Sermon for August 14th, 2022
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.