The beginning of faith is humility.


Sermon for Sunday, August 29, 2016


Sirach 10:12-18
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

On Thursday, September the 29th, for the Feast of Michaelmas, Bishop Geralyn Wolf will be with us to bless and dedicate our new front entrance, including and especially the new stained glass windows in our doors.


Now if you haven’t had the chance to stop and look closely at these windows, I urge you to do so at some point. Particularly the four archangels who are depicted on the four doors on either side of the two center doors. Now some of these archangels are probably familiar to you. I am sure you have heard of Michael the archangel, patron of police officers and those in law enforcement: soldiers. No doubt you have heard of the Archangel Gabriel, the one who announced to the Virgin Mary that she was with child. And you may have heard of the Archangel Raphael, who is the patron of healing; some hospitals, in fact, are dedicated to or named after Raphael. But I would venture to say that the archangel you know the least about, is the one that is featured on the Northernmost door, which is Uriel.


You may not have even heard of Uriel before, and the reason for that is that the scripture that Uriel comes from is in the part of the Bible that we know as the Apocrypha or the deutero-canonical books, which we don’t read all that often. You actually got a snippet of one of those books this morning in our first reading: the Book of Ecclesiasticus, but there are others and some of them are quite wonderful. This particular book that Uriel is in called Esdras (2nd Esdras to be specific), is fascinating and it is a shame that we don’t read it more often. In the Book of Esdras, there is the prophet Ezra and he is lamenting the state of his people. He is lamenting that the Hebrews have been hauled off into exile and he is beating his head against all of the inhumanity in the world. Ezra is perplexed at how people can be so cruel to one another and why they have to suffer so much. He is questioning God: Why God, why is there so much suffering in the world? Why are my people (your people) suffering? Why are you forcing them into exile?


As Ezra is questioning God, suddenly there appears to him this angel Uriel. And Uriel says to Ezra: I’ll answer your questions, but first you have to tell me three things: how much does fire weigh? how do you measure the wind? how do you bring back a day that has passed?


And Ezra stands back and is perplexed and says: who on earth, what human on earth could answer those questions? There is no way I could possibly answer those questions for you! And Uriel says to him: If you cannot understand the things of this world, of which you have experience, how do you possibly think that you could understand the things of God?


I love that story. In part, because I have so often found myself in the place of Ezra, questioning God and wondering why things are happening to certain people and why people are suffering and why the world is the way it is. And here is this story with this angel of God coming to remind Ezra, and the rest of us, that God is so much more mysterious than we can imagine. We as humans are very limited in our understanding of the world. We like to congratulate ourselves and convince ourselves that we are brighter and more clever than we are and that we have actually figured a lot more out than we really have. But if we are honest with ourselves as humans we will recognize that there is so much in the material world that we don’t understand and don’t appreciate. we can’t even look at the bottom of the ocean; it remains completely mysterious to us and we are still finding new animals on this planet, and yet with our limited understanding of the material world we think that we are going to comprehend all of the mysteries of God’s world? I think not.


This story reminds us of our limitations as humans. We are not nearly as bright and as clever as we think we are. God is more powerful and mysterious than our minds could ever conceive. If we can’t even fully understand or appreciate the world around us that we can see and touch, what makes us think that our individual minds can fully understand God?


Now Uriel goes on to explain and reveal quite a lot to Ezra, and he is the patron of divine revelation and inspiration, but more importantly he makes him understand the importance of approaching God with humility.


Humility is the key to having faith. Humility allows us to recognize that we are not as smart, as righteous, as good, as glorified as we might wish that we were.


As long as God exists, there will always be a standard higher than our own. There will always be someone or something greater than us: a higher authority than our own judgment. If we try to eliminate God from our lives, then we become the standard by which we measure the world.


Christians often get blamed for being self-righteous, and sometimes we are. People of faith in general get accused of being self-righteous, and sometimes that is true. But if you really want to be with someone who is truly self-righteous, go and hang out with an avowed atheist. I’m not talking about your casual atheists: people that question God or are not sure what they believe, or have doubts. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about your professional atheists: the people who publish books about God not being great, or God being dead. I’m talking about these people: people that make their career by claiming that there is no other higher power; that there is no other standard other than the standard that they set, and only the absolute truth which they proclaim. That is true self-righteousness: believing that there is no other higher power and believing that you are really in control of the world around you, and that you completely understand the world around you. That is true self-righteousness.


Faith begins by acknowledging that we are not the ultimate authority in this world, that we do not understand and know everything, that we cannot understand and know everything. That doesn’t mean we don’t have beliefs. We absolutely do. It doesn’t mean that we don’t hold onto things that we believe have been revealed to us, we absolutely do. I am a very traditional person as you all know, because I believe that tradition is there as a help and a guide to us, but I believe that tradition has to be approached with humility. My personal philosophy is that unless I have a good reason to depart from tradition (a very, very good reason) that I will default to whatever the traditional stance is. It is because I don’t trust myself. It isn’t because I am convinced that I am right; it is quite the opposite actually. I am convinced and I know very well that I can be wrong. I don’t trust myself to make all of the right liturgical choices or scriptural choices. I believe that God and our tradition is so much larger than me, or one priest, or one generation of priests. Therefore I am going to look to those things that have lasted generation after generation after generation, because there I find that perhaps God is revealing something to us that is lasting, unchanging and worthwhile. But in doing so I recognize that it is always possible to be wrong. Even in adhering to tradition, I recognize that it is possible for me as a human or us as a collective group to make mistakes. We adhere to tradition out of humility, not out of pride or arrogance.


In this morning’s gospel, our Lord’s admonition to always take the lowest place at the table is actually quite practical advice, but it also points to a deeper spiritual reality: pride and vainglory are not to be dismissed as minor sins; they are in fact symptoms of a deep spiritual sickness. The one who has to assume the highest place at the table on their own is someone who probably doesn’t have a right view of themselves in relation to God, their neighbors and the rest of the world.


That sort of pride and vainglory is not left to humans alone though. We are not the only ones that suffer from it. I would point out to you that while we talk abIMG_0169out the four archangels in our windows in the front, that there are actually five angels depicted in
those windows. You probably haven’t thought about that, but there are five angels depicted in those windows. One of those angels, was one who traditional tells us was very proud. He sought to assert himself over God. He thought that he was equal with God, if not better than God. That angel was cast down. If you are looking for that angel he is at the feet of Saint Michael. We know him as the serpent, as Satan or as Lucifer, but the tradition says that what he was was an angel that sought to glorify himself, rather than allow God to glorify him. If we wonder what happens to those who glorify themselves it is spelled out for us very clearly in our first reading this morning:

The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord;
the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.
For the beginning of pride is sin,
and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.
Therefore the Lord brings upon them unheard-of calamities,
and destroys them completely.
The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers,
and enthrones the lowly in their place.
The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations,
and plants the humble in their place.
The Lord lays waste the lands of the nations,
and destroys them to the foundations of the earth.
He removes some of them and destroys them,
and erases the memory of them from the earth.
Pride was not created for human beings,
or violent anger for those born of women.

If we can acknowledge and see the truth in the statement that the beginning of pride is sin, then may we also acknowledge, and believe, that the beginning of faith is humility.

What has straw in common with wheat?


Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

August 14, 2016


Jeremiah 23:23-29

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Luke 12:49-56

“What has straw in common with wheat?”


Or so asks the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah this morning. What has straw in common with wheat? Jeremiah is railing against false prophets in this passage. He is drawing a comparison between those prophets who truly have the word of the Lord, and those that are just promoting their own agenda. In the middle of this comparison he asks this interesting question: what has straw in common with wheat?


It is an interesting question, because the truth is, straw actually has a lot in common with wheat. Straw and wheat are the same plant. It’s a type of grass. When it grows and becomes ripe it is harvested. The seed, or the grain, is separated from the stalk and the leaves. The seed is wheat, the stalk is straw. So really, between one part of the plant and another there is quite a lot in common: it grows in a common field, it has a common look and smell, a common life really. There is so much in common between wheat and straw, and yet only the wheat has life within it. It is only the wheat, the grain, that can be planted again and create new life, and it is only the wheat, that can be crushed, transformed into flour and worked into bread; bread that can nourish us and sustain our lives. Humans can’t live on straw; horses can, their bodies our built to digest it, but ours aren’t. If we could manage to chew it, it might fill us up, but it can’t nourish us. We need wheat.


So this is how Jeremiah wants us to look at these two types of prophets and two types of prophecies: they may look alike and smell alike, they may in fact have a lot in common, but at the end of the day only one has the power to give life. Only one can nourish us.


So what are these two different types of prophecies or prophets that Jeremiah is talking about? Well the prophets of the true God, and there are many more than just Jeremiah, as he points out, the true prophets challenge God’s people. They preach a word that convicts them, calls them to change, calls them to put aside the false Gods that they have made by their own hands, to put aside idolatry and to return to the one, true, living God, who alone has the power to give life. Those are the true prophets; they may not be a barrel of laughs or much fun at a party, but they are the ones that help us to grow.


The other prophets? Jeremiah points out that God is well aware of them. He hears what they preach and yet can’t remember saying it himself. They are preaching from their own imaginations and dreams. They aren’t challenging the false Gods of the people; the people aren’t being asked to change their ways. Since the people are not being continually redirected to the true and living God, they are gradually turning away from him; moving further and further away, until eventually they even forget his name. Now let’s not kid ourselves here: we like these prophets; we like them because they make us feel good about ourselves, they don’t challenge us to change anything in our lives, we don’t have to examine our motives; they tell us that it is ok to stay just as we are: no need to grow, no need to change, no need to repent. Perfect for a party, but perhaps not so good for growing closer to the true God. Their words are straw: filling perhaps, maybe even comforting, but there is no life in them.


There is so much straw in the church today. Not just our church, not just the Episcopal Church, but in all churches there is straw; different types of straw maybe, but straw nonetheless. We have a lot of false Gods out there that we keep running after. We have made a lot of false Jesus’s, or perhaps not false, but at least incomplete. We cut out the words of scripture that challenge us. We dispense with any image of God that isn’t warm and fuzzy and we create (to quote the old Depeche Mode song) our own personal Jesus. We have liberal Jesus, the guy who only cares about the poor and the environment and convincing the world to take a big group hug. We have conservative Jesus, the Jesus of family values, who lets you keep your money, but makes you feel compelled to spend it on statues of him playing sports with your kids.


The problem with both of these Jesus’ is that they are straw men. They are one-sided caricatures of Jesus that don’t challenge us. They are easy and comforting and they ask very little of us. They aren’t the real Jesus. If you spend enough time reading scripture, and reading all of it, not just the happy parts, not just the warm and fuzzy parts, if you read all of it, at some point you are going to encounter a tough word from God. At some point Jesus is going to say something that you won’t like, and you can choose to either wrestle with it, or you can skip over it, walk away and ignore it and chase after the Jesus that makes you feel righteous without actually having to be better than you are.


This morning we get one of those tough words from Jesus. If you think that Jesus is all about peace, love and happiness: you are in for a surprise. If you think that Jesus is all about family values: you are also in for a surprise. This morning, Our Lord Jesus Christ, the prince of peace, says to us:


Do you think I have come to bring peace to the word? No, I tell you, but rather division.


And it’s not just going to be about one nation against another: it is a division that can separate our very families: the most intimate bonds. That is a tough word to swallow. It isn’t comforting, but if you have lived long enough in this world you will recognize that it is truth. Sometimes following God can mean making choices that you don’t want to make. This is the wheat of our faith. This is wheat because passages that challenge us and make us question our assumptions about ourselves and about God, those passages are the ones that put real life in our faith; those passages are the ones that make us grow. Whenever we read something that makes us question our own righteousness, that is when we are growing in our walk with God. Yes, sometimes we need God to embrace us, to pick us up and to love us in all our brokenness. We believe he does that, and thank you God for doing that, but sometimes we also need a kick in the pants; sometimes we need God to challenge us to do better, to be better. Sometimes we need to be redirected away from the idols of our own making and back to the God who actually saves us. Sometimes we need to be reminded that maybe God doesn’t always make the same choices we do, and just maybe, God doesn’t always vote the way we do. Last time I checked, Jesus was neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but we love to pick and choose his words to make him always agree with us. It is so easy to try to avoid being challenged by God, and it has gotten even easier in a world of Facebook, wherein you can just turn off the voices that say things you disagree with. I’m guilty of that too, I admit it.


The lesson from this morning’s gospel, and from the prophet Jeremiah, is that if you are looking to God for a pat on the back only, you may be sorely disappointed. God loves us, yes, but he is calling us to be better than we are. He is calling us to be more. Recognizing that is to lay hold onto the wheat of our faith; there is new life to be had in that truth.


As Christians we are continually surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses to the faith. Saints, prophets, patriarchs and matriarchs and martyrs, so many individual stories of people who found in God and in Christ a call to follow; a call to grow and to change; a call to forsake sin and to seek the redeeming love of Jesus. That is what our faith is about: not platitudes and sentimentality, but a God that is willing to suffer death in order to save us from ourselves. This isn’t cheap grace. We can’t turn away from the tough words of Jesus, we must embrace them, because there is truth there that we probably need to hear. That cloud of witnesses isn’t filled with people that had it all figured out; it isn’t filled with people that understood every utterance of God, and it isn’t filled with people that made all the right decisions. It is filled with people that knew that they couldn’t get through this life on their own and that turned to God for help whenever the storm clouds formed on the horizon.


We don’t come here to worship a straw man, or a caricature of Jesus: we come here to worship the living God, who sometimes comforts us and sometimes convicts us. Sometimes his words go down like honey, sometimes it is a bitter pill. There always have been and always will be false prophets. There will be ministers and churches that will focus on one aspect of Jesus and not the whole Jesus. There will be ministers that try to explain away miracles and there will be ministers that try to perform fake ones. There will be ministers who choose to skip over any Bible passages where God gets angry, and there will be ministers that revel in God’s anger and direct it at everyone else but themselves. Episcopal, Baptist, Catholic, it doesn’t matter, we all have our share of false prophets who promise you peace, even though Jesus promises us quite the opposite. Beware of them, beware of anyone who tries to over-simplfy God, or cheat you of the life-giving wheat of our faith, because what they are selling you is, to put it bluntly, horse manure, and as someone that has been knee deep in it, both figuratively and literally, I can attest that it is mostly straw.