Monday, May 16, 2011

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Easter
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
May 15, 2011

Well, according to numerous news reports from various fringe movements within the pseudo-Christian faith, today is our last Sunday to worship together. Based upon extremely narrow readings of the Books of Genesis, Daniel, Revelation, II Peter and others, next Saturday, May 21, 2011, will be the end of the world, and the rapture will take place then. Are you ready? Will you be one of the ones raptured, or will you be one of the “left behind?”

Don’t for one minute misunderstand me to say that Jesus’ couldn’t in fact come back next Saturday. He could and he very well might. Heaven knows it would be a wonderful thing if he did come back. That is what we are praying for, and eagerly awaiting. Certainly that will inaugurate the great and terrible day of the Lord, but we are guaranteed God’s mercy and justice when that day comes, and that for those who love him, serve him, and proclaim him as their Lord will enter into perfect rest and happiness where all tears will be wiped away and our mourning will be turned into joy.

For all that I disagree with regarding all of the Nostradamus’ of this world, I do agree with one general assertion that they make, we need to live knowing that the end is coming one day and it might be soon. We must live each day as if it were our last. If we do, we will live it with meaning and purpose and conviction.

In St. Peter’s first epistle I was struck with one phrase that caught me as interesting and I hope you caught it as well. It was at the very end of the passage we just heard where he tells his listeners, “For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: as free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.” He then ends that section with a four-fold exhortation, “Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.”

There appears to be a contradiction here. Peter tells his audience and us as well that we are free and we’re servants. Hang on a minute. How can we be free and servants at the same time? If he uses the word servant doesn’t that imply that you are under the authority of someone else and not free to do as you please? On the flip side isn’t a free man subject only to himself?

Here’s where Christianity turns everything on its head. Yes, as Christians we are free. Through our baptism we have received a freedom and a new life that on our own we could never earn, merit, or receive. The debt for Adam’s sin which would be counted against us as an insurmountable debt that we could never repay has been forgiven and there is a freedom that comes from that gift.

The big difference comes with our proper definitions of slave or servant, freedom, and liberty. Several times in the New Testament we hear the phrase that once we have been freed we are now the servants of Christ. This isn’t a false dichotomy here. Once we receive Christ we are free to serve him with a renewed definition of the word serve.

Many of the great philosophers, both pagan and Christian, understood what we see as a contradiction.

Seneca once said, “No one is free who is the slave of his body,” and “Liberty consists in obeying God.” Cicero said, “We are the servants of the laws that we may be able to be free.” Plutarch insisted that every bad man is a slave; and Epictetus declared that no bad man can ever be free.

Presbyterian theologian William Barclay wrote, “We may put it this way. Christian freedom is always conditioned by Christian responsibility. Christian responsibility is always conditioned by Christian love. Christian love is the reflection of God’s love. And therefore, Christian liberty can rightly be summed up in Augustine’s memorable phrase: “Love God, and do what you like.”

“The Christian is free because he is the slave of God. Christian freedom does not mean being free to do as we like; it means being free to do as we ought.”

Of course, I don’t think that Dr. Barclay is advocating some sort of Pelagianism here that says that we are given all we need to do what is right and that we just need to try a little harder. That’s the form of heresy coming from the mouth of Joel Osteen. What I believe he is saying is that we have the freedom that comes from an open avenue to God the Father, through His Son Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I’ve heard this type of Christian freedom described in the following manner. If you think of a football game or baseball game that has some sort of foul lines or boundaries, there is a tremendous amount of freedom to excel and play the game of football or baseball when you know what’s out-of-bounds and what is not. How could you ever play if the foul lines were constantly moving or shifting or you don’t even know if there were any? Would you be free or would you be enslaved to uncertainty and chaos?

Being a servant of Christ and using our liberty as St. Peter describes consists of four actions. We are to honour all men and honour the king. Does this mean blindly agreeing with everything they say or declare? No, it does not. Does it mean to at minimum show respect for the office that those people hold, yes it does. There is a time and place for exercising our displeasure or disagreement with others, but the Christian virtue of charity must be at the core. Showing honour to those to whom honor is due is one of our callings.

We are to love the brotherhood. Peter is speaking of the community of believers here, and there is to be a special bond of love that binds the Church together in community. The special love that binds us together is not some sentimental type of love, but what St. Augustine would describe as loving others in God. This brings us to the fourth and central point that Peter exhorts us to do and that is fear God.

We are to fear God as we normally think of that word, as well as in the sense of awe and wonder. This two-fold sense of fear properly shapes our posture toward our Maker. Fear in this proper sense allows us to live each day with the perspective that we are in the world, but not of the world; it allows us to recognize our dependence upon for everything that we have now, and what we will enjoy in the future; it will allow us to not worry about stories like the supposed end of the world on May 21, but that we might be like the 5 wise virgins who had their lamps trimmed and had extra oil on hand when the Bridegroom calls us to the wedding feast, and bids us to come inside and feast at His table. The foretaste of that banquet lies ahead for us. Let us with penitent and faithful hearts approach our Lord’s table in joyful thanksgiving for the benefits he bestows upon those who love and serve him. May we be nourished and receive the grace to honour all men, love the brotherhood, fear God, and honour the King, as the free servants of Christ Jesus our Lord.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Easter
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
May 8, 2011

If there is any danger or shortcoming in Lectionary preaching as opposed to say taking a book of the Bible and examining it verse-by-verse is the fact that unless we are all serious Biblical scholars it’s often hard to ground exactly where we are in a particular book. For instance, in our Gospel this morning which is perhaps one of most familiar stories and images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we are somewhat lost as to what precedes this episode.

Certainly this wonderful story and imagery of Jesus as our Good Shepherd does a perfectly good job of standing on its own, but what if we take a minute to see what happens just prior to this story to see if something bigger is going on.

Tell the story of John 9

In light of what precedes Jesus’ I AM statements of being the door of the sheepfold and the Good Shepherd, he’s clearly setting this up as a contrast to the “bad” shepherds who are blindly leading the “lost sheep of the House of Israel.” The Pharisees, Sadducees, religious authorities, Scribes, lawyers, etc. are not giving the people anything resembling life, but rather a downward spiral into spiritual death. The Good Shepherd is telling the people that they need to stop listening to the hirelings that ultimately care nothing for the sheep, but rather when trouble comes flees and leaves them to fend for themselves.

Jesus says that he as the Good Shepherd is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. He’s not going to run and hide, but will do anything in his power to protect his flock.

Contrast this to the very strong words of Jesus in Matthew 23 when he says of the Pharisees:

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.
These false shepherds do not care for the sheep, but only for themselves. They lay heavy burdens on the people with no intention whatsoever to bear them themselves. As we remembered again during Holy Week, our Good Shepherd bore his cross until twice he fell under its weight. He took the heaviest thing on this earth onto his shoulders and felt its weight and burden.

Only toward the end when he fell the second and painful time is the crossbeam handed over to a stranger to carry the rest of the way as a sign that we should bear one another’s burdens as well.

But we do not do this alone. We don’t just attempt to do this ourselves.

Only when we recognize the impossible situation that we all face can we begin to understand the dead end street that we are walking down if we continue to follow the false shepherds of this world, disguised in the form of self-reliance, rugged individualism, secularism, and the like.

These false shepherds lure us into thinking that we can do it on our own, and the reality of this life if we are honest tells us otherwise. It tells us that we are powerless of ourselves to help ourselves. Actually, those of the words of the collect for the Second Sunday in Lent in which we ask that God might help us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls to be defended from all adversities that will happen to the body and the evil thoughts which assault and hurt the soul.

The false shepherds will convince us that this isn’t true. The Good Shepherd helps us acknowledge that it is true but that he will lead us into green pastures where we might find rest and nourishment both for the body as well as for the soul.

Lord, help us all to come to you, recognizing that we are all sheep who have gone astray, we have all erred and strayed like lost sheep, and that on our own we are all sheep without a Good Shepherd. Grant us grace to lay aside our pride in order that we might recognize ourselves as lost and wayward without your guidance and protection. Give unto us the discernment to recognize the false shepherds from the one, true Good Shepherd that we might hear your voice, and know you as the only source of life, that you might call us each by name, gathering us into your one flock under your protection as our Good Shepherd and Bishop of our souls.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Sermon for Good Friday
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
April 22, 2011

So often on this day of the Church Year we concentrate upon the Seven Words from the Cross that our Lord uttered during those three agonizing hours He spent upon the cross. They are familiar to us because we’ve probably read Good Friday meditations upon them, some probably quite good and edifying for the soul as we ponder the events of this day. There are many churches who have a 3-hour vigil from noon until 3:00 p.m. in which the faithful gather to hear these seven words again with meditations interspersed with other readings of Scripture or collects being prayed.

I was perusing a book I have had on my shelf but had not looked at carefully the other day and I came across a quite interesting observation by the late Abp. Fulton Sheen. I’m sure some of you remember him on the television teaching Catholic theology and doctrine in his black cassock with shoulder cape or long cape and that huge pectoral cross hanging about his neck. Many faithful Christians heard his messages, and he was one of the first televangelists before that title became tainted with the scandals that have bequeathed to that word the stigma that it continues to bear. Abp. Sheen wrote a book in 1958 entitled Life of Christ, and I came across a chapter in which he speaks of the seven words to the cross.

If we took the time we could probably recall to our mind the seven words from the cross, but we might forget one or two of the words to the cross. I realize the some of them are similar in nature and we might forget one because it is quite like another, but I wish for us ever so briefly to look at those seven words spoken to Jesus on the cross, and most particularly the one’s of a negative nature, as we are gathered in this darkened sanctuary with the aumbry standing open and the cross on the altar draped in black.

There are five sets of words spoken to Jesus on the cross by five different groups of people or individuals that convey a similar theme - that of Jesus saving himself or having someone save him. We have the passers-by who simply wag their heads, some of them I’m sure jeering at Jesus upon the cross, perhaps spitting upon him or hurling stones in his direction and say some words we’ve heard before “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” Hold that thought for a minute as I will come right back to it.

You have the thief on the cross who questions Jesus’ divinity and implores him to let them all down from the cross.

There were the Scribes, Pharisees, and religious intelligentsia who rightly declare that he saved others, but yet here he is apparently unable to save himself. They then also tempt him by saying that if would just come down from the cross they will believe in him.

There are the gawkers who are simply there to witness another crucifixion and after God cries out in the words of Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me,” they want to check things out to see if Elijah or someone else might come down and help rescue him from the cross.

Finally, the soldiers who most likely still have his blood on their hands from driving the nails into his hands and feet taunt him and tell him that if he is in fact the King of the Jews, as the superscription above his head read, then he surely should be able to save himself.

These are the five words directed at Jesus in a negative manner, and the remaining two are the one’s that we probably remember best. The repentant thief asks not to be saved from the punishment that he was justly receiving, but rather mercy in the life to come when he says to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” If I’m not mistaken, it’s the only deathbed conversion recorded in the Bible. After Jesus had died, and the centurion who had probably witnessed numerous crucifixions in the past saw what happened when Jesus breathed his last and proclaimed the seventh set of words to the cross, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

I told you to hold the thought about the words that we’ve heard before. Those who were the passers-by said the same words to Jesus at the end his life that Satan had said three years earlier in the wilderness at Jesus’ temptation – If thou be the Son of God. There it is, even at the very last, the words as recorded in St. Luke, “And the devil departed until an opportune time.” If there was ever a time when temptation would have been at its highest it would have been here, on the cross, to save himself the agony of dying this gruesome death, Satan returns again in the words of common folk, and question his divinity one more time – if thou be the Son of God.

Jesus’ temptation is right before his face yet again. The thief on the cross is looking only to have his dire needs met at that moment in time, when he rails at him and says to save himself and me too. Command these stones to be made into bread. There is a physical need here, and Jesus should help meet it. The materialist has come back to haunt our Lord again.

The second temptation where Satan takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and tells him to hurl himself off because the Scripture said that the angles wouldn’t let him hurt himself lest he dash his foot against a stone is cast before his eyes again as well. The others who spoke to Jesus on the cross were simply looking for the proverbial genie in a bottle, a dispenser of tricks and gimmicks. They were looking for a utilitarian god who could simply dispense his power at their beckoned call and serve them at their whims.

God doesn’t work that way. Yes, God is always there to hear us when we call upon him in prayer, in thanksgiving, in supplication, in thanksgiving, but he manifests his grace to us through the sacraments of His Church, through the study of His Holy Word, through His personal relationship with each and every one of us. He’s not our “miracle worker” on display, but our Abba Father, who went to the pit of Hell to save us from ourselves.

The prophet Isaiah declared that the government shall be upon his shoulders, but that government took the form of a crossbeam and not a gavel.

There is always the temptation to leave this service with everything somewhat neat and tidy for tomorrow evening and Sunday morning. However, this service doesn’t really allow us to do so, does it? The cross is still draped in black, the tabernacle still stands open, the church is still dark. It’s left just the way it is supposed to. With a longing and a sense of expectation.

If just for this one day, let us ponder the magnitude of Good Friday. Let us ponder what brought us to this point. Let us ponder who we are that brought our Lord to this place. Let us ponder, and let us pray.
Sermon for Maundy Thursday
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
April 21, 2011

“For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”

We’ve all heard the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We have taught or are teaching our children that mantra of life that basically stems from the second half of the Summary of the Law to love one’s neighbor as himself. If we love our neighbor then we would naturally only do unto them the things that we would want reciprocated. We each recognize injustice when it is hurled in our direction, should we not do the same for our neighbor.

However, those words that we just heard wasn’t just a call to play nice in the sandbox. Those words come at the end of a portion of Jesus’ farewell discourse in which he assumed the lowliest place possible, that of a slave, and stooped down to wash their feet.

In reading a commentary that described the social-science aspect of the scene here, we need to more fully understand what Jesus does here, and what it means for us.

As you might be aware, but probably don’t wish to think about in hearing a story such as this one is the fact that Jesus went about doing a job that only a slave or the lowest of servants would perform for the guests of a dinner. We are not going to find in an archeological dig in ancient Palestine an intricate sewer system, so all of the human waste in a household would have been dumped out of the windows, and left to dissipate as it was able. There would also be the waste of the animals kept for food that would have been discarded into the streets as well; so no matter how careful one was, there’s no doubt in our minds that a person’s feet would be covered in excrement and waste, and thus, it would have only been fitting for a slave to perform such a menial task as to wash all of that filth off of someone’s feet as they sat for dinner. This was a gesture of hospitality that a host would have had done for his guests, and therefore, when read who it is that does this among the disciples we see what type of meaning it begins to take on.

Jesus rose from supper, laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water in a bason, and began to wash the disciple’s feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. By his very actions, Jesus swapped places with the lowest in society. He took the place of a slave so that he could embody the very example he wished for his followers to emulate. The action spoke louder than any words could have done.

When Jesus comes to Peter, he of course is indignant and says that he’ll never allow his Lord to demean himself in that fashion and wash the filth from his feet, to which, Jesus replies that if he doesn’t do it then Peter will have no part in Him.

I think there is a wonderful image here that might otherwise go unnoticed. It says that Jesus took a towel and girded himself with it. It became a part of his vesture, a part of himself. What he tells Peter and us is that if we don’t let Jesus wipe off all that defiles us, contaminates us, burdens us, and causes us to stink, and wipe it onto himself, we will continue to carry it with us, and we can’t carry our sinfulness with us into Paradise. We can’t have a bit of Hell in Heaven to borrow from C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald in The Great Divorce. Peter had to let Jesus wash the part of his body that was in contact with the world and wipe it onto himself in order that he might destroy it once and for all.

Peter again misunderstands the imagery here and then says in essence that if washing my feet is good then certainly a full body wash would have to be better. He fails to recognize that our constant attention and striving toward the ascetical life involves those points of contact with the world, the flesh, and the devil. Through our baptism we don’t wash the whole body again, but we must continue the daily struggle to keep our feet clean as a symbol of the fact that we part of a life lived in this world, but as Christians, not of this world.

Finally, we come to another part of Scripture where the old English gives us a bit of clarification. When Jesus tells Peter, “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all.” The pronoun “ye” here speaks of the group as a whole, and not just Peter. He’s speaking to the disciples as a whole while singling out Judas when he mentions that not all are clean.

For us as disciples and followers of Jesus he tells us that we are clean, but there will still be weekly, daily, hourly foot washing that will continue until we reach the heavenly Jerusalem when we will be washed one final time and given that garment that is made white through the Blood of the Lamb.

Who is responsible for washing one another’s feet? It’s you and it’s me. We are going to constantly be contracting the filth of this world and so will our neighbors. It will cling to us until it is washed off. If it is not washed off it will begin to contaminate us. We will become accustomed to it, and that is of course a root of sin when we lose that sense of being soiled and in need of cleansing. We are to be the ones to stoop down and do the dirty work of washing one another’s feet, and wiping them clean in the name of the one who did it for us.

If we are to be followers and disciples of Jesus Christ this is what we are called to do, and if we do so in our Lord’s name, then others will see us doing unto one another what our Lord Jesus bids us to do, and they will want to join us in serving one another out of love, out of joyful thanksgiving for what He first did for us.