Blessed Charles

Standard

Sermon for January 29th, 2023

Commemorating King Charles the Martyr

Readings:

Our Lord is at the height of his popularity when he delivers the Sermon on the Mount. There are thousands flocking to hear this Galilean preacher. And the vast mob of people that have gathered around Jesus have tremendous respect and admiration for him. They love him.

It won’t always be this way. Jesus knows that it won’t always be this way. 

In his sermon, Jesus famously talks about all the people who are blessed in God’s eyes: the poor in spirit, those who are mourning, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted. These people are blessed in God’s eyes. That’s what he says. That’s interesting. 

But then Jesus says something even more interesting. He says, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 

There is a prediction in that statement…and a warning. Jesus knows that the tide of public opinion is going to turn against him. He’s popular right now, but in a minute, so to speak, he won’t be. It’s sort of like our Palm Sunday ritual where the same folks who shout “Hosanna” at the beginning of the service end up shouting “crucify him” before the mass has ended. The mob that is adoring him right now is much the same way. They will soon enough be abandoning him or even be calling for his death and eventually the death of his followers. That’s the prediction in Jesus’s statement. The warning is implied: don’t go tying up popularity and public approval with God’s favor and blessing. They are not linked. There is no direct link between public approval and God’s approval, except for maybe sometimes a reverse link: sometimes God’s light is shining on and in, people that the world has rejected.

You see, we have to be very careful with things like popularity, and public approval and opinion polls, and yes, even votes. We have to be careful, because you see the public changes its opinion all the time. Popular one minute, unpopular the next. Ridin’ high in April, shot down in May. Popularity and public approval don’t necessarily have anything to do with what is righteous or blessed in God’s eyes. What the world considers to be wise on Friday afternoon, it will condemn as foolishness on Monday morning. To make matters worse, public opinion is not only fickle, it also has no mercy. Public opinion shows no mercy. Remember that. Remember. 

Remember when you are deciding what to put your faith in, remember when you are deciding where to put your trust, and what to value. Remember that we do not worship a God of public opinion. Our God doesn’t do surveys, but our God does show mercy. Remember that. Remember that our faith is not built on what this world values, but on what God values. We are not measured by human standards, but by divine standards. It isn’t strength in the world’s eyes that ultimately matters, it is strength in God’s eyes. That is what it means to be blessed: to be strong in God’s eyes. 

Today we commemorate someone who in the world’s eyes was very weak. Charles Stuart, otherwise known as King Charles the first of England, Scotland and Ireland, or King Charles the Martyr, was in many ways weak in the world’s eyes. Unlike his brother-in-law, Louis the 13th of France, Charles did not have absolute power and authority in his realm; English kings didn’t. It was a more limited monarchy. And historians, like the Monday morning quarter backers that they are, love to point out all the mistakes that Charles made with the authority that he did have. He did make mistakes, and like every human that has walked this earth except our Lord, he was a sinner who had serious flaws. In the world’s eyes, he was an imperfect man and an imperfect king. In the world’s eyes, he was weak. When public opinion turned against him, he lost a war and lost his head. So why remember him?

Because despite whatever flaws Charles might have had, he was also a man of faith. The Anglican faith to be exact. It was the faith of his father King James, to whom we owe the King James Bible. But Charles’s faith was not the faith of stripped-down puritanism; it was a faith with pomp and beauty and ceremony and tradition. It was a faith that he believed had been handed down through the apostles and through the bishops of the church and through ancient ritual and scripture. At one time, Charles’s vision of the Anglican faith was very popular, but you know how it goes with popularity. It’s fickle. There was growing opposition in Charles’s time to anything remotely resembling “popery.” It didn’t matter to Charles. He thought that his faith was worth fighting for. He thought it was worth dying for. On the scaffold before the crowd he declared:

I die a Christian, according to the profession of the Church of England, as I found it left me by my father.

He forgave those who condemned him to die and he proclaimed: I have a good cause and a gracious God. I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be. No disturbance in the world.

Charles was not a perfect man; saints never are. But he was a man of faith. He was a man who put more trust in God than he did public opinion. He may have lost an earthly crown, but in exchange he gained a heavenly one. As our Lord reminds us this morning, such people are indeed blessed.

What a good preacher does

Standard

Sermon for December 4th, 2022

The Second Sunday of Advent

Readings:

There was an architectural trend in many Anglican churches in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of making the pulpit the central focus of the congregation’s attention. So instead of the altar being front and center, as is the case here and in almost all Episcopal, Anglican, and of course, Roman Catholic Churches nowadays, what you had was a large prominent pulpit right in the middle from which the scriptures were read and the sermon was preached. A sermon, I hasten to add, which could have gone on for an hour or more. There are a few old Anglican churches around that still have this arrangement, and today in many, if not most, Congregationalist and Baptist churches you will see this setup with the pulpit in the center. Now the reformers who proposed this trend in church design had the best of intentions. They wanted the scriptures to be at the heart of religious life. The written word of God was so precious to them, it was such a powerful encounter with God, that they wanted to make that encounter, the encounter of God in scripture, the central focus of their worship life. So the pulpit, the place from which the Word of God is proclaimed and preached, it in the eyes of the reformers ought rightly to command the most prominent place in the church. It ought to be the focus of the congregation’s attention. That was their thinking. That, I think, is an admirable intention. The scriptures are sacred, holy. They are an encounter with God. They deserve to be respected and revered by the faithful. The intentions of the reformers were good, but you know what they say about good intentions…

The reformers may have wanted to exalt the scriptures, but very often what they ended up doing was exalting the preachers, and that’s really not something that you want to do. It’s very dangerous actually. Most priests are already prone to being egomaniacs with delusions of grandeur to begin with, they don’t need the building helping them out. But you put someone on a platform in the middle of the room with all eyes on them; with a congregation hanging on their every word; laughing at their jokes no matter how bad they are; you put someone who already thinks that God talks to them in that situation, and what you end up with is clergy, preachers, who come to work thinking that they are the star of the show. You get priests who have the audacity to think that you came here on your sacred Sunday morning to see and to listen to them. Incidentally, this is another reason why I think that altars should be firmly mounted against the East wall like ours is here. Making eye contact with people while celebrating the holy mysteries, it’s the devil’s trap I tell you! You are likely as the priest, to get a little confused about who the congregation is there to see and worship. But I digress…the reformers tried to do a good thing, but even they underestimated human sinfulness. Things didn’t always turn out quite the way they hoped. So the reformers, and their re-fashioned buildings, needed a little re-forming. 

One of my ecclesiastical heroes, a priest named John Keble, lived in England in the early nineteenth century. He was appointed to a church in a quaint country village named Hursley, just outside of Winchester, and when he got there he found a building much like I just described with a prominent pulpit, and what was even worse in his eyes, it had a huge memorial in the front of the church to Richard Cromwell, the son of the famous puritan and regicide Oliver Cromwell. Well, in Keble’s eyes both had to go. To Keble, both of those things represented a departure from the good traditions of England and the English church. So he spent quite a lot of his own money, rebuilding and refashioning the church, so that once again the altar was the main focus of the congregation’s attention and not monuments to the egos of priests and politicians. The pulpit was placed at the crossing, similar to this one, where the nave of the church, where the congregation sits, meets the more sacred choir and chancel, where the altar sits and where Jesus meets us in the sacrament. And the pulpit was also placed off to the side, again like this one, and not in the middle of the room. That was the old tradition and Keble wanted it back. You see symbols meant everything to him, and the placement of the pulpit symbolized the role of the preacher. He didn’t want the preacher to be the main focus of the congregation’s attention; he wanted that to be Jesus. The preacher’s role is to be a witness; a witness to God’s presence in the midst of his people; a witness to an encounter with God; a witness to Jesus. That is why the pulpit, in Keble’s eyes, should be right here: If the altar is the place where we as Christians most fully encounter Jesus, then the pulpit should be here, so that the preacher can point people to Jesus, but not get in the way. Because that is really what the preacher is meant to do: point people to Jesus, and get out of the way. The preacher can’t solve all your problems, but he or she can point you to the one who can. The preacher doesn’t have all the answers, but he knows the one who does. The truth is, I can’t do much for you at all: I can’t live your lives, or make decisions for you. I’m not even that good at changing lightbulbs. The more I try to do, the more likely I am to just get in the way. The one thing that I can do is make an introduction. I can direct you to Jesus. I can keep my eyes peeled, looking for signs of the Lord’s presence and say to you: here is your God. The Lord is right here in your life, only you may not be able to recognize him. The Lord is just over the horizon; can you see him coming? That is what the preacher is for: to help you see the Lord; to help you recognize the signs of his presence; to prepare you to meet him. That’s what a good preacher does.

You know one of the greatest sermons ever given was given by a different preacher named John. Standing in the midst of a crowd of people who thought he had all the answers, he pointed to another man off in the distance and said simply: Behold the Lamb of God. Short and to the point, just like a good sermon should be. John the Baptist was surrounded by people who came to him looking for salvation and answers, but he pointed instead to Jesus and said: “there’s your answer.” Follow him. John is the preacher who introduces the real preacher. His job was to make the introduction. His role was to help people see that their God was coming to meet them, in fact he was already in the midst of them. But to do that, John had to first deliver some news that most people didn’t want to hear. John’s words weren’t always sweet. In fact, sometimes they were pretty bitter. 

Brood of Vipers! He calls his congregation today. Snakes. I mean I get the temptation to call folks that, but calling people out for being a bunch of sinners, isn’t what I would call a winning marketing technique. Folks don’t want to hear that. Folks want to be told that Jesus loves them and that they’re ok just the way they are. Folks want to be told that they are beloved children of God; that he is always on their side; and gosh wouldn’t it be great if they leant God a hand now and then. What folks don’t want, is to be compared to chaff. You know, chaff, that’s the part of the wheat straw that is basically useless, at least for nutrition. The wheat is the seed with all the nutrients that we use to make flour and grow new wheat. The chaff is garbage that just has to be separated out. That is what John compares some folks to: chaff and fruitless trees. You just try preaching that message nowadays and see what happens. It didn’t work out so well for John either, but you know what maybe it was a sermon that had to be preached. Maybe folks needed to hear the bad news before they could receive the good news. Maybe folks needed to recognize their need for a savior, before they could respond to the savior when they finally met him. 

John’s job wasn’t a pretty job, but it was a necessary job. The truth is, folks probably already suspected deep down that everything wasn’t alright in their lives. Maybe I’m not completely chaff, I may have a few wheat kernels in the granary, but I know there’s a lot of chaff in my life. And what is more frustrating is that no matter how hard I try to sort it and sift it out, there’s still chaff in my life. I can’t seem to get rid of it. And I look around, and I know the world is full of it. Stuff, junk, garbage that has no future life and no lasting value. Maybe it’s the same for you too. It would be easy for me to just smile all the time, say everything’s all right; I’m doing good. I’ve got my life together and my priorities straight. Everything is beautiful and even if it isn’t we can just go and clean it up and fix it. That’s all the world really needs: a little hug and some dusting off. That’s all I really need, right? I’ve got a pension plan. I live in a nice house, in a nice village, in a great country. What more do I need? If I’ve got a little money and power do I really need God in my life? Do I need someone to save me? Would I bother looking for him? Maybe that is why we need people like John to tell us the truth that we don’t want to talk about: sin. Insidious, pervasive sin. None of us are living the lives that God desires us to live. None of us. That is the bad news that John has to deliver. We cannot take it for granted that we are alright in God’s eyes. We cannot presume that we are always the wheat. I suspect that it’s not really news though. I suspect that you already knew that, deep down. But John makes us face the bad news. Why? So that when the good news comes, we are ready to receive it. 

Something good is coming. That is John’s ultimate message. Something good is coming. There is a savior coming, and boy is he going to sort through some things. Are you ready to meet him? 

John doesn’t just point people to Jesus, he prepares them to meet the saviour, by helping them to understand how much they really need him. John gets people’s attention with bad news and then directs their eyes to Jesus who has the good news. And he managed to do it without a pulpit at all. Now that’s a good preacher. 

Giving a gift to God

Standard

Sermon for Sunday, November 20th, 2022

Christ the King

Readings:

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

I have to admit that I am already very excited about Christmas coming. Now I know that the Christmas season, Christmastide, doesn’t even begin until Christmas Eve; I know that next week is the beginning of the season of Advent which is its own special time about waiting for Jesus, but still I know that Christmas is coming, and you know that Christmas is coming, and I am starting to get excited about it. 

Maybe it is because this year, as most of you know, there is a new baby in our family. Part of my joy and part of my excitement this year is knowing that I get to share Christmas with someone who has never experienced it before, and doesn’t really know what it’s all about. Now our son is only 5 months old and even though I obviously think he is brilliant, at this age he isn’t going to understand the full meaning of Christmas, I know that. But he can experience joy, and probably better than most of us he can experience wonder, and mystery, and beauty. Sometimes as we get older, we spend so much time trying to figure things out that we no longer experience the beauty and the mystery that is all around us everyday. But when you are young you still understand mystery and magic. We older folks are the ones who need to be reminded of joy and wonder. So as much as I have to teach my son about the meaning of Christmas, he has much to teach me as well. 

For my part, I want him to know that the story of Christmas isn’t just a “once upon a time,” legend about people living in a far off land in an age long, long ago. I want him to know that what Christmas is really about is the God that created the whole universe, becoming a human being, a little child just like him, so that he could live with us as a part of our lives. The real king of all the earth was born in a humble and lowly stable, among cows and donkeys and sheep, so that he could gather his sheep, his lambs his children together, and live with them. And I want him to know that that same child that was born in the manger, suffer and died on the cross, and rose again from the grave, so that even death would not separate him from his children. I want him to know that God’s kingdom is in this world, but not of it. It is bigger and greater than all the kings and kingdoms of this world, but if you look closely, if you pay attention, you just might get a little glimpse of it. I want him to know that God is all around us, even if we can’t always see him. God wants to be with his children. God wants to gather his children together. God loves his children. He picks them up when they fall down. He forgives them when they make mistakes. He teaches them the right way to live and the paths they should follow, and then goes and finds them when they get lost. That is the story that we are telling here throughout the year. Christmas, Easter, Advent, Pentecost…all year long we tell this story, but this year, this Christmas I am especially excited to tell it to someone that has never heard it before. I want him to know that.

And the amazing thing is that as I share the story of Jesus and of Christmas with my son, his part, is that he shares the experience of it: the joy, and the mystery and the excitement and the wonder with me. I am reminded of what an amazing experience this is for someone who is new to it. I get to experience that joy again. I have joy in sharing the story of Jesus; new Christians have joy in experiencing the story of Jesus…and then there is God. God has joy in all this too. Afterall, the Christmas story is about God wanting to live with his children, to gather them together and share his life and his love with them. Nothing brings God more joy than having to set another place at the table; adding another person to his family. When another person comes in and wants to share in God’s life and love, that brings God joy. So when we share the story of Jesus with people that don’t know it, we aren’t just giving that person the joy of knowing about the God we worship here, we are giving God joy too. It isn’t just a gift to another person. It is a gift to God. 

But giving someone a gift, whether that someone is God or another person, giving someone a gift means making a sacrifice. Parents make sacrifices to give their children gifts. We talk all the time here about the sacrifice that Jesus made to give us a gift. God made a sacrifice to invite us into his kingdom and for us to share the good news of that, the gift of that story, we have to make sacrifices too. Sharing the story of Jesus with people who don’t know about him (and the world is still filled with people who don’t know about him) it can be simple, but it isn’t always easy. Sometimes it is very hard. It involves making sacrifices. We want to have a nice place for people to gather together to meet and worship, and that takes lots of money. We want to have good music. We need people to sing, and read the scriptures, and greet visitors, and teach, and cleanup. It takes a lot of time and talent, and treasure (money) to share the story of Jesus in this place. It takes people making sacrifices. That is why we are all called, as people who know the story of Jesus, as Children of a Heavenly king, to sacrifice from what God has given us, so that other people, even maybe people that aren’t even born yet, may come to someday know Jesus, and the love that God has for them. 

And when we make that sacrifice, when we give from what God has given us, so that God can continue to gather his children together here in this place, we aren’t just giving them the greatest gift of all, we are giving God joy too. It is a gift to God too. The money that we give to the church, it isn’t just to pay bills. It is to pay the bills, so that future generations can come to know Jesus here in this place, and that is something that brings God great joy. That is what we believe our God is all about: gathering and protecting his sheep; calling all his children together. 

Everybody has a role here in helping to share the story and the experience of Jesus. Everybody has a place in worship. Everybody, from the youngest to the oldest, from the little ones who we might wish would fall asleep during mass, to some of the older folks, who maybe can’t help but fall asleep during mass, and everyone in between. Whether we can only give 50 cents, or whether we are making a gift of $50,000, we all have something to offer, and that offering isn’t just to the church, it is a gift to God. So give what you can. I don’t care how old you are. Give what you can. I am asking you now, if you haven’t already given us a pledge card for the coming year, to take a moment and consider what you can sacrifice, what you can give, what you can do to help us tell God’s story and invite new folks into his family. Write it down and I am going to ask you after the sermon to come up drop it in the basket and offer it to God. Telling God’s story in this place takes all of us. We all have a role. Young and Old, and everything in between. Today we are asking some of our younger parishioners to take active roles in leading worship, but the truth is, in God’s eyes, every service here is being led by his children. We all have things we can learn. We all have things we can teach. And we all have a story, a true story, full of grace, hope, joy and love to share. That is something to get excited about. 

The Gospel is weirder than you think.

Standard

Sermon for November 6th, 2022

Readings:

Job 19:23-27a
Psalm 17:1-9
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38

The gospel is weirder than you think! And by “gospel” I am talking about the good news of Jesus Christ. That good news is written down in the four accounts of his life, the four gospels, but THE gospel, the message about who Jesus was and what Jesus did, that isn’t just a biography of a good teacher; it isn’t just a book, or four books; it isn’t just a philosophy of being nice; it isn’t a set of rules that we must follow; it isn’t a blueprint for fixing the world or establishing world peace. THE gospel isn’t about something we can do. THE gospel is a good news message about what GOD has done in the world and it is a message about what GOD is going to do in the world. We often think that the gospel is just a past-tense account or story of what Jesus said and did, but the real gospel isn’t just about the past, it is about the future too. And the real gospel, THE gospel, THE good news, isn’t just about Jesus. What makes THE gospel such good news, what makes it so compelling, is that fundamentally it is about us. Each and every one of us. The real good news is that Jesus’s resurrection is a foretaste, a glimpse of our resurrection, and that really is weirder than most people think. 

Christians have a long history of settling for less than the full good news of the gospel. We want to over-simplify it or sanitize it to make it more palatable to our skeptical friends. We want to strip it of the miraculous and make it mundane. We want to make it an instruction manual for this world, something else for us to do, and not the glorious vision of a transformed world to come that we have been offered, promised even, a place in. There is nothing mundane about a dead body coming back to life. Jesus wasn’t somebody that coded in the ER and was resuscitated. He crawled out of the grave. That is not something any of us have ever seen in our lives. You may have witnessed a miracle before, but you haven’t seen a miracle on that scale. The resurrection is a very weird thing. A glorious thing, but a weird thing. It is so weird that even people who wholeheartedly believe in Jesus’s resurrection still have a hard time believing that this is their destiny as well. It is so easy to make the gospel just about what God has done in Jesus, and not about what God is going to do in our lives, but that isn’t the full good news. 

You know, if you ask a lot of Christians what happens when we die, they are likely to say, “well, your soul goes to heaven (or maybe somewhere else).” But a spiritual, disembodied heaven has never been the full Christian hope. It isn’t the full gospel. Our real hope, our real destiny is resurrection. God taking the dust the remains from our earthly existence and transforming it into a new, living creation that is no longer subject to sin and death. That is our real hope and it is a hope that takes place in a future day at the end of all time. A new heaven and a new earth. Our blessed dead may exist now in a realm of paradise and rest in the presence of the Lord, but that is not the ultimate end. The ultimate end is the day of the Lord when the dead are rasied to a new life in a new body, in a new and very different, although recognizable and familiar world. That is our real hope, that is the real good news, the full gospel message: we have been invited to be children of God. Children of the resurrection. We have been offered the promise to some day walk out of the grave, just like Jesus did. Not metaphorically or spiritually, but flesh and bone. 

That is real good news, but it is real good news that people struggle with, in part because it is weird. None of us have seen a really dead body come back to life, so there’s that. But also, none of us have ever lived in a world that isn’t stained by death and sinfulness, so it is really hard for us to imagine what that might even be like. All of our relationships, even the most loving ones, still have the marks of this sinful, fallen world all over them. People struggle to imagine what a resurrected world and a resurrected life might look like, so the resurrection is a complicated and somewhat controversial idea for many people of faith, and that was true even more in Jesus’s day than it is in ours. There were some Jews who believed in the resurrection and hoped for it, and there were some who didn’t. The Sadducees were trying to make fun of Jesus’s belief in the resurrection in today’s gospel reading. They aren’t asking him a serious question; they are asking him a ridiculous question. A woman marries seven brothers, they all die. In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? In other words: who does she belong to? Belong to! That is what they are really asking. Think about that for a second…the Sadducees can’t even conceive of a world where a woman doesn’t belong to a man like a piece of property. Jesus’s response is basically: she will belong to God. Any world where we all stand equally before God as his children is bound to look a little different than the world we are living in right now. It isn’t that our loving relationships won’t exist in the next world, but they will be transformed, in ways that we probably can’t even imagine. That is good news too. 

The devil does not want you to believe this good news. The world, and even many in the church, will sell you a gospel that is less than good news, or at least less than the full good news. Don’t settle for it. Don’t settle for anything less than the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Don’t settle for a gospel that is just about what Jesus said, and not also about what he did, AND, AND what he is going to do. Don’t settle for a gospel that is just about the past, and not also about the future. Our future, as people who have been promised our own resurrection and a share in a new world that God is creating; a world that our sinful minds can’t even properly conceive of. Don’t settle for less than that. Don’t settle for a gospel that isn’t weird. Because good news, really good news, can seem pretty weird sometimes, and even hard to believe.

Do the work of an evangelist

Standard

Sermon for October 16th, 2022

Readings:

Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

The church, or at least the temporal, worldly institution that we think of when we talk about the church, always exists on the precipice, on the cliff’s edge, of extinction. It may be founded on the rock, but there are always existential dangers all around. It never feels completely secure. There are always powerful forces working against it. So much so, that since its very beginning people have been predicting the imminent demise of the church. Some people have longed for it, blaming the church or religion for every conceivable evil in the world, and trying to tear it down by any means necessary. Since the day Jesus died, people have been gleefully writing the obituary of the church he founded; proclaiming that his followers would soon fade into oblivion in the light of new knowledge. Always new knowledge. Maybe the intransigent old-timers will cling to their superstitions, but the next, more enlightened generation, is bound to see sense and abandon all this hocus pocus.

 Paul reminds us this morning in his letter to Timothy, that since his time, in the earliest days of the church, people have been doing just that: abandoning the faith. Paul says: “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” Paul predicted that people would abandon scripture, tradition, and the gospel, in favor of teachers that suit their own desires, in favor of people that just tell them what they want to hear. I understand why. Faith in God has never been an easy thing. Following Jesus usually involves a degree of sacrifice and suffering. There are many things about God and God’s world that we simply do not understand, and some people just don’t want to live with that ambiguity. Some people just don’t have the humility to admit that there is a power in the world that is smarter than they are. Some people don’t have the patience or the capacity to just be still and let God be in control. And many people don’t want faith, they want certainty. Paul knew all of that and he shares his knowledge with Timothy so that he won’t get discouraged when he sees it happening.  And it did happen. It does happen. In every generation people have drifted away from Christianity. Every generation. In the Eighteenth century, during the time of the enlightenment, there were many that predicted that Christianity would soon fade away in the light of reason and science, new knowledge. They said the same thing in the Nineteenth century, when modern biblical criticism met up with even more scientific theories like evolution, again more new knowledge. They said the same thing in the Twentieth Century. They are saying the same thing in the Twenty-First century. Frankly, I’m bored. 

The people who predict the demise of the church always do so with a sense of originality and insight. They all seem to think that they are very clever in devising arguments against the existence of God, or against any Christian doctrine, as if they were the first ones to do so. Of course, they usually only prove how poorly read they are, or how little they actually understand Christian doctrine, because their arguments are never original and never insightful. New knowledge indeed! Here’s the thing: people in the modern age are not half as clever as we think we are, and people in the ancient world were not half as dumb as we think they were. Our ancestors may not have been right about everything, but they weren’t wrong about everything either. We still have a lot to learn from them. 

That is why Paul encouraged Timothy to pay such close attention to scripture and the traditions he was taught. The sacred writings have something to teach you. There is a message there that can touch and change and effect your life right now. These are not just dead, dusty books filled with old disproven ideas. Scripture can teach you, it can correct you, it can challenge you, it can show you a better way to live. Most of all it can give you hope for something that a lot of people just don’t think they need, until they realize that they really do…salvation. It can give you hope for salvation. I wonder sometimes how many people drift away from church for no other reason than they just don’t think they need a savior. Faith in God isn’t always an easy thing. If you think it’s optional. If you think you really don’t need it, and don’t need a savior, then why bother? 

It is sad, but in every generation people drift away from God. In every generation people leave the church and predict its immediate downfall. And yet, here we are. Here we are. We are still living on the cliff’s edge: worried about property and budgets; concerned about declining numbers and participation, and people that drift away. We are still worried about trying to pass this tradition which we treasure on to our children, just like Paul and Timothy were. But we are still here. You think scripture is a dead document? A dusty old book full of outdated ideas? Well guess what, here we are 2,000 years since Paul wrote his letter to Timothy…2,000 years or very close to it have passed and here we are dealing with the exact same struggles that Paul and Timothy were. And people think that scripture doesn’t have a word for us today? I don’t need to make scripture relevant to you; it IS relevant. It is relevant because, humans are still human, God is still God, and truth is still truth. 

The Church is always one generation away from non-existence. By that, I mean the church here on earth. Christ’s mystical church is eternal, but if we want future generations to know about that mystical body of Christ, the eternal church, if we want our kids to have a share in it, if we want them to know and experience the grace of God, then we have to preach the gospel to every generation anew. Every new generation needs to hear Christ’s story and recognize that they are a part of that story, and that that story holds a promise for them. Every generation. Scripture instructs us; scripture informs and corrects us, and guides us, but it isn’t ink and paper that we worship it is the living relationship with God that those books point us to. That is what all of this is about: a living relationship.

We as believers, we are not responsible for saving the world and we are not going to bring about God’s kingdom. We also do not earn our salvation through an accumulation of good works, but we do have work to do. Part of that work is being stubbornly faithful. Holding onto the traditions that our ancestors gave us. Learning from them. Studying their works. Knowing the scriptures. Letting them speak to us today. Knowing the hope that we have in Jesus and being unafraid to proclaim that message to the world. The world needs to hear it. The world needs hope and the world needs grace. The world needs salvation. As Mother Frazier said in her wonderful sermon for Robbie’s baptism: there is no salvation by halves, and therefore there can be no proclamation by halves.. 

Ours should be a full-throated witness to God’s saving power that is available to anyone. People are always going to be tempted to turn away; people are always going to be distracted, they will find this too hard, they will find teachers who will tell them what they want to hear rather than challenging them to grow closer to God. We cannot let that reality discourage us. Because we are still here singing God’s praises, and preaching the gospel 2,000 years after people first turned away from Jesus. We are still at it. So I guess some people along the way remained stubbornly faithful. Some people still needed to hear the gospel, and some people were unafraid to share it. That’s why we are here today. Some people when they walk through those doors, will walk right back out and we will never see them again, and we may never know why. Others will come and stay here for a lifetime. And others still may be transformed by the gospel here and go out into the world sharing it with others. We can’t always tell who is who, and it doesn’t really matter. Our job, like Timothy’s is to do the work of an evangelist and carry out our ministry fully. To the best of our abilities. All of us.

You know it’s interesting. Paul was writing this letter to Timothy, his advice was to him, and yet someone else overheard these words and really took Paul’s advice to heart. Just because Paul was writing to Timothy doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a word there for you too. As many of you may know, Paul didn’t usually handwrite his letters himself. He had scribes; secretaries if you will, that he dictated his letters too. That is why his letters sometimes end with the rather odd: see what big letters I am writing with my own hand. Paul is basically just signing the letter at that point because the scribe had handwritten the rest of it. These scribes are often unknown to us, but not in the case of this letter. We know who is helping Paul write this, because Paul says he is the only person with him. 

Clearly this scribe was moved by Paul’s words even though they weren’t directed at him. He was moved by the importance Paul gave to teaching the scripture. He was moved by the command to proclaim the message…to be an evangelist. Paul wasn’t talking to him, but the message hit home nonetheless. He would share the message. He would be an evangelist. And our faith today, would be so much poorer if he hadn’t. Some may drift away in every generation, but in every generation there will also be others who still faithfully carry out their ministry and proclaim the message. Thanks be to God for them, and may we be inspired to do the same.

Oh, and in case you were wondering who Paul’s scribe was, perhaps you have read him…his name was Luke.

A symbol of something greater

Standard

Sermon for the Memorial for Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

September 18th, 2022

She was not my mother, or my grandmother, or an aunt, or a distant cousin, or a relation of any kind. 

She was not a personal friend; I’ve never had tea with her; Never chatted with her by the fireplace. She never invited me into one of her homes, although I have been in almost all of them. 

She was not even an acquaintance. I never got to shake her hand. Never got to meet her or even see her from a distance. The closest I ever got was standing outside the very thick and heavily defended walls of Windsor Castle once when she happened to be at home.

She was not aware of my presence. She did not know my name.

As I am a citizen of the United States, she was not even my Head of State,

But she was my Queen. 

That is why this hurts so much. That is why this loss feels personal; like family. 

I know that I am not alone in feeling this way. As I have watched some of the ceremonial proceedings this week, I have noted the mass outpouring of grief, the tears, the crowds, the flowers, the lines of mourners waiting hours for just a glimpse of that casket draped with the Royal Standard. How many of those people standing in line to see that casket never got the chance to meet or even see the woman inside? But still they waited…for hours, they cried, they mourned, and they all probably felt just a little bit broken inside. Just a little bit lost.

Why?

Because she was their Queen.

Even though they never met her she was a part of their daily lives. Her picture was engraved on the money. Her initials could be found on banners and on post boxes. She was on the television every Christmas. Politicians, musicians, fashion trends, those things all came and went, but the Queen was always there. People around the world, people like myself and I’m guessing many of you here, people are not just mourning a remarkable individual that they never met. They aren’t mourning a celebrity or a political leader; they are mourning their Queen. 

The grief that is being felt isn’t just about the loss of an individual though, remarkable though she may have been; it is about the loss of a symbol. A living symbol.

I could stand up here for hours talking about the unique personal qualities of Elizabeth. Books have been written, and many more will be written, about this remarkable person. News commentators tomorrow will tell you all about the countries she visited, the world leaders she met, and the everyday regular people whose lives she engaged with. They may talk about her personality: her razor-sharp intelligence, her dry sense of humor and her inherent shyness. They may talk about her love of horses and Dubonnet and gin. People may talk about all of the many things that made Elizabeth such a fascinating individual, but none of that will explain the collective grief that is being felt by so many across the world. None of that explains the pain that so many feel on the loss of someone they never met.

It’s because we have lost more than an individual; we have lost a symbol. A symbol of so many things. A symbol of a country, that whether or not we are citizens, many of us dearly love. A symbol of Anglicanism. The most famous Anglican Christian in the world was the Queen, who lived her faith, our faith, quite openly and unapologetically. A symbol of the generation that lived through the war. A symbol of monarchy. A symbol of reserve, of grace, of dignity, of humility. She was a symbol of service and charity. She was a symbol of so many things and now she is the symbol of an era that we all lived through. The funny thing about symbols is that they always point to something greater than themselves, even when the symbol is a living person, even when being a symbol is your job. Elizabeth did that supremely well.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about Elizabeth as an individual, her greatest personal strength we might say, and what made her so well suited to her calling in life, was the extent to which she knew, knew, that none of this was actually about her. Elizabeth understood that she was a symbol. She knew that the crown and the palace and the gold carriage and the robes, she knew that all of this stuff wasn’t for her. It wasn’t Elizabeth that was really being celebrated; it was the monarch, the Queen. Elizabeth knew that. Of course, symbols are complicated things, especially when that symbol is a living human being, and people often project onto symbols negative as well as positive things that have nothing to do with the individual. To put it bluntly: you get blamed for things that are not your fault. Elizabeth knew that too. For better or for worse, when you live your life as a symbol of something greater, you have to continually remember that this is not about you. Elizabeth did that. 

I think that we often have some Disney-esque fantasies about what it means to be a King or a Queen. We think of fairytale princesses with fancy dresses and glass slippers, or we think of petty tyrants screaming “off with his head!” whenever their slightest wish isn’t granted. We think of grand ceremonies and throne rooms with people groveling at the monarch’s feet. Elizabeth knew that being the Queen had very little to do with any of that. Her personal wishes and desires were going to be superseded for most of her life. Elizabeth knew that being a symbol was not just about show; it was also a lot of hard work. Countless hours of sitting in her office reading and signing paperwork. Innumerable engagements: sitting with politicians whom she may or may not have liked or agreed with, supporting charities, visiting communities, marking events, and almost all of these things having to happen whether she felt like it or not. Elizabeth knew that her feelings, her opinions, her emotions, her personal likes and dislikes all had to take a back seat in her life, for her entire life, so that she could serve something greater. Her life needed to be about or point to something greater. That is what it means to be a symbol. It means being a part of, or representing something greater than yourself. Something bigger and more important than you. Monarchy, for Elizabeth, wasn’t a fairytale. It wasn’t about glass slippers; it was about sensible shoes. It wasn’t just diamonds and gold. It was endless, literally endless, hard work serving others. That is the opposite of the tyranny that some people imagine monarchy to be. 

You know what tyranny is? Tyranny is being enslaved to one person’s emotions, opinions, and feelings. Tyranny is having your life completely centered upon and controlled by one person. No one else matters. Well I do think we are living in an age of tyranny, only the tyrant that is seeking to control our every thought and action isn’t a king or a queen, or a president or a premier, or a dictator. The most dangerous tyrants we face right now are ourselves. We are living in an age where people have become enslaved to their emotions and their opinions. We are told over and over, in every survey we are sent just how much our opinions and our feelings matter. Every online newspaper article has a comments section underneath, wherein we may share our oh so valuable opinions, regardless of how ill-informed they may be. We feel compelled to offer them more and more and more. Our own individual opinions, emotions and feelings have become so sacred to us that if someone should commit the heresy of having a different opinion, feeling, or emotion we cut them off and cut them down. They are now the enemy of the only person that matters: me. It’s tyranny. We live in an age of tyranny and the tyrant is often staring right back at us from the mirror. Yes, there are still the old-fashioned tyrants in the world that would steal our freedom and our lives, but we will never be able to fight those tyrants if we don’t first learn how to fight these tyrants, the ones inside. 

As our Western culture has been descending into a tyranny of individualism for decades, there all along the way standing in contrast to the culture around her has been a woman who has been the image, or the symbol, of the opposite of all that. Other than laughter and joy, we rarely witnessed her emotions. Her opinions went unshared. Her feelings were usually unknown. She was willing to talk about her faith, because that was bigger than her, but she rarely talked about herself. Week after week she sat down with prime ministers that she may or may not have liked, and listened to policy proposals that she may or may not have agreed with. You can’t do that if you are enslaved by your own feelings and opinions. You can’t really serve others. Elizabeth, in the way she lived her life and conducted herself was a constant reminder that we don’t have to give in to that tyranny. Whoever we are, at whatever station in life we are, we all have the power to live lives that are about more than just ourselves. We all have the power to be a living symbol of something greater. 

That was Elizabeth’s conviction as a public figure and it was her faith as a Christian. As Christians we are a part of something greater than our individual selves. We have a greater calling than just serving our own emotions, opinions and feelings. Like kings and queens, we too are anointed to be a symbol of something bigger. We represent and belong to a kingdom that is in this world, but not of it, and we are called to serve a king who promises us more than just victory on the battlefield, but instead gives us victory over sin and death. Elizabeth was anointed as queen over a very large kingdom, but she always knew that she served a greater king. None of this was about her. Well we serve that king too, and when we gather to mourn a fellow, faithful Christian, whoever it is, it is right for us to remember the hope that we have of that future day when the one true king will raise us up and set us free; even if that tyrant we are being set free from is ourselves. Someday we will know that although we are individually treasured by God, this whole story isn’t about us personally.

In British tradition, the monarch never dies. A king or queen may die, but the symbol of the monarch immediately lives on in the heir, the new King or Queen. It isn’t about an individual person, it is about recognizing that there is always someone greater than yourself to serve. Many people have said that there will never be another like Elizabeth, but I don’t think that that truly honors her legacy and the way she lived her life. She was a unique individual, but that wasn’t important to her. Her life wasn’t about her. What was important to her was being a symbol of something greater. That is why we have come together to mourn a woman that we never met. Because she wasn’t just a woman. She was something greater. She was our Queen.

She is gone. The Queen is dead. But the role she served, the living symbol lives on, just like she always knew it would. God save the King. 

People who make bad choices

Standard

Sermon for September 4th, 2022

Readings:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33


In our passage from Deuteronomy this morning, Moses has come to the end of the road. The end of the road for him at least. Moses is near the Eastern shore of the Jordan river, not far from Mount Nebo from which in the distance you can see the mountains of Jerusalem. We are told that he is 120 years old. He has had the most epic life. Saved from death multiple times. Raised in Pharoah’s court. Reborn in the desert as a prophet. He has stood in the very presence of God. He has witnessed unimaginable miracles. And finally, he has led God’s people to the promised land. 

We know that it hasn’t been an easy journey though. Despite the miracles, despite their covenant with God, these people that Moses is leading have wanted to turn back every step of the way. On foot the journey from the shores of the Red Sea to the shores of the Jordan River should take about 10 days. It has taken them 40 years! 40 years of complaining and turning back to Egypt. 40 years of turning away from the God that was saving them. Moses has been through it with these people; he knows what they are like. So, in his last speech he makes it very clear to them: God and salvation and life and the promised land are this way. Death and curses and slavery are that way. Choose life. Choose a relationship with God. Choose blessings and the promised land. Moses implores people one last time, to make a good choice. Then he steps down and begins to hand leadership over to Joshua. 

But before Moses dies, the Lord pulls him aside and has another talk with him. And this is a part of the scripture that you don’t hear this morning. The Lord said to Moses: “you are going to die soon and be gathered to your ancestors, and these people that you led, they are going to break the covenant again. They will forsake me. They will go chasing after other Gods. This will make them weak and they will suffer because of it.” 

Now you might be thinking, “gosh, poor Moses. How depressing to think that he has come through all of that only for God to tell him at the last moment that it has all been for nothing. What is the point of urging people to make good choices, when you know that they are going to make bad ones?” But God says something very revealing to Moses. God says: “For I know what they are inclined to do even now, before I have brought them into the land that I promised them on oath.” God already knows that his people are going to turn away from him. God knows that these people will break his commandments. God knows that they will forsake him and go chasing after other Gods. God knows this, and he still leads them to the promised land anyways. 

That is a revelation about the character of God and it is a revelation about the kind of covenant he has made with his people. God is giving life, showing love, saving and blessing people that he already knows are going to betray him. God already knows. But God does it anyways. This isn’t tit for tat; this isn’t a contract between equal partners. God may want his children to make good decisions, but his love for them and his commitment to them is not contingent upon that. God is leading people into the promised land that he already knows are unworthy of that blessing. That is a revelation to Moses that is greater than the commandments themselves. 

In fact, this little conversation that God has with Moses, far from being discouraging, was probably very encouraging to him. You know, when Moses gives that speech that you heard this morning: “I set before you life and death; choose life,” you know that weighing on Moses’s soul must have been the knowledge that these people who he has been leading for 40 years are incapable of consistently choosing life. Moses knows that these people don’t have a history of making good choices. Moses knows that. He wants people to follow the commandments. He knows that the commandments are given for their benefit. He implores people to make good decisions, but in the end we see that that is not what his faith is built upon. Moses’s hope, Moses’s faith, is in God’s saving love for his people and as he is about to end his journey God shows him that that is a hope that is well founded. 

You know, some people think that religion and religious leadership is just about convincing and teaching people to make good choices. Well if that were the case then this would be a very depressing job indeed. People don’t make good choices. Even people that have seen and witnessed God’s saving grace; Even people that know the Lord and have made a covenant with God; even God’s people make bad choices. They break the commandments; they bow down to idols and chase after other Gods; they forget what God has done for them. They love other things more than they love God. God’s people have never been very good at holding up their end of the covenant. 

In our prayer book, I am sure most of you know that we have this thing called the baptismal covenant. People who are being baptized recite the creed, or the record of what God has done for us, and then they respond to a number of questions that we have added on: Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good news of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons? Will you strive for justice and peace? And of course the people respond to every question: “I will, with God’s help.” And every time I hear that response, the crusty old priest inside of me wants to shout back: “no, you won’t! Who do you think you are kidding?!” I’m no amateur at this. You are going to break a number of these commitments, not to mention several of the commandments before you get back to the parking lot. If religion, specifically this religion, if this was simply about imploring you to make a good choice when confronted with decisions that lead to either blessings and life or curses and death; if religion or faith was simply about morality and ethics, then this would indeed be the most depressing job, and I don’t know how long I could do it. I think that’s why so many clergy and religious leaders end up getting burned out and quitting. It is probably why so many people in the pews give up on faith too. The moment we start putting faith in human decision making instead of in God’s grace we are setting ourselves up for a huge disappointment. In the gospel this morning, Jesus says that if we want to be his followers that we need to love him above all else; more than our families, more than our comfort, more than our possessions. Now I have to remind myself that most of the people that Jesus is talking to, aren’t willing to do that. Not yet at least. They aren’t ready to make that choice. But he still loves them anyways. He still offers them forgiveness and eternal life even though they are in no way prepared to be as faithful to God as God is to them. There may be a covenant at the heart of our faith, but we must always remember that it is in no way an equal one. 

Moses wants the children of Israel to choose life and blessing; Moses wants them to be faithful to God, but he shows in the end that that is not ultimately what his faith rests upon. Moses’s faith is not in people’s ability to make good choices; Moses’s faith is in God’s will to save people who make bad ones. With that faith, Moses can die happy and content, knowing that his faith and his life’s work has not been in vain. 

Before Moses dies he does two things: he writes down the law and gives it to the priests and tells them that every seven years it needs to be read out so that every generation is taught to know and fear the Lord and to respect his commandments. The people need to be instructed and encouraged to make good choices. But the people need a little bit more than that. They need a song. They need a song that will remind them of the wonderful things that God has done for them. They need a song that will proclaim God’s love for people who make bad choices. So Moses writes down a song that the Lord had given him and one verse goes like this:

“A faithful God without deceit, just and upright is he; yet his degenerate children have dealt falsely with him, a perverse and crooked generation.”

I can only hope that that was set to a catchy tune, or that it rhymes in Hebrew more than it does in English. It may not make you want to stand up and clap, but it is good news. It is a reminder that our faith is in God’s goodness, not our own wisdom. Now we need to hear God’s law. We even recite it here once a year and we ask God to incline our hearts to keep it and to write these laws on our hearts. We should be encouraged and we should encourage others to make good choices, but we need to remember that God already knows that we won’t do it. Not consistently at least. Our faith is not about God’s love for people who make good choices; our faith is about God’s love and God’s grace for people who make bad ones. 

Guilty as sin and still set free

Standard

Sermon for August 21, 2022

Readings:

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.

Standard

Sermon for August 14th, 2022

Readings:

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…

Standard

Sermon for August 7th, 2022

Readings:

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.