Guilty as sin and still set free


Sermon for August 21, 2022


Isaiah 58:9b-14
Psalm 103:1-8
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

It has been a long time since I last gave a sermon featuring insights drawn from the Andy Griffith Show, so y’all please indulge me for a couple minutes.

Season 1, episode 20. Sheriff Andy Taylor needs to go to the courthouse in Centreville to testify one afternoon, so naturally he leaves his deputy, Barney Fife, in charge. Barney is eager to show Andy what a good job he can do at maintaining law and order in town, so he is only too happy to take over for a few hours. 

When Andy returns later that afternoon and walks down the street toward his office, he is amazed at how quiet everything is in town. Everything is peaceful and calm and everyone in town seems to have left for the day. Then Andy opens the door to his office and he hears the commotion. The reason why the streets of Mayberry seemed so calm and quiet, is because just about every citizen was locked up in one of the town’s two small jail cells: the mayor, Otis, the president of the bank, even Aunt Bea and Opie. Everyone in town has done something to land themselves in jail. 

Well, one by one, Andy listens to Barney’s charges against each person, and one by one, Andy finds a reason to show leniency and dismiss them and to let the offender go free. Barney, of course, protests and says “these people are guilty as sin,” but Andy just doesn’t think that locking up the whole town is the way to go about it. Only Andy quickly discovers there is a problem: everyone in town starts to make fun of Barney. They tease him and laugh at him and scoff at his approach to the law. This is a real problem for Andy, because although he and Barney may have some different approaches to law enforcement, they both are on the same side of the law. Andy can’t have people treating the law as if it were just a joke.  And on a personal level, Andy can’t have people treating Barney as a joke either. Barney isn’t going to stay and serve people that treat him that way; he is prepared to quit and move on. 

So Andy really puts the town to the test. He starts to tell everyone that he has to let Barney go. He may be a compassionate and merciful sheriff, but he can’t have people treating the law, or a symbol or representative of the law as a joke. The law is there for their own good, and if the people cannot appreciate that, then Andy will have to bring in another deputy that the town will respect. Well, one by one all the townsfolk start to realize what they had done. They all really loved Barney, they knew that Barney wanted what was best for everyone, but when he pointed out to them something wrong that they had done, they let their self-righteousness get the better of them; they became defensive and indignant and it just about destroyed their relationship with him. Barney may have been overzealous in the enforcement of the law, but he wasn’t wrong. They were guilty.

At the very end of the episode, as Barney is taking off his badge and gun, and returning the one bullet that he keeps in his shirt pocket, Aunt Bea and Opie walk in, march over to the jail cell and lock themselves in. Then, one by one, almost every other citizen of Mayberry walks into the office, heads over to the jail cell and proclaims, “guilty as charged.” The people of Mayberry are no longer defensive about breaking the law, they are owning up to it. They may very much appreciate Sheriff Andy’s mercy and leniency in enforcing the law; they may hope for forgiveness of their trespasses, but they realized that Barney wasn’t wrong. Not really. The law existed for them. The law was for their benefit, and they had broken the law. So while this episode began with everyone in Mayberry proclaiming their own righteousness and defending their innocence, it ends with everyone in Mayberry proclaiming their own guilt. As you can probably imagine, there is way more peace and love at the end, than there was in the beginning. 

Now I’m not just retelling the plot to an episode of one of my favorite television shows for our mutual amusement and to eat up some sermon time. I think this episode is actually a pretty good illustration of our relationship, as Christians, to God’s law. Think for a second about the moment that the law, God’s law, was given to God’s people. I’m talking about the Ten Commandments and Moses and Mount Sinai. It’s OK, you can think about the Charlton Heston movie, we’re all doing it. But think for a second about the scene: you have a mountain with clouds and thunder and smoke and a burning bush and laws written in stone. Intimidating scary stuff. But these laws that are given, is God giving these laws to be arbitrary, to be a big meanie, to punish his people? Or is God giving these laws for the good of his people? Are they for his sake, or are they for ours? Think about the sabbath. What a fascinating law that is. God says to a bunch of people that were just slaves; God says to people whose lives were valued only by what they could produce, by their productivity; God says to these people, one day a week, YOU WILL NOT WORK. God isn’t trying to enslave people; he’s trying to set them free. God’s law was given for their benefit, not for their punishment. The people needed God’s law, it was for their good, even when they inevitably ended up breaking it. 

Christians know that we have a merciful saviour that will be our judge. We know that Jesus offers forgiveness and leniency. We know that for those who are in Christ Jesus there is no condemnation, but just because Jesus offers us mercy, that doesn’t mean that the law was wrong, or that it should be mocked and ignored. As Christians, if we really trust in God’s love for us, both in giving the law and in judging us with righteousness and mercy, then we should be able to walk right up to the judge, just like all those people in Mayberry, and humbly declare “guilty as charged.” We can trust that the law is good, while at the same time recognizing that we have broken it. We don’t need to be defensive. We don’t need to mock the law or scoff at it. We don’t need to point the finger at others and say, “well, they did it too, or they did it first.” We don’t need to be like lose in the gospel today who are so intent on catching Jesus breaking the law, that not only are they hypocritical about their own observance of the law, but they also totally miss the point of the law in the first place: setting people free from the chains that the world puts on them. God’s laws, God’s commandments were given to us as a blessing, not as a punishment. Commandments and justice, and mercy and forgiveness, they all come from the same God. We will never find peace in this world by imagining that we are on the right side of God’s law all the time and pointing the finger at everyone else, and we will never find peace by ignoring God’s law and the actions that he has declared to be good. We fall short and we are forgiven; we fail and we try again.

Peace, true peace comes to Mayberry, when its citizens recognize that both Andy and Barney are on the same side of the law. It isn’t either/or. True peace comes when the people recognize that you can be guilty as sin, and still set free. 

You cannot trust the clergy. Not all the time.


Sermon for August 14th, 2022


Jeremiah 23:23-29
Psalm 82
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

You simply cannot trust the clergy. Not all the time at least. Priests, prophets, bishops, preachers, academic theologians, popular authors who call themselves theologians…you cannot simply trust that everything they say is the gospel truth, good advice, or that it represents the will of God. You can’t simply take it for granted. You need to do the work of discernment. Their message needs to be tested. How does it compare to the scripture? What kind of fruit does it produce? It doesn’t matter how big their church is, how many letters they have after their name, how many followers they have, or how many books they have sold. Popularity is never a good indicator of divine approval, in fact, sometimes it is quite the opposite. Faithfully following God, and trying to speak his word faithfully, can sometimes, oftentimes, make you deeply unpopular. 

It has ever been this way. 

The prophet Jeremiah was deeply unpopular. He went around telling people that they had turned their backs on God and God’s law; he said that the priests and prophets and leaders of the kingdom were leading people astray; he said that the end of all of this would be destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. It didn’t win him many friends. In fact, people repeatedly tried to kill him. That was the acclaim that Jeremiah got in his own day for sharing God’s word. Not a book deal; not an interview on television. He got thrown in the bottom of a well and left for dead. Hardly the sort of thing that is going to inspire many would-be televangelists. But his message was tested, and his message was true.

Jesus warned his followers repeatedly that following him and ministering in his name would at times prove extremely unpopular. Causing division, and not peace. Resulting in rejection by one’s loved ones, and even possibly a cross of one’s own. Jesus’s first sermon was in his hometown and as soon as it was over folks wanted to kill him. That was his reward for calling people to greater holiness. Jesus may have been popular among some of his loyal followers, but we have to always remember that at the end of the day, when Pilate put it to a popular vote, the crowd chose Barabas. Democracy and Christianity do make strange bedfellows if you really think about it. Humans don’t exactly have a history of making good choices. Jesus knew that. Jesus’s word was tested, and Jesus’s word was true.

Being popular, and being correct or being on the right side or being true to God, or even being wise, these are not always the same thing; they are often at odds with one another. Discerning the will of God is never as simple as putting things to a vote, ever. So we need to be careful whenever we are ascribing divine will to things, or individuals, or to messages that are popular in our own day. Jesus reminds us in the gospel this morning that we are better at predicting the weather than we are at interpreting the age we live in, and truthfully we aren’t THAT good at predicting the weather. It can take a long time to know which leaders in our own age are true prophets, and which ones are just interpreting their own wishes as the will of God, so be careful out there. Because you can’t just trust all of us. Not all the time. The message, the word, needs to be tested. Sometimes it may represent timeless, divine truth, and sometimes it may be just what we want to hear in the moment.

There was a dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in the early 20th century called William Inge who famously wrote: “The church that marries the spirit of the age, becomes a widow in the next generation.” We should always be suspicious of being too popular, too contemporary or too hip, because popularity has nothing to do with the will of God. And what is popular today will be dated and unpopular tomorrow. The most dated prayer in our prayer book, isn’t the Rite I prayers that we use here; it is Eucharistic Prayer C, which was written in the 60s and talks about the vast expanse of interstellar space. That might have sounded cool 50 years ago, but now it kinda feels like that polyester jumpsuit hanging in the back of your closet. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but not every innovation is worthy of holding on to. Things that are popular in the moment don’t always have lasting value. Incidentally, Dean Inge also had some other opinions on things like eugenics, that now we would consider totally abhorrent, so like I said, you just can’t trust the clergy. Not all the time. The message needs to be tested.

One of the reasons why I am such a strong believer in tradition is not just because I like old fashioned things. I do like old fashioned things, but that is beside the point. I believe in tradition, specifically church tradition, because it has been tested by time. Discernment has happened, not just by one priest or prophet, but by generations of faithful people. All that discernment, all that time just has a way of sorting through that which has lasting value, the things that are of God, from the stuff that just represents the spirit of the age. Traditions have been tested.

It’s also why I prefer my religious authors, the ones I read, to be good and dead. Not just recently deceased, but good and dead. Dead for 50 years or more. There are a few exceptions to this rule; there are occasionally living authors writing in the field of theology and religion that I find to be worthwhile, but not too many. One of my favorite writers, C. S. Lewis, who passes my good and dead test, once wrote that if you have to choose between reading a new book and reading an old one, read the old one. Because, as Lewis says, a new book is still on trial. “It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down through the ages, and all of its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) must be brought to light.” New books, specifically, new religious books, new books that claim to be about Christianity or Christian theology or spirituality, they need to be tested. Is this author, faithfully trying to deepen our knowledge of God, or are they just putting a new spin on an old heresy? Is this so-called prophet actually calling people to faithfulness, or are they just trying to promote themselves and sell books? You see, I get really nervous when religious leaders, or scholars, or whatever, start to get a little popular and start to sell books. It is so easy to let that popularity go to your head. It is easy to start packaging up your vision and selling it as God’s. We know from scripture that it has happened before. You can’t always trust us.

In religious books, religious leaders and movements, as in so many other things, it isn’t popularity that is the ultimate judge of what has lasting value; it’s time. Time is a serious judge. Are a prophet’s words wheat, or are they straw? Is our life of faith being fed by the wheat of God, that has substance and life within it, or is it the straw of the passing age? I trust in that judge, the judgement of time at the hands of God, more than I trust any other. Jesus said that God has his winnowing fork in his hand. That’s what a winnowing fork does: it separates straw from wheat. It isn’t always easy to distinguish between the two, straw and wheat, not for us, but God knows what has lasting value and what doesn’t. I promise you God doesn’t care about what, or who, is popular and God already knows that the clergy can’t always be trusted to get it right. Not all the time.

The only interesting thing…


Sermon for August 7th, 2022


Genesis 15:1-6
Psalm 33:12-22 
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Sermon 8-7-22

The only interesting thing about religion is God. 

That bears repeating. 

The only really interesting thing about all of this: the building, the vestments, the rituals, the scriptures, the beliefs, everything that we classify as religion, the only truly interesting thing about all of that is God. 

God as a personality that we live in relationship with. That is what makes religion fascinating and compelling. A living God. A mysterious, all powerful being that we encounter, but never fully comprehend. Without God, all of this just becomes a very sad, very tired old play. 

Now maybe it seems obvious to you that religion and church should be about God, and that God should be the central focus of all that we are and all that we do. Maybe that seems like a no-brainer. But we get distracted from that central focus all the time, and there are forces that will always want us to be ABOUT something else. Human beings have this amazing ability to constantly lasso the spotlight back onto ourselves, even when we pretend to be talking about God. Somehow we always manage to find ways to make it about us. We start to focus less and less on what God has done and what God is doing, and we focus more and more on what we have done, or what we are doing, or what we should be doing, or what we want to be doing. 

Maybe the problem is that we are too embarrassed to admit to our friends that we actually believe in a personal God, so instead we make the focus of our faith things that are less controversial: like doing good works in the world. Even atheists approve of those things. Or maybe the truth is we just like to talk about ourselves and think about ourselves a little too much. Somehow, one way or another, we find a way to make religion more about us than it is about God. 

We do it in subtle and innocent ways. 

For instance: I imagine that there will be many sermons given this morning on the faith of Abraham and the amazing things that Abraham’s faith led him to do, just like faith led Isaac and Jacob and Moses to do amazing things. Look what faith can do: faith can lead you to do amazing things. Faith can make you a hero. 

It is really tempting to go there with that passage from the Book of Hebrews; to talk about what faith can do for us; to talk about the amazing things that people of faith can do. To think about faith as some sort of virtue that comes from within US; something WE have a right to be proud of. I could easily write that kind of a sermon; it’s not entirely wrong, Hebrews does remind us of the amazing things people of faith did. But that’s not the whole story.

The really interesting thing about Abraham is NOT that he had faith. The world was filled with people that had faith. There was a god on every corner and someone to worship him. Simply having faith didn’t make Abraham special. What made Abraham special is WHAT he had faith in, or should I say WHO he had faith in. Abraham didn’t just have some generic faith or non-specific hope for the future. Abraham was not “spiritual but not religious” as so many people are nowadays. Abraham didn’t just have faith in a god; he had faith in THE God and he had faith that THE God, the maker of heaven and earth, the judge of all men, he had faith that that God wanted to have a relationship with him and wanted to bless him and was making everlasting promises to him. That is what makes Abraham special; not the fact that he had faith, but WHAT he had faith in. He had faith that God wanted to bless him. That was the God he believed in: a God that loves and wants to bless. A God who keeps his promises. A God you encounter and live in relationship with. Because Abraham believed in this God, a God who wills good things for him, it is because of that belief that Abraham is able to obey and follow and go where God tells him to go. What Abraham believed about God mattered. It isn’t enough to say that Abraham had faith. We have to remember WHAT he had faith in. We have to remember WHO he had faith in.

Abraham had faith in God. Not a generic higher power, but a specific, personal God. That is what makes Abraham such an interesting character, and that is what leads Abraham to do what he does. That belief is what has led religious people down through the ages to do amazing things. Everything from building the great cathedrals, to founding monasteries, caring for the sick and feeding the poor, creating some of the world’s most beautiful art and writing some of history’s greatest music. These things have been done largely as a response to a BELIEF. Belief matters. What we believe about God matters. What God does matters more than what we do. It is so easy to just focus on human actions that we often forget that human actions are usually guided and directed by human beliefs. What we believe matters. What we have faith in matters.

I am sure that some preacher’s this morning will have a field day with Jesus’s instruction in the gospel to “sell your possessions and give alms,” because in part, some folks just want to the church to be a glorified social service agency. “Let’s justify our existence as an organization by pointing to all the good works we do.” Some people really do see it that way. But is that all that church is about? Is that what gives us our identity and our strength? Is that what saves us? I don’t think it is. 

Before Jesus told his disciples to sell their possessions, he said to them: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Do not be afraid, because your father, your God, it is his WILL to bless you. God takes pleasure in giving you his kingdom. Your God is a god who gives. Your God is a god who blesses. NOW, therefore, you go out and do likewise. Now, you give. Now, you go out and bless, because that is the love that your father in heaven has shown to you. It is our faith, our belief, in a God that takes pleasure in giving us the kingdom; it is our faith in that specific God that gives us the power and the strength to live the life that we live. It is that faith that gives us patience and hope in the hard times, and it is that faith that gives us generosity and compassion in the good times. Being a person of faith is great, but what exactly do you have faith in? What you have faith IN matters.

Everyone who steps on their car brake pedal or takes a Tylenol has some kind of faith; everyone who puts their money in the bank or the stock market has some kind of faith. What kind of faith do you have? If you have faith in God, what God or what kind of god do you have faith in? 

Do you have faith in a God that has the power to call heaven and earth into existence?

Do you have faith in a God who values, calls, and uses babies and old people to serve him? The rest of the world values, the young, the strong and the virile, but do you have faith in a god who still values the very young and the very old? Because it seems like the God of scripture does.

Do you have faith in a God that loves us enough to become one of us? Do you have faith in a God that still tries to save us even when we can’t or won’t save ourselves? Do you have faith in a God who forgives? Do you have faith in a God who heals? Do you have faith in a God who conquers death? Do you have faith in a God who calls you to follow him into unknown territory? 

In just a moment I am going to ask you to stand and affirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. You might think that that is a rather dull part of the service, reciting week after week our beliefs about God using words that were worked out centuries ago, you may think it is boring and unimportant, but you would be wrong. Because before we encounter God in the sacrament, we need to remind ourselves just who exactly it is that we are encountering. It isn’t enough to just say we are people of faith; we need to remind ourselves and proclaim to others what and who we have faith in. We have faith in God. This God. This God who made promises to Abraham. This God who was born and lived among us in our Lord Jesus Christ. This God who raised him from the dead and promises us eternal life and a place in his kingdom. This God. That is the only thing that makes any of this interesting at all.