The Judgment Only God Can Make

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Sermon for Sunday, September 17th, 2017.

Readings:

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

 

The word Judgment seems to be getting an awful bad rap these days. What do you think of when you hear the word judgment or hear someone use the verb “to judge?”

 

I hear people accused of being judgmental. I hear people say things like: “well, I’m not one to judge” or “who am I to judge?” Even Paul says: “why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister?” One could be excused for thinking that judgement in and of itself is a bad thing. But I’m not so sure.

 

I make hundreds of judgements every day. Making judgments, far from being just a bad thing, is sometimes an important part of staying alive. I have to judge when to start applying the brake when I drive my car. I have to judge when my piece of chicken is fully cooked. I have to judge how far away my foot is from the altar step. I have to judge how far I am swinging the incense from the chalice or someone’s face. In each case making a poor judgment can and has led to a rather unpleasant experience, for me or someone else. But then experience, either good or bad, can lead to wisdom, which hopefully results in better judgment in the future.

 

I’m not prepared to give up on the word judgment. I think we might need to revive it. Judgment is, after all, a part of how we make decisions. We judge between the benefits of doing one thing versus the benefits of doing another. You do it so many times a day you probably don’t even think about it most of the time. You need to be able to make judgments to survive. I think part of being a parent is about teaching your kids how to make good judgments. You weight the facts or the evidence in front of you and you make a judgment. You decide what the best course of action would be and that’s what you do. We want our kids to be able to make good judgments; we want our leaders to be able to make good judgments; we want to be able to make good judgments. So making a judgment, in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, it’s just the kind of judgments we make and how we make them.

 

We want to make good judgments, and the key thing, I think, to making a good judgment is having all the facts. In order to make a good decision, you need good information to base that decision on. There is no way you can make a good judgment if you don’t have all the facts. Sometimes the facts are obvious; sometimes they are harder to come by.

 

When it comes to another person’s walk with God; when it comes to the state of their soul, we never have all the facts. We need to recognize that. You may think you know someone very well. They could be your child or your spouse or your best friend, but it doesn’t matter how well you know someone, you never have all the facts about their interior life. They may have struggles that you know nothing about. They may have hopes, or dreams or fears that you have never imagined. There may be pain that they never talk about. You never know. We don’t have all the facts. Only God does. We can’t always know what is driving them, or what facts they are basing their decisions on. Only God does.

 

It can be very frustrating when people don’t see things the way you do. I can read a passage of scripture over and over again. Look up words. Research history. Study. Pray and decide what I think it means, and then somebody else comes along and reads it and says no that means something else. Were they just reading the same passage I was? Why can’t they see that my reading is right and theirs is wrong? What’s wrong with them?

 

Worship is another area where people just insist on doing things differently. I admit that I am someone who very often believes that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. When it comes to worship I make a lot of judgments about how I think things should be done, but no matter how many times you try to tell some people that they’re wrong, they just keep on doing what seems right to them. Next month will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg outlining all the ways in which he thought the Catholic Church was wrong and of course lighting the spark of what would become the Protestant Reformation. We have had 500 years of Christians trying to convince each other that the other side is wrong and where has it gotten us? More than 500 years really: Western Catholics split from Eastern Catholics about 500 years before that, and if you read Paul the way I do, it seems like there has always been this tendency for Christians to separate themselves from one another, sometimes over seemingly trivial matters, and where has it gotten us?

 

Anglicans (Episcopalians) are a weird hybrid. We inherited many of the protestant ideas or reforms that Luther called for, but we didn’t participate in the split in quite the same way. Not that our history is always admirable, far from it. But since the Anglican Church split from Rome not long after the Lutherans, there has been this tendency to define ourselves by not being those people (those people usually meaning Roman Catholics, but sometimes other protestants). The Anglo-Catholic reformers of the mid-nineteenth century received terrible ostracism and resistance because the things they wanted to do seemed too “Roman” and after all, we weren’t supposed to be like those people. Still to this day, I often hear Episcopalians trying to define ourselves in opposition to other types of Christians. We aren’t like this or we aren’t like that. We aren’t these people or we aren’t those people. I know I’ve done it, but I have to wonder if defining ourselves by what we are not, isn’t rather like the Pharisee thanking God that he is not like the tax collector. Maybe as we are judging or making decisions about how we wish to worship and follow Christ, we should be careful about how we view others who have made different decisions or who judge differently. Maybe we don’t have all the facts.

 

I was born in a Southern Baptist family, was baptized in a Congregational Church and was confirmed and later ordained as an Episcopalian. I went to seminary with people from a broad range of denominations and have worshiped with the most charismatic evangelicals and the most traditionalist catholics. All along that journey I have known faithful and thoughtful and believing and loving Christians. Just because we have discerned (or judged) that worshiping this way is what is best for us and for our faith, does not mean that there is necessarily something wrong with those that have discerned differently. You can make a judgment about what is right for you, without making a judgment about the person who disagrees with you. That I think is what Paul is getting at in his letter this morning: if something helps you to worship God, great. Do it. If it doesn’t don’t, but don’t go passing judgement on those that need it. If a certain type of prayer or a certain type of music speaks to you and helps you to glorify God, great, but you can’t expect everybody to see things the way you do. You can judge what is right for you, but you might not be able to judge what is right for someone else. You don’t have all the facts. As long as it is being done to the honor and glory of God, then accept that we may not always be of one mind about every detail. Being different doesn’t necessarily make you better or worse.

 

This is the conclusion I came to this week, after reading Paul’s letter over and over: I am not called to be a better Christian than you. I’m not. I am called to be the best Christian that I can be. You are not called to be a better Christian than the person sitting next to you in the pew. You are called to be the best Christian that you can be. We don’t have to judge ourselves in opposition to each other; we need to be judging ourselves against the person we used to be and the person that God is calling us to be. God is going to judge us each individually. I don’t think that God is grading us on a curve. I don’t think he looks at us and says: “well, at least he is better than her, so I’ll take him.” The same goes for us as a parish, as a church, as a denomination: we don’t have to define ourselves by constantly saying that: “at least we’re not like them.” We can make positive decisions about what is right for us as a church without tearing down others who see things differently. I really wish that Christians around the world would stop tearing each other apart. We have enough real enemies, there is enough evil to fight in the world without creating more by quarrelling over opinions. We may make different judgements or decisions about worship, practice and we may even differ on some doctrines, but could we maybe, possibly give each other the benefit of the doubt? Can you imagine what the world might be like today if Catholics and Protestants (all Christians) had decided to fight Satan for the past 500 years rather than each other? Maybe if we stopped demonizing each other we might actually get around to fighting the real Devil.

 

So here is a little admission of mine: every morning when I get up I listen to two podcasts online: the first, is morning prayer according to our Book of Common Prayer. The second is Joyce Meyer. She’s a very popular televangelist if you don’t know her. I know that may come as a surprise to some people, particularly my fellow priests, and I am sure that they are already judging me but I don’t care. I like her. That doesn’t mean I always agree with her, certainly not. We come from different traditions and often have a different perspective, but maybe that is why I like her. She challenges me to think differently sometimes. People say all sorts of things about her and I know that plenty have criticized her, but I have listened to her long enough now that I feel that even though we may have some big differences of opinion, we are worshipping the same Jesus. She has to judge what seems right to her and I have to judge what seems right to me. We all have to make those sort of judgments. But we don’t have to judge which one of us is better than the other, or which one of us is closer to God. That is a judgment that only he can make.

Forgiveness Comes First

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Sermon for September 10th, 2017

Readings:

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

If you are visiting us this morning, welcome; and if you are coming back after having been away for all or part of the summer, welcome back. The summer is a wonderful time of diversion and refreshment and travel, but I always feel it is nice to get back into the regular routine once it is over. Besides the autumn is my favorite season, so it is something I always look forward to.

 

If you are visiting or if you’ve been away, then you might not know that I have been away from the pulpit myself for the largest part of the summer. I had a very invasive jaw surgery this summer, that left me with my mouth more or less banded shut for six weeks. It will take some time before I am completely back to normal, so please bear with me if my pronunciation seems more off than usual.

 

I wrote on my blog a few weeks ago about how much I love the Andy Griffith show. Watching reruns of Andy and sucking milkshakes from a plastic bottle were my two primary sources of comfort during recovery, and while I promise I won’t keep referencing Mayberry in every sermon, I just can’t help sharing one of my favorite episodes with you this morning.

 

Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife were cleaning out the case files in the Mayberry courthouse one afternoon, when Barney stumbled upon a 19 year old case involving Floyd the barber and Mr. Foley the greengrocer. They had both been arrested for assault involving some altercation, but much to Barney’s dismay, no resolution was mentioned anywhere in the file. No guilt was assigned, no restitution or punishment proscribed. Nothing. Barney can’t believe it. Barney wants everything to be neat and orderly and he insists that everything be done according to the proper procedure. Andy tells him that it can’t be too important, just file it or throw it away. Floyd and Mr. Foley are two of the nicest and gentlest men in town and they have been friends for over 20 years so obviously whatever it was, was past. Let it go.

 

Well Barney won’t have any of that. He is determined to settle this case properly. He starts by interviewing Floyd, who doesn’t remember much. Then he interviews Mr. Foley, who thinks the dispute was over getting charged for a shave that he didn’t ask for. Then he tries to interview Goober who was five years old at the time and had been sitting in the corner reading a comic book and didn’t see anything. Well Barney tries to bring all the parties together to try and reenact the whole incident, and pretty soon their conflicting memories get in the way, then Mr. Foley calls Floyd a crook, Floyd punches Mr Foley, who then tries to get Goober to take his side, and Goober once again was reading a comic book and claims he didn’t see anything.

 

Then the whole town gets in on the battle: Mr. Foley punches Goober, Otis punches Floyd, and on and on until pretty soon half of Mayberry has a broken nose. Even Opie gets into a fight at school. Andy can’t take it anymore and he pulls Floyd and Mr. Foley into the courthouse. He sends Barney away and says to the two of them that we need to try to settle this like friends.

He says: “you two have been friends for more than 20 years, more than that you have been neighbors; you have been there for each other. You aren’t kids neither one of you and you both know the value of old friends and the first law of friendship is to be ready to forgive.”

 

The first law of friendship is to be ready to forgive. Forgiveness comes first. That isn’t what we think of when we think of Justice. When it comes to Justice we think that facts should be examined, guilt should be declared, restitution should be made, and then and only then maybe forgiveness can happen. That’s the way our legal system is setup to work. That is certainly the way Barney expects things to happen. But Andy sees things differently. Andy thinks that forgiveness comes first, and then reconciliation can happen. I wonder where he got such a crazy idea…

 

If Barney Fife represents Justice, then Andy Taylor represents Mercy. They are both fighting on the same side of the law, but you get awful nervous when Justice is left on its own. Mercy always needs to take the lead. Forgiveness needs to come first.

 

The first few times I read this morning’s Gospel passage, it seemed to me like Jesus was outlining a procedure for how to deal with conflicts in the Church. But as I dug deeper into this passage, I discovered that Jesus wasn’t creating new rules and procedures, he was amending old ones. In Deuteronomy, in the Law of Moses, it says that in order to prosecute someone for an offence or a sin, you need at least two or three witnesses. It’s a good law, because it is there to prevent someone from being unjustly accused, but Jesus thinks we can do even better. Before you go out and try and find other witnesses, before you involve anyone else, go to that person alone and try to reconcile. And even if you do have to involve two or three others, or even the entire community, your goal should always be reconciliation, not prosecution, not condemnation. But how does Jesus see reconciliation happening? Through forgiveness.

 

It becomes clearer if you keep reading beyond this morning’s Gospel passage and look ahead to what we will be reading next week:

Then Peter came to him and said: “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?”

Jesus saith unto him: “I say not unto thee until seven times, but until seventy times seven.”

 

Well I’m not good at math, but I can tell that that is a pretty big number. I think Jesus is trying to say that we always need to be ready to forgive, no matter how many times we have been sinned against. Of course, that’s an easy thing to say, much harder to do. Jesus knows that, so he goes on to tell a parable, and I won’t retell the parable now, you will hear it next week, but I think the gist of the parable is this: forgiveness will get a lot easier when you realize how much you have been forgiven. If you know, truly know and appreciate how much you yourself stand in need of forgiveness how can you stand in condemnation of another? It is so much easier to forgive and be reconciled and to love your neighbor when you realize that we are all transgressors of the law; that we are a community of broken, sinful people, that despite our sins are still beloved of God.

 

If you come to church here regularly you will hear the word sin a lot. We are what is known as a “Rite One” parish; we use the traditional language liturgy, and despite what some people think, the difference is about more than just thees and thous. You get a lot more talk about sin and sinfulness in Rite One. It is still there in Rite Two, but not nearly as strong. I often joke that if Jesus didn’t wash away our sins the 1979 Prayerbook certainly tried. I get that such talk about sin can make people feel a bit squirmy and uncomfortable. Everybody wants to be built up and told how wonderful they are, nobody wants to hear that they might not be as lovely as they imagine. But I think it just might be something that we need to hear. Understanding and appreciating how much we have been forgiven, just might help us when it comes time for us to forgive others.

 

Our faith proclaims that while we were still sinners, Christ was willing to die for us. God was ready and willing to forgive before we were ready to ask for it. Forgiveness comes first.

 

I used to think that Barney Fife was just a bumbling fool and that Andy Taylor was wise and had it all together, but since I have reviewed the series with older eyes, I realize now that Sheriff Andy was a mess too; he made mistakes all the time. It is just easier to forget Andy’s mistakes, because his character always puts love and mercy first. He believes in the law, but he also believes that love is the fulfilling of the law, so love and forgiveness always come first. Where did he get such a crazy idea?

 

At the beginning of the episode I mentioned, before the old case of the punch in the nose is found, Andy and Barney are singing a hymn as they go about their work. Andy says the title is “Lose all their guilty stains” but you probably know it as “There is a Fountain.”

 

There is a fountain filled with blood,

drawn from Emannuel’s veins

and sinners plunged beneath that flood

lose all their guilty stains.

 

The dying thief rejoiced to see

that fountain in his day;

and there have I, though vile as he,

washed all my sins away

 

E’er since by faith I saw the stream

thy flowing wounds supply,

redeeming love has been my theme,

and shall be till I die.

 

Redeeming love has been my theme…maybe that’s not such a crazy idea after all. Maybe it is something worth sharing.

You can have your own values, wherever you go.

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Sermon for August 27th, 2017, the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.

Readings:

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

 

I know that y’all are expecting a short sermon this morning, as this is my first time preaching after having double jaw surgery this summer, but I have to warn you, you may be disappointed.

 

In the first place I have had a long time to think about all that I want to say this morning, and in the second, I have to talk a bit more slowly with this new mouth of mine. So you may want to get comfortable and bear with me.

 

It was twenty years ago, as a matter of fact I think it was twenty years ago this very weekend, that I was heading South on I-95 in my VW beetle to start my first year of college. I say that I was headed South, but if you know anything about Florida, then you know that the further South you go, the more Northern it gets. Even though I was born and raised in Florida, my family is very southern, and we lived in a part of Florida that still had some strong elements of Southern culture (lets just say it was closer to the swamp than it was to the beach). I was very much supported by my immediate family in my adventure, but I am sure that more than a few eyebrows were raised among some of my extended family members when they learned that I was moving to Miami.

 

Why on earth would anyone want to move to Miami? Its crowded, its dirty, the people talk funny and they have all sorts of foreign ways and ideas. It’s a suburb of Sodom. I know that some people just didn’t understand why I wanted to go there, and frankly I’m not sure I understood it either, but that’s where I felt called to go and that’s where I went.

 

We stopped off on the way at my Aunt Faye’s house in West Palm Beach. Now my Aunt Faye is a devout Baptist and frankly as good a Christian woman as you are ever gonna find anywhere. I remember Aunt Faye being excited for me on my new adventure and the idea that I was moving to the big bad city didn’t seem to phase or concern her in the least. Well I must have seemed surprised that she wasn’t concerned, because she said to me very matter of factly before I left: “You can have your own values wherever you go.”

 

You can have your own values wherever you go. Where you are, and who you are, are not the same thing. Sage advice I think, although not always easy to follow. Sometimes it’s easier just to go along with the crowd. Maintaining your own identity and holding on to your own values can be tricky when everyone around you seems to be pulling you in a different direction.

 

Be not conformed, but be transformed.

 

That’s what the Apostle Paul says to the church in Rome in his letter that we heard read this morning.

 

Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.

 

I wonder what Paul was thinking when he wrote that letter to the church in Rome. I have to wonder if Paul, looking at his audience to which he was writing, really understood just how difficult that little piece of advice would be. He knows plenty of people in the church in Rome, he has ministered with some of them elsewhere, some of these people were very close to him, like family almost. There are others that Paul knows by reputation, but he hasn’t actually been to the church in Rome yet. He just knows it, and its host city by what he has heard.

 

This was after all, the church in Rome, he wasn’t writing to some Christians living in some backwater district of the empire, this was the capital city; the heart of the known world. They had everything there: people from every corner of the world. Every kind of food you can imagine; every kind of diversion or entertainment you could want, from chariot races and gladiator battles, to other things that I won’t even mention. There was no reason to be bored in ancient Rome. And the Romans they had some pretty good ideas too: good roads, running water, sewers, a strong army….they even had a state religion. Now, you may have to declare that an insane emperor is a God, but in exchange you get toilets that flush so maybe its not such a bad deal.

 

How do you not be conformed to the world when you have millions of people around you that are more than willing to go along with whatever seems most popular at the moment without questioning it much? When you are just one person in the midst of millions…what difference could you possibly make? I could easily see how Paul’s advice might be taken to be a bit impractical, unreasonable. Don’t be conformed. Yeah right…that advice might work in the sticks, but not here in the center of all the action.

 

But what Paul knows is that so far, this church in Rome has been able to do just that: their faith is known to him. Paul has heard that this small group in the heart of the empire has been able to resist the pressure to conform to the world and they are being transformed and growing in the faith; spreading the faith even. These are people who live with every worldly pleasure at their doorstep, and yet they are able to faithfully proclaim that life is more than just worldly pleasures. These are people of Jewish ancestry and people of gentile ancestry coming together. This is a community where the strong are helping the weak, not just pushing them aside or trampling on them. Paul is proud of this church and wants to encourage them.

 

He says to them that they can be good citizens: responsible, tax-paying and law abiding, and still be witnesses to a power that is greater than the state. He goes on to say to them:

 

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”

 

Paul doesn’t want the church in Rome to confuse resisting conformation with obstinacy…they aren’t necessarily the same thing. He doesn’t want them to be merely isolated and resisting all change. He wants them to grow, but he wants them to grow in Godliness, not in worldliness. He wants them to resist being conformed to the world, but he wants them to seek transformation in Christ. He wants them to discern, to test in their minds what is in accord with the values that Christ has taught, not to mindlessly go along with whatever the world wants them to be.

 

Paul believes that God is calling each and every member of that church to be something. Paul wants them to be who God is calling them to be, both in their lives out in the world and in their lives inside the church. The message is much the same: you don’t have to be like everyone else. Be who God is calling you to be. If he has given you a grace, a gift, or a talent, it’s because the church needs it. It’s because God needs it.

 

It isn’t easy advice Paul is giving here. It isn’t easy to resist conforming to the world. It isn’t easy to have your own values when they conflict with the values of so many people around you, but you can do it. You can follow where God is calling you, you just have to listen carefully. The world likes to shout at you. More often than not, God speaks through the still, small voice that the prophet Elijah heard. I love the hymn “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is calling” because I really do believe that most of the time that is how Jesus calls us: softly and quietly. He doesn’t force us to follow his ways or to recognize who he is. He doesn’t force us to choose him over the world; he softly calls us.

 

In the Gospel this morning Christ asks his disciples “who do people say that the Son of Man is?” In other words: “who do people say that I am?”

 

They give him a bunch of answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. You can kind of see the logic in those answers; Jesus does have plenty in common with those guys, but they’re all wrong answers. Just because a bunch of people are saying something doesn’t make it right or true. Jesus goes on to ask the far more important question: “but who do you say that I am?”

 

You can decide who Jesus is, or you can just go along with what other people are saying. You can be conformed to this world, or you can be transformed by the knowledge of God. You can have your own values, wherever you go.

Lost between Conservative and Progressive: Why the Doctrine of the Fall gives me peace and hope.

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I have spent the past six weeks in Mayberry.

 

I have been more or less homebound this summer recovering from surgery, so television has been my escape. I love the Andy Griffith Show. I love the characters and their foibles. I love the values that Andy tries to instill in Opie. I love the small town world that is portrayed; a world filled with good people that make mistakes, but somehow manage to settle their differences with equal doses of neighborliness and Aunt Bee’s fried chicken. There is a part of me that very much wants to live in that world. Part of me longs to escape from so much of the nastiness of the age I live in.

 

Yes, I know that Mayberry is fictional, but like all good fiction there is plenty of truth there. Maybe one of the reasons I love Andy Taylor and all of his neighbors is because they remind me of so many people I have known in my own life. Maybe I watch it because it helps me to reconnect with them. I think it reminds me of some of the values I have let slip and how much those people still have to teach me.

 

And yet…

 

It doesn’t escape my notice that through eight seasons of this show I don’t recall seeing even one black face; not even as an extra. This show is supposedly set in rural North Carolina. I have been to rural North Carolina. There are plenty of black people there. The glaring omission reminds me that there is plenty of truth that this show leaves out; truth that it is so easy for me to forget when I am in a nostalgic mood. The truth of racism and segregation. The truth of hatred and violence. It’s easy to long for the days of Mayberry when we aren’t looking at the whole picture, but real history is a mixed bag.

 

History is a nuisance; it’s always interfering with my fantasies.

 

Part of me longs to be a real conservative, holding onto and defending traditions and “old-fashioned” ways, but history forces me to recognize that some times traditions die for good reason. Our ancestors may have had virtues to celebrate, but they also had plenty of sins too.

 

Part of me feels the power of progressive arguments, of the need to repent of past mistakes and develop new and better ways of doing things, but here history gets in the way again. How many times in the past have we thought that doing the “new” thing was the better way, only to discover farther down the line that it was in fact a mistake? Progress may help us to see past sins more clearly, but I think it very often blinds us to the sins of our own age, not to mention the sins of the future. Science can give us great insight into the natural world, but it cannot compel us to make good judgments. Science gave us Penicillin, but it has also given us Thalidomide, Zyklon B, the atomic bomb and margarine.

 

This is the tension of my life: I am constantly torn between being a conservative and a progressive. I want to uphold old values, but I don’t want to repeat past sins. I want to create a better world for future generations, but I am aware that I am probably leaving them a mess to clean up as well. The adjective “old” has no more intrinsic value than the adjective “new,” and I see no more salvation in marching to the left than I do to the right. What am I to do?

 

For me at least, it is the Christian Doctrine of the Fall that most eases this tension and helps me to find peace and hope in the midst of two conflicting ideologies.

 

Regardless of what you make of the history of the Book of Genesis, its opening chapters point to a fundamental truth that I find hard to deny: from the beginning human beings have consistently made bad choices. Our faith begins with the observation that the world is not as it should be, and we are to blame. That seems to me to be an insight that both conservatives and progressives could agree upon. We can desire to do good, but history has proven that our actions will frequently accomplish just the opposite. As the Apostle Paul says: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

 

The Doctrine of the Fall seems to be to be the great leveler across time. From the very beginning, innocence has been lost. We have forfeited Eden and God has posted his sentry at the gate. There is no going back. Regardless of what I may imagine or even remember about a bygone era, it wasn’t Eden. It couldn’t be. All of us humans, in every generation, have been products of the Fall. We are all guilty of sins, known and unknown.

 

But what is true of the past, is true of the present and of the future as well. In the Book of Revelation the New Jerusalem comes at the end of time, and it is instituted by God, not by humans. It is not a city that we could ever build on our own. Those who gather in that city have not overcome sin; they have not saved themselves. Their sins are washed away by the sacrifice of another: the blood of the Lamb. Their song as they stand before the throne is: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Salvation belongs to God. We cannot save ourselves. This isn’t just a theological belief, it is a historical conviction as well. Human beings have not through progress solved the problem of human sinfulness, and they never will.

 

The universal fallen nature of humanity throughout time gives me peace, because I no longer have to seek salvation in either the past or the future. My conservative side and my progressive side do not have to be at war with each other for dominance because I can recognize that neither one of them has the solution to the problem of human nature. In fact, I need both sides to point out the sins that the other is all too willing to overlook.

 

The Doctrine of the Fall is not an excuse for sin, far from it, but it is an antidote to self-righteousness. While I do think it is important to take a moral stand against injustice and evil when I encounter it in the world, doing a righteous deed in no way makes me a righteous person. That satisfaction that comes with being on the right side of an issue is often the Devil’s tool to get us to overlook the myriad other ways in which we may be wrong. I may be able to see other people’s sins clearly, but I have no doubt that there are plenty of my own that I am blind to or don’t want to see. I believe in striving to do the right thing, but I must always do so with humility. At the end of the day, I have to recognize that I am never going to get to heaven by confessing someone else’s sins.

 

It is worth noting that a defining feature of Andy Griffith’s character was that he almost never carried a gun. He continually had to defend his decision not to carry a gun and when a movie was made about his life it was entitled “Sheriff without a Gun.” I wonder what modern conservatives would make of such a progressive sheriff? Maybe people don’t fall into categories of conservative and progressive as neatly as we expect them to; I know I don’t, but then maybe I’m not supposed to. Because I believe that all humans are essentially fallen or broken, and prone to making bad judgments even when it is their will to do the right thing, I know that I cannot place my hope in any human ideology.

 

The Doctrine of the Fall means that no group of humans (either historic, political or otherwise) has a monopoly on sin. Maybe my conservative side and my progressive side are meant to work together, each pointing out the sins and weaknesses unseen by the other; each trying to direct a fallen and fallible human being closer to the one true savior. It can at times feel lonely, lost in that space between conservative and progressive, but for me at least, it was in that loneliness, and in that in-between space, that I actually found Christ.

All I wanted was a decent cup of tea…

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Sermon for July 9th, 2017

Readings:

Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-15
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Some people just don’t want a savior. I get it.

To have a savior, to need a savior, means on some level admitting that you cannot save yourself. I can understand having difficulty with that.

I am a very independent person. I like to be able to figure things out myself. I like to do things for myself. Some things I am pretty good at, but then again, I do get things wrong, all the time. Sometimes the errors are factual: like forgetting a name or a date. Sometimes the errors are moral: I know that I have done and said things that have hurt others, and I have done and said things that have hurt myself. It’s not that I ever set out to make either kind of error; I don’t try to be wrong, but sooner or later it always happens again.

When the apostle Paul says: “I do not do the thing that I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” I get that. It’s frustrating to make mistakes, especially when you are trying really hard not to.

You could tell yourself that you are simply not trying hard enough. You could blame your mistakes on others as many do.

Or, you could realize that you simply don’t have the power to do it on your own and that you need someone else to help you.

That was the revelation that Paul had. He eventually understood that salvation wasn’t something he was going to achieve through his own effort.

Some people still approach religion as if it were something that they could master, as if their intellect were more important than the disposition of their hearts.

Last Sunday our group attended mass while on pilgrimage at the cathedral which was just around the corner from our hotel. After we offered our worship to God in a very nice service, Keith and I thought that we might stop in at the coffee hour and meet some of the local congregation and perhaps greet the resident clergy.

As we were trying to mingle and make polite conversation, we encountered a retired clergy couple from England (a man and a woman). They were living in the area temporarily and were very excited to hear that we were married.

They thought that being two men, and priests, that we must be very theologically liberal, just as they were. And what commenced was an inquisition into our beliefs of various points of theology and biblical interpretation. In short order they were sorely disappointed.

They were shocked to find out just how seriously we take the Bible, and the traditions of the church.

When they found out that we actually believed in the Creed, the virgin birth and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, they were simultaneously astonished and annoyed. If we disagreed with Paul about homosexuality, shouldn’t we disagree with him about everything else as well? Wasn’t all of this just an oppressive and backwards myth, which should have been dispensed with by sensible people long ago?

You know, and this may be a revelation to some people on both sides in the church, it is possible to faithfully disagree: it is possible that our faith is not an all or nothing proposition. It is possible to be neither liberal, nor conservative, but a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, sinful, but forgiven, thoughtful and believing. It is possible to disagree about particular issues and still uphold core doctrine. It is possible, but some people just can’t do it.

Honestly, at this point I was more taken with their bad manners than their bad theology. I am totally sympathetic with people who struggle with questions of faith and belief, but don’t attack me for actually believing what we all stand up and say we believe every week.

At last came the coup de grace, when he claimed that he absolutely did not believe that he was born in sin. He just wanted to come to church to hear that God loved him. To which my husband replied that we absolutely believed that we, like all men and women, were born sinners and that we had come to church not so much to hear that God loves us, but to say that we loved God. Of course we believe in a loving God that loves us first, but worship and therapy are not the same thing.

Those are two very different outlooks. They were intent on being correct, we were intent on being forgiven. I didn’t get the sense that they thought they needed a savior, we were pretty sure that we already had one.

If you think that following Jesus can be hard, you’re right. Trying to do the right thing, and then asking for forgiveness when you fail can be something of a burden, but it is the lightest burden you will ever carry. Trying to be perfect all on your own, now that’s hard. Some people just don’t want a savior, but I know I certainly need one.

Eventually we extricated ourselves from the situation as politely as we could, but I did find it a bit sad that here we were visitors in this place, and had happened upon another clergy couple that could accept our marriage, but not our faith.

I don’t use this experience as an example of most of my interactions with clergy in the U.K., far from it. This couple was the exception, not the norm. I use it as an example of how we often misjudge what people are looking for, both when they come to church and when they engage us in conversation and I use it to illustrate how dangerous it is to make assumptions about people, including theological assumptions, based upon knowing one thing.

I hadn’t come to church looking for an inquisition or a theological debate. I wasn’t looking for an enlightened priest that had all the scientifically and politically correct answers. I didn’t need someone to solve all the mysteries of the Bible, or to lecture me about the various nuances of scriptural interpretation.  And I certainly didn’t need someone to tell me that what I believed was a myth.

I wasn’t looking for a savior during coffee hour, I already knew I had one. That is who I had just come to mass to worship. In truth, all I was really looking for at that point was a decent cup of tea.

Some people just don’t want a savior. I get it, but I am not one of those people.

 

 

The Stories Fathers Tell

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(N.B. The image above is of the original Winnie the Pooh on display at the New York Public Library. These toys belonged to Christopher Robin Milne and were used by A.A. Milne as the inspiration for his Winnie the Pooh stories.)

Sermon for Father’s Day, the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 18th, 2017.

Readings:

Exodus 19:2-8a
Psalm 100
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23)

The best argument for the truth of the doctrine of original sin, and the fallen state of our human nature, is living with a three year old (or maybe a two year old, or a five year old). Not every moment in the life of a young child is precious, let’s be honest. There are some moments that absolutely require endurance; there are some moments that are almost intolerable. It’s true that children are born with the capacity to love, but they are born with a lot of other capacities as well, some that are a lot less charming. They are born with impatience; they are born with tempers; they are born sometimes being greedy or selfish; they are born with a lot of things.

 

It takes a parent that can see past bad behavior in a child; that can continue to love a child even though they are not necessarily being lovely. It takes a parent in order to shape the life of that child. It’s true that we do learn some sins as we grow older through life, but some things just seem to come from the beginning. We are born with all these different capacities and it takes a loving and patient parent to love us before we are loveable; to love us despite our wickedness sometimes. It takes a loving and patient parent to spend the time to shape us, and to shape our character, and our souls, to form us into hopefully decent human beings. Parents, more than just protecting and providing for their children, a good parent should shape their child, should help to form their child as they grow older.

 

Now we could talk about mothers and fathers this morning. I think the role of a parent is interchangeable between the two. The reality is that we are not here this morning to celebrate a gender, we are here to celebrate a role. And the role of Father which we celebrate on Father’s Day, is in many ways similar to the role of Mother: it is the presence in a young life that not only protects and provides for, but also shapes for the future; that guides; that wants to be a part of that life, and not just create it and walk away. And our parents, they shape our lives in so many ways (by their example, by their patience), but one of the ways that I think parents most shape our lives (which they may not realize) is through how they play with us.

 

You see, I think part of the role of a parent is not just to protect and to provide for a child, but I think a good parent will also understand that playing with their children is crucial. Now you may think that playtime for a child is just time for their pacification, for them to let their imaginations run wild and their fancies set free. But I think that in that playtime of make believe and storytelling is where character is tested and formed.

 

If you look at some classic fairy tales and if you listen to the way that children play as their act out their fantasies, they are testing who they want to be in the world, and what they want to be in the world. They are trying to imagine what their world and what their life can be like. What better time for a parent to help shape their child’s future than in playtime? It enables parents to share stories with them that can affect the rest of their life. If you want to test what makes a good children’s story, go and read it now as an adult. If it still touches you; if it is still relevant to your life as an adult; that is a good children’s story. Children’s stories should be taken seriously. They are not there just to pacify the child so that you can go on and do something else. A good children’s story should be as relatable to your life as it is to theirs. One of the best things that a father or a mother can do for their child is to tell them stories that will mold them and shape them for the rest of their lives.

 

I was revisiting some of my favorite children’s stories these past couple weeks and rereading them. I was just amazed at how much I get out of them now, probably more than I did as a kid. For me the ones that are my classic favorites are The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne. I have found that I can go back to those stories and find them perfectly relevant to my life in so many ways now, perhaps even more so now than when I was little. And the beautiful thing about both The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh, is that both of those stories were created by a father telling a story to his son. It was a father creating story time with his children that created both of those stories. And what a gift that has been, not just to their children, but to children throughout the world. Generations at this point now have had these wonderful make believe stories that have the power to shape who we are, and to shape our character.

 

One set of stories that I didn’t actually come to as a child (I came to them as an adult) is the Narnia series, the fantasy series written by C.S. Lewis. C.S. Lewis whom I am very fond of as an almost academic writer and as a spiritual writer, (and who can be a little difficult to approach because he is very, very smart and very heady) wrote these wonderful stories that just entrance children, and I think relate the faith to them and shape them into people of character. As I was reading about Lewis and his creation of The Chronicles of Narnia, I cam across this article written by C.S. Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham. I want to share a couple pieces of what he wrote about his stepfather:

Lewis (I’ve always called him Jack, the nickname used by everyone who knew him) married my mother, Joy Davidman, when I was 10 years old. Four years after that my mother died. I was estranged from my father, who lived in America.

Suddenly a 62-year-old professor of medieval English literature who’d been a bachelor for almost all his life was the closest thing I had to a father. Jack was as grief-stricken as I was. And yet he did everything he could to raise me. I saw a C. S. Lewis few people knew, and I grew to love him deeply.

I didn’t feel that way on first meeting him. My own father was a successful writer, but he was an alcoholic and by the time he and my mother divorced he frightened me. My mother got to know Jack Lewis after writing to tell him how much his books on Christianity had meant to her.

The two began corresponding and then my mother moved to England and enrolled me in school there. I was excited to meet the author of the Narnia books and I pictured someone from Narnia itself, maybe a knight with a sword.

What I encountered instead was a bald, stout old man dressed in a shabby tweed coat and with tobacco stains on his teeth and hands.

I was crushed—until I began to get to know him. Almost immediately I noticed how funny he was. You always knew which room of the house he was in because someone was laughing there.

One of the first things he did was invite me out for a walk in the woods behind his house near Oxford. Jack loved trees and animals and gardens. More than that, he knew exactly how to talk to a child.

He was straightforward and took me seriously, not like some grown-ups, who get cutesy and condescending around children. He asked me what I liked to read and told me his favorite childhood books, including the Bea­trix Potter stories, which he said he still loved as an adult.

Most of all we talked about Narnia. We often spoke of it as if it were a real place, as if a faun or a centaur might appear in the woods at any moment. It was a delightful game.

Two years after my mother died I learned that my father had been diagnosed with cancer and, rather than face the disease, had committed suicide. I was now an orphan. Jack knew just what to say to me.

He didn’t offer trite condolences—he knew too much about pain and grief for that. There had been tragedy in my family and he didn’t try to sugarcoat that. He could have washed his hands of me but he didn’t. Instead, he made me a part of the last years of his life.

Jack died in 1963, when I was 18. At his funeral I saw a candle burning in a simple candlestick on his coffin. Others say they remember no such thing. But I am certain I saw that candle. Its flame burned unwaveringly through the whole service.

It was a perfect image of Jack’s love—for me, for my mother, for anyone blessed enough to have come into his circle of friends.

Jack Lewis embodied values that sound old-fashioned these days—courtesy, duty, loyalty. He was steadfast in his devotion to me and so I now do my best to remain faithful to him. What would I have done without him, alone there in England with no one to turn to?

I had gone as a child hoping to meet a knight in armor from a fairy tale. I got something far better, a father who understood that what children need most of all is unwavering love.

The complete article can be found here.

 

Douglas Gresham had two father figures in his life: one person who biologically created him and assisted in his birth, and another who helped to shape his soul and who cared to form and look after his character. One of those was his real father.

 

Jesus, when he is teaching and talking, time and time again he refers to God as “Father,” or “My Father” over and over again. He teaches his disciples to pray beginning with “Our Father.” He tells them in today’s gospel that when they are afraid of what to say that the spirit of their father will speak through them. So my question to you is this: when Jesus refers to God as “Father” which kind of father do you think he is talking about?

 

Do you think he is referring to a father that creates and then walks away, having done his job at the birth and feeling satisfied that his role is complete? Or, do you think the Jesus is referring to a father who is far more intimately involved in the lives of his children? Do you think he is referring to a father who wants to shape and mold, to live next to and besides, and yes even to play with his children?

 

I am sure, I am confident, that the father of Jesus isn’t merely a creator that walks away from his creation. The father of Jesus loves his children even when they are not loveable, as Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans this morning. The father of Jesus chooses to live among his children to share in their pains. He wants to shape the character of his children. He wants to guide them. He wants to feel their pain; he wants to share in their joy. The father of Jesus takes his children seriously. And as we have learned through the life of Christ, the father of Jesus very often seeks to teach his children using stories. More often than not, when Jesus was teaching his disciples it was by using a story (a parable). That is how he reached out to them to shape their character and their souls.

 

Our human fathers, they will always be imperfect. No matter how bad or good our human fathers may be, we will always have another father. Jesus sent his disciples out into the world to preach a message to people who were like sheep without a shepherd; people who were longing and needing to be loved, to be shaped, to be guided. He sent his disciples out to those people with the message that they DO have a shepherd. They do have someone who cares, not just about creating them, but about shaping them. That they have a perfect father in heaven.

 

C.S. Lewis was a brilliant man, and one of the best apologists for Christianity in the history of the world, but he like all men was far from perfect. His strength as a father came not from his stature, his biology or his genes; his strength as a father didn’t even come from having all the right answers or from being brilliant. His strength as a father came from his steadfast love and from his willingness to take a child seriously.

 

Fathers, we honor you all this morning, but remember as a father, as a human father, you will always be imperfect. You will make mistakes and that is OK. Fathers don’t have to be knights in shining armour riding into town with their swords ready to defend and prepared to defeat every evil. You don’t have to be perfect, just be sure that in your words and in your actions, and especially in the stories that you tell your children, that you are always pointing them to the one father that is perfect.

Lights in the dome of the sky.

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Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2017

Readings:

If you have ever had the chance to see the night sky from a mountain top, or from the desert, or from an open plain it can truly be a spectacular thing. On my first trip to the Holy Land, I recall being on a bus travelling across the desert in Jordan and marveling at how amazing the stars and moon appeared. Everything just seemed so much bigger and clearer without the interference of city lights. I remember one of the lady’s on the bus marveling at how huge the moon seemed coming up over the horizon and how much closer it seemed. Her husband, who was something of a jokester, didn’t miss a beat. He said to her: “well, you know, we are a lot farther East.” For a moment his wife nodded in agreement and said: “oh yeah.” But then gradually you could see her expression change as she got more perplexed and exclaimed: “wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense!” To which the bus erupted with laughter.

 

For a moment it seemed logical that if you travelled in the direction of the horizon, anything rising just above it would be closer. It seems logical, until you remember that the earth is round and no matter how far East you go, the moon isn’t actually going to be any closer. It was a humorous reminder that our perception of the universe is always limited and frequently distorted by being simple humans riding around on this little ball we call earth. We certainly can’t see it all, nor can our minds grasp all of its mysteries. What can make perfect sense in one moment, can in the next seem foolish when we make a new discovery or remember a forgotten fact.

I think we understand that when it comes to the cosmos, a bit of humility is required. We must remember that the universe is infinite and we are merely human. There will always be more to it that we can possibly imagine.

Space has always been a part of my imagination. Like many people my age I grew up with both Star Wars and Star Trek (although I am a much bigger fan of Star Wars) so the fantasy of space travel and exploration has always been present in my life. I also grew up in a part of Florida known as the Space Coast. My hometown isn’t very far from Cape Canaveral and NASA, so I got to witness the American space program up close. From my backyard I could watch the Space Shuttle launch and be reminded that space travel was not just fantasy for television and film, but something that was real and truly possible. Sadly, I could also witness that it involved taking great risks, and that human errors and sometimes arrogance, could have catastrophic consequences.

 

I went to Christa McAuliffe Elementary School, which was named after America’s first teacher in space that was tragically killed in the Challenger accident. It was a constant reminder as a child that, although travelling in space may be possible, we humans are not the masters of the universe that we sometimes fantasize about being. We can scarcely leave the confines of our own little planet, much less explore galaxies far, far away. Perhaps someday we will, but even then, we will never, as finite beings, be able to fully comprehend, know or understand a universe, which is infinite. We can explore, we can appreciate, but we will never truly know its infinite majesty. As a kid I could lay outside and watch for meteors, but no matter how spectacular the night sky was or how much I could see, still I was only getting the tiniest glimpse of the cosmos; that which was visible from where I was standing on my little corner of the earth. But you know, the fact that I couldn’t completely understand or comprehend the cosmos has never kept me from appreciating the beauty of the night sky. The infinite size of the universe does not prevent us from exploring it, or even identifying truths about it; what it does do is remind us that we will always be creatures within it, and not masters over it. I think that most people understand that when we are talking about the universe, so why is it so hard to comprehend infinity when we are talking about God?

 

Today is Trinity Sunday, a day when we remember not a moment in the life of Christ, but our very understanding of God as we know him in Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Holy Trinity is a doctrine, which points to the primary ways in which we as the church have experienced God in our world and in our lives. Many find the Trinity to be a difficult doctrine and they feel compelled to reject it and the church which teaches it, because they cannot fully comprehend what it is trying to say, or the God which it is trying to illuminate. They treat it like a mathematical formula, something which must be understood in order to be useful or appreciated. Others within the church may accept it, but then ignore it, declaring it to be a mystery and never bothering to appreciate the true power that it has or the beautiful image of God that it paints.

 

I believe the doctrine of the Trinity is a gift to us, given by God. It is God revealing his majesty to us. To ignore it, would be akin to living our lives with our eyes always pointed down, never appreciating the beauty of the blue sky or experiencing the wonder of a falling star or a full moon. It is something that should inspire us; it should excite our imagination; and it should command our attention and respect, always reminding us of how finite and small we humans are. To think that we can ever fully understand or comprehend the Trinity would be like looking at one star and imagining that we have seen the universe. The Trinity is something that we should stand before in awe and wonder. It can challenge us; it can guide us. We may imagine the wonders that it conceals (as yet unseen by us) that may someday be revealed, but we must never fool ourselves into thinking that we will ever have mastery over it. This is after all, God we are talking about. We are talking about the force that created the universe: the sun, the moon and all the stars in existence. If we can conceive of a universe of infinite majesty, we dare not imagine God to be any smaller.

 

It is true that humans have had other ideas about God and other concepts of God, but I think they have all (on some level) failed by either making God too much like us or by making God too distant and abstract. The true power and gift of the doctrine of the Trinity is not that it clearly defines who or what God is; it is that it keeps us from defining God too narrowly. The doctrine of the Trinity keeps us from making God too small; it keeps us from making an idol that is easily understood or manipulated. With the Trinity there can be no my God or your God. There can be no God of this country or that country, nor can there be a God of this world or another world. With the Trinity there can be only one God of all creation. But, with the Trinity that God cannot be a merely distant and abstract force, but is a God that lives in intimate relationship with its creation, whose image can be seen reflected in his creation; not just existing beyond time, but acting within time as well, and doing so because of this bizarre force we call love. With the Trinity we can identify this God acting within his creation, but we cannot limit this God to his creation. With the Holy Trinity you cannot have a God that is small, distant, or disconnected.

 

Can I comprehend that? No, but I can worship it.

 

And that, after all, should be how we approach God: not in comprehension, but in adoration. We must use our brains in our worship of God, but we should never reduce God to that which seems reasonable or understandable. God is always bigger.

 

The writer and Christian apologist GK Chesterton once wrote:

 

“Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite… the poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

 

You can drive yourself crazy if your approach to the Trinity is merely to comprehend it. The doctrine of the Trinity has more poetry to it than logic. It isn’t easily understandable, but then when is love ever easily understandable? That is ultimately what this doctrine of the Trinity is all about: it is how we feeble humans have been able to identify the creator of the “Lights in the dome of the sky”: as a God that lives in relationship and love.

 

So think of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as a telescope, or if you will, a spaceship: it is there to get your head into the heavens, not to get the heavens into your head.