Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
July 17, 2011

We’ve all had down times. I don’t believe that anyone here can say that life has been nothing but peaches and cream. Now, if I’ve mischaracterized someone, please be sure to meet me after church. We go through ups and downs in life; there are good days and there are bad days; there are blessings and there are curses; we have intense spiritual highs and at times deep spiritual lows. These are the cold, hard facts. Life doesn’t always serve up exactly what we need, exactly when we need it or desire it.

Now that I’ve begun on such an upbeat, positive manner, I want us to take a closer look at the Psalm that we’ve just recited a few moments ago and see what the Psalmist wishes for us to hear. If you remember back a few weeks ago, I said that throughout Trinitytide we would be reciting the 119th Psalm in its entirety over the twenty-two weeks of this season. We read the fourth octet this morning and we began with a most stark assertion, “My soul cleaveth to the dust.”

I have sat with that phrase all week long.

“My soul cleaveth to the dust.”

The overarching message of this sermon deals with those six words. There is a tremendous depth in the brevity of that phrase and I pray that we might understand the significance of what is being conveyed to us this morning.

To begin with, this verse makes a stark shift from the preceding verse. Last Sunday when we ended on verse twenty-four, we ended on a high note when we declared, “For thy testimonies are my delight, and my counselor.” The Psalmist declares that because he is a keeper of God’s law, he has become, as it were, a “stranger upon earth,” and that, “Princes also did sit and speak against me.”

We are going to find that out as we grow deeper and deeper into the full stature of Christ that things are going to be different and appear so more often. We might as well get used to the fact that one of three things is most likely going to happen: we will be ignored by those who are apathetic to what we say or do; we will be mocked and perhaps persecuted by those who hate what we have to say and are doing; or we will bring along with us those whose hearts, and minds, and souls are touched by what we have to say and what they’ve seen us doing. As I see it, those are the only three choices.

In returning to our Psalm it seems clear that he is not going to concern himself with the effects of the first two groups – the apathetic who make him feel like a stranger or the Princes who speak against him, but rather, that he is going to occupy himself with God’s statutes and delight in God’s testimonies for they are his counselors.

So far, so good; life beings to kick in, temptations fall his way – our way, a false sense of longing and security from the things of this world creep into his thoughts and we begin to hear an honest plea of the Psalmist’s spiritual condition, “My soul cleaveth to the dust.”

What are we to make of that phrase? I would hope that we might understand it as a cry of the heart as an acknowledgement of our true nature. When we pray in the General Confession of Morning or Evening Prayer that, “there is no health in us,” we are in essence repeating the first half of the 25th verse of the 119th Psalm.

Since we were formed from the dust of the earth, and since we are reminded each year on Ash Wednesday, “Remember, O Man, that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return,” that a part of our very essence is wrongly trying to get back to our point of origin – the trying to return to our false home. The problem is this earth is not our true and ultimate home. We aren’t destined to live here for eternity, but rather in the fully realized presence of Almighty God.

It’s important to make not here the incredible parallels to the creation narrative as found in Genesis chapter two. We recall the familiar passage where Scripture says, “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” At the end of that chapter God institutes the sacrament of Holy Matrimony when He says, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh.” The three central words in our Psalm are found right here in Genesis 2 – soul, cleave, and dust. The issue at hand for us is the fact that the words from Genesis 2 speak of a rightly oriented use of those words, and the passage from Psalm 119 speaks of a soul incorrectly oriented.

What we have in these first six words of this portion of the Psalm is the admission of a low point in the Psalmist’s life. It seems to indicate that he is honest enough to admit that even though his heart’s longing is for the Law he is facing an uphill battle with his soul’s corrupted bend toward its improper origin – it is cleaving to the wrong thing.

Let us remember that our souls rightful slant should be toward its true source – God Himself. However, when Man headed the words of the serpent our longing shifted away from God and toward that from which we came prior to God’s Spirit being breathed into us. Adam and Eve sought protection and cover from the garden to hide their nakedness rather than protection and cover from their Maker. They tried to seek solace in the creation rather than from the Creator.

When Adam and Eve fell Mankind received a curse for its disobedience but so did the serpent. “Thou art cursed above all cattle…upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.”

This earth and the dust of its surface will one day pass away, and ever since the Fall the serpent, Satan, has been feeding upon the dust of the earth. The dilemma that the Psalmist declares and that we too must admit is that in our times of being downtrodden and weak there is the ever present temptation to cleave to the one thing that is merely an illusion of stability, comfort, and peace – the dust and the things of the earth. Thankfully the Psalmist does not remain in this position forever for we hear him declare that the only true source of life is not in the cleaving to the dust from which we were formed but in the cleaving to the Spirit that was breathed into us at creation and is expressed in God’s Logos – his Word. Certainly here we are referring to God’s Word written, but implicit in that statement is God’s Word who became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ.

The question for us is whether or not our soul will cleave to the dust or will it cleave to the one who created the dust and gives us his Word. Will we be like Judas whose soul never ceased cleaving to the dust of the earth and ended in despair and death? Or will we be like St. Peter whose soul was cleaving to the dust of the earth as he declared with fervent conviction that he never knew Jesus, and upon hearing the cock crow went out weeping, feel upon his face, and cried out for mercy?

Many times throughout our lives, probably before this day is over, we will with complete certainty come to the realization that our soul is cleaving to the dust of the earth. When that happens and we come to that realization may we ever pray with the Psalmist for the Lord to give us life that comes only through the hearing, heeding and obeying His holy Word.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Trinity
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
July 10, 2011

I really need to be sitting in the congregation today listening to someone else give this sermon. I need to hear these words because they address one of the hardest struggles in my own life as one who is striving to live the Christian life and attempting to take small steps toward holiness. Now before you begin to squirm in the pew and think that I’m about to turn the pulpit into my own confessional you can breathe easy because that is something that I will never do. The pulpit is never the place for the preacher to work out his own issues and bear his own burdens. No, I’m simply placing myself in the position of the patient; I, like you, am coming to hear the words of the Great Physician who administers his healing balm for our souls at all times if we are willing to submit ourselves to His never failing care and protection.

That being said, I am going to make one self-disclosure that I believe will help ground what I am about to say regarding that insidious sin of pride that draws us further and further from God’s presence because of its very nature. I think some of you have perhaps heard this before in other settings, and it pertains to my days as a high schooler. Most of you probably remember those awards that each class hands out where they select a boy and girl as most likeable, or best dressed, or biggest flirt, or most outgoing. I was the proud recipient of the award for being the most right. This was not an assessment of my political leanings, but was actually a most truthful statement of fact. I hated to be wrong. I never wanted to lose an argument or have my position questioned. I was the Andrew Wilkow of my school – I was right, they were wrong, that’s the end of the discussion.

Unfortunately, the more things change, the more they stay exactly the same.

We heard in our Epistle lesson from First St Peter about the attitude of Christ’s disciples and how they are to humble themselves toward one another. Our lesson began mid-chapter, and the first few verses that precede what we just heard speak about the relationship between the elders and the younger members of the community. Peter declares, “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away. Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder.”

There will always be the temptation to lord over others with our knowledge or our position of influence or our status in life. It’s very easy to think that because of who we are there will always be others who will need us or what we have to offer them and thus, gives us the license to be proud or prideful.

I’m sure you can call to mind examples of people who have exhibited this type of attitude in which you were made to feel like you had absolutely nothing to offer and as long as you knew your place as the dutiful student or subordinate or co-worker everything was fine.

How did things work out in the long run? What was the long term relationship with that supervisor or teacher? It was probably tenuous at best, fraught with animosity at worst. Why?

Pride is perhaps the worst of sins because it is a direct affront to that most noble theological virtue of charity. One who strives to foster a spirit of charity seeks the love of the other over one’s self. Charity always seeks to displace pride.

St. Paul in the First Epistle to the Corinthians in the thirteenth chapter, which we hear read on the Sunday before Lent begins, tells us that if we speak of earthly things well or of heavenly things well that if we do not have charity we are nothing. If we can prophesy, or understand incredible mysteries, or have remarkable knowledge of things temporal or spiritual, but don’t posses love, then we are nothing. Suppose we have the strongest faith so that we could remove mountains or give away all our goods to feed the poor, or even suffer death on behalf of this faith, but do not exercise charity, it does us no good. “Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth.”

All of these attributes of charity, of love, are the counter virtues of the vice of pride. If you leave today and re-read I Corinthians 13, I believe you will see that St. Paul dedicates an entire chapter to a letter to a church in the most wayward of places, Corinth, to keep their pride in check. He is admonishing them to remember that the only way that they were going to stand out amongst the crowd in the See city of hedonism, materialism, humanism, pluralism, pantheism, and any other ism you’d like to add, was not through some type of new moralism, but by loving God with all of their heart, and loving their fellow Corinthians as counter-cultural as that was. Charity not pride is to be the benchmark of a Christian disciple.

So how do we get to the place where charity reigns, and pride is arrested?

We must begin in the one place that all who have sought this same task have begun – in prayer. We must ask God to help us. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” Our collect for this morning exhorts us to the same task, “O LORD, we beseech thee mercifully to hear us; and grant that we, to whom thou hast given an hearty desire to pray, may, by thy mighty aid, be defended and comforted in all dangers and adversities.” What greater adversity and danger is there than to fall prey to the sin of pride? There truly is no greater danger because pride is the sin that led to the fall of Lucifer, the prince of darkness. It is the sin that displaces God from His rightful place as the Lord of life and light.

We are to come seeking solace and comfort and grace from God’s Holy Word and the most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. We must have our lives shaped and formed by these two great gifts that we have received from our Lord. We receive the Word of God through our study, devotion and worship, and through His precious Body and Blood. When we deprive ourselves of these great benefits we do so to the peril of our very soul.

Finally, we must share what we have received with others in a spirit of joyful thanksgiving. As is often said at the offertory, “let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” The world must see us as the new creatures that we are as the children of our heavenly Father.

Praying for the gift of charity is one thing. Study of God’s Word and the reception of the Sacraments is yet another thing. Taking this Good News out into the world is yet another and a mark of a true disciple. We can’t keep this to ourselves, but rather, we are commanded to take this message into the whole world.

“And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, [even] unto the end of the world.”

We have work to do. It is hard work, tedious work, challenging work, but it is work that has supreme benefits not just for today or tomorrow, but for all eternity. May Almighty God empower us for the task that lies ahead as His disciples. To Him be ascribed all might, majesty, dominion, and power both this day and evermore.