus was saying if he were a Pharisee, or an ordinary Jew, or a Roman centurion, or simply a passer-by who might overhear what was happening? It’s much like what we talked about in our study of the Parable of the Prodigal Son; the human condition then exposes the scandal right at the beginning, but if we don’t read and hear that parable with first century eyes we will miss it. The first and second quadrants go hand-in-hand with one another.

The third and fourth quadrants also work in tandem with the third called the “human condition now,” which is an exegesis of you, the hearer of the sermon, and the fourth being the “proclamation.” These two quadrants help to answer the questions “so what” or “now what.” If the sermon never touches on these final quadrants in a real and palpable way, then what was just delivered wasn’t really a sermon, but was a teaching. If each of you walk away from a sermon and the first thoughts that come to mind were, “that sure was some nice information about that passage,” or worst of all, “I wonder what was in there for me,” then I’m afraid that I’ve failed in my duty to convey the Word of God in a meaningful and practical way, I’ve shirked my duties as a priest and pastor, and worst of all, I’ve not helped convey the practical nature of the Gospel to impact our lives as Christians and disciples of Jesus Christ.

This morning’s Gospel lesson is perhaps one of the most practical passages in Scripture because it conveys one of the central tenets of life as a human being and Christian disciple – we are constantly tempted to do things that we know are contrary to what we should do. Except in those rare circumstances of encountering someone who is somehow disposed to showing no remorse, no grief, no sense of right and wrong, almost everyone regardless of their belief system knows deep down inside when they are doing something that is wrong.

For the Christian, we must go one step further and actually begin to answer the question why something is wrong, and why we must confront it.

On this first Sunday in Lent we begin our journey with the familiar words of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by Satan. In this text I believe that we can find great comfort in the words of this Gospel lesson and we really must look no further than the first verse of Matthew’s fourth chapter for the reason why. It says that, “Jesus was led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.” Jesus was actually led into the wilderness for the very purpose of being tempted. It didn’t just happen that he went into the wilderness and the devil happened to catch him there and began to tempt him. He was driven into the wilderness for the express purpose of being tempted.

I think we need to look very carefully at what the text says, and not make inferences based upon what it doesn’t say. This temptation narrative does not talk about hurting Jesus, or punishing him, or the imposition of an impassable situation. The author of Ecclesiastes says that “[God] doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men.”

One of the great tenets of Anglicanism and most specifically our belief in Holy Scripture is that it must be read in total to be totally understood. Article XX of the Articles of Religion when speaking of the Authority of the Church makes the following declaration, “…it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.”

Basically what this is saying is that if we believe Ecclesiastes to be true and the temptation story from Matthew as true, they cannot be in opposition to one another. Jesus was being tempted of Satan in the wilderness and his temptation was for the express purpose of him experiencing the full measure of his humanity. He was not being afflicted or grieved, but he was allowed to experience everything that we face each and every day. In a like manner the Apostle James declares, “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, and God does not tempt anyone.”

We also must take note when this temptation occurs. The Gospels make it quite clear that Jesus was driven out into the wilderness immediately after his baptism. Why is this so important?

When Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan by his cousin John, he was accepting the plight of all humanity by fulfilling all righteousness as he declared. He was receiving an anointing if you will to be the bearer of the sins of whole world. At Jesus’ baptism, he was taking mankind’s sin onto himself, which He would take all the way to the cross and dispense with them once and for all. He was baptized to take our sin onto himself, so that when we are baptized we might have that stain removed, and be reborn and regenerated into a new creature.

One of the two dogmas of the Christian faith is that we believe that Jesus was both completely human and completely divine. It seems to me that it’s somewhat easier to believe in Jesus’ divinity than it is his humanity. We want to try and soften things a bit and think that Jesus was able to use his divinity in a superhuman way to ward off evil and suffering. That He would have been able to tap into something that was unique to Him that we don’t have, and thus, begs the question, how is Jesus like me, and how can He relate to my suffering, my temptation, my trials and tribulations? I want to believe He can, but it’s rather difficult.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews, St. Paul makes it quite clear that we do indeed have a Saviour who has in fact walked along the same path as we have. “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil,” and “for because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.”

We begin our Lenten journey of fasting, prayer, and alms giving with these traditional words of Jesus’ temptation because we are going to face those same things in our lives. We will be tempted to place creation over the Creator in the things that we worship other than Almighty God. We will be tempted to try and use God in a utilitarian way as something like a genie in a bottle where we want him when things go wrong, but then keep him neatly tucked away on a shelf when we don’t. We will be tempted to seek nourishment from the things of this world, and not from the true source of nourishment that comes from our Lord Himself.

These were the temptations that Jesus faced, and he faced them so that He might show us a more excellent way of coming through those temptations on the other side. Jesus endured these temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil so that we might receive assurance that our trials and testing is not for our downfall, but for our uplifting. For those who die with Christ will also be raised with Christ. If we deign to call ourselves Christians, and yet think that we’ve somehow moved beyond the assaults of the devil, we’ve missed something crucial along the way.

“For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”

We worship a Saviour who has fulfilled both roles, that of priest who stands before His Father and offers the sacrifices for the people, and that of victim who became the sacrifice. The only that happened was through his baptism, his fasting and temptation, his betrayal, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, as we await his return in power and glory.

On Ash Wednesday in the Great Litany, we prayed that God might deliver us from all these things. The only way that we might be delivered from them is resting in the fact that Jesus went through those very same things himself.

My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.

The journey of Lent leads us to the cross and our dying to sin, and then to the empty tomb where death is conquered and where new life is restored.

May we embrace this road that will include temptations and trials along the way in order that they might work in us the perfection that is completed in the work of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Sermon for Quinquagesima
St. John’s – Moultrie, GA
March 7, 2011

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. With those words begins the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. I’ll bet that most of you could probably guess upon which Feast Day we hear that verse read as the appointed Epistle lesson. If you said the Feast of St. Thomas, you would be right.

Recalling the story from the twentieth chapter of St. John, Jesus makes his first appearance to ten of the apostles and Thomas is not present. We don’t know where he is or what he was doing, but we do know that when he is told that Jesus was alive and he had the unanimous testimony of his fellow disciples, he refused to believe and accept this wonderful Good News. He said that unless he saw it for himself, and actually felt and handled Jesus for himself, he would not believe. He had to have hard evidence. Faith in his brethren was not enough, he wanted more. Of course Jesus does come back eight days later, and Thomas received what he asked for, empirical, physical evidence that Jesus was alive. After this revelation, he does the only thing that he naturally should do, fall down and worship, and declare that his Lord, and his God was raised from the dead and was standing right before his face. Jesus does speak to us in that exchange when he says, “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” St. Augustine defines faith as, “believ[ing] what you do not see; [with] the reward of this faith is to see what you belive.” St. Anselm of Canterbury took this statement of St. Augustine when he developed his maxim, Credo ut intelligam, which means I believe in order that I might understand. We are on a lifelong journey of the soul to return to its only source of life and existence – Almighty God, the Creator of all life.

Faiths tandem virtue, of the three theological virtues is hope. Hope in a biblical sense isn’t some nostalgic longing that has an easy come, easy go, type connotation. It is so much more than that, and completely rejects that type of notion. Hope in a biblical sense carries with it a certitude that cannot be discounted or diminished. Tomorrow morning when we commit the ashes of Judy VerBerkmoes to the ground we will do so with the following words, “UNTO Almighty God we commend the soul of our sister departed, and we commit her ashes 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.”

Because those words are anchored in God, they do carry with them a certainty that is sure, certain, believable, and true because they are tied to the future life that is beyond our comprehension.

John Maxwell tells about a small town in Maine that was proposed for the site of a great hydro-electric plant. A dam would be built across the river and the town submerged. When the project was announced, the people were given many months to arrange their affairs and relocate.

During those months, a curious thing happened. All improvements ceased. No painting was done. No repairs were made on the buildings, roads, or sidewalks. Day by day the whole town got shabbier and shabbier. A long time before the waters came, the town looked uncared for and abandoned, even though the people had not yet moved away. One citizen explained: “Where there is no faith there is no future, there is not power in the present.” That town was cursed with hopelessness because it had no future.

The great Puritan John Bunyan once declared, “Hope is never ill when faith is well.”

Faith and hope go hand-in-hand, but their anchor and ultimate source must be found in the greatest of the theological virtues, charity. We’ve come to only know charity as giving to the poor, or showing people charity in a monetary or compassionate sense. Certainly that is one aspect or component of charity, but there is so much more to that word than simply our disposition toward meeting other people’s needs.

Charity is the highest of the four Greek words that we most often translate as love. We are not speaking of simply affection, or friendship, or a sexual type of love, a completely self-giving love that is so concerned about the other that vices such as pride, anger, wrath, and the like begin to be subdued.

The Summary of the Law that we hear in every celebration of the Holy Eucharist speaks to this notion. All that we do, all that we are should revolve around charity toward God and charity toward our neighbor. We are to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength first and foremost. How do we do that? We cannot do it on our own, we must ask for help, and that is exactly what our collect prayed for. We asked God that He might, “pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, [which is] the very bond of peace and of all virtues.” We must ask God to do the pouring. It’s not like we can just go in for a fill-up, we have to ask God to dispense unto us this most wonderful gift.

We must first love God because that is the only way that we can ever begin to love ourselves and our neighbours. In St. Augustine’s spiritual biography The Confessions, he relays the story of his deep love for a dear friend who falls ill, is baptized while he is unaware it is happening due to his illness (we’ll discuss the implications of this later), recovers, gives up his pagan beliefs and becomes a catholic Christian, falls ill again and does in fact die. Augustine is so heartbroken over the loss of his friend he cannot contain himself. He is distraught and can find no solace for his grief. When Augustine talks to his friend and jokingly tells him what happened, Nebridius begins to try to convert Augustine away from his pagan beliefs. He is shocked that the baptism took effect, and makes his grief even stronger. He bemoans the fact that he even has to awaken each day because wherever he goes he knows that his friend will not be there.

When Augustine is finally converted to the catholic faith by Blessed Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, he finally recognizes that his love for Nebridius was disordered. He was putting his faith, hope, and love into something that was part of creation, and was thus perishable, and would ultimately die. He loved Nebridius in himself when he should have been loving him in God. Only when Augustine discovers this proper order for his love of his fellow man could he truly love him as he should. Once Augustine reordered his affection first toward Almighty God, the one who is imperishable, infinite, and eternal could he then learn to love his neighbour as himself.

In his book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis describes the effects of Augustine’s loss as follows:

St. Augustine describes the desolation into which the death of his friend Nebridius plunged him. Then he draws a moral. This is what comes, he says, of giving one’s heart to anything but God. All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away.

Lewis goes on to say that in order to love we must be willing to be vulnerable, we must be willing to be exposed for who we really are. The only way we are ever truly going to love and be loved is if we are willing to take this risk.

Even in our human relationships and friendships, no matter how hard we might try we are never truly vulnerable. There is always something that we either keep inside and choose not to share.

With God, He has taken the first step and held back nothing; He shared it all and became vulnerable to the point of becoming a part of Creation, of living as a human being, of being tempted and tried in every way just like us, sin excepted. God’s vulnerability led him to the cross, but in so doing, He led us back to Himself.

Faith, Hope, and Charity the three theological virtues. Without faith, we can never truly understand. Without hope, we live as folk without a future. Without charity, we will never have the other two. That is why St. Paul says that charity is the greatest of the three because it follows the first two, but then leads us back to them again.

O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth; Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.