A Collection of Sermons by The Rev. Sam Todd
Copyright © 2016 The Rev. Samuel R. Todd
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“Find What You Seek”
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
The Incarnation is the scandal of Christianity. We believe that that infinite mysterious reality, who spoke into being all other reality, patiently over eons of evolution evoked a creature with whom he could hold converse. We believe that God the Word called forth from humanity a people with whom he could be in covenant and through whom all people would be blessed. We believe that having loved his people steadfastly and having spoken to them through prophets persistently, God finally took the radical step of coming among us as one of us to live with us and die for us that we might live in him. The self-sacrificial ministry of Christ which culminates on the cross begins with yielding himself to lie within the confines of a woman’s womb, there to fashion for himself arms of flesh with which to embrace us. The Christian gospel is that God not only loves us (in spite of our infidelity), he has united himself to us.
In the Holy Eucharist we encounter Christ first in word, then in sacrament. The first half of the service is entitled “The Word of God” because during it we meet God in the Word Written. At Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, as in many churches, the gospel book is carried in procession. The ministry of the word culminates in the reading of “The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” which usually consists of Christ speaking to his disciples. We stand to greet him saying, “Glory to you Lord Christ”. When he has finished speaking to us, we say “Praise to you Lord Christ”.
The sermon is subservient to the Gospel. Its purpose is to make contemporary, credible and compelling the Gospel preached so long ago. The preacher must be steeped in the Scriptures and the historic teaching of the Church; he must also be conversant with contemporary culture. The synthesis of then and now, of Christ and culture is first be made in the preacher’s mind and heart, then offered to the congregation as the Word Proclaimed.
I have had the high privilege of being an Episcopal priest and preacher for fifty years. The sermons in this book were mainly preached at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas some members of whom graciously suggested that a collection of them be made. I hope that the perennial gospel will be evident in them to the reader.
“For as in those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking,… and they knew nothing until the flood came, and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of man” (Matt. 24:38f NRSV).
Some of us have come to church this morning wondering what relevance Christ has to our daily round of activities. Now we hear Christ question the relevance of our daily round to his coming. What is the relevance of our daily round? Do we go merely round and round or do we proceed toward some end? Some of us have wondered if the Christian faith is not perhaps obsolete in our time; today we are asked to consider if our time, and time itself, shall soon be obsolete. Worship does not answer the demand that it be relevant to the contemporary; rather it provides an occasion for the contemporary to become relevant to the eternal. Six days a week we are subject to the grind of doing; on the first day we are invited to contemplate the ground of our being. The weekdays we devote to our means of making a living; on Sunday we consider for what end we live.
We know that our workaday lives come to an end, though we know not when. But even if we knew the date of our end, what then? That would not be to know for what end our end. A period is not a purpose; a finale is not fulfillment. We conceive many ends and contrive many means to reach them. But even in so doing we sense that all our ends and means are meaningless without that end toward which all our other ends are merely means.
We are perplexed. Even while repeating Freud’s refrain that life is desire, satisfaction, desire, satisfaction, we remain dissatisfied with satisfaction—for we know our desires to be ephemeral and we desire permanence. We would feel foolish if a fatal heart attack caught us worrying about what to wear, but we are unsure what our ultimate concern should be. We exploit nature to satisfy our needs, yet knowing that nature cannot satisfy the deepest need of our nature, which is to be needed. Is there a need in the universe for humanity? Is there a reality beyond ourselves that desires our presence?
We seek meaning. Some philosophers assure us that the quest for meaning is itself meaningless, that meaning is merely a human invention. But the quest for meaning is the motive for reasoning. How absurd to label as unreasonable that which is the precondition for reasoning. We cannot rid ourselves of the suspicion that humanity is an invention of meaning. But whose? Even as we make bold to equate reality with availability, reducing the realm of what is to the province of what we can manipulate, we long to become instruments of that which we cannot manipulate but only appreciate. But what is it? Even as we compete with each other to win small prizes, we fear we may be gambling our lives away. But that fear makes sense only if there is a purpose for our lives. But what is it? I can waste my life only if it is precious to someone beyond myself. But to whom might it be precious?
To call what we do not know “God” does not suffice. Our ignorance, labeled, remains ignorance. It is not a label we want but a response, not a nametag but a personal address. God is the meaning which gives meaning to all our other meanings, the end toward which all our purposes would tend. But can God be more than impenetrable mystery? We sense there is meaning within the mystery but we need to make that meaning our own—or to be made its own. We ask not for theories of infinity but for acquaintance with our Father. Would that he would fashion for himself arms of flesh with which to embrace us!
God is that final reality we stand before finally, but can the first and the last become present to us? We need the Alpha and the Omega to be right here and now. We who know our spiritual blindness need not to know there is light but rather to receive our sight from a light that can enlighten everyone. We who are so concerned today with self-expression suspect that humanity itself may be the self-expression of the divine—but a garbled one. How to filter out the static? Would that there were a Word of God in whom man might find the expression of true manhood!
The person of faith waits with bated breath for the self-expression of the inexpressible. Mute but eager, we wait for the Lord; we wait for the ineffable to tell us his name. Science tells us that our world and all within it is mainly empty space. Faith senses that the space is suffused with Presence. But how can we become present to it? We want to know how to come within the presence of the Presence. It is not comprehension we seek. We comprehend well enough that God cannot be comprehended, only adored. We ask for guidance to a place where we might come and adore him.
St. Paul says, “It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone; the day is near” (Rom. 13:11-12 NRSV).
December 1, 2013
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Isaiah 2:1-5: Psalm 122:1-9; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44
The Christian religion has been compared to a mother picking up her child, awaking from a nightmare, and comforting him, saying, “There, there, it is all right. It was just a dream. Everything is all right.” Some might argue that the reassurance is a lie. The nightmare was real—not literally of course but dreams are not literal. The fears and anxieties evoked by the nightmare’s terrifying symbols are well-founded. Our lives are fragile; the fabric of them insecure. Any monsters the child may have imagined are mild compared to some monsters that really do exist, perhaps in the friendly guise of an uncle or neighbor or even the parent himself. “Daddy, what fierce eyes you have.” Everything is not all right. Mother will grow old and die or prove unworthy or exhibit her mortality in more subtle ways. The child himself will grow old, if he is lucky, and die. Our jobs are insecure; our health is insecure; our lives are insecure.
The Bible knows all this, of course. “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades…” (Isa. 40:6-7 NRSV). Christianity is not blind to the nightmarish aspects of life. The most groundless thing anyone ever says to me is, “I am afraid I am going to shock you.” After thirty-three years of listening to, and making, confessions and fifth-step catalogues, I think I have heard it all already, heard it all. The people of Biblical times in particular lived much closer to mortality and evil than we do. Public executions of a cruel and not unusual character were a common occurrence. When I lived for a summer in East Africa, almost forty years ago, I was horrified to see lepers with their fingers fallen off, and youngsters so deformed that they crawled upon the ground like crabs. But in Biblical times such sights were common. The people who wrote our Bible, and about whom the Bible is written, had all the diseases we have and many we no longer do. And they suffered them without benefit of antibiotics or anesthesia. Their only social security, or insurance of any kind, was the number, prosperity, and charity of their children. Call them primitive if you will, but do not image for one moment they were naive. Biblical people were fully aware of all the nightmarish aspects of life, and yet they were convinced that “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well” (T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, “Little Gidding” III, V cf. Julian of Norwich, Showings Short Text, Ch. XV). They say this not denying stark reality but in the face of it, in the midst of it, in spite of it, staring it straight in the face. How?
Whence this hope? It is a peculiarly religious hope. Religious people are the ones celebrating when no one else sees anything to celebrate. G. K. Chesterton has said that, “As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is a mere… platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength at all. Like all the Christian virtues, it is as unreasonable as it is indispensable” (“The Mildness of the Yellow Press,” Heretics). The prophet Isaiah arose in the darkest hour of Jewish history (until the twentieth century). The state of Israel had been obliterated; the holy city of Jerusalem was destroyed; the temple lay in ruins and the leaders of the nation had been driven into captivity in Babylon. There they dwelt, oppressed by a people far more powerful than they, exiled to a pagan city more magnificent than Jerusalem had ever been. There were other captive peoples in Babylon at the same time; all of them lost their identity and disappeared from history. But the Jews did not, because just then and just there the prophet Isaiah stood up and said, “There, there; it’s going to be all right.” And the people believed him because he was speaking the word of God himself. “‘Comfort, O comfort my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem’” (Isa. 40:1-2 NRSV).
“God is coming,” Isaiah says; “prepare to meet thy God,” Advent says. An encounter with God has its fearsome aspects, as last Sunday’s lessons made clear. But finally we need not fear the coming of God, for Christ has shown him to be the good shepherd. The Christian revelation was adumbrated in the prophecy of Isaiah five hundred years before: “[God] will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” (Isa. 40:11 NRSV). Isaiah spoke to people who, like millions of prisoners of war before and since, had been mercilessly driven up hill and down dale by their conquerors across hundreds of miles of rough terrain to their captivity. One thinks of the Chechen refugees strafed by Russian planes last week; one recalls German civilians fleeing west from Prussia, Silesia, and Pomerania in 1944; the roads of France clogged with refugees fleeing the Germans in 1940; and the Bataan Death March in 1942—so many prisoners and refugees down through the centuries. To the Hebrew exiles, Isaiah said that God would make a highway through the desert; the valleys would be raised up and the mountains laid low; the uneven ground would be leveled, the rough places made a plain and they would be gently led home (cf. Isa. 40:3-4).
“Going home for Christmas?” I overheard one student ask another in the Autry House refectory last week. Home for Christmas. How many students, exiles, refugees, soldiers, and stranded civilians have wished for that—to be home for Christmas. The Hebrews were going to get to go home. And they did. It is a historical fact. You can look it up.
Advent is the season of the exile. It is the season of the poor wayfaring stranger wandering through this world of woe. Advent is the season of those who mourn in lonely exile here (cf. Hymn 56). Isaiah’s prophecy is addressed to those of us who are exiles. We will be home for Christmas.
Isaiah speaks to the part of us which is imprisoned and trying to understand what landed us there. I read this prophecy on the patio last Wednesday to the homeless people gathered there for the Eucharist. I asked them what it meant. The man to my left said he had first understood it when he was in prison. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she had received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isa. 40:2). It was, he said, God’s revelation to him that the incarceration, not only of his body, but of his soul, was temporary. God had not created him to be kept a prisoner in hell. God was making a highway and, one day, would come and reclaim him for himself and lead him home as a shepherd leads his flock.
Among the religious emotions, one we speak too little of is homesickness, longing, yearning. Advent is the season of yearning. Advent legitimates our homesickness. In Advent we can give voice to our longing to return to the home we never quite had. The home for which we long is not the never-never-land of the Garden of Eden. It is not our childhood home which was never quite as warm and secure as we remember it. It is not the family gatherings we return to with so much hope over the holidays and which often disappoint us. The home for which we long lies in the depth of our souls; it is a place reserved for God where we are at one with God. Jerusalem, our happy home, is not the place on the map to which few of us have been. The new Jerusalem, the holy city, is the human heart adorned as a bride for her bridegroom. Listen to the prophet Isaiah: “Get you up to a high mountain… ; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say,… ‘Here is your God!’” (Isa. 40:9 NRSV)..
The good tidings of Advent is that all shall be well. The groom approaches. “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!” (Hymn 56).
Advent 2B December 5, 1999
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:7-13; II Peter 3:8-15a,18; Mark 1:1-8
“You sons of bitches!” I would never begin a sermon like that but John the Baptist begins by calling the people something worse than children of dogs. He calls them children of snakes: “O generation of vipers” (Luke 3:7 KJV). And these are the people who have come to hear him and to be baptized. We are doing baptisms here on January 8 and have invited anyone wishing baptism to speak to one of the clergy. Suppose you come see me to arrange to be baptized and I say, “You son of a bitch! Who warned you to flee God’s wrath?” Imagine that and you will have a good picture of the impact of John’s opening remarks.
John is obviously not a parish priest; he is a prophet. It is said that the prophet’s vocation is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Yet John is afflicting the uncomfortable. His audience is already uneasy about themselves, else they would not have come to hear him. His demand that they be baptized is itself a radical accusation. Baptism was something Gentile converts to Judaism had to undergo, not people who were Jews by birth. But John pulls the rug of religious self-confidence out from under God’s chosen people. He tells them all indiscriminately that they are no better than Gentiles.
The Presiding Bishop made quite a stir when first installed by saying that there will be no outcasts in the Episcopal Church. John says there are no privileged groups in the Kingdom of God. Far from saying that no one will be judged, John says everyone will be. And it does not matter your race, color, ethnicity, or religious background. Whether you are white, black, brown, yellow, or red, whether you are American, Russian, Anglo, Hispanic, or Hottentot, God requires the same righteousness from all of us. Your being from a fine old family does not cut any ice in God’s eyes. It does not matter if your dad is president of the synagogue or your mother gave the stained glass window or that you have been an Episcopalian all your life. “Don’t begin to tell yourselves, ‘We are children of Abraham’; I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones” (cf. Luke. 3:8). Don’t tell me about your roots, John says; show me your fruits. “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance” (3:8 KJV).
We are fond of saying we want to be judged on who we are, not upon what we do. But John denies any such neat division between identity and behavior, between character and action. On the one hand, we construct our character by our actions. Deeds of kindness repeated over time produce a kind person. Lies told over time produce a liar. Selfish acts produce a selfish person. Thefts produce a thief. Actions create an identity. Deed by deed we daily construct the one thing we take with us into eternity when we die, namely our formed personality, our character, the shape of our soul. On the other hand, the character once formed, produces of itself like actions. Kind people do kind deeds. Liars tell lies, and thieves steal. “Ye shall know them by their fruits,” Jesus is later to say. “Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit” (Matt. 7:16-17 KJV). Here, John the Baptist warns: “Every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire” (Luke 3:9 KJV). There is no way of judging the health of the roots of a tree except by the presence or absence of fruit. If a tree is dead, cut it down. We do that here on our grounds.
All this sounds very judgmental and is, which is in itself offensive since we like to think of ourselves as being not judgmental and we disapprove of people who are (which is itself a judgment). I have come to think that judgment is a red herring because we all do in fact pass judgments on each other all the time. I noticed way back in the 1960s that my older relatives and my friends were moral and judgmental in different ways. My relatives, devout church members all, were strict in their personal ethics but sloppy in their social ethics. They did not lie, cheat, steal, get bombed, or commit adultery; but they were oblivious to the fact that black people were kept from voting and were demeaned and segregated in movies, waiting rooms, restaurants, buses, and so forth. On the other hand, my friends were very socially conscious and active but somewhat sloppy in their personal ethics. They thought the war in Vietnam an abomination but did not mind a little shoplifting. They worked to integrate society but were not always sexually faithful to their mates. They would never dream of calling anyone a slut but did not hesitate to call someone a racist. The fact is that you cannot hold deep ethical convictions and remain indifferent to those who violate them. Neither could John the Baptist. Neither can God. Judgment is a fact of life.
John had an attentive audience, some of whom were stricken by his indictment and asked, “What shall we do then?” (Luke 3:10 KJV) Of the tax collectors and Roman soldiers he demands only that they not use their positions to extort money from the people (cf. Luke 3:12-14). The toughest demand, he makes on everyone, which is to share the wealth. If you have two coats and your neighbor has none, give him one of yours (cf. Luke 3:11). Demands for compassion and generosity, justice and decency are not all that exceptional. Is all this of more than historical interest?
Of what relevance is the preaching of John the Baptist to us here today? Why has the Church for over a thousand years, read of John the Baptist in Advent as we prepare for the coming of Christ? John is not the Christ, but is he a necessary forerunner of Christ? Do we need to receive John before we are prepared to receive Jesus? I say yes.
One point is obvious. The Christian gospel has much to do with forgiveness of sins. That gospel makes no sense if we have no sins to be forgiven of. One wag has suggested that a traditional hymn be changed to suit the mood of today’s church. It should read “Just as I am, oh can’t you see; there’s really nothing wrong with me” (cf. hymn 693). If a friend or spouse should offer to forgive us for something which we think does not need forgiving, we would regard the offer as presumptuous. Is this how we will regard Christ?
But there is a more basic point. Purgation is the first stage of adult spiritual growth. Purgation precedes enlightenment and union. Purgation is cleansing; a purgative makes us vomit. If we are sick to our stomach, the last thing we want to do is put something else in there. I have to throw up the bad stuff before I feel like ingesting the good stuff. If you have rotten meat in your refrigerator, it will not do you any good to put good meat in there with it. You must first take the rotten meat out and clean the receptacle.
When I have done something against my wife I am not anxious to see her. I avoid her until I am ready to apologize. I will not want to meet the incarnate God if I am ashamed to meet God. I might be happy to meet Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and all the other peripheral and superficial impedimenta of Christmas. But Immanuel, God-with-us, will not be with me until I am ready to repent. Thus is Advent necessarily a penitential season.
A final point has to do not necessarily with sin but with purgation. When Christ was about to be born, there was no room for him in the inn—not because the innkeeper was evil or even particularly sinful but because all the rooms were already taken by other guests who had gotten there first. Will there be room in our hearts for the Christ child, or will all the room be already occupied by other, less worthy concerns, which preceded him? Must we not make room for him? Must we not first allow this rough-dressed, ascetic desert-dweller to do some heart cleaning before we may receive such a guest as our Lord Jesus Christ?
Advent 3C December 11, 1994
Episcopal Church of Reconciliation, San Antonio, Texas
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18
All the saints are people who said “Yes” to God. We revere them for this reason. At three-fourths of our Thursday afternoon Eucharists we celebrate the life of one of the saints because we revere them and seek to emulate them and because it is not easy.
Saying “Yes” to God means saying “No” to the ego; that is very difficult indeed. One of our deepest fears, even in marriage, is losing our identity, of subordinating ourselves to someone else, of losing our lives. We want to be in charge of our lives even if we are running them into the ground, just as Castro is determined to remain in charge of Cuba even if he is returning its economy to the Stone Age. A mentally ill person may be so identified with his illness that to surrender it is very scary; it feels like dying. A critical step of recovery for alcoholics is when we “made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” But if God is in charge of my life, I am not. That is frightening. It takes an enormous amount of trust to do that. Saying “Yes” to God is a major act of faith. The saints are exemplars of faith.
Mary is the archetypal saint. She was probably the first person the Church revered as a saint; she has certainly been the most revered. Reverence for her has been so conventional for so many centuries that we perhaps fail to notice how unconventional a person she was. She does not match any of the models secular society offers us for human excellence in general or female excellence in particular. For example, Mary is not a career woman. She was not a college graduate nor did she have a profession. Indeed Mary is known to history less for anything she did than for what God did through her. But is not this true of all the saints? The life of any saint is a doxology. It proclaims what St. Paul proclaimed to the Ephesians: “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20, quoted from the Book of Common Prayer, p. 126).
Whatever any of us accomplish by our professional prowess will not include our salvation. The one thing Mary did do, her “Yes” to God, did accomplish our salvation. God, quite literally, could not have done it without her. This simple, humble, peasant girl is coauthor of the salvation of the world. She is also a pathfinder for all subsequent saints. God could have accomplished nothing of what he did accomplish through them without their “Yes.” Mary is exemplar for us. God today can do nothing for us or through us without our “Yes.”
Mary was not a career woman, but neither was she subordinate to her husband. I do not suppose that it is a great beginning to any marriage for a woman to say to her fiancé, “Honey, I’m pregnant.” But especially must this be so when the fiancé knows himself innocent of any contribution to the pregnancy. Joseph, from the first, had to subordinate himself to her vocation. He had to accept her, protect her, lead her and the child into Egypt, all because of something that had transpired between Mary and God. Joseph began his marriage knowing that his wife had already given herself to another and that her highest loyalty would always be to another. Yet is not this a wise arrangement for all of us? I take a major risk in giving my heart into a woman’s hands for safekeeping. I am a fool if I give her my soul. Any human being is an inadequate repository for something so infinitely precious as my soul. A human being will die or leave or may just casually cast my soul away. “What’s this old thing?” “My soul!” Let us like Mary give ourselves to God ultimately before we give ourselves to anyone else proximately.
Mary is obedient to her call. This is worth noting because our culture does not put a high premium on obedience. The appealing folks in our movies and TV shows are rebels. Mary is remarkably obedient even by Biblical standards. She does not try to talk God out of her election as Moses did (cf. Ex. 3:13-4:17). She does not run away from her mission as Jonah did (cf. Jon. 1:1-3). She does not remind God of her youth as Jeremiah did saying “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I cannot speak; for I am a child” (Jer. 1:6 KJV). Mary’s response is “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). There are tyrants who need rebelling against, but God is not one of them. I meet people who have adopted defiance as a lifestyle. But those I know are advancing no great cause. They simply go through life quarreling with people and priding themselves upon it. If we are to have any peace at all within ourselves, at some point we have to make peace with others. And perhaps we must make peace with God before we can do that. Sanctification for any of us begins with saying to God, “Behold the servant of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”
Mary is not full of self-confidence and brimming with pizzazz, as most of us would like to be. She is not going to grab center stage and keep it; she is not going to grab everyone’s attention when she walks into a room. If she had a great personality, Scripture thought it not worth mentioning. If she had great physical beauty, we do not know of it. She certainly did not have great wealth. She is not blessed with remarkable talent nor will she be blessed with an easy life. None of the things the world considers blessings does she have. Yet generations have echoed Elizabeth’s greeting: “Blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:42 KJV). In the Scriptures blessing is an act by which a grace is conferred upon one whom God has chosen to receive it. Alison Barfoot comments, “Thus the ‘blessedness’ of Mary came not only in her being chosen by God as the theotokos or Godbearer, but also because of her obedience to that calling despite the hardships it would engender. So it is with us, as we follow in the path of the Mother of all believers” (Synthesis, 12/22/91). Precisely because Mary is not full of herself, she is increasingly filled with Christ. So it is with any of us.
As a member of the “Me Generation” who is constantly invited to remain continually fascinated by the wonder of myself, I particularly want to underscore the fact that Mary is not preoccupied with herself. And because she is not, our salvation begins with her. Frederick Buechner has written this about salvation: “It is an experience first and a doctrine second. Doing the work you’re best at doing and like to do best, hearing great music, having great fun, seeing something very beautiful, weeping at somebody else’s tragedy—all these experiences are related to the experience of salvation because in all of them two things happen: (1) you lose yourself, (2) you find that you are more fully yourself than usual.”
“A closer analogy is the experience of love. When you love somebody, it is no longer yourself who is the center of your own universe. It is the one you love who is. You forget yourself. You deny yourself. You give of yourself so that by all the rules of arithmetical logic there should be less of yourself than there was to start with. Only by a curious paradox there is more. You feel that at last you really are yourself.”
“The experience of salvation involves the same paradox. Jesus put it like this: ‘He who loses his life for my sake will find it’” (Wishful Thinking, pp. 83-84, quoting Matt. 10:39). Jesus of course lost his life for our sake. But before he could do that, Mary had to offer herself so that he might have life. With great gratitude let us repeat the greetings of Gabriel and Elizabeth: “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee” (Luke 1:28). “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (Luke 1:42).
December 22, 1991
Episcopal Church of Reconciliation, San Antonio, Texas
Micah 5:2-4; Luke 1:39-49
“A child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually… ” (Isa. 9:6 NRSV). If you had asked any well-informed person in the year of our Lord’s birth whether this prophecy had been fulfilled, he would have answered, “Yes.” If you had asked, “Who is this Prince of Peace?” he would have replied, “Caesar Augustus.”
Born in 63 BC, he became Julius Caesar’s heir at age eighteen. By age thirty-one, he had become master of the world by defeating all his rivals, thus ending the turmoil and civil wars that had plagued Rome for decades. He inaugurated the Pax Romanum that lasted for centuries, thus his title “Prince of Peace.” A historian has called him “the greatest statesman in Roman history” (Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, p. 200). His reign was so definitive that his name was retained as a title by later emperors, even those unrelated to him. His name continued to be used as a title into the twentieth century by the German Kaiser and the Russian Czar. To this very day, the eighth month of the year is named after Caesar Augustus. Why then are we not gathered here this evening to celebrate his birth?
Ruthless in his youth, Augustus “became in his last forty years a model of justice, moderation, fidelity, magnanimity and toleration” (ibid., p. 229). Surely it is Caesar we want to rule over us. I would argue that the underlying issue in every presidential campaign is “which candidate most closely resembles Caesar Augustus?” It is not Jesus we want our presidents to emulate. Why then, two thousand years later, are we still celebrating, not Augustus’ birthday, but Jesus’?
The very reason Jesus was born where he was is that “in those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered… All went to their own towns to be registered” (Luke 2:1, 3 NRSV). On the easternmost periphery of the empire, a poor carpenter set out with his betrothed wife, eight months pregnant, from the village of Nazareth to his hometown of Bethlehem. Too insignificant to wrestle a room in even the cheapest hotel, they had to stay in a stable amid donkeys and cattle. There the woman gave birth to a son and named him “Jesus.” Two thousand years later, we are gathered to celebrate that birth. Why?
The word “august” in my dictionary means “grand, magnificent, majestic, awe-inspiring” (Webster’s 1952, p. 55). Jesus is not obviously any of those things. Why then do we revere him? The key word is “obviously.” The Greek word for truth, alethia, means to make manifest what is hidden. Significant truth is never obvious. It lies hidden in the depths of reality and must be searched for there. It must be discovered or revealed. It must be sought and received by the depths of our own being.
Quirinius would have been amazed had he known that he would be known to history not for being a lieutenant to Caesar Augustus but only because he happened to be governor of Syria when a little Jewish boy was born in a stable. But there is a reason for this anomaly, and it is this: For all the breadth of Caesar’s domain, it is a temporal domain and therefore a temporary one. Four hundred years later, the Western Roman Empire was no more. Sic transit gloria mundi. At Jesus’ birth, eternity bisected time, dividing it forever into before and after Christ.
We may vote our fear instead of our hope, our cynicism rather than our faith, our selfishness and not our love, but we come here drawn by hope, by faith, by love. We celebrate Christ’s birth, not Caesar’s, because in the depths of our souls we perceive and respond to the divine love that engendered this child. The infinite mind, heart, and strength that created all that is has been orchestrating a rendezvous with us; it broke into history and became visible to our physical sight in a stable in Bethlehem. We are here because our soul’s sight sees in this obscure birth “more light than we can learn, more wealth than we can treasure, more love than we can earn, more peace than we can measure” (Christopher Fry).
Malcolm Muggeridge, the highly sophisticated, long-time editor of Punch magazine, spent most of his life as a genial cynic. After his conversion, late in life, he wrote these words: “Surveying the abysmal chasm between my certainty that everything human beings try to achieve was inadequate to the point of being farcical, and my equal certainty that human love was the image of God’s love irradiating the whole universe, I grasped a cable-bridge, frail, swaying, but passable. And this bridge, this reconciliation between the black despair of lying bound and gagged in the tiny dungeon of the ego, and soaring upwards into the white radiance of God’s universal love—this bridge was the Incarnation” (Chronicles of Wasted Time).
Christmas is the beginning of the Incarnation; for the Incarnation is not the mere fact of Christ but the entire act of Christ—all the forgiveness he will pronounce, all the feeding and healing he will do, all the self he will offer, culminating on the cross. The Incarnation is not simply that God was in Christ but what God was in our nature and what our nature became in him. Among the several paradoxes of Christmas is this one. It takes humility to accept the gift because an infinite love is obviously unearned. But having accepted the gift, it is the cure for the low self-esteem that may devil us. Early theologians emphasized the Incarnation as the divinization of human nature. The second-century bishop of Lyons wrote, “He was made what we are that He might make us what He himself is” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies).
Caesar Augustus was a magnificent man but finally of no saving significance for us. So we gather to witness and rejoice in the union of eternal spirit and mortal flesh. Behold. “The Holy God labors through the wrenched legs of a peasant girl onto cold straw reeking of animal dung. God enfleshed in six or eight pounds of howling infant with lips groping in the dark to lay hold of his mother’s swollen breast” (Synthesis 12/25/88). Behold the vulgarity of God. Behold the holiness of man.
December 25, 2013
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
“I DON’T NEED YOU!” Miranda, aged five, shouted at her mother one day. She made this declaration of independence with her feet firmly planted on the floor of the house she had lived in all her life, a house her mother had purchased. She made it wearing clothes her mother had provided her and her belly full of food her mother had bought and cooked and served her. Her considerable needs had been so fully provided for that she was charmingly unaware of them. The bounty surrounding her had been so constant as to be inconspicuous.
“I don’t need you!” man has said to God off and on throughout the centuries, never more frequently than in our present one. He has said this with his feet firmly planted upon the earth God created and with the voice God gave him. It is particularly the well fed who proudly proclaim their independence from God. God’s provision for our needs has been so faithful and consistent as to be inconspicuous. We are aware of the famines that break out from time to time in various places. We are less aware of the earth’s remarkable fertility, which has been so great as to sustain the human population’s doubling, and redoubling and redoubling again in recent centuries. “We don’t need you!” we say and stomp off. God lamented through the prophet Isaiah, “I have sons whom I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner and the ass its master’s stall; but… my own people has no… discernment” (Isa. 1:2f NEB).
God’s presence and activity are inconspicuous. The Bible is somewhat misleading in this respect. There God always seems to be appearing to people in dramatic ways. Jacob is jumped by an angel (Gen. 32:24-30). Moses sees the burning bush (Exod. 3:1-6). A seraphim touches Isaiah’s mouth with a burning coal (Isa. 6:6). Paul is blinded by lightning and hears Jesus speaking to him from heaven (Acts 9:5). When a teenager, I wandered the hills demanding a theophany. But nothing dramatic ever happened. God is the underlying reality, which I become aware of when everything else is stripped away. It is like becoming conscious of the earth when in a place, like a desert, where there are no buildings or foliage. God speaks to me in a still, small voice, which I can only hear when all other voices are silent. I become aware of his voice about two days into a silent retreat. The fundamental reality of the universe is the most inconspicuous of them all.
A similar thing is true of our need for God. It is a need we may only become aware of when all our other needs have been met. It is that hunger which persists after we have had our fill of food. It is the loneliness in the depth of the soul of one showered with human love. Our need for God is felt especially at Christmas in the form of a vague nostalgia for something precious we lost along the way. We hardly have a name for it and may never even have had it but know by rights it belongs to us or we to it. This longing for a belonging we once or never knew is the inconspicuous but persistent way our need for God is felt.
At Christmas our need is not only felt; it is answered. Our desire for God is reciprocated by his for us. At Christmas, he acts. But the action, revolutionary though it is, is inconspicuous. At Christmas, God enters our world by the back stairs. Christ is born not in Jerusalem, the capital city, but at Bethlehem, a small town whose name means “House of Bread.” There is no room for the holy family in any house in Bethlehem, so Mary gives birth in a barn. The seventeenth-century poet Sir John Suckling commented: “Strange news: a city full? Will none give way / To lodge a guest that comes not every day? / No inn, nor tavern void? Yet I descry / One empty place alone, where we may lie: / In too much fullness is some want: but where? / Men’s empty hearts: let’s ask for lodging there” (“Upon Christ His Birth”).
The newborn Prince of Peace is placed in the barn’s crib—a word originally meaning a manger, a trough, a rack in which is placed fodder for animals. The Prince’s first courtiers are these very barnyard animals. For as God observed centuries before, “The ox knows its owner and the ass its master’s stall.” Perhaps this is why legend has it that animals can talk at midnight on Christmas Eve. Into the donkey’s crib, upon the donkey’s fodder is laid him who when grown shall proclaim: “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35 NRSV).
But how inconspicuously the gift is given. The birth is much less dramatic than its annunciation to “shepherds abiding in the field keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8 KJV). Not to kings and princes, not to the high priest or the doctors of the law, but to shepherds the angels spoke. Rural folk have always been more religious than we city dwellers, perhaps because we live among the creations of our own hands and they live in God’s creation. Perhaps it is because shepherds live largely in silence that they can hear the divine message: “unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11 KJV). And having heard, they believed and came and saw and worshiped. They were the Prince’s second courtiers.
Today we celebrate the Incarnation, an event T. S. Eliot has called “a moment not out of time, but in time, in what we call history, transecting, bisecting the world of time a moment in time but not like a moment of time, a moment in time but time was made through that moment: for without the meaning there is no time, and that moment of time gave the meaning” (Part VII of “Choruses from The Rock”). Today we celebrate Christmas, for that All who always is everywhere has for our sake compressed himself into Mary’s womb and assumed our flesh that he might be someone somewhere, a particular person in a particular place that those for whom seeing is believing might see and believe.
Today, two thousand years after his birth, we, like the shepherds, come to behold him; for we too have seen and believe. But, like them as well, we must believe before we can really see. We will see it when we believe it. We come because we are among the blessed who know their need for God (cf. Matt. 5:3 NEB). We come still, all these years later, because God still comes among us even now. Unlike the angels who make their dramatic annunciations and then depart (angels never tarry), Christ pitches his tent among us in flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone.
Christmas is a recurring event because Christ comes among us still seeking lodging in human hearts. He does so inconspicuously. He comes in the splashing of water upon an infant’s head. He comes in bread and wine. Because God always is everywhere, he is not news and his kingdom does not come dramatically. As the hymn puts it, “not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums, but [by] deeds of love and mercy, the heavenly kingdom comes” (Hymn 555:2). Christmas recurs because, as Maximus Confessor wrote, “the Word of God who is God wills always and in all things to work the mystery of his embodiment” (Ambigua). The most important Christmas is the one in which he becomes embodied in us.
December 25, 2011
St. James Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12); John 1:1-14
Some states have laws which give adopted children the right, upon reaching their majority, to find out who their natural parents were. The logic of the law is that grown children, themselves in a position to become parents, have the right to learn what genetic liabilities they might be heir to.
I am intrigued that this rationale runs somewhat counter to the hopeful presumption which Freud and his followers have uncovered in many of their patients, namely the suspicion among the most humble of us that our apparent parents are imposters and we are really the offspring of royalty, princes, and princesses.
Part of the good news of Christmas, which would have astounded Freud had he known of it, and which astounds us when we hear of it, is that our suspicions are correct. We are indeed princes and princesses, children of the King himself.
Since the creation was ex nihilo, not only by God but of God and from God, the self-expression of God, we are all in some sense children of God to start with. In our inmost nature, we are children of God. This is why we yearn for him and wish to be with him and like him. Yet clearly we are also strangers to him and fear him and flee from him and act very unlike him. This is the mystery of evil. It is as if we all live in darkness and do not even know who our father is.
The Holy Bible is nothing other than the record of our heavenly Father’s attempt to identify himself to his estranged children and bring them back into communion with himself. Since God is by nature invisible, he tries to communicate himself to us through his word—his word spoken to Abraham, to the children of Israel through Moses and the prophets. Now St. John brings us the stupendous news that in these latter days, God’s Word—which was the agent of creation and the agent of prophecy—became enfleshed and dwelt among us as man. St. John proclaims that the man whom contemporaries knew as Jesus of Nazareth was none other than the Word of God incarnate.
That is considerably more important news than any found in Time or Newsweek, which is why it does not get chucked out with the morning trash as those magazines do. On the other hand we would not expect most people to believe John’s news, for we live in darkness and cannot recognize the truth even when it stares us in the face and calls us with our own voice. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:9-11 NRSV). Thus the story of Jesus of Nazareth begins with a birth and proceeds apace to a crucifixion. That is not at all surprising, but it is very sad. The orphan spends a lifetime searching for his father but when he finally finds him, does not recognize him, feels threatened by him, and kills him in ignorance. The gospels have something in common with the tragedy of Oedipus Rex.
But the gospels are not tragedy but comedy; they end in good news. And the good news is this. Though most people remain blind to their salvation and deaf to God’s word, “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man but of God” (John 1:12-13 NRSV). Christ comes among us not merely as Lord but as brother. He comes not primarily to be worshiped but to reconcile us to our Father.
In St. Paul’s words, “because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child, then also an heir through God” (Gal. 4:6-7 NRSV). We are heirs of eternal life, which we begin to live so soon as we receive Christ into our lives. For the life Christ has is God’s very own life which is, of course, eternal. Quite a Christmas present. Happy Incarnation.
December 29, 2013
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18
The twelve days of Christmas culminate in the Feast of the Epiphany, which commemorates the coming of the Magi to Christ (Mt. 2:1-12). The Magi, from whom our words “magic” and “magician” derive, were a class of priests in Zoroastrianism, the official religion of ancient Persia. The Greek word Magi could be translated as “astrologers” but most English Bibles, including out own, translate it as “wise men.” In the early 3rd century, Tertullian suggested that the magi were kings, perhaps because of Isaiah’s prophecy, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa. 60:3 NRSV). About the same time Origen fixed their number as three perhaps because the gifts they bore were three: gold, frankincense and myrrh. The hymn, “We Three Kings of Orient Are” (hymn 128), has proven more powerful than the Biblical text itself in how we imagine the event. But no matter their number and occupation, they were definitely foreigners and Epiphany celebrates the first manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.
Divine illumination is the subject of this morning’s Gospel. St. Matthew makes a great point of the fact that the wise men were Gentiles, the Jewish version of heathens. The Gentiles were outside the community of salvation as it was then understood to be. They were not members of Israel, not children of Abraham, not inheritors of the Mosaic covenant. They were what St. Paul would later call “ignorant Gentiles” (v. Acts 17:29f). And yet they were not cut off from God. There are several points here for Christians to ponder.
The first is that these heathen were not altogether cut off from truth about reality. The ancient Iraqis and Iranians discovered much about the heavens still acknowledged as valid by modern science. How did they do it? They did it by their powers of observation and reason. Where did these powers come from? According to the Bible, they came from God who made them in his image. The Genesis creation story and the covenant made with Noah are universal; they describe God’s dealings with the whole human race. St. John says of Christ, “He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him… In him was life and that life was the light of all people” (Jn. 1:2-4 NRSV). So there is a universal capacity for knowing the truth, which God has given to all men and women by endowing them with reason in creating them in his own image.
A second point concerns the magi’s piety. They were lovers of God. They diligently searched the heavens for understanding of God. Which God did they love? Well, how many Gods are there? There is but one God, one ultimate reality. So insofar as the wise men were in touch with God at all, they were necessarily in touch with the same God we adore and follow. Surely the time should be past when Christians regard all non-Christian religions as a pack of lies and nothing but idolatry. In addition to the kinship we have with all people by virtue of being rational creatures of the one creator, we have an additional kinship with all men and women who seek to order their lives by the divine light.
The third point is that God spoke to these heathen. He not only endowed them with a general capacity for general truth, he manifested himself to them as a new star and led them to truth about himself. Perhaps “the star” was the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which occurred in 8 B.C. So let us not say that all non-Christian religion is the vain imaging of men’s minds. God speaks to various men and women at various times in various ways to lead them closer to himself. And we ourselves, most of us at least, are not descendants of the Jews, God’s people, but are descendants of the Gentiles, those innumerable non-Jewish peoples of whom the magi are representative in today’s Gospel. St. Leo the Great said, “He who vouchsafed the sign gave intelligence to those who saw it; and that which he made them understand, he made them seek after; and he, when sought, presented himself to be found” (Select Sermons of St. Leo the Great on the Incarnation p. 27).
So here is the fourth point, which is the whole point of Matthew’s account: the truth God led the magi to was Jesus Christ. The star which Persian astrologers thought a divine being proved to be only a device to lead wise men to God’s fullest manifestation of himself which was in Jesus. All people are created with a capacity for knowing truth, and God has vouchsafed truth about himself to all religions, but truth about God has been given the world in Christ Jesus. That is the proclamation of St. Matthew; that is the proclamation of the Epiphany and that is our Christian faith. Let us embrace and proclaim that faith. The light that enlightens every human has come into the world in the person of Jesus – not Confucius, not Buddha, not Mohammed but Jesus. And that difference makes all the difference.
It is foolish and unfaithful for Christians in our newly discovered appreciation of the richness of the world’s religions to go on to the false sophistication, which says, “It makes no difference what you believe so long as your belief is sincere.” The Ayatollah Khomeini was sincere. He spent his life devoted to God, by his own lights. But his light was not the light of Christ. And that has made a huge difference. It has certainly made a difference to the Christians in Iran. There are Christians there, you know. There were Christians there centuries before there were Christians here. There are Anglicans also. But since the Islamic revolution Bishop Hassan Tahqani-Tafti’s home and office have been invaded and their records burned. An attempt was made on the bishop’s life; his wife was wounded and his son killed. It makes a difference by what light we see and obey the will of God.
Let us follow the light of Christ and emulate, if only in some small degree, the wisemen’s fidelity to the light. Launcelot Andrewes said of them: “They came a long journey, and they came an uneasy journey and they came now, at the worst season of the year. They stayed not their coming… till they might have better weather and way and longer days… And we, what excuse shall we have if we come not? The wise men say, ‘Come’. And he whose star it is, and to whom the wise men came, saith, ‘Come’. And let them that are disposed come and let whosoever will take of the Bread of Life, which came down from heaven to Bethlehem, the house of bread. Of which bread the Church is this day the house, the true Bethlehem” (Sermons December 25, 1620).
January 5, 2014
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas 9 & 11
Isaiah 60:1-6 Psalm 72:1-6 Ephesians 3:1-12 Matthew 2:1-12
Hymns 93, 124, 112, 128, 109
It is good to be here again. The last time was Christmas. It seems to me we were celebrating the birth of the Christ child. Now we are celebrating his baptism as an adult. Time flies. Last time I was here Jesus was a baby; now he is thirty years old. What happened in the meantime? The truth is, we don’t really know what was going on with Jesus during most of his life. And Jesus himself may not have known a great deal more. The birth of Christ is the first great feast of the Christian year; today is the second great feast, his baptism at age thirty, when he finds out who he is.
By the way, who are you? I ask that question a lot because I am always meeting someone I do not know. And you tell me your name. Now I know what to call you. But who are you? You may tell me what you do for a living, that you are married, that you have two children, that you are new to Houston. You are not going to tell me the deep truth about yourself because you do not know me; therefore you do not trust me. And you may not even know the truth yourself.
If you had asked Jesus, when he was a teenager, or was in his twenties, “Who are you?”, he might have replied with the same information his fellow townsmen used to identify him: “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mk. 6:3 NRSV). The early Church was uneasy about this missing thirty years, the majority of Jesus’ lifetime. So some later writers, like Luke, supply a vignette or two like the boy Jesus astounding the doctors in the Temple with his wisdom (cf. Lk. 2:41ff.). But we can reasonably infer from Mark, our earliest gospel writer, that it is not until Jesus comes down to the Jordan River to give his life to God at his baptism, that he discovers the deep secret of his identity: “And just as he was coming up out of the water,… a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mk. 1:11 NRSV).
By the way, who are you? Isn’t it amazing that we can live most of our lives and not really know the answer to that question? I am Sam Todd. Sam is my given name; Todd is my family name. But Todd is a given name also in the sense that I did not choose it. I am Todd because of whose son I am. I did not choose my identity; I was born into it. My parents told me who I was. Who am I? I am Sam Todd. That is true as far as it goes. But who is Sam Todd? Who was Jesus? He was Jesus of the village of Nazareth, the son of Mary, the brother of Joses and so forth — all true as far as it goes. Nothing he learns at his baptism contradicts what he already knows about himself. But at his baptism, at age thirty, he has revealed to him the deep secret of his identity. Do you know the deep secret of yours?
In 1967, Jean Charon wrote the book Man in Search of Himself. There is a search we have all been on. When I was a teenager, I loved acting in the school plays. I played Mortimer in Arsenic and Old Lace; I played Higgins in Pygmalion. I was also a football player; there was a role I liked; people stopped messing with me. I also tried out the role of sophisticated cynic on campus; I liked that even better. I tried out various identities in search of myself. What roles have you played? What role are you playing now? And who is playing the role?
Identity is deeper than role-playing. It is deeper than a name on a legal document. My college roommate legally changed his name from Bill Horowitz to Bill Harris; he found it inconvenient to be a Jew. I understood that. I found it inconvenient, maddening really, to be a Christian. I tried to shed that identity but it proved not to be so easy. It is a conceit of contemporary culture that we can be whoever we choose to be, but I do not think that is true. I think we are handed various identities by our parents, by our peer group, our social circle, our colleagues at work. And then we try them on for size. We see how they fit. If we are uncomfortable we must either learn to live into our identity or discover that the identity handed us is not the deep truth about us.
I never got away from my original identity as the son of Colonel Samuel Rutherford Todd. The question I unconsciously wrestled with most of my life was whether I was his beloved son. In retrospect, much of what I did in my life was an attempt to wrest from my father the phrase “with whom I am well pleased.” It was not until he was on his deathbed that he was able to say in a way I was able to hear, “I have always loved you and am very proud of you.”
Fortunately, years earlier, I had stumbled upon the truth of the identity given me at my baptism wherein I was made a child of God by adoption and grace. I am a younger brother of Jesus Christ by adoption and grace. The grace part is important. It means that my identity is not something I have to earn. God gave it to me for free. At my baptism, when I was a very small child, the priest said: “We receive this child into the congregation of Christ’s flock; and do sign him with the sign of the Cross, in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end” (1928 Book of Common Prayer p. 280).
We cannot discover our identity on our own, let alone decide it, because identity turns out to be a relationship. Each one of you, who has been baptized, is a child of God, whether you like it or not. Each one of us, for the rest of our lives, will be in relationship with our brother Jesus. Much of our self-esteem will depend on whether we decide to live into that relationship. Much of the anxiety or serenity of our lives on this earth will depend of whether we live from our relationship with our brother Jesus rather than from our looks, our wealth, our success, our wit and charm, our social circle, our worldly possessions and accomplishments. The most important truth of who we are was revealed to us long ago.
And that is really all I have to say. If we were Protestants, I would sit down now because I have preached the word and you have either understood it with your mind or you have not. If we were Southern Baptists, you would not even have gotten to be baptized until you understood it. But because we are Catholic, we know that Christ wanted you in his flock from day one so that you could grow up in a community of grace. And because we are Catholic we have a stoop of baptismal water in the narthex that you can splash on your head each time you enter this building to remind yourself of who you are. So you can feel with your body who you are. Now most of you don’t do that; so I am going to end my sermon by doing it for you.
(Asperges): You are sons of God. You are daughters of God. You are God’s beloved children. You are Christ’s brothers and sisters. You are children of light. You are inheritors of the Kingdom of God. You are God’s sons and daughters by adoption and grace. You are heirs of the saints.
And don’t you ever forget it.
9 January 2000
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Isaiah 42:1-9 Psalm 89:20-29 Acts 10:34-38 Mark 1:7-11
Hymns 448, 121, 490, 135
We sometimes think there are two kinds of people in the world: them and us. The ancient Greeks divided the world into Greeks and barbarians; everyone who was not a Greek was a barbarian. To the ancient Jews there were two kinds of people, Jews and Gentiles. The Gentiles were the ninety-nine point nine per cent of the world’s population who were not Jews.
The Pharisees further divided the nation of Israel into two kinds of Jews, the righteous and the sinners. The former observed all the provisions of the Law of Moses; the latter did not. The righteous did not kill; sinners did. The righteous did not steal; sinners did. The righteous did not commit adultery; sinners did. This is the context of this morning’s Gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is a new Moses standing upon a mount giving God’s people a new version of God’s law.
He begins by referring to the Mosaic version, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder’; and whoever murders shall be liable to judgement” (Mt. 5:21 NRSV). But, Jesus says (and here I am reading between the lines), you cannot look just at the letter of the law; we must consider the spirit of it. What was God’s intention in giving us the law? What did he have in mind for us? He did not have in mind that we could treat each other any way we want so long as we avoid shooting someone dead. Rather he intended that we should live in grace with one another. His intention is that you should love your neighbor as yourself. Therefore (and here I am quoting Jesus directly) “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable to judgement” (Mt. 5:22 NRSV).
There are at least two disturbing things about Jesus’ teaching. The first is that he redraws the dividing line between the righteous and the sinners in such a way that we all wind up on the sinner side of it. The class of righteous people turns out not to have any members in it. In other words, there are not two kinds of people in the world; there is only one kind, sinners, us. The Pharisees, who had never stabbed anyone except verbally, find themselves on the same side of the line as murderers. This is not at all the way they were used to thinking of themselves.
The second disturbing thing about Jesus’ remark is that it seems to contradict a tenant of modern psychology namely that anger is an appropriate and healthy response to injury. If you abuse me, insult me, mistreat me, sin against me, I ought to feel anger and express that anger. Indeed, I am sick, or will get sick, if I do not. But healthy anger is a stage to be worked through. If I live in it, if I cannot get beyond it, the anger itself will make me sick. Even temporary anger can be very dangerous. I suspect that some who urge anger upon us have paid too little attention to the beatings, stabbings, and shootings that occur in this city every day in a fit of rage. Of course, Jesus is not focused so much upon our individual mental health as upon our relationships with each other. If I am angry with you, for whatever reason, we are alienated from each other. A state of sin exists between us. This is not what God wants for us.
What God does want for us is that we be in a state of grace with each other. What God wants is that reconciliation take place. Maybe that happens, but my deciding that what you did is not really so bad after all. Maybe it happens by your apologizing to me. Maybe it happens by my apologizing to you and begging your forgiveness. But however it happens, it is what God had in mind when he told us how to live with each other by giving us the Ten Commandments. “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt. 5:23f). Here as elsewhere, our Lord links love of neighbor with love of God. It is because of the teaching and example of Christ himself that St. John later writes, “Those who say, `I love God’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (I St. Jn. 4:20f NRSV).
Jesus then refers again to the Ten Commandments: “You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery’. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5:27f). Just as Jesus penetrates beyond the written commandment to the divine intention behind it, so he penetrates beyond our actions to the human intention behind them. The law rightly distinguishes between our actions on the one hand and our thoughts and feelings on the other. But an assessment of our spiritual health can make no such distinction. If I have committed sin against a woman in my heart, I am in a state of sin in my relationship with her and therefore with God. My relationships with all my neighbors are corrupt insofar as they do not have the character of Christian love.
Since we are all sinners, perhaps sin is not something to get bent out of shape about. On the contrary, sin itself bends us out of shape. Jesus counsels radical treatment: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Mt. 5:29). Wow. But my problem is greater than this will cure. If all my sin were concentrated in one of my eyes, so that by removing that one eye, I could be free of sin, I would seriously consider it. But removing the one eye would leave me with the other through which to look lustfully or balefully or with resentment. And if I removed both eyes, I would still have my brain and my heart. To remove either of them would kill me. The problem then is that my sin infects my vital organs. I will not tell you the particulars of my sin since you are not my confessor. But I can tell you that my sin is not a superficial matter that can be scooped out by a dermatologist’s scalpel. I am sinful in my core and must be cleansed in my core. Thus on Ash Wednesday, I cry out with the wretched Psalmist: “Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin… Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps. 51:2, 11 p. 656f).
Surgery, amputation only works if the infection is localized. If it is systemic, the cure must be systemic. By God’s omnipotent grace, there is such a cure. The same Christ who makes us aware of our sin is himself the cure for it. It has been rightly said that you cannot chase darkness out; you can only let light in. Christ is himself the light of God, which illustrates all shadows and irradiates all diseases of the soul. Our task then is to let the grace of Christ in — by the sacrament of reconciliation, by reception of the holy Eucharist, by prayer, by Bible reading, by conversation with trusted friends, by being open to the Holy Spirit.
There is one kind of people in the world, us sinners. There is one Lord Jesus Christ who brings God’s love to bear upon our estrangement. God loves all of us not because we deserve it but because he cannot help himself; for, God is love.
11 February 1996
Episcopal Church of Reconciliation, San Antonio, TX
Ecclesiasticus 15:11-20 Psalm 119:9-16
I Corinthians 3:1-9 Matthew 5:21-24, 27-30, 33-37
Hymns 48, 593, 304, 674, H-321, 657
Whenever I spend any length of time with unchurched people who know I am a priest, invariably one of them will tell me, “I used to go to church but I didn’t get anything out of it.” Invariably I ask, “What did you put into it?” The purpose of these gatherings is for us to offer worship to the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. The purpose is not to be entertained. It is for precisely this reason that Episcopal worship is as demanding as it is of the congregation. It is not possible to come to an Episcopal church and just be a pew sitter, to passively listen to the preacher and the choir. You are asked to stand; you are asked to kneel; you are asked to sing; you are asked to pray; you are asked to commit yourself. There is an altar call every week.
There is a reason for the way we worship and it is this: the Christian faith is discipleship. It is not feelings however religious; it is not opinion however pious; it is discipleship. All of us have opinions about God. Some are of the opinion that there is no God. Because we have a childish notion of God or because bad things have happened to good people especially to us or because we think it sophisticated to believe this intricate universe is the result of mere chance or for whatever reason some people think there is no God. Others are of the opinion that there is a God, that there must be some kind of mysterious, ultimate reality. But whether you believe in God or do not believe in God makes no difference to God if it makes no difference in the way you live your life. The Christian faith is not opinion; it is discipleship.
The Christian faith is not religious feelings. We live in a therapeutic age and have been taught to set great store by our feelings. Jesus, who was not a Freudian, never once asked anybody how he was feeling. I am not saying our feelings are of no importance, but it is a great mistake to identify our feelings with our faith. Some poor souls go about the world seeking someone to manipulate their emotions into a tingly, tearful state they think of as religious and then think they have found faith. The way to find faith is to be faithful. The disciple comes to church whether he feels like it or not for the same reason he goes to work every morning, as a matter of discipline, as a matter of discipleship. (The two words have a common root).
How does one become a disciple? Not by thinking something, not by feeling something, but by doing something. Discipleship is an act of the will. One becomes a disciple by making a decision to turn his life and will over to the care of God, as Jesus understands him. But, I don’t always know what the will of God is. Yes, but most of the time you will if you seek it.
One becomes a disciple by repenting of his sin. Jesus began his ministry proclaiming, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt 4:17 NRSV). He does not say, “Repent because you are horrible people.” He is saying, “Something magnificent is at hand but you may not be in a position to receive it because you are so full of guilt and garbage. Clean out the garbage; I have something better for you.”
One becomes a disciple by pledging money to the work of God; for, where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (v. Mt. 6:21). But, I don’t have much money. That is all right; God does not want much. But, I don’t know how much I will make this year. That is all right; you just say, “God, I don’t know what I will make this year but whatever it is, I will give you 10% of it” (or 5% or whatever). But, I may not have enough. Ah, that is the point. If you knew it would not be an act of faith would it? .
One becomes a disciple by singing the hymns. But, I do not know the hymns. The way you learn them is by singing them. But, I don’t have a good voice. don’t have a good voice? When my sixth grade class was singing a song to the whole school, my teacher told me to just move my lips and pretend I was singing. If I can sing the hymns, anybody can. But, you wouldn’t want to hear me sing. You are not singing to me; you are singing to God. If God gave you a good voice, sing to him in gratitude. If he gave you a bad voice, sing to get even.
One becomes a disciple by doing something costly for other people. The Christian faith is not a philosophy; it is a way of life. The disciple may have much in common with the philosopher. Both may gaze upon the starry sky at night and speculate about mysteries heavenly and mundane. Both may try to puzzle out the meaning of life. The difference is that the disciple is committed and the philosopher remains detached; the disciple is a player and the philosopher a spectator. The disciple is committed not so much to an answer as to a person. Or to put it a different way, the disciple believes that truth is ultimately personal not propositional.
The disciple believes that the cosmic mystery we call God has not only created us, he is for us and has created us for himself. He seeks out relationship with us in so many ways. He came among us as one of us to call us to himself. “As [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Mt 4:18-20 NRSV).
Discipleship does not dispel doubt or preclude speculation; indeed, it promotes them. Who is this one I follow who commits himself to me and demands my fidelity? It would be nice to know the answer before one begins the journey. If only I knew for certain she would make me a good wife, I would ask her to marry me. Alas, the answer to my question can come in no other way than by marrying her. Jesus will one day ask Peter, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ (Mt 16:15) but only after first having come to him and said ‘Follow me. Come with me.’ One cannot know Christ except by following him. And any affirmative answer as to who he is, given outside the context of discipleship, is religiously worthless. One can think about God for a long time, study and speculate about him, watch and wait, read and listen. But one’s long search if diligently pursued will only bring you to the place where you stand face to face with the living Christ who reaches out his hand and says, ‘Come with me.’ And you must go or stand there forever. You can never take another step forward alone.
“Immediately they left their nets and followed him”, Peter and Andrew, James and John. They left one life, a simple, contented, fisherman life, and embarked upon another. They walked many miles, saw miracles, were faithful to Christ, betrayed him, were faithful again. They proclaimed Christ before rulers who put them on trial. They founded a worldwide church that changed the course of human history though they never knew it. “John who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless in Patmos died. Peter, who hauled the teeming net, head-down was crucified” (Hymn 661:3). They followed Christ who had gone before to prepare a place for them (v. Jn. 14:2).
Today, all these centuries later, there is a church in Pasadena named after Peter; there is one in LaPorte named after John. We remember these disciples. God remembers all of them. The future of the world is still at risk; the souls of individual men and women are still at risk. The stakes are the same; the risks are the same; the invitation is the same. Christ speaks to me; he speaks to you. “Come with me,” he says. “Come with me.”
26 January 2014
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Amos 3:1-8 Psalm 139:1-17 I Corinthians 1:10-17
Matthew 4:12-23 1,460 words
Hymns 530, 661, 126 & 707, 537
There are more Christians in the world today than there were people on earth in Jesus’ day. So it is easy to forget that Jesus was rejected by men. After a brief ministry, he was deserted by his friends, mocked by a crowd, and brutally executed. The rejection begins in his home town. At the synagogue service, Jesus, though not a rabbi, reads a prophecy from Isaiah and then presumes to proclaim its fulfillment. In Mark’s version of the incident just read, the congregation is immediately offended and say, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joseph and Judah and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us? So they fell afoul of him” (Mk. 6:3 NEB).
During his three-year itinerant ministry Jesus has numerous run-ins with the scribes and Pharisees who eventually convict him of blasphemy and hand him over to the Romans to be killed. He offended the Pharisees in a number of ways -associating with sinners whom good people were supposed to avoid, healing on the Sabbath, forgiving sinners on his own authority, and by radically reducing the elaborate religion of the Pharisees to a simple trust in God and obedience to but two commandments. The Pharisees had elaborated over six hundred things God demanded of us. Jesus said that all the requirements of the Law and the Prophets, that is, the whole Bible, can be summarized as “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself” (v. Mk. 12:29-31 BCP p. 351). He illustrates love of neighbor by his parable of the Good Samaritan who had mercy on the Jew who was lying beat up by the side of the road (v. Lk. 10:29-37). He illustrates love of God by his parable of the Last Judgment in which the righteous are told, “just as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:31-46). Mercy is the common theme.
One of the Pharisees enraged by Jesus was Saul of Tarsus who never even met the earthly Jesus but soon heard of the Christian heresy. Saul was present at Stephen’s execution. Acts tells us that “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3 NRSV). But on his way to Damascus to bring Christians, bound, back to Jerusalem the risen Christ knocked Saul off his horse and changed his life and the life of the world. Of his former life Paul tells us “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But [then] God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace was pleased to reveal his Son to me so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles” (Gal. 1:14-16 NRSV). To put Paul’s experience in a nutshell, he was filled by the Holy Spirit and given as an unmerited gift that righteousness, that right relationship with God that the law demanded but could not produce.
One of the places Paul took his gospel was the populous, bustling, boisterous port city of Corinth. Its population was a mélange of ethnicities — Romans, Greeks, Jews, Syrians, Egyptians, former slaves and others. It was also a mix of rich and poor, aristocrats and common folk though, as Paul notes, not many in the church were rich. The church he founded was highly charismatic, filled with the gifts of the Spirit— tongues, prophecy, healing, faith, miracles, wisdom. An argument seems to have arisen over which spiritual gift was the greatest. That question Paul answers. The answer is love.
Of course our word “love” can mean various things and the Greeks were perhaps wise in having four different words for it: (1) philia meaning friendship, (2) storge meaning familial affection, (3) eros meaning desire and (4) agape meaning charity. It is helpful to contrast eros with agape. Eros is romantic love. It is the kind of love we are in when we are in love. It is evoked by the attractiveness, the loveliness of the beloved. Plato’s dialogue The Symposium is about eros, which is the word used. At the end he summarizes, “love is the desire for the perpetual possession of the good.” When I love you erotically, I love you because you are beautiful, wise, witty, wealthy, sexy, and desirable.
It is the other love, agape which St. Paul describes to the Corinthians. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not enviable or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Cor. 13:4-7 NRSV). Agape is divine love, as Paul told the Romans: “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rms. 5:8).
William Blake speaks of agape in the first stanza of “The Clod and the Pebble” in Songs of Experience: “Love seeketh not itself to please Nor for itself hath any care, But for another gives its ease, And builds a heaven in Hell’s despair.” But he speaks of eros in the third stanza: “Love seeketh only self to please, To bind another to its delight, Joys in another’s loss of ease, And builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”
Eros gets us into marriage; agape up-builds the marriage. Agape is not love just because of how lovely you are but also in spite of all your unloveliness. It is agape we vow one another at the wedding. Here is love not fickle but faithful, not transient but enduring. It is love which says, “I will rejoice in your triumphs, and when you succeed, I will be in the crowd applauding. But if you fail, and the applause cease and the crowd disperse, I will be there still, with you and for you, for richer or poorer. I will enjoy your beauty and frolic with you in your youth, but when the beauty fades and your body grows decrepit, I will be there still in sickness and in health. ‘Til death.” Marriage is a sacrament; a sacrament is a means of grace; grace is being loved beyond your deserving.
It is this gracious love God showed us in Christ. It is this gracious love by which Christ summarizes all the Law and the Prophets. It is this gracious love St. Paul designates as the highest charism of the Holy Spirit.
February 3, 2013
Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Houston Texas
Jeremiah 1:4-10 Psalm 71:1-6 I Corinthians 13:1-13 Luke 4:21-30
As you know, the word “epiphany” means shine forth. Several of the gospel readings in this Season after the Epiphany depict the glory of God shining forth from Christ and drawing people to him and, through him, to God. But it is not just Christ through whom the glory of God is to shine; it is to shine through us as well. We, like the saints depicted in stained glass windows, are to be men and women through whom the light shines. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his future Church, “You are the light of the world” (Mt. 5:14a NRSV). What you and I do at Palmer is not merely for our own salvation, let alone our own pleasure, but for the salvation of the world. Jesus said, “A city built on a hill cannot be hid” (Mt. 5:14b). Palmer is to be a city on a hill shining God’s glory into the city of Houston. The crucifixion window in the front wall is not visible to us inside but lit at night it shows to all who pass by the extent of God’s love for us. Epiphany is our vocation.
How are we, the Church, to be light to the world? By maintaining our integrity as the Church. Clarence Jordan, who founded Koinonia Farm, a multi-racial Christian community, in Americus, Georgia back when that was a dangerous thing to do, said this: “Whenever tension ceases to exist between the Church and the world, one of two things has happened: Either the world has been completely converted to Christ and his Way, or the Church has watered down and compromised its original heritage.” Christ is God’s self-portrait. The Church is Christ’s self-portrait. Each individual Christian, for good or ill, is a walking advertisement for the Church.
“You are the light of the world.” For each one of us individually, the vocation of epiphany requires integrity. “Character is what you are in the dark,” Dwight Moody said. Integrity means acting the same in the dark as we do in the light, being the same on the inside as we are on the outside, of not saying in private the opposite of what we say in public. Integrity is the opposite of hypocrisy.
Jesus cast the character we need in terms of righteousness. “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Mt. 5:20 NRSV). This is certainly a daunting challenge for anyone like myself who agrees with St. Paul’s judgment that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written, `There is no one who is righteous, not even one’” (Rms. 3:9f quoting Ps. 14:3). How can we, who are under the power of sin, yet strive for righteousness so that our evangelism will not be discredited by hypocrisy? Not by scrupulously observing the 600+ laws the Pharisees followed. Jesus ridiculed them for straining a gnat and swallowing a camel, for being rigid in inconsequential matters and oblivious to great issues of justice and mercy (cf. Mt. 23:23f).
“The high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy” accused some of his people of unrighteousness. “You oppress all your workers”, he said through Isaiah (58:1,3). Some things never change. Wednesday’s New York Times included this: “Carlos Rodriguez Herrera said he often worked 65 fours a week as a deliveryman for Domino’s pizza shop on east 89th street in Manhattan but was paid for just 45 hours. A co-worker, Anatole Yameogo, remembers working from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. one Saturday, but his pay stub said he worked just five hours that day… [He] said, ‘I knew they were stealing my hours but I had no choice but to stay because I had a family to support’. He sends part of his earnings to his wife and children in Bukina Faso,” Africa (2/1/14 page A3). The Legal Aid Society brought suit on behalf of cheated workers. Domino’s Pizza of New York just agreed to pay $1.28 million to 61 workers to settle the suit. Isaiah proclaimed that righteousness consists in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked and freeing the oppressed. “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn” (Isa. 58:8).
How can we be righteous? Here is a simple suggestion. Let us try to do what is right. Let each of us ask, about any contemplated course of action, is it right? Let that be our criterion rather than any lesser standard. If we do only what is pleasurable, we are but hedonists. If we act only in our self-interest, we are cynics. Let us stand for something greater than ourselves. Is it right? Because God is in our consciences, this simple question is a beacon to righteousness. There are murky moral situations where the right is unclear. But most of the trouble most of us get into comes from doing what we knew was wrong at the time we did it or from never even having asked the question.
Phillips Brooks, the great preacher of Holy Trinity Church, Philadelphia, in a sermon preached over a hundred years ago, conjured up a picture of the after life. “Out of all the lower presences with which they have made themselves contented; out of all the chambers where the little easy judges sit with their compromising codes of conduct…; out of all these imperfect judgment chambers, when men die they are carried up into the presence of the perfect righteousness and are judged by that… Just think of it. A man who, all his life on earth since he was a child, has never once asked himself about any action, about any plan of his, is this right? Suddenly, when he is dead, behold, he finds himself in a new world, where that is the only question about everything. His old questions as to whether a thing was comfortable, or was popular, or was profitable, are all gone… And upon the amazed soul, from every side, there pours this new, strange, searching question: ‘Is it right?’” (; E.P. Dutton, 1949. Pages 370-371).
Dr. Brooks reminds us that all we take with us when we leave this earth is our soul. But what is at stake is even more important than our individual salvation. What is at stake is the salvation of the world. Christ is God’s chosen instrument for reconciling the world to himself. The Church is Christ’s chosen instrument for bringing the world to him, and through him, to God. Not authoritative doctrine, not even the Holy Bible of the Old and New Testaments but “you are the light of the world” (Mt. 5:14). Not words spoken or written, not even sacraments or prayer, but living disciples are the on-going manifestation of the living Christ who incarnated the living God. Christ did not leave the world a book; he left the world a Church who wrote a book. The personal God revealed himself in a person and continues to reveal himself in persons, Christ’s body, the Christian Church, you and I.
The story is told of the risen Christ looking down from heaven as the Holy Spirit falls upon the apostles at Pentecost. Next to him stands the archangel Gabriel. Christ says, “Now it begins.” Gabriel says, “There are not very many of them, Lord.” “They will bring others,” Christ says. “They are not very well trained, Lord.” “I did the best I could in the time I had,” Christ says; “now they will have the Holy Spirit to guide and empower them.” “But what if they fail?” Gabriel asks. “I trust they will not fail,” Christ says. Gabriel persists, “But what if the do fail? What is your back-up plan?” Christ replies, “I have no other plan.”
“Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16 ).
9 February 2014
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, TX Isaiah 58:1-9 Psalm 27:1-7, 9 I Corinthians 2:1-12 Matthew 5:13-20 Hymns: 419, 488, 505 & This little light of mine, 690
I spent the summer of 1961 working in East Africa. While walking down the street in Mombassa, Kenya one day I saw a leper sitting on the sidewalk begging. I was twenty years old and not used to such sights. Not wanting to look at him too closely, I dropped a couple of shillings into his hand as I walked by. Then I heard a sort of scrabbling sound and glanced back to see what it was. The coins had fallen off the man’s hand onto the sidewalk. He was trying to pick them up but could not because he had no fingers. I stood there transfixed with horror. I just barely forced myself to go back, pick up the coins and drop them into a purse the leper had. I really did not want to touch him. Have you ever felt untouchable?
I entirely understand the revulsion ancient Israelites felt for leprosy. They used the term to refer not only to Hansen’s Disease but also to a number of other ailments like psoriasis, leucodermia and ringworm, all of them disfiguring to one degree or another. In the nodular type of leprosy proper “lumps form in the skin of the face, and the general thickening of the tissues produces a characteristic lionlike appearance” (The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible Vol. K-Q p. 112a). In the anesthetic type, “depigmated areas of the skin, in which there is no feeling, result from the thickening of the nerves… Perforating ulcers may also be present on the feet, while portions of the extremities frequently necrose and fall off” (Ibid p. 112b). Hence the lack of fingers on the man I saw. Many lepers have a combination of the two types. They could look repulsive. Have you ever felt like a leper?
Leprosy is caused by the bacillus mycobacterium leprae discovered by G. A. Hansen in 1873. But no effective treatment for it appeared until the late 1940’s (). First century Jews had no idea how to treat it. And the purpose of Old Testament law is the protection of the community not the individual. Hence lepers were ostracized. They were forbidden entrance into Jerusalem or any walled town. They had to live outside camps or villages. Leviticus specifies that “the leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry ‘Unclean, unclean’” (13:45) to warn others who came near them.
The leper who “came to Jesus begging him” (Mk. 1:40) was in violation of this law. Instead of crying “unclean,” he cried, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” He had that combination of desperation and faith which leads to salvation. What do you do about your own uncleanness? Ours is not likely to be physical. Though millions have died of leprosy down through the ages, it is now on the wane. The World Health Organization reports only 407,791 new cases worldwide in 2004, most of them in Africa and India. Moreover leprosy is easily treated with a combination of drugs. You and I will not suffer from leprosy. In the old Prayer Book the Prayer of Humble Access contained the petition “grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood” (1928 BCP p. 82). The new book drops the first petition because in fact our bodies are not sinful, nor are they dirty. Our problem is not skin deep; it is more profound than that.
My first year in seminary I did field work at St. Ann’s of Morrisania, a slum parish in the Lower East Bronx. The priest there told me, “These people are easy to minister to. Their problems are all on the surface. Everyone knows who the drunks are, who the gamblers are, who is out of work or short of cash. The problem you will have in the suburbs is that everyone looks great. They are all scrubbed and shiny. The problems are below the surface.” You and I dress up well. Our leprosy of the spirit does not require that we wear torn clothes or go about crying “Unclean” though we may feel like crying that sometimes. What do we do with our illness of the spirit? We make such a good appearance that we may do it even to ourselves, not allowing ourselves to see what we wish were not there. If awareness of our illness crashes in upon us, we may make the opposite error of not believing any help can be had. Desperation without faith is despair, the deadliest of all the deadly sins. The leper St. Mark mentions was desperate enough not to keep his required distance and he had faith enough to come to Christ.
In the Second Book of Kings we read of another leper, Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army. He hears that a prophet in the neighboring country of Israel can heal him and he is desperate enough and believing enough to travel all the way south to find Elisha. But he almost misses out on his cure because what the prophet tells him to do is so simple that Naaman almost does not obey him (v. II K 5:1-15). I think of all the people I know, most of all myself, who are willing to go to great lengths and to great expense to rid themselves of various kinds of spiritual leprosy. Some read books endlessly, some pay thousands of dollars to psychiatrists, some go to weekends and seminars learning how to be their own best friend. But we are not our own best friends. Christ is. Many of us will do anything to be healed, anything except come to Christ and kneel before him and ask to be healed and obey him. To come to Christ is humiliating, to believe in him risks disappointment, to obey him is to act publicly on our faith and risk being seen as a fool.
To a first century Jew hearing of Christ’s encounter with the leper, the most amazing part would have been Jesus’ response: “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him…” (Mk. 1:41 NRSV). He touched him. He touched the untouchable. And the unclean man was cleansed and made whole. There is no time when we may not come to Christ. He will never tell us, “You should have come yesterday” or “You must come back tomorrow.” Now is the acceptable time and all occasions invite his mercies. There is no sin so serious that Christ will reject us because of it. He who bore and forgave the sin of those who nailed him to the cross, will have mercy on us as well. I once called upon a man who was staying away from church because he did not feel worthy to be there. He told me he would come back when he got his act together. I told he did not need to come if he could get his act together. We are all here because we are not all there.
As has been often said, the Church is not a hotel for saints but a hospital for sinners. The Church is also the Body of Christ. Jesus was willing to heal the leper because of his pity; he was able to heal because of his faith. By “faith” I mean his God-centeredness. His mind was so focused on God, his heart so open to him, his will so perfectly obedient that he became a perfectly pure conduit through which God could exercise his infinite power. Thus was God incarnate in human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. We, the Church, collectively are the ongoing Incarnation. Our calling is to put ourselves, our souls, at God’s disposal as the Master did, and above all, to have mercy.
Do you know a leper? Who are the lepers of today? Different groups have been untouchable from time to time. Gays were. Probably pedophiles are today. Sex offenders who have served their time must, in many places, register. They almost have to ring a bell before them and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” Think of the most repulsive person you know. Have mercy on his soul. Thus you will save your own. Our soul’s health is all-important because when we die a short time hence, our soul is all that we take with us into eternity. I have been speaking about how to receive the wreath St. Paul spoke of (I Cor. 9:25).
February 12, 2006
St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Houston, TX
I Kings 5:1-15b Psalm 42 I Corinthians 9:24-27 Mark 1:40-45
Hymns 546, 658, 693, 552
I have been reading a murder mystery. I have noticed over the years that a great many Episcopalians read mysteries. Also, I ran across this passage which may explain our attraction: “All mysteries are an overflow of the religious instinct. They promise transcendent experience of the numinous, the feeling of awe and reverence in the presence of the unknown. In a sense therefore, all mysteries are universal” (R. Cavendish, Encyclopedia of the Unexplained).
My wife read all the Harry Potter books. What accounts for the attraction these books have for millions of readers around the world? They are charmingly written for one thing. But the premise of the books is also intriguing namely that there is an alternate, supernatural, world intermixed with our own. More precisely there are wizards living in the midst of us muggles, ordinary people. They look just like us but are endowed with supernatural gifts. Is this premise any more fantastic than that put forth by many theoretical physicists today that we live in a ten dimensional universe? They claim that there are six other dimensions curled up within the four familiar ones of height, length, breadth and time.
The Bible also sees parallel worlds, natural and supernatural, but pictures them as layered one on top of the other, earth here, heaven above. Later theologians and saints have seen the layers as oversimplified, too cut-and-dried. The supernatural world, they say, is not just above the natural one but beneath it as well, and all around it, interpenetrating it, within it like those extra dimensions. Even the Old Testament senses this. Isaiah heard the seraphs singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:1). St. Paul said, “Ever since the creation of the world, His invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rms. 1:20). The muggles, and the wizards are the same people but most of us are not aware of being wizards, not conscious of our supernatural gifts. The glory of God is all around us but not usually visible to our dulled sight. In rare moments our vision becomes clear and we see things as they really are. Those moments we call epiphanies, or revelation.
The Season after the Epiphany celebrates various ways in which Christ’s divinity shines forth through his humanity. The season always culminates with the Transfiguration which celebrates the moment when scales fell from three disciples’ eyes and they beheld Christ as he really was. The Greek, Russian and other Orthodox Churches set great store by the Transfiguration. They regard it as one of two occasions in the New Testament when all three persons of the Holy Trinity manifest themselves. The Holy Spirit is the cloud that overshadows them (Lk. 9:34). God the Father speaks from the cloud, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him” (Lk. 9:35). God the Son is manifest in the body of Jesus becoming illumined with the uncreated light, the divine glory.
There are many icons of the Transfiguration. All of them have the same basic structure. There are six figures. Christ stands radiant upon the mountain. To his right stands Moses holding the Ten Commandments; to his left stands Elijah with his prophetic scroll. Both can bear to look upon the glorified Christ because both had been privileged to receive revelations of God’s glory on Mt. Sinai. Moses did when he ascended the mountain to receive the tablets of the law which he holds in the icon, the Law of which Moses becomes the symbol. Elijah, the greatest prophet, who symbolizes all the prophets, had fled to Sinai when Queen Jezebel was out to kill him. He hid in a cleft of the rock and God appeared to him in a “still small voice”, God’s appearance having been announced by tornado, earthquake and fire. These two godly men became themselves illumined by the uncreated light of God’s glory so much so that when Moses descended the mountain, “the skin of his face shone” (Ex. 34:29) and he had to cover it with a veil so as not to frighten his comrades below. Peter, James and John appear in the icon as smaller figures below who have had to avert their faces from the splendor not having yet been purified by God’s grace. Nevertheless John saw enough to open his gospel with the words, “we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).
The glory of the Transfiguration is not just the revelation of divinity but that the divinity is revealed within Christ’s humanity and shows us the true nature of our own humanity. An Orthodox theologian has written: “The future transfiguration of the entire human nature, including that of the body, is revealed to us in the transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor… The whole body of Christ was transfigured, becoming, so to speak, the luminous clothing of his divinity… not only divinity appeared to men, but humanity also appeared in divine glory… According to the fathers, Christ showed to his disciples the deified state to which all men are called… Human nature when it comes into contact with grace remains what it is… Grace penetrates this nature, is united with it, and from this point on man begins to live the life of the world to come” (Leonid Ouspensky, The Theology of the Icon Vol. I pp. 159-160).
In commenting on the Rublev icon of the Transfiguration, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh wrote: “[It] shows Christ in the brilliancy of his dazzling white robes which cast light on everything around. This light falls on the disciples, on the mountain and the stones, on every blade of grass. Within this light, which is the divine splendor — the divine glory, the divine light itself inseparable from God — all things acquire an intensity of being which they could not have otherwise; in it they attain to a fullness of reality which they can have only in God” (The Time of the Spirit p. 220).
Thus at the Transfiguration we celebrate, not a distortion of reality but the revelation of reality. We do not have to infer Christ’s divinity with our mind but see it displayed before our very eyes. We see him as he really is, his divinity manifest in his humanity. And we see the essential nature of our own humanity created in the image and likeness of God. An orthodox hymn on this feast says,
Having gone up on the mountain, O Christ, with thy disciples,
Transfigured thou hast made our human nature,
Grown dark in Adam, to shine again as lightening,
Transforming it into the glory and splendor of thine own divinity.
(Ibid p. 221)
A catechism of the Russian Orthodox Church says this: “Only love and heart open to God, to his grace, and to that uncreated light which he gives to us, can make us like God. To be a saint is to be like God…All the saints acquired the Light of the Holy Spirit. That is why we represent them with halos… [Come into this church at night and you will see] merely dark and colorless windows. But if you wait patiently for the sun to rise, you will look with wonder as the stained glass windows gradually radiate with fire; each one assumes a particular color, just as each one of us will possess a unique brightness (I Cor. 15:35-58). We are like those stained glass windows: the sun which we need in order to acquire our true nature and to give full scope to our personality is the Holy Spirit, who offers Himself constantly to illumine us. Our task is to make ourselves transparent to this grace…” (The Living God: A Catechism for the Christian Faith, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Vol. I, pp. 90-91).
Matthew, Mark and Luke all have accounts of the Transfiguration but the Gospel of John, the only Gospel writer to be present at the Transfiguration does not. Or perhaps more accurately, John’s whole Gospel is a Transfiguration story. It is all about the glory of God present in Christ. The word “glory” of course means light. God’s glory is literally the envelope of light that surrounds God’s being. No mortal can see God. Moses and Elijah were permitted to behold his glory. In Christ God’s glory became incarnate in our flesh. In the first chapter John says, “The Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known (Jn. 1:14-18 NRSV). The glory of God revealed in Christ turns out to be his love revealed most extremely on the cross. Christ says, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself” (Jn. 12:32). His crucifixion is his exhalation; for there is the glory of God’s love most visible.
Let us therefore pay close attention to our Lord’s words to us: “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12). The light and substance of life turns out to be love. That is worth pondering throughout Lent.
10 February 2013
Redeemer Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Exodus 34:29-35 Psalm 99 II Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2 Luke 9:28-43 NRSV
Humility is not a virtue much cultivated by many. Princes especially have not been noted for their humility. The word “prince” derives from the Latin meaning “first citizen”; it was Augustus Caesar’s favorite honorific. Thus by his very title, a prince proclaims to the world “I am number one.” But there was once a Prince of Wales who had a measure of humility. Edward, the “Black Prince”, had distinguished himself at the Battle of Crecy and was admired by all. But he never lived to inherit the throne. Before he died in 1376, he dictated an inscription for his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral. In English translation it reads: “You who pass silently by here where this body rests, listen to what I would say to you were I able to speak. Such as you are, I used to be: you will become such as I am. I did not ponder on the idea of death whilst I was alive. On Earth I possessed great wealth with which I kept high state: lands, houses and great treasure, rich furnishings, horses, silver and gold. But now I am poor and wretched as I lie here in the dust. All my fine appearance is gone, my flesh is quite decayed. I inhabit a meager and narrow house. You would not credit that it is I if you were to see me now. You would fancy this could never have been any man, so utterly changed am I.”
The word “humility” comes from the Latin , which in turn derives from meaning “the ground, soil.” Humility is the awareness that we are but dust and unto dust shall return. It is a liberating awareness. I have on my office wall a sign which reads: “Do not feel totally, personally, irrevocably responsible for everything… that’s my job. Love, God.” I am not God. I am not in charge of everything. I am not the one who makes the world go round. I need not try to. I cannot even if I try. I am only human. The word “human” has exactly the same derivation as the word “humility”, namely , soil, the ground. Humility allows me to be grounded. Humility frees me to be human.
The humility which allows me to be human also allows God to be God in my life. Once I finally become lucid about the fact that I am not God, the way is clear for me to perceive the one who is God and to accept his authority, to rely upon his strength and to avail myself of his mercy. Humility is simply the acceptance of my finitude.
The liturgy of Ash Wednesday has two purposes. One is to remind us of our finitude; the other is to confess our sin. The two are not at all the same thing. God made us finite; he did not make us sinful. Finitude is part of God’s plan for us; sin is not. Finitude is an essential ingredient of my humanity; sin subverts my humanity. We need never be ashamed of our limitations (which is what finitude is); we should be ashamed of our sin. Shame is a good thing; it is the response of the spiritual health within us to the sickness within us just as pain is the response of our physical health to our physical sickness. Someone who is physically injured but feeling no pain is in shock and in mortal danger. The sinner who feels no shame is in spiritual shock and mortal danger.
As humility is the proper response to our finitude, repentance is the proper response to our sin. Both involve a turning away from false pride and a turning back to the God who made us and loves us and waits to receive us with open arms. It is an index of our sin that we are more ashamed to confess our sins than we were to commit them. But today we do confess them in the Litany of Penitence. Today we receive ashes upon our foreheads, a rite of mortification, to remind us of our mortality.
24 February 1993
Episcopal Church of Reconciliation
San Antonio, Texas
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 Psalm 103
II Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Hymns: 142, 411, 329, 143
We usually try to preach the Word of God from this pulpit, but, for a change of pace, this morning I offer a diabolical perspective on the events just described.
The New Testament calls me “ho diabolos,” literally “the slanderer” or, more familiarly, “the devil” (Mt. 4:1, 5, 8, 11). This title is related to another one, “the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). I don’t like ho diabolos very much; nobody likes to be called a liar. I like my other title better: ho satan (Mt. 4:10). It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? It means “the adversary” of God and man, “the obstructer,” “the twarter.” But I don’t stand on ceremony; drop the the; just call me “Satan.”
We haven’t been formally introduced but you know me; I know you very well. I know all your weaknesses; it is I who encourage you to indulge them. It is I who make sin look attractive. I will seek to undermine any spiritual discipline you undertake. I am the sponsor of vice. I offer the next drink to the alcoholic and assure him that alcohol is his best friend. I offer the gambler the chance to play double or nothing. Hey, there’s a new winner every day. Anything destructive I trick out in the latest fashion and sell it by the carload and not cheap either. People don’t respect anything that’s free. God with his grace hasn’t figured that out yet. I put a premium on my poison and people think they’re going first glass. I’m good at marketing if I do say so myself.
In all honesty I can’t claim credit for all the sin in the world. A lot of folks don’t need my help at all. The souls of the Mafiosi just fall into hell of their own weight like rotten fruit off a tree. They make a splat when they land. They stink the place up if you want to know the truth. The Holy One mourns them all as if they were all of equal value, but I have better taste. I know garbage when I see it. That is why I don’t spend much time in hell. I prefer striding about the earth seeking suckers. Peter warned, “Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (I Peter 5:8 KJV). He should know. The enemy said he was going to build his church on this “rock”( Mt. 16:18); next thing you know I’ve got him denying he even knows the guy (Mt. 26:69-75). Some rock, huh?
You may wonder why I seek souls if I don’t value most of them. To deprive the enemy of them of course! I admit to having something of a dog-in-the-manger attitude. The fun is in the game itself not the prizes. About the prizes, I don’t give a damn (pardon my French).
As I was saying, I have values. The sins of the flesh are a bit boring. Some humans live as if they were just dogs and cats with clothes on. Gluttony, lechery, sloth do not need much help from me. It is mildly amusing when I see a human using his higher nature solely in the service of his lower one, using his intelligence, creativity, and freedom just to get more food, sex and indolence. But the sins of the flesh are a bit crude for my taste. I am after all a purely spiritual being.
Call me a snob but it is the sins of the spirit that excite me. Pride and despair are my favorites. They are my one-two punch. Set’em up and knock’em down. I whisper to each that he is special, above the law, that he can take what’s his and what’s yours also. Then, when he is caught, exposed, humiliated, I tell him he is despicable and suggest that suicide would be an appropriate exit. I had such fun with kings in the old days. Shakespeare caught my act: “Within the hollow crown that rounds the mortal temples of a king, keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp, allowing him a little scene to monarchize, be feared and kill with looks; infusing him with self and vain conceit, as if this flesh which walls about our life were brass impregnable; and, humored thus, comes at the last, and with a little pin, bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!” (Richard the Second Act III, scene II lines 160-170).
Oh how I do run on; I mustn’t make you think me banal. I was about to say that you heard this morning of my most famous triumph when I got the Big Guy back for kicking me out of heaven. I had been an angel but decided I would rather be master than servant. Ambition is a good thing, right? So it didn’t turn out. Well live and learn I always say. But I got him back, right after the creation. When he finished his little handiwork on the sixth day, he rubbed his hands and said, “That is good; that is very good” (cf. Gen. 1:31). Next day he rested, so pleased with the little man and the little woman he had made (from the dirt if you please). Enter ho satan in the sinuous shape of a serpent. Scripture says I “was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made” (Gen. 3:1 NRSV). True of course but not much craft was called for. I told Adam and Eve they could be like gods; that’s about as subtle as a sledge hammer. It was like taking candy from a baby. Well, they were babes in the woods weren’t they?
You also heard of one of my minor setbacks. I should have won that one. Jesus gets baptized, has the Holy Spirit fall on him, hears God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17 NRSV). Powerful, right? I find folks are particularly vulnerable just after a big spiritual experience. There’s always a letdown. I call it “P. C. D. – Post Charismatic Depression.” So the guy goes into the desert to figure out what a Son of God does for a living. He fasts. I bide my time. Then when he is famished, maybe a little light-headed, I sidle up to him and say, “Listen, if you are really the Son of God, why don’t you turn these stones into bread? There sure are a lot of hungry people out there.” I didn’t mention that he could eat some of the bread himself. Pretty crafty, huh? And the guy quotes Scripture at me! “One does not live by bread alone” (Mt. 4:4)
Then I take him to the pinnacle of the temple and say, “ you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written…” (Mt. 4:6). I quoted Scripture at him. Is that subtle or what? I was doing him a favor. He could have been the most popular guy in Palestine. Feed the natives and over-awe them; give them bread and circuses. He proof texts me again: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Mt. 4:7).
Then I cut to the chase and take my best shot. I show him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor and say, “All these I will give you if you will fall down and worship me” (Mt. 4:9). I was offering him unlimited wealth and political power. I wasn’t telling him what to do with them. He could have done lots of good. Millions of politicians and business leaders have jumped at that deal. And the guy turns me down! God puts Adam in a garden with a woman and lots to eat and I have him pinned to the mat in ten seconds flat. I jump Jesus in the desert when he is hungry and tired and lose. Go figure. I lost the bout with Jesus but he really was tempted. If you want to know how much, just think about the little prayer he taught his followers. Of all the thousands of things he could have put into it, he included, “Lead us not into temptation”
“If you are the Son of God…” (Mt. 27:40) the next time he would hear that taunt, he would be hanging from a cross. I assailed him in Gethsemane; I assailed him in the Praetorium; I assailed him on Calvary but it was really out of spite. I knew I had lost after that desert bout.
But don’t think I have gone out of business; I have gotten my licks in on his followers ever since. And I don’t mean the phonies and hypocrites who only pretend to follow him. I mean his serious followers, the would- be saints. Those are the souls worth stealing. And I do every day.
Well, got to go. Hey, catch you later.
March 9, 2014
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Genesis 4:2b-9, 15-17, 25- 3:7 Psalm 51 Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11 Hymns 150, 142, 688
One of the more disturbing experiences of my life occurred the first time I went on a contemplative retreat nineteen years ago. I went to Laity Lodge, near Leakey, Texas, for a week long directed retreat. The director gave talks during the day. At night we were in silence until breakfast the next morning. The last day was spent entirely in silence — a new experience for me. The director’s talks were graceful. The problem came in the silences at night. Then, alone in my room, I found myself assaulted by a voice of unremitting criticism and condemnation. I considered very carefully whether this might be the voice of God. I decided it could not be because, though the criticisms were accurate enough, the voice lacked any trace of mercy. It was also not the voice of my human father who had high standards but never spoke to me like this. It was the voice of someone who knew me well and wished me ill. It was the voice of Satan. It is very disturbing to go off to be alone with God and find oneself alone with Satan instead.
Jesus had this experience. It happened immediately after he had been baptized and heard God say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk. 1:11 NRSV). Full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus goes into the desert to be alone with his loving Father; he finds Satan instead.
Twenty years ago I did not believe the word “Satan” named anything real. I still am not a dualist; I do not believe that there is a cosmic power opposite and equal to God. And I wonder why God, being more powerful than Satan, does not destroy him. Of course I also wonder why God does not destroy certain human beings like Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein. Perhaps he does not believe in capital punishment. I do but perhaps he does not. I would like to tell you the Church’s definitive teaching about Satan but there is none. We have a doctrine of God and of Christ and the Holy Spirit — these were worked out by the councils and are embedded in our creeds. There is no equivalent doctrine of Satan. We understand grace but have always found evil baffling. Where does it come from? Why does it persist? Why do we tolerate it, indeed perpetuate it, when it is so clearly destructive? No one really knows.
What seems clear to me is that we live in a world, which is dangerous spiritually as well as physically. We can get into enormous trouble and not just by deliberately doing things that we know are wrong. Evil can be made attractive. We can be tempted. And we have a tempter, whom tradition names “Satan.” He knows the characteristic weakness of each of us and will offer us numerous opportunities to be undone by it. He suggests to the man who is ashamed that he can redeem himself by committing suicide. He offers the compulsive gambler the opportunity to play double or nothing. He offers a drink to the alcoholic. He is cunning, baffling and powerful.
Members of Alcoholics Anonymous counsel each other to avoid becoming hungry, angry, lonely or tired; for that is when we are most vulnerable. Jesus had fasted forty days; he was hungry. The memory of that hunger and his awareness of all the hunger around him would implant in the prayer he composed the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Lk. 11:3).
In the beginning, at the creation. Adam was put in a Garden where he only had to put out his hand to pick food off the trees. His material needs were provided for. But he was unsatisfied and because he did not cleave to God, he lost everything.
Adam was placed in a garden surrounded by food and accompanied by a mate but he fell the first time he was tempted. Jesus was placed in a wilderness alone and hungry yet he withstood all the wiles of the devil. Thus we call him the new Adam. In the wilderness he began the reclamation of human nature. Do I believe in the devil? I do not believe there is a figure with horns, hoofed feet and a tail. The force that assailed Jesus was invisible. The arena of Christ’s temptations was his own heart and mind and soul. I have been there. I have met the tempter many times and been his victim more times than not. I have met him immediately after some great experience of grace like a Cursillo weekend or a Sunday Eucharist or a retreat. I think Satan is especially eager to undermine such experiences by doubt or to pervert them into selfishness. My wife once chided me for saying that Satan gains but little when he pockets the soul of one more Mafiosi, her point being that all souls are precious to God. True, but the souls of Nazis and thugs present no challenge to Satan. I think he breaks out the champagne when he succeeds in seducing the soul of one of Christ’s disciples on the road to sanctity.
The Season of Lent we now enter seeks to make us aware of our sin in order that we not be undone by it. You and I do not live in the Garden of Eden. We sometimes find ourselves in the wilderness. It is good to know that Christ preceded us there. His own experience was harrowing enough that he taught his disciples to pray: “Lead us not into temptation” (Lk. 11:4). It is easier to avoid temptation than to withstand it. When tempted, we have God’s spirit to sustain us. Temptation is not itself a sin. Jesus “was in every way tempted as we are yet did not sin; by [his] grace we are able to triumph over every evil” ( p. 346). And even when defeated, we have God’s mercy to forgive us and set us upon our feet again.
16 February 1997
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston Texas
Dt. 26:5-11 Luke 4:1-13
As most of you know my mother has ovarian cancer. Someone said to me, “Don’t you get mad at God sometimes?” I do but not about this. God offers us eternal life but that life is not this life. If mother does not die of the cancer, she will die of something else. She is eighty years old and has had a wonderful life. If I live to be eighty, I will count myself very fortunate indeed. If I die tomorrow, I will have no complaint. I have earned none of the fifty-one years of life already given me. Who am I to complain if I am not given more of what I never deserved to begin with?
I would be more inclined to get mad at God because Marie Jones, in her forties, has scleroderma and Alan Riley, in his thirties, has leukemia. I would be very angry if I thought God caused these diseases. But I do not think he did. About Alan, someone said to me, “It really makes you wonder what God has in mind.” I think I know what God has in mind because he has told us. He wants health for us in this life and then eternal fellowship with himself. Illness is an aberration. If illness were God’s will, Jesus would not have spent so much time healing people.
If God does not will for people to get sick, why do they get sick? The question assumes that God’s will is always done. But all kinds of things happen contrary to God’s will. He told us “Love thy neighbor as thyself”; yet people are murdered in San Antonio every week. Murders, theft, rape, cruelty — none of those are part of God’s plan. I am amazed that our bodies, as complicated as they are, work as well as they do. Our bodies, which God makes, work better for longer than the much simpler automobiles, which we make. Our bodies work amazingly well but sometimes things go wrong.
Modern medicine can do wonders to repair damage to our bodies. That doctors can saw through a person’s sternum and take veins out of his leg and use those to make new arteries for his heart, and sew him up and that person live is almost unbelievable to me. I would not believe it possible did it not actually happen every day. But medical science cannot cure everything. The power of God’s grace working through the channels of our prayer can accomplish miracles, which astound the doctors. I have heard enough stories from enough people to have no doubt in the power of prayer. But sometimes healing is not possible. And when someone dies before his time, it does not mean that God willed it or that not enough people prayed for him or that the doctors messed up or that the victim himself did not have enough faith. Let us not rationalize other people’s suffering in order to make life look less tragic than it is. There is not a one-to-one correlation between doing the right thing and having things go well. Life is unfair.
We want life to make sense. When tragedy befalls us we almost instinctively ask “What did I do wrong?” This is a particularly seductive question because we always have done something wrong. In the First Century, the traditional theology was precisely that God prospered those who did the right thing and punished those who did the wrong thing. So when an accident happened to someone, all his neighbors wondered what he had done to deserve it.
In this morning’s second reading, Jesus was listening to some folks gossiping about a couple of recent incidents. One of them was precipitated by the Roman governor’s decision to take some of the Temple treasury to pay for an aqueduct Jerusalem needed. Some Jews got up in arms about the expropriation. A mob gathered. Governor Pilate instructed the soldiers to mingle in disguise among the crowd and then attack them. There was what today we would call a “police riot” and many in the crowd were killed. Precisely because the killing was at random, the theological question arose in the popular mind, “Why do you suppose those particular people were killed?” In the other incident, a tower in Siloam had collapsed, killing eighteen people. “I wonder what they had been doing wrong.” Jesus spoke up, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No… Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No…” (Lk. 13:2-5 RSV). Jesus thus contradicted the theology of his day. Let us listen to him and not minimize others’ tragedies to comfort ourselves that life is fairer than it really is.
Having thus offended some good folks by contradicting their theology, Jesus offends them yet further. “Those people who died were not more sinful than anyone else” he said “but unless you repent, you will all likewise die” (Lk. 13:3, 5 RSV). Life is unfair but it is not as unfair as we sometimes think. If I who smoke get lung cancer, that will not be unfair. I have been warned often enough. If you hardly ever do your homework and flunk your course, that is not unfair. If you cut school six times in a year and get kicked out, that is not unfair. If you break the law and go to jail, that is not unfair. If you show up at work drunk and get fired, that is not unfair. If you do not try to make friends and wind up with none, that is not unfair. If you are a selfish, inconsiderate person who takes and does not give and you die alone, unloved and un-mourned, that will not be unfair. It will not be unfair but it will be tragic because it is not what God had in mind for you.
What God wills for us is health and love in this life and eternal fellowship with him in the next. God’s will can be thwarted by two things. One is finitude. Our bodies are breakable and things can go irreparably wrong with them before they are due to die off. But we can survive physical death. Ultimately, the greater problem is sin, the other thing that thwarts the will of God. We reach our physical peak in our twenties; our bodies then begin a long, slow slide into the grave. But our spirits can keep growing throughout and beyond our lives on this planet. The great tragedy is sin, the self-destructive selfishness that poisons our spiritual lives. That is a danger to all of us. That is the danger Jesus warns of in telling all those around him indiscriminately, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise die.”
Repentance is a turning away from evil and toward God. Both aspects of this turning about are necessary. One cannot really come to God without renouncing, as the Prayer Book puts it, “all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God,” “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God”, and “all sinful desires that draw [us] from the love of God” ( p. 302). But we can become so disheartened by the evil around us and so paralyzed by the evil within us that “we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves” ( p. 167). Then we are at a crucial fork in the road. We can turn in upon ourselves in despair. Curled thus in upon ourselves we can receive neither love nor help from outside. Thus despair leaves us in a state of deadly helplessness. The alternative is to summon all our spiritual strength to turn outward toward God. This turning, this repentance, whether done in hope or desperation, is the act of faith asked of those being baptized. “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?” “Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?” ( p. 302).
We need never be helpless because Christ is always standing beside us saying, in the words of Mercedes Sosa, “Who said that everything is lost? I come to offer my heart” (CD ). When I get cancer, whether tomorrow or when I am eighty, I hope I will never lose hope. I hope to turn to the ever-present Christ and accept his offer. I hope to have the faith to ask for healing and to have faith finally to place my hand in his and walk with him, hand in hand, across the Jordan River to the Promised Land “where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting” ( p. 499).
22 March 1992
Episcopal Church of Reconciliation, San Antonio, Texas
I Corinthians 10:1-13 Luke 13:1-9
Hymns 690, 685, 329, 662
“[Jesus] saw a man blind from birth” (Jn. 9:1 NRSV). How often we walk by human misery without seeing it. We avert our gaze. When I lived on a dirt road in a suburb of Guadalajara, Mexico I tried to look straight ahead not noticing the beggars, the poverty, the misery all around me that would ruin my day. But Jesus saw the blind man.
The disciples saw him too. Who was to blame, they immediately wanted to know. They were not going to blame God for his disability. They did not know about rubella. Chance was not part of the intellectual vocabulary of first century Palestinians. So if a bad thing had happened to this man, it had to be his fault or that of his parents. The Church has often wondered about the origin of the evil in the world and people outside the Church often ask us about it. I have never heard an explanation I find very satisfactory. Jesus himself does not explain evil; he conquers it. We too often speculate about the causes of poverty as a substitute for doing anything about it. Jesus tells his followers that the man’s blindness is an opportunity to show the healing power of God. Human misery in general is, in Father Nutter’s words, an opportunity for ministry.
Then Jesus heals the man. This is the most obvious but important fact in the story. Jesus does not say, “It does not matter that the man is blind. The body is not important; only the spirit is important. I am a man of God. I am not concerned with physical things; I only care about spiritual things.” God created us body and soul and pronounced his creation good (v. Gen. 1:31). God loves us body and soul. Jesus not only taught the multitudes, he fed them (v. Jn. 6). That is why we feed upwards of two hundred hungry people on our patio every morning Monday through Friday. We cannot have a merely spirit-to-spirit relationship with each other. Suppose I tried to communicate with you just spiritually. Let’s try it. [Silence] Did you get that? It is sometimes said that Christianity is a spiritual religion that opposes the materialism of this world. That sets up a misleading dichotomy. We are not a spiritual religion; we are an incarnational religion. You and I are flesh animated by spirit and spirit embodied in flesh. We worship God with our bodies as well as in spirit. We stand; we sit; we kneel. We have smells and bells. We have color, movement, music, beauty and buildings. The gospel that distinguishes us from every other religion is that of the Incarnation. God came among us in the flesh, to be with us man to man, face-to-face, heart to heart, mano a mano. So Jesus does not just proclaim that he is the light of the world (v. 5), he enables this man to see the light. He heals him.
How does he do it? Was the healing power in Jesus’ spittle? In the mud he made? In his touching the man’s eyes? In the pool of Siloam? Was the healing power in Christ’s love as such? I do not know but I know that God loves us body and soul. That is why the Episcopal Church founded St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital across the street. It is why Palmer Church is going to complement the world’s largest Medical Center by creating a Health and Spirituality Center on this campus this year. It is why we have a healing Eucharist every Wednesday evening. It is why we have monthly lunches with speakers on health and spirituality topics. We have been reapprehending the wholeness of persons in our lifetime. Our physical health affects our spiritual vitality and vice versa. Science has discovered that prayer and meditation help healing; so, we have a contemplative prayer group that meets here on Monday afternoons. Several of the hospitals offer things like yoga. One of the first ministries of our Health and Spirituality Center will be to list and cross reference all the wellness activities that are offered throughout the Medical Center and neighboring institutions. People will be able to access it from any where in the world.
Most of the characters in this morning’s story are arguing about sin. The disciples want to know who sinned, the blind man or his parents. The Pharisees are accusing Jesus of being a sinner because he healed someone on the Sabbath and they tell the formerly blind man that he was born in sin. While others are arguing, Jesus is doing ministry. Many churches spend too much time arguing about sin and about who is a sinner. What we are called to do is ministry. Ministry is what Palmer is all about. We are seeking to raise the enormous sum of seven million dollars to better house the ministries we are now doing and to start others. Our education space will double. Space for our youth ministry will double. And we will reach out to the surrounding community in ministry, to the Medical Center and to Rice. As the ministries of Palmer and Autry House have recently been joined so will our buildings be by a new building that will connect us. The new bridge building will be an important symbol but it will be more than that. It will embody Christian ministry. As our flesh embodies our spirits, so will the building embody the spiritual activities that will vitalize it and God’s people who come here.
What will be the pay off for the seven million dollars we will spend? What is the pay off of all the ministries that will take place in our new and renovated buildings? Let us return to the gospel. While various crowds are milling about arguing about sin, two individuals stand out. One is Jesus the healer. The other is the man who was healed. They seek to drag him into the argument and tell him that Jesus is a sinner. He has a simple reply, “’Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know… All I know is this: once I was blind, now I can see’” (Jn. 9:25 NEB). The payoff is someone’s experience of the grace of God. Here is the witness that will convert the world, people who can say, “Once I was lost. I came here and now I am found. I was blind but now I see” (cf. hymn 671).
10 March 2002
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
I Samuel 16:1-13
John 9:1-38 Hymns 493, 671
“Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him and let him go’” (Jn. 11:44 NRSV). But what binds us?
In my younger days I thought my bondage was external. For the first thirteen years of my life my parents had me under their thumb. They would not let me do things I wanted to do and they made me do things I did not want to do. They were always treating me like a child. For the next four years of my life, I was oppressed by the faculty of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin. They told me what time to get up in the morning and what time to go to bed at night and where to be in between times. If I flunked a test or failed to do a homework assignment, they put me in a supervised study hall on Saturday afternoon when the other kids were having fun. If I broke some petty rule they put me on work crew on Saturday afternoon while the other kids were having fun. A major reason I went to Harvard College was that the Harvard recruiter told us there were almost no rules there. You could drink and smoke and stay up as late as you liked. Whether you even went to class or not was your own decision. And it all turned out to be true. I could cut class and nobody cared; for that matter, I could have flunked out and nobody would have cared.
My external bondage was at an end. From then on I got to confront the enemy within: ignorance, laziness, fear, and the false pride that prompts one to pretend to know more than he does and to refrain from asking questions lest he appear stupid. In all the years since, my most deadly enemies have all been internal not external, spiritual, not physical: anger, greed, sloth, lust, envy, gluttony, false pride and (deadliest of all) despair.
When Israel was a youth, he also saw his enemies as being physical, external ones. The event that formed Israel as a nation was their liberation from bondage in Egypt. The event that was the backdrop for this morning’s Old Testament lesson was the physical destruction of the Israelite state by the Babylonian Empire. The prophet Ezekiel found himself in Babylon in rather grim circumstances. Jerusalem had been destroyed; the temple was a heap of rubble. When such a thing happened in the Ancient Near East, the defeated nation’s god was considered defeated, defunct and the people assimilated to the religion, culture and language of their conquerors. That is what happened, for example to the Philistines who had been a mighty opponent of Israel. They were overrun by various folk and eventually just ceased to be Philistines. The same thing happened to the Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, Jebusites, Canaanites and all the other ites. They were not annihilated in battle; they were spiritually annihilated by defeat. That was obviously what was in store for the Israelites with their capital in ruins, their leaders killed, the guts of their faith ripped out, their culture and identity laid low. If you had been the historical score keeper in 586 BC, keeping track of the emergence and disappearance of nations, this is the time you would have crossed Israel off your list.
But you would have been wrong. For it was just about this time that the prophet Ezekiel stood up in Babylon and said, “These bones gwina rise again.” It wasn’t that Ezekiel minimized the tragedy. He saw his people as dead, lying dismembered in the desert, their bones pickled clean by vultures, bleached white by the sun. He saw death all around him but he encountered something else as well, the Spirit of the living God. His people said, “We can’t go on anymore; we did the best we could but we’ve been defeated, wiped out. There is nothing left to hope for, nothing left to live for.” Ezekiel said, “I had a vision. The hand of the Lord was upon me and he set me down in the midst of a valley of bones. And he said, ‘Prophesy to these bones: “Behold I will cause breath to enter into you and you shall live and I will lay sinews upon you and bring up flesh upon you and cover you with skin and you shall live”’” (v. Ez. 37:1-6). Ezekiel was crazy of course. His vision was mad, fantastic, but he believed it. And there is something else, his people began to believe it and did believe it. And there’s something else: it happened. There came a day when Israel was back in business and the Babylonian Empire was on history’s junk heap.
The Hebrew word translated ‘breath’ in this story is ru’ah which also means wind and also means spirit: vitality, the life force, the power of life, the courage to be. Paul Tillich says that the courage to be is the most basic manifestation of faith. When you really get down to basics, faith is the courage to choose life over death, to persevere in the midst of meaninglessness, to get up when the world has defeated you, to say “yes” not to the life you wish you had but to the only life you have been given to say “yes” to. God did not hold up the Hebrews in Babylon by magic and he did not do it all by himself. God was there but so was Ezekiel. The Hebrews were upheld by two things: their faith and God’s Spirit. The two go together..
In Jesus’ day Israel was once more under external oppression, this time from Rome. Most Israelites regarded that as their main problem and looked for a messiah to throw off the Roman yoke. Jesus disappointed such hopes. He saw beneath the apparent and beyond the dimensions of this mortal life. He said, “I tell you friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more” (Lk. 12:4 NRSV). Physical death can be survived if, in the meantime, we have not died spiritually as well. Our deadliest enemies are internal and spiritual.
This Lent we have been reading of some of Jesus’ miracles. This morning we read of the greatest of them all, his raising of Lazarus. But all of Jesus’ physical miracles are but parables of something unseen but more real: the life of the human spirit. Three weeks ago we read of Jesus’ telling Nicodemus that he must be born again. His physical birth was fine for this world but he must be born of the Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God (v. Jn. 3:1-8). Two weeks ago a conversation at a well led to his offering a Samaritan woman living water which would become in her a spring welling up to eternal life (v. Jn. 4:1-42). Last week the healing of a man born blind set up Jesus’ saying, “I am the light of the world” (Jn. 9). And today, Jesus’ temporary, physical revival of Lazarus is but parable for the greater, on-going miracle: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (Jn. 11:25 NRSV). Those in fellowship with Jesus Christ already, now, in this life, participate in the eternal life of God.
The enemies of our physical lives, peace and prosperity are less deadly than the enemies of our spirit: wrath, envy, lust, sloth, avarice, gluttony, fear and, above all, despair. It is these which keep us in deadlier bondage. I know a woman who gets depressed a lot. No one knows why but her world just caves in on her from time to time. She tries to fight it off and sometimes she succeeds but other times she does not. Then she just lies down on her bed and sobs. But eventually there are no tears left and her body is exhausted. And then, then she is still in the same situation. She is still depressed and she still has her life to say “yes” or “no” to. It is not a pleasant life; it is full of pain and confusion at this point. But it is the only life that has been given her; it is that life and no other she must affirm or negate. There are many ways of saying “no” than putting a bullet through her head. She can become catatonic; she can live on valium; she can put a buffer of alcohol between herself and reality. She can try fleeing into fantasy. But she does not do any of that anymore. She chooses to get up off the bed and, having chosen, is given the strength to do so. She is still depressed mind you; that is her life at the moment. But she has the courage to be and is upheld by the Holy Spirit. She has risen; she walks and she endures and she prevails. And the power of death lies at her feet like Lazarus’ bandages.
There are tombs within the soul where our spirits lie enthralled. Into each of these the living Lord will enter and command, “Lazarus, come out!” And as we believe, as our spirits quicken and rally, we emerge squinting and stumbling, still hobbled by bandages of fear and confusion, incredulous that we are not alone, only half believing in our deliverance. The Lord says, “Unbind him and let him go” (Jn. 11:44).
April 10, 2011
Trinity Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Ezekiel 37:1-14 Psalm 130 Romans 8:6-11 John 11:1-45
Hymns 495, 249, 309, 335, 457
It is so terrible when a young person dies. He is not ready to die. He has not suffered all the little losses that prepare us for the great one – the gradual diminution of our hearing, our sight, our strength. As we age, the use of our bodies is taken from us bit by bit until we become ready to let go of the whole thing. We get worn out and tired out. Stewart Alsop wrote that a dying man needs to die the way a tired man needs to sleep. You almost have to go to war to get children to go to bed; they want to stay up all night. I love going to sleep. I am sixty-four. If I live long enough, maybe I will look forward to dying as I look forward to sleeping. I have seen people thus reconciled to their death. But Jesus died young.
And unique among the founders of the world religions, Jesus did not die a natural death. Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Mohammed all died in old age, surrounded by their devoted disciples, having witnessed the success of their endeavors. Jesus, deserted by his disciples after an aborted ministry of three years, was brutally executed. He died violently.
First he was arrested by Temple police, tried by the religious leaders of his own people and convicted of blasphemy. He had presumed to forgive sins, you see, something only God could do. I suppose these people thought they were protecting God by condemning Jesus but they were really just protecting their theology. God never needs protecting; our idols do. Each of us tends to have his own personal religion, which he will defend against all comers, even God. Has Jesus destroyed any of your notions of what God must be like? Has he contradicted any of your moral convictions? Has he disappointed your hopes for a savior to rescue you? Has he failed to live up to your expectations?
Then the religious leaders turned him over to the occupying authority and the Romans convicted him of fomenting insurrection by claiming to be a king. Then he was made to carry a crossbeam, as far as he could. Then he was nailed to it, officially executed on the lawful order of the governor.
. The images of Gibson’s movie The Passion of Christ are imprinted in my brain, seared into my soul, especially those of Christ being scourged. While one of the Roman soldiers was flogging him, the others were laughing because Jesus so failed to approximate in any way our notion of royalty. A king speaks the language in a certain way you could practice imitating for a long time and still give away your provincial origins. Jesus was provincial. A king has the finest clothiers in the world competing for the privilege of adorning his body. Jesus had only the clothes on his back and finally, on this day, had none at all. Kings are well born; Jesus was born out of wedlock. But most of all, for most of history, kings have had power. They have had money and style and soldiers and servants and manifold means of asserting their power over their subjects. They have had castles, bodyguards and armor to protect them and they have had dungeons, torture chambers and gallows to punish those who defied them.
What sort of power did Jesus have? Some say he stilled a storm. The Romans would think that sissy. Now if he could make a storm, that would be power. They say he healed some people. Oh really, how humanitarian. What did you say your friend’s name was? The Department of Health and Human Services has a Man of the Month award he might be eligible for. But power is the ability Chemical Ali of Iraq had to make people sick, give them a whiff of nerve gas, watch them flop around on the ground like sprayed roaches. Some say Jesus even raised a man from the dead. Fantastic. But we all know that power is the ability to kill. The world takes Barabbas’ side every time. If you think Americans spend a lot on doctors’ bills and give a lot to charity, check out what we spend on weapons every year. We are a generous people but the bottom line is survival.
Is it not strange that mortals are so concentrated upon what is at best only staving off the inevitable? This only makes sense if we do not really believe in an afterlife. Jesus did. That is just as well because he turned out to need all the faith he could get, as many of us will. Let us hope for his sake as well as ours that there is an afterlife because otherwise we have no hope of anything finally. A hundred years from now it is not going to matter a whole lot whether you were a great success or a hopeless drunk all your life. Unless you were a king, you will not be remembered by anyone in any case.
But Jesus is remembered. All these years later Jesus is still remembered. Jesus is remembered today by more people than existed on the face of the earth in his own day. The Roman governor who condemned him is remembered only because he did. The emperor in whose name Jesus was nailed to the cross, is known only to history students. Three hundred years later, the sign of that same cross was imprinted upon the brow of the Roman emperor at his coronation. For better than a thousand years thereafter that same cross was signed upon the forehead of any man who would be king in the Western world, after he had knelt and sworn allegiance to Jesus Christ, the King of Kings. Now, two thousand years later, the sign of that cross is signed upon the foreheads of millions throughout the world who, through it, receive the highest honor and dignity they will ever have, namely that they are “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s forever” (BCP p. 308).
The victory party is next Sunday but we are here today as well. We, his present day disciples, have not run away in this the hour of his agony. Though in many respects we conform our behavior to the ways of the world, we yet recognize in Jesus the embodiment of our highest aspirations and ideals. We need food, shelter and clothing and do what we must to obtain them but, in some inchoate way, our souls recognize in the outstretched arms of Jesus a divine response to our deepest need. Our hearts of their own accord pull us to the foot of the cross and cry out, “We will have this man to rule over us.” And we have the courage even now, do we not, to confess before the world that Jesus is indeed king. King of kings. And not just the king, but our king. Our lord. Our leader. Our gracious sovereign.
March 20, 2005
Matthew 21:1-11 Isaiah 45:21-25 Psalm 22:1-21
Philippians 2:5-11 Matthew 26:36 – 27:66
This supper became much more significant to the disciples later than it was at the time. At the time they did not know that the Last Supper was the last supper.
Only later, after Christ had been scourged and crucified did they realize the significance of Christ saying, “This is my body which is broken for you” (I Cor. 11:24 KJV). His words this night would echo in their minds later: “This cup is the new testament in my blood” (v. 25). Only after his body had been broken and his blood spilled upon the cross would they realize that he who was host at this Passover feast was also the very Paschal lamb himself whose blood, shed for us, will ward off the angel of eternal death. As St. John Chrysostom put it: “In those days (cf. Ex. 12:1-14a), when the destroying angel saw the blood on the doors he did not dare to enter, so how much less will the devil approach now when he sees, not that figurative blood on the doors, but the true blood on the lips of believers, the doors of the temple of Christ” (The Catecheses 3, 13-19).
His words, spoken this night, would echo and re-echo in their minds later. Only after reflection upon the preceding three years would the disciples realize that Christ’s words of self-offering “this is my body which is broken for you” were a fit epitaph for his entire ministry among them.
Only after his ascension would they realize that in washing their feet Christ was demonstrating not only his own humility, but God’s. On an earlier occasion, he had gently rebuked James’ and John’s desire to be his viceroys: “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you; but whomsoever will be great among you, let him be your minister. And whomsoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant” (Mt. 20:25f KJV). But how could they have then guessed that Jesus was modeling God’s own style of leadership? Only after the ascension, reflecting back upon the last supper would the disciples see that power is to be used for the service of others and that God himself both commands and exemplifies this fact.
The various words Christ spoke this night would echo in each disciple’s mind later. Only after the risen Christ forgave him and he had in his own ministry experienced the soul cleansing effects of baptism would Peter fully understand the words Christ had spoken to him: “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me” (Jn. 13:8 KJV).
The words that have echoed the longest and loudest down through the centuries to the present day are Christ’s words of institution: “Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you. This do in remembrance of me… This cup is the new testament in my blood. This do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me” (I Cor. 11:24f KJV). Only after having dined with the risen Christ, perhaps only after Pentecost and many Eucharists, did the disciples understand that in these words Christ was not only saying “I have been giving myself to you throughout my ministry and I shall give my life for you tomorrow” but also “I am now giving you my very life blood to drink, the very substance of my spirit to feed upon and I shall continue to so give myself to you as often as you do this forever.”
The Holy Eucharist is God’s means of giving himself to us continually. It is the means whereby we have intimacy with him week by week, century after century. And what could be more intimate than receiving another’s body into one’s own body, and his spirit into one’s own? The Holy Eucharist is the nearest God can come to making love to his holy bride the Christian Church. But it is a divine lovemaking. As Christ uses the word “love” to interpret the meaning of all his actions this night and previously and on the morrow, so his actions give content to the word “love.” It is something far deeper than romanticism and more terrible than eros, which Christ means in saying: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; continue ye in my love” (Jn 15:9 KJV). “I have given you an example, that ye should do, as I have done for you” (Jn. 13:15 KJV).
The Episcopal Church of Reconciliation, San Antonio, Texas
Exodus 12:1-14a Psalm 78
I Corinthians 11:23-26 John 13:1-15
Hymns: 329, 602, 606, 324, 171
Law and order are absolutely necessary. The physical sciences are largely an uncovering of the order of creation. Had not God decreed those laws of nature which Sir Isaac Newton and others discovered, there would have been no creation but mere chaos.
A human society can no more survive in chaos than can the universe as a whole. Faced with the choice between despotism and chaos, societies always opt for despotism because chaos is the absolute enemy. Even democratic societies must have law and order. All societies have laws proscribing murder, rape, theft and a myriad other acts deemed destructive.
Beyond these laws we need standards of all kinds. We need health standards to keep us from getting sick and to tell us when we are sick. We have aesthetic standards because we all recognize that not all art is good art. The poet, the novelist, the movie maker must see his work criticized; art depends upon discrimination as well as imagination. We need educational standards to set goals for learning and tests so that teacher and students may discern whether anyone is learning anything. All human endeavors have standards of success: all athletics does, all businesses do, all professions do. There are successful marriages and failed marriages. And the terms are not arbitrary. Failure and success are real.
We have standards of acceptability. None of us would wish for just any well-intentioned person to be admitted to the bar or licensed to practice medicine. Most social groups have a standard of acceptability. City and country clubs do; fraternities and sororities do; various societies do.
We need standards and law and order. But at the heart of them all lies a great grief. For the standard that pronounces some people acceptable, judges others unacceptable. Standards I may admire mean that I am rejected by the school I apply to or the woman I propose to. The bottom line which indicates my neighbor’s business is successful, shows mine to be a failure. The greatest pain is this: the standard which condemns me cannot redeem me. The aesthetic standard which judges me ugly cannot make me beautiful nor even hold out hope of how I can become beautiful. The diagnostic test which tells me I am sick cannot in itself heal me. The law which defines a criminal, which arrests, tries and convicts him, cannot redeem him. None of our laws, none of our standards, none of our ideals will leave their lofty spheres to stoop down and lift us out of the muck they judge us to be part of.
I want to talk about the day upon which you experience yourself to be a failure — the day on which you do not get the long sought promotion and realize that you never will get it. I refer to the day when after fifteen years of daily piano practice, with your heart set on one thing, you are told you are not good enough, and will never be good enough, to be a concert pianist. I mean the day you perceive that your marriage has failed or the day you are rejected by the person or sorority of club you have done everything you could to make yourself acceptable to. I have in mind the day when you commit an act you have always despised others for committing. I want to talk about the day toward the end of your life when you look back upon all that you have done and when the law by which you have lived, says that your entire life has been a failure. The things you worked for did not happen. You never became the person you wanted to be. And you can offer nothing to justify your existence before God or the rest of us or to yourself.
On that day you will experience a guilt and an humiliation which are immeasurable. If there is any act you can think of to atone for your failure, you will do it, but it will not be enough. If there were any way to make it up, you would follow it, but there will be no way. You will be tempted to embark upon a pattern of self-destruction in futile atonement, in vicious retribution, in unending punishment for your crime of failure.
It was especially to you that Jesus of Nazareth directed his ministry. It was you he sought. It was above all to the failures, the losers, the outcasts and the downcast that Jesus went. He went to the sick, not because he had anything against the healthy but because, as he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician” (Mk. 2:17 NRSV). And of course it was the sick who flocked to him. At the beginning of his ministry in Capernaum “at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons… And he cured many who were sick with various diseases” (Mk. 1:32, 34). Like them, we may come to Jesus especially in our sickness and find healing.
Jesus befriended women and children neither of whom had legal rights at the time. Jewish men were advised to speak little even to their wives, still less to other women. And no Jew before Jesus had dreamed of pointing to children as examples of faith for adults. Jesus rebuked his disciples’ attempt to protect him from the annoyance of children; he took children in his arms and blessed them. Jesus’ prohibition of divorce must be seen in light of the fact that any 1st Century Jewish man might divorce his wife simply by giving her a piece of paper telling her to get out. Jesus’ teaching was to protect the defenseless. It is especially in our weakness that we may come to Jesus for protection.
Jesus sought out the poor. It was not that Jesus disliked the rich and he certainly never advocated dispossessing them. But no one, including God, can give a gift to the man who has everything. “How blest”, Jesus said, “are those who know their need of God; the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs” (Mt. 5:3 NEB). Jesus brought blessing to the poor, the hungry, the mourning. It is especially in our need and hunger that we may come to Christ and be filled.
Jesus befriended even moral failures, the ones called sinners. He saved the woman taken in adultery (Jn. 8:3-11). He allowed a prostitute to anoint his feet (Lk. 7:36ff). He invited even tax collectors into his circle. These were “miserable sinners in the proper sense of the term, practicing a proscribed trade, odious cheats and swindlers, grown rich in the service of the occupying power” (Hans Kung, p. 271). Levi was such a sinner; Zacchaeus was another. Jesus invited Zacchaeus to dine with him and made a disciple of Levi. Jesus explanation for his behavior was that he had come to call sinners not the righteous to repentance (Mk. 2:17). But he did more than that; he offered forgiveness to sinners without a long recital of confession. He pointed to God’s own behavior as his authority for doing so. “What I tell you is this: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors; only so can you be children of your heavenly Father who makes the sun rise on good and bad alike and sends the rain on the honest and the dishonest” (Mt. 5:44-47 RSV). Jesus’ so-called parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15) is really a story in illustration of our heavenly Father’s forgiveness. Especially in our sinfulness, we may come to Jesus and find forgiveness. “Come unto me all ye who travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you” (Mt. 11:28 KJV).
All you who are sinners, all you who are failures, all who dispossessed, all who are weak, who are sick and diseased, all who are leprous come to Jesus and be accepted.
But perhaps all this sounds too easy. For we know our guilt; we know our shame; we know how unacceptable we are and cannot simply be talked out of it. Is the law which condemns us so easily set aside? Are all the standards which render us unacceptable so easily dispensed with? No, they are not. The standards are not dispensed with; the law is not set aside. The law exacts its punishment. It takes its pound of flesh.
Jesus sought out the sick and became identified with them and on this day is regarded as loathsome. He went out to the weak and identified with them and on this day is displayed as impotent for the entire world to see. He made common cause with the moral failures and was thereby discredited. “If this man were a prophet”, a Pharisee mused, “he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him” (Lk. 7:36ff NRSV). In the interest of love, Jesus even broke the Law himself. He allowed his disciples to pluck grain to eat on the Sabbath. He presumed to describe the Kingdom of God in terms different from those of the Mosaic Law. He presumed to call God his Father and even to speak to the failures of God as their Father. All this was blasphemy. But, most of all, he presumed to forgive sins directly and personally. Only God could forgive sins. So Jesus’ forgiveness was blasphemous in the extreme. And the law struck back at Jesus. The law arrested him; the law tried him; the law condemned him; the law crucified him.
All you failures, here upon the cross is failure personified. The price of your failure has been paid. Are you ugly? Here upon the cross hangs your representative: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2 NRSV). Are you a reject? Do you despise yourself? Do you account yourself despised by God and humans? Here upon the cross is your representative: “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity, and as one from whom others hide their faces; he was despised and we held him of no account” (Isa. 53:3 NRSV). You need no longer crucify yourselves; that has been done. Are you diseased in mind, body or estate? Here upon the cross is your representative: “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God and afflicted” (Isa. 53:4 NRSV). You need not add guilt to your suffering; God has removed your guilt and shares your suffering. Are you sinful? Have you committed adultery? Have you lied, cheated or swindled? Here upon the cross is your representative: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isa. 53:5 NRSV).
The law has exacted its penalty. The standards which condemn you have been appeased. Your acceptance has been won. Be ye therefore reconciled to God and to yourselves. If God accepts you, who dares condemn you (v. Romans 8:34)? Or is Christ’s suffering not enough for you? Are you so arrogant as to say that Christ’s sacrifice is insufficient for your sin? Are you in love with your guilt? Will you not this day surrender to Christ your bad debts which he has purchased with his blood? The cross is the length to which God has gone to remove between you and himself all obstacles to intimacy. Be ye therefore reconciled to God (v. II Cor. 5:20).
April 18, 2014
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, TX
Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 Psalm 22:1, 2, 7-8, 14-21 Hebrews 10:1-25
John 18:1 – 19:37 Hymns: 160, 166, 168 1977 words
People do terrible things to each other. The almost daily murders in Iraq done with merciless cruelty are contemporary examples. An ancient one is crucifixion which the Romans practiced precisely because of the prolonged agony and humiliation it entailed. Anyone who wishes to understand the importance of the diaconal ministry of giving voice to the voiceless need only notice the sorts of things people with power have done to people without power down through the centuries. No wonder that humans projected upon Almighty God a savage intent. No wonder that, even today, some people’s root response to God is fear. No wonder that the first words out of God’s messenger’s mouth are often “Don’t be afraid; I won’t hurt you.”
The story of our Lord’s birth is punctuated with this greeting. When the angel appeared to John the Baptist’s father, he said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard” (Lk. 1:13). Not long thereafter, Gabriel is saying “Do not be afraid, Mary, for God has been gracious to you…” (Lk. 1:30 NEB). Nine months later, shepherds abiding in the fields saw an angel and “they were sore afraid, but the angel said, `Fear not; for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people’” (Lk. 2:10 KJV).
Our Lord’s calling his disciples had to be cushioned by reassurances. After Jesus had directed him to the miraculous catch of fishes, Simon Peter “fell at Jesus’ knees and said, `Go, Lord, leave me, sinner that I am!’… `Do not be afraid,’ said Jesus to Simon; `from now on, you will be catching men’” (Lk. 5:10 NEB). Jesus was once asleep in a boat when a storm blew up. His disciples “woke him, saying, `Save, Lord; we are perishing.’ And he said to them, `Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?’” (Mt. 8:25f RSV). The antidote to fear is faith. A consistent theme of Jesus’ exhortation to his disciples was “Trust God. Fear not.”
But people do terrible things to each other. Men especially have done terrible things to women, as the Battered Women’s Shelter of any large American city will attest. Historically, women, being the more vulnerable sex, have been more cautious as well. None of the women who followed Jesus made the bold declaration Peter did: “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death” (Lk. 22:33 RSV). But in the event, Peter deserted Jesus. Some women, on the other hand, did not. Matthew tells us that “a number of women were… present [during the crucifixion], watching from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and waited on him. Among them were Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Mt. 27:55f NEB).
The women were witnesses to it all. They saw the doleful procession wend its way toward Golgotha, saw the nails being driven, the victims being hoisted aloft to hang by the nails in their wrists. They got to hear the screams, the taunts of the crowd, the cry of dereliction. They perhaps heard the various messages the men were delivering to each other. The Scribes and Pharisees were saying, “Here in the Middle East we take our theology very seriously.” The Roman message was nailed above Jesus’ head: “This is Jesus the King of the Jews (Mt. 27:37). And this is how the senate and people of Rome deal with national liberation movements. Now does anyone else want to be King of the Jews?” The message of the crowd that reviled him was more complex. It was something like this: “You trusted God. You told us to trust God and we almost believed you. You told us not to fear but look what has happened to you. Damn you for getting our hopes up. Damn you for being impotent” (cf. Mt. 27:40-43). God himself was silent on Good Friday. God does not speak until Easter.
Mary of Magdala and the other Mary, the witnesses, who have seen it all and heard it all, who have been faithful unto death and beyond death, come now to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. They find instead a messenger of God, his clothes snow white, his face like lightening. He delivers his message: “You,” he said, “have nothing to fear. I know you are looking for Jesus… He is not here; he has been raised again… Tell his disciples…” (Mt. 28:5-7 NEB). As the two of them hurried away, suddenly Jesus was there in their path. “Do not be afraid” (Mt. 28:10 NEB), he said.
The message of Easter is the same message Christ had been proclaiming throughout his ministry: trust God; fear nothing. The fearsome Roman state which stood unchallenged astride the Mediterranean world, was not only incapable of keeping Christ in his tomb, it also could not prevent news of the resurrection, and its implications, from spreading to the city of Rome itself. Paul of Tarsus took his gospel there. The threat of death, Rome’s stock in trade, availed nothing against this saint who said “it is my eager expectation and hope that… with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:20f RSV). They could kill him, and did, but they could not intimidate him.
A century later the Romans hauled the aged bishop of Smyrna before a tribunal and told him to curse Christ or die. Polycarp replied: “Eighty-six years I have served him and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?… The fire you threaten burns but an hour;…do what you will” (“The Martyrdom of Polycarp” , The Westminster Press, Philadelphia. Pages 152f). Fourteen hundred years later, Martin Luther put it like this: “The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, his kingdom is forever” (hymn 687:4), his kingdom and those who dwell therein, Christ himself first of all, then those who live in him. All those who condemned him, the scribes, the Romans, the crowd, were silenced long ago. Christ comes among us still, encouraging us to cast all our care on him who cares for us, to dread nothing but the loss of him. “Trust God” he says; “Fear nothing.”
The one who first brought us the news was Mary of Magdala. But perhaps you do not accept her witness. The disciples did not. Women were considered unreliable witnesses; their testimony was inadmissible in court. It is typical of God to choose such a one as his prime witness. But then too Mary was the first to find Christ because she was first to seek him. And perhaps it was she rather than any of the men, whom we call “the disciples,” who came to his tomb, early, while yet in the dark, yet unaware that the tide had already turned, the victory already won, hell despoiled and death destroyed, it was she who came with a love beyond hope and a loyalty beyond despair because it was she, and none of them, whom Christ had healed of seven demons. Whether he was king of Israel or not, whether he was the savior of the world or not, he had already been her savior. But in order for that healing to have happened, she had to have trusted him enough to begin with to submit to his touch, had faith in him enough already to allow his power to enter her.So it was that Mary of Magdala came to the tomb to anoint a dead body and found instead a living Lord.
If you doubt her testimony…… then see for yourself. Do as Mary did. Trust Christ so far as to allow him, invite him, to enter your life. Submit to his touch. Espouse your soul to him. Soon you will not need others to tell you, “Christ lives.” You will soon be telling them, “Trust God and dread naught.”
April 22, 2006
Iona School for Ministry, Camp Allen, Texas
When I was in the fourth grade in Arlington, Virginia we were studying nature. I had always regarded spider webs as things of fear or annoyance; now for the first time I examined one closely and was awed by its intricate architecture. It was a work of art. Having spent my previous years in the Deep South, snow was a welcome and novel gift from heaven. In class we were shown pictures of snowflakes under a microscope, each one an elaborately wrought crystalline masterpiece and each one unique. And we studied the lowly caterpillar, earthbound, sluggish, ugly as sin. We studied the cocoon he made for himself not understanding what he was doing or why, spinning his own shroud as it were — did the caterpillar feel as desperate as we do when we find ourselves utterly trapped and pinioned through our own oblivious doing? And of course the point of the whole exercise was to see the marvel that emerged, the butterfly, exquisitely colored like the banner on the wall, of delicate beauty, agile, quite at home in the heavens. And whereas we had looked down upon the caterpillar, esteemed him smitten with the ugly stick, the butterfly made us feel awkward and clumsy by comparison. The emphasis in class was upon the miracle of the metamorphosis, but I remember even then being impressed by the fact of the caterpillar itself. I couldn’t make one. Could you? They are easy enough to kill but all the geniuses in the history of mankind could not even in concert create one.
One day I was walking to class and noticed a cocoon hanging on the branch of a tree. I plucked it off and took it to school me and then secreted it in my teacher’s desk drawer. I figured when it produced a butterfly some day I would modestly step forward and take the credit. I had about forgotten about it a couple of weeks later when one day, the teacher was sitting behind her desk droning on about some tedious matter and suddenly leaped to her feet screaming in terror and revulsion. As I came forward I realized her skirt and legs were crawling; she was covered with hundreds upon hundreds of tiny praying mantises. I never did take credit for what happened. But later I remember staring at that empty cocoon and wondering what happened. The whole thing was so unexpected.
Very early Sunday morning Mary of Magdala, Joanna and Mary the mother of James went to a tomb and found a cocoon that had broken open. They knew there was a dead body inside; they had even brought some spices with them to anoint it with. But there was nothing there. Luke tells us, “Finding that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, they went inside; but the body was not to be found. While they stood utterly at a loss, all of a sudden two men in dazzling garments were at their side. They were terrified…” (Luke 24:2-3 NEB). The thing is it was all so unexpected.
It was a great miracle, no doubt about it. God gave Jesus a brand new body. And he’s going to give you one too, St. Paul says. “But you may ask, how are the dead raised? In what kind of body? How foolish! The seed you sow does not come to life unless it has first died; and what you sow is not the body that shall be, but a naked grain, perhaps of wheat or of some other kind; and God clothes it with the body of his choice, each seed with its own particular body. All flesh is not the same flesh: there is flesh of men, flesh of beasts, of birds and of fishes — all different… So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown in the earth as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown as an animal body, it is raised as a spiritual body” (I Cor 15:35-39, 42-44 NEB).
Jesus’ resurrection body was different from the one he had before; it did strange things like walk through walls into locked rooms and walk with men on the road to Emmaus unrecognized. And our resurrection bodies are going to be different too, glorious, shimmering with light maybe. It’s all going to be a great miracle, no doubt about it.
But is it going to be all that much of a miracle really? Is it really more of a miracle than the body you’ve got now, your earthbound, caterpillar body? Are not our present bodies astonishing? They are unbelievable. The only reason we believe them possible at all is that we live with them and are used to them and take them for granted. In living among natural things, we live among supernatural things always and many things are miraculous that people think nothing of. We could never even begin to imagine our bodies if we did not live in them daily. Could any of us make a body such as ours? Could any of us make a caterpillar or even have the least notion where to begin? Could any of us make the universe? We think of Christ’s resurrection as such a big deal. Think of the universe – infinitely more various and extensive than Christ’s resurrected body. Hey, twenty billion years ago, there wasn’t anything at all except God. God and the void; God and nothing; that was it. Fifteen billion years ago there was a big, big bang; God devoted some of his energy to creating hydrogen and the stars. Fifteen billion years ago matter was created from energy and went hurtling into the void and does yet colonizing the dark, cold abyss of nothingness with light and being. Ten billion years ago our solar system coalesced and stabilized. Five billion years ago our island home this earth cooled into a planet. Three billion years ago God coaxed from the inorganic waters life! And from the primeval waters God called forth ever-higher forms of life until at last he evoked a creature within whom he could break bread. All of this is cause for astonishment.
Surely it is miraculous that God gave Jesus a new body but no more miraculous than that he gave him a first body. Our resurrection shall be a marvel but so was our birth. It is only a massive failure of imagination that prevents us from astonishment at our being. We take for granted the being of the universe, our own existence and that of stars, planets, volcanoes, rivers, amoebae caterpillars and butterflies. We take for granted our present bodies but wonder, “Did God really raise Jesus from the dead and give him a new body?” Hey, if he could give him any body at all he could give him a new body.
Actually God has given Jesus several bodies. Take this little wafer here for example; it will shortly become the body of Christ. This breakable, tangible, visible thing — become Christ’s body? Hey far out! Magic! No, no magic. It’s just that God puts the spirit of the living Christ into this stuff just like he put the spirit of the living Christ into Jesus’ earthly body and into the risen Christ’s resurrection body. For this to embody the living Christ is no more magical than that a poor carpenter from Nazareth of Galilee embodied the living Christ.
I’ll tell you something else. There is another body God has given the living Christ. It’s called the Christian Church. Hey, wait a minute; I’ve been in the church. It’s full of hypocrites. Yeah, but there’s always room for one more. How can this corruptible, grungy, conglomeration of ordinary parts embody the spirit of the living God? I don’t know. But then I don’t know how the corruptible, grungy, tangible, visible conglomeration of arms and legs, head and torso of a carpenter of Nazareth could either. I don’t know how any of us, people, chairs, wood, stone or metal could be here at all. It’s a miracle, that’s for sure. But that’s the power of God for you.
“If you’re the Son of God, come down from the cross.” That’s what the crowd was yelling when Jesus was crucified. If he wasn’t invulnerable, like Superman, how could he be powerful, be the Son of God? Come down from the cross and do something powerful, like kill somebody, then we will believe in you. Ah come on. Killing? That’s not powerful; any fool can kill somebody. I can do that and any child can kill a caterpillar. That’s not power. Try making a body — any body. That’s power. The power of God, the creating, life-giving, redeeming, sanctifying power of God. Thanks be to God.
16 April 1995
Episcopal Church of Reconciliation
San Antonio, Texas
Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:14-29,
Colossians 3:1-4, Luke 24:1-10
Hymns: 175, 207, 178, 335, 204, 179
This is a good size congregation this morning. I lay before you a paradox. Churches all over the world are most filled on Easter Sunday, as well they might be; yet it is precisely our Lord’s resurrection from the dead that many people, including church people, find it most difficult to really believe actually happened.
With a sort of naïve arrogance, a part of us simply assumes that anything we cannot understand must not be real. We believe that until we stand face to face with something we cannot comprehend (= wrap our minds around) but cannot deny. I once stood on the north rim of the Grand Canyon next to a man who, like me, was seeing the wonder for the first time. Long we stood there in silence gazing upon the grandeur of this canyon — ten miles wide in places, a mile deep in places, over two hundred miles long. Finally he solemnly said, “Something must have happened here.” He knew that hole had not been dug by a guy with a shovel. Such a result required an adequate cause.
The fact that Jesus of Nazareth is remembered at all today demands explanation. He was of obscure birth and parentage. He was reared in a remote corner of the Roman Empire which even Israelites considered provincial. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 2:46). When grown, this carpenter’s son became an itinerant preacher. Within three years he had so alienated the authorities of his religion that they convicted him of blasphemy, a capital crime. He had so alienated the Roman government that it sentenced him to death. On the day of his death, he was deserted by his friends, scourged by soldiers, mocked by a crowd, crucified between two thieves and his body laid in a borrowed tomb. He never wrote a book; he never held an office. He never commanded an army; he never founded a business. He never went to college. He never travelled two hundred miles from the place of his birth.
Twenty centuries have come and gone. Mighty armies have marched; mighty rulers have ruled. Empires have risen and fallen. Yet no one has affected human life on earth so much as he. Why? Something must have happened!
Given the pusillanimous performance of the apostles on Good Friday, the very existence of the Church cries out for explanation. The same Peter who, in the high priest’s courtyard, thrice denied that he even knew Christ, was, a few weeks later, boldly proclaiming him in the temple precincts. Arrested, hauled before the same high priest who had condemned Christ, and told to keep his mouth shut, Peter replied “Whether it is right in the sight of God to obey men rather than God you must judge. We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:1-3, 18-20). He must have seen something! He had seen something incomprehensible but undeniable, life changing and world altering. He had seen his Lord, who had been as dead as a run over dog, standing before him saying, “Feed my sheep” (Jn. 21:17). Within thirty years he had taken the report of what he had seen to the city of Rome itself where he wound up on a cross of his own.
The Romans, merciless masters of the Mediterranean, threw men and women to lions to stifle the glorious gossip about Christ. For three hundred years they tried. But the rumors persisted: “He lives! He lives!” The Romans who killed Peter would be amazed to know that on the spot of his death now stands a basilica named after him, center of the Roman Catholic Church with over a billion members world wide. The Romans who killed Christ would be dumbfounded if they knew that there are four times more Christians on earth today (two billion) than there were people on earth in Jesus’ day. Something happened all right.
Pontius Pilate had squinted at Christ and asked, “Are you some kind of a king?” Something like that – king of kings and lord of lords, forever and ever. The mind that conceived thermonuclear fusion as a device for powering the stars, giving light and life to worlds, had stood not ten feet from him. And Governor Pilate, after thinking the matter over, decreed, “Crucify him.” Oops. Well I guess you can’t call them all right (as subsequent governors have also discovered). No one watching Pilate condemn Christ could have imagined that two thousand years later Pilate would be remembered only because he did whereas buildings dedicated to the adoration of Christ would adorn almost every continent on this planet – every continent save Antarctica. We celebrate today the cause of that effect.
Like all human institutions, the Church has become stagnant and corrupt at times. She has from time to time been ruled by men who were stupid, venal, incompetent or worse. But every time she ought to collapse and die, she is instead reformed, renewed, revitalized. By whom?
The Christian Church has seen the commencement of all the governments and all the dynasties that presently exist on the face of the earth. I have no doubt she will live to see their end. When we consider the fact that the Christian Church was already ancient before Columbus made land fall upon this continent and was centuries old already before the Saxon had set foot in Britain or the Frank had crossed the Rhine, and when we consider the fact that she exists today, not as a relic, much less a ruin, but as a growing, vibrant reality, I think we must conclude that she lives because he does. Alleluia!
April 20, 2014
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Acts 10:34-43 Psalm 118:14-17, 22-23 I Corinthians 15:19-26
John 20:1-18 The Hallelujah Chorus
Hymns 175, 179, 178 & 180, 207 981 words
Last Sunday we read about, and celebrated, the discovery of the empty tomb. But the empty tomb is no more the resurrection than the empty cocoon is the butterfly. Neither did the empty tomb convince anyone at the time that the resurrection had occurred. Rather the women who discovered it on Easter morning leapt to the natural conclusion that someone had stolen the body. The disciples did not believe in the resurrection because the women told them of the empty tomb. The disciples believed it only on Easter evening and only because Jesus of Nazareth, who had been as dead as a run-over dog, suddenly stood before them very much alive. Thomas was not with the other disciples Easter evening and he did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead even after the others told him what they had seen.
I think that doubting Thomas was the intellectual among the disciples. It is peasants who are credulous, who believe all sorts of superstitions and vicious gossip and hopeful rumors. Intellectuals cultivate doubt as a habit of mind. They know perfectly well that you cannot believe everything you read and that most of what you hear is less than the whole truth. Thomas is my sort of fellow. He would not have his emotions trifled with. The matter was too important to be accepted on somebody else’s say so. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe”, he said (John 20:25 NRSV). Putting his finger in the mark of the nails is a nice touch. Thomas was not prepared to believe even his own sight lest he should be hallucinating or dreaming or seeing what he wanted to see.
One week later, that is, the Sunday after Easter, today, the risen Christ stood before Thomas and invited him to do that very thing. But then seeing was believing. Thomas’ doubts were obliterated. Thomas not only believed but immediately perceived the implication of what he was seeing. “My Lord and my God”, he said (20:28). Thomas is the first person in the New Testament to call Jesus God. Thomas immediately saw and said what it took the whole Church three hundred years to say definitively at the Council of Nicea, namely that Jesus Christ is not only the Son of God, but “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God” (BCP p. 327).
All that was a long time ago. What do you think? What do you believe? Seeing is believing but we cannot see what Thomas saw. We must live by faith, or live, less boldly, without it.
But we are not totally bereft of things to see. We can look around us at each other and at this building; we can see the Church. We can see the church up the street and across the way. We can see the hundreds of churches in this city and the thousands of churches all over Texas and the hundreds of thousands of churches all across American and the millions of churches all around the world. The Roman Catholic Church alone has one billion members. And we can ask, “Where did they come from? Why are they here?” A cause must be sufficient to account for the effect. Last Sunday Henry Stroebel celebrated the Eucharist in China where Christianity is growing faster than any place on earth. What cause caused the churches in China and the churches in America across the world from each other and equidistant from Palestine where this whole thing began? Were all these churches caused by a lie or by a hallucination? I do not think so. Reality is relentless; it grinds down illusion and exposes lies soon enough.
Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (20:29). We too have things to see but we need faith as well. The apostle Thomas did not have faith; he had knowledge. So did the apostle John. He begins his first letter with these words: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands… (I St. John 1:1 NRSV). The apostles just did what any witness is asked to do; they testified to what they had seen with their own eyes, heard with their own ears and touched with their own hands. We are not in their position but I make you this promise. Commit yourself to the life of Christian faith, if you have not done so already. Undertake to walk with the risen Christ daily and he will walk with you. You will come to know him through the Holy Spirit in his body, the Church. And you will have something to witness to. You, like they, will be able to “tell the people the whole message about this life” (Acts 5:20 NRSV).
By the way, the women were right. The tomb had been robbed. But the grave robber was God.
22 April 2001
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Acts 5:12a, 17-22, 25-29 John 20:19-31
What was your moment closest to Christ last week? That is a very personal question. It is also an intriguing question. It is a question I asked myself and answered to two other priests I met with weekly for the twenty years I lived in San Antonio. When I first began I did not even know what the question meant. What does it mean to be close to Christ and how is such a thing possible?
The Church proclaims that it is possible: “Alleluia. Christ is risen,” we say. (BCP p. 355) “Is risen,” not rose;” for, it is the resurrection as present reality, not as past fact, that is the Christian gospel. The fact of the resurrection is of historical interest; the effect of it is a saving grace. Jesus Christ differs from all the other great men of history – Moses, Buddha, Socrates, Newton, Napoleon, Lincoln – because they are dead and he is alive. Because he lives, we may have a relationship with him. Because he is risen, we may know him not just as past memory or as future hope but as present companion along the way. There is much interest nowadays in Christian spirituality, a deep and complex subject. But if one had to sum it up in a phrase, surely it is this: Christian spirituality is knowing the living Christ. But how?
We cannot know him by gazing upon him with our physical sight. For one thing we do not know what even the pre-resurrected Jesus looked like. And for another thing we cannot know anybody that way. Though our first instinct is to think “seeing is believing,” the only thing revealed to physical sight is physical appearance. Until we get beyond that, we spend our lives making first impressions and being taken in by superficial appearances.
To know a woman is to know her soul, not her cosmetics. My senior year in high school I had a religion teacher named Merrill Hutchins whom I loved dearly. He died in October of the year I graduated and for weeks thereafter I dreamed of him. In my dreams I would see him on the street or he would come into my room and I would run to him saying, “Merrill, Merrill! You’re alive!” Then I would wake up. I used to wonder if the apostles had only dreamed the risen Christ. But I always knew when I woke up that I had been only dreaming and the apostles were as well acquainted with dreams as I was. For a couple of months after Hutchins’ death I would occasionally see someone on the street who looked like Hutchins from the rear and I would begin running after him until I realized it was not him. “Of course it’s not him, you fool. How could it have been? What’s wrong with you?” I would say to myself. Gradually all that stopped.
I have some bad news to tell you about our new rector. You would find this out eventually anyway; so you might as well know now. He is not Jesus Christ. For years after Hutchins death, I was looking for someone just like him. I never found him, which is just as well. Hutchins himself did not believe in idolatry and once said “Jesus Christ is the only man alive worth having any disciples.” Eventually I realized that what I was looking for was a certain spirit, a certain quality of mind and of heart. Eventually I came to realize that who I was looking for was not Hutchins himself but someone else whom I had met through Hutchins, the living Christ.
Christian spirituality is knowing the living Christ. But how? Not with physical sight; we don’t know anybody that way and we don’t even know what the pre-resurrected Jesus looked like. Even the original disciples, who did know what the pre-resurrected Jesus looked like did not know the risen Christ by physical sight. There is something very spooky about his resurrection appearances; the disciples do not recognize him at first. It is as if the risen Christ is from another world, from another dimension, from a transcendental plane, from beyond the tomb, which became a womb. On Easter afternoon, a disciple named Cleopas and another disciple, unnamed, were on their way to a village called Emmaus and as they talked “Jesus himself came near and went with them; but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” (Luke 24:15f NRSV)
The disciples begin telling Christ about Jesus’ death. “We had hoped,” they said, “that he was the one to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:21) “We had hoped.” Is this not the refrain of human life? Who has not seen his dreams gone glimmering? Who among us has not had advancement denied, application rejected, trust betrayed, ambition thwarted, merit spurned, justice withheld, or love disappointed? Which of us has not had his hopes dashed by life or, more especially, by death, the great destroyer who lurks at the end of all adventures, whose clammy hand rests upon the shoulders of all lovers, whose rictus grin mocks all noble achievement? Cleopas and the other disciple had seen their hope crucified. To them the risen Christ appeared and made himself known and restored hope and faith and courage. How did he do it?
He made himself known to them by opening their minds to the meaning of the Scriptures. “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:27) There are a number of good reasons to study the Bible but the most important one is to know the living Christ as he is revealed in Scripture. And let us never be anti-intellectual. Intellect is one thing that distinguishes us from the lower animals and that we have in common with God himself. The risen Christ made himself known to Cleopas and one other disciple, not through a look-alike, but through their minds.
Christ reaches us through our minds; he also reaches us through our affections. It is a great mistake to set the human mind and the human heart against each other as if the religious person had to choose between them. Both are God’s creation, both are channels of his grace and self-revelation. How can we love Christ if we do not know him and what is the point of knowing him if not to love him? Any Christian formation program, which neglects either the cognitive or the affective aspects of the human soul, is truncated. The risen Christ makes himself known to the human heart, though the hymns we sing for example. When Cleopas and his friend had had their eyes opened “and they recognized him and he vanished from their sight, they said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?’” (Luke 24:31f)
The risen Christ makes himself known to us through our minds and through our hearts and through the sacraments of the Church, especially the Eucharist. It was on the night before he suffered that he took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, gave it to his disciples and explained to them the whole meaning of his life and of his impending death: this is my body, which is given for you; take it. Three days later, as the hymn puts it, “Look there! The Christ, our brother comes resplendent from the gallows tree and what he brings in his hurt hands is life on life for you and me.” (Hymn 197:1) On that afternoon, when Christ and the two disciples “had reached the village to which they were going,… he made as if to continue his journey, but they urged him strongly saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him…” (Luke 24:28-31 NRSV) No wonder we gather around his table still with hungry souls and mouths open like baby birds.
Here is a simple spiritual exercise I suggest for you to do this week. Each evening, perhaps at supper, say “Lord Christ, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of you love.” (BCP p. 124) It is in the Evening Prayer service in your prayer. If any of you do not own a Book of Common Prayer, I suggest you buy one. It is the chief spiritual manual of the Episcopal Church.
I looked for a long time before I realized who it was I was looking for. When I came to know it was Christ, I stopped looking with my eyes and began looking with my mind and my heart and my soul. And I found him, off and on. The risen Christ has made himself known even to me off and on, every now and then, in various places. I suppose it is not too surprising that, more than any place else, I have found the living Christ in the Body of Christ, the Church, you. I am so glad we are all here this morning.
May 4, 2014
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Acts 2:14a, 36-47 Psalm 116 I Peter 1:17-23 Luke 24:13-35
Hymns 205, 209, 343, 212
The barbarity of ISIS has shocked us. But worse is the fact that such merciless cruelty has been a common occurrence throughout most of the world for most of human history. The strong lord it over the weak; the weak grovel before the strong. Terrorism has sometimes been state policy. The ancient Romans adopted crucifixion as capital punishment for non-citizens precisely in order to cower them. The Assyrian king, Ashurnasirpal II, liked to cut out the eyes of his royal captives with his own hands (cf. Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage p. 267). Ancient rulers’ favorite animal was the lion to which they frequently compared themselves. A vast number of ancient inscriptions consist of kings bragging about how great they were. Sennacherib, the Assyrian who destroyed northern Israel, left the lapidary boast that he had sacked 89 cities and 820 villages, and had captured 7,200 horses,…and 208,000 people (cf. Ibid).
Most ancient religions assume that the gods behave the same way kings did. Ferocious pagan deities made rapacious demands upon their peoples; Moloch, for example wanted children sacrificed to him (cf. II K 23:10; Jer. 32:35). One can find traces of the God-as-tough-guy theology in the Old Testament where Yahweh in Exodus brags about how he will gain glory over the Egyptian pharaoh by plaguing and despoiling him. The events described in Exodus occurred almost four thousand years ago. Given the temper of the times, the theology is not surprising.
What is surprising, absolutely astonishing, is the very different portrait of God which emerges in the Old Testament about three thousand years ago and which is unique in the ancient world. It emerged at the very time Israel was at the height of its military power and was ruled by its most illustrious king, David, whom admirers called “The Lion of Judah.” A poet, perhaps David himself, penned this portrait of God: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul…” (Ps. 23:1-3 KJV). Wow. What a revolution in human understanding of the nature of ultimate reality. Here is God not as predator but as protector. “He is the Lord our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand” (Ps. 95:7 BCP p. 45), the psalmist wrote.
Because God himself is a shepherd, the kings and other leaders of Israel are to be shepherds also. The Lord said to David, “It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel” (II Sam. 5:2 NRSV). In a later century God has become disgusted with the corrupt leaders of Israel. God says of them, “because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals,…I will demand my sheep at their hand; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves… For thus says the lord God: ‘I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out’” (Ez. 34:8,10,11 NRSV). Isaiah, in a passage made more memorable by Handel, prophesied: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom” (Isa. 40:11 NRSV).
The Handel passage is of course from The Messiah. When the Messiah did come, he did as Isaiah had prophesied. Once, Jesus, much wearied, sought to go off to a lonely spot, but “when he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mk. 6:34 NRSV). He taught them; he fed them; he led them; he forgave them. The forgiving got him in trouble with the religious authorities who thought the unrighteous should simply be shunned. “The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’. So he told them this parable: ‘Which of you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And… he calls his friends and neighbors saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me for I have found my sheep that was lost’ Just so I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous person who need no repentance” (Luke 15:2-7). Jesus does as he does because that is the will of the Father. Finally, Christ gave his life for us like the good shepherd he said he was (v. Jn. 10:11).
All this happened a long time ago. We remember it still partly because the issues embedded in these images are still relevant. How is power properly understood and exercised? Every one of us who exercises power in business, in government, in the church, at home must decide whether we aspire to be a lion or a shepherd. Do we try to lead by intimidation or in a kinder manner? The pagan images still compete for our allegiance. The Detroit Lions would never dream of calling themselves the Shepherds. It is only rather recently in western civilization that we have arrived at a consensus that government should act for the benefit of the governed rather than for that of the governors. But corruption is an on-going temptation. Like the corrupt shepherds of ancient Israel, some officials today enrich themselves at the expense of those under their care. The reason we rehearse all this in the Easter season is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ vindicated his person and teaching. His style of leadership is not the naive fancy of a Palestinian peasant but is the clue to the nature of ultimate reality. God Almighty really is as the Psalmist said he is: the Lord is my shepherd.
The image is compelling still because we, as successors on earth of the Good Shepherd, have his ministry to carry on. When I used to visit people in the hospital, I would take my communion kit and an oil stock so that the patient might have a table spread before him in the presence of the enemy of his disease and that his head might be anointed with oil (cf. Ps. 23 BCP p. 477). Christ said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them in also, and they will listen to my voice” (Jn. 10:16 NRSV). These words are the rationale for all our efforts in evangelism. We are in search of Christ’s other sheep. Christ is not our commander; he is our leader. The commander says, “Go there; do that.” The leader says, “Follow me.” Governments today, as ever, send their young people off to foreign lands to kill and die for government policies. The decisions makers themselves – kings, emperors, presidents – do not put themselves in harm’s way. But our Lord God comes down among us as one of us to die for us that we might live in him.
The Good Shepherd was my first image of Christ and Christ remains my only image of God. As a child of three and four, I often went to sleep when these words of the old hymnal singing in my soul: “Jesus tender shepherd, hear me. Bless thy little lamb tonight. Through the darkness be thou near me. Keep me safe till morning light” (1940 Hymnal 241:1). Because of Easter we know that the Good Shepherd lives. We may still be found by him, “we [who] have erred and strayed from [his] ways like lost sheep, [and] have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts” (BCP p. 41, 320). “Perverse and foolish oft I strayed but yet in love he sought me, and on his shoulder gently laid, and home rejoicing brought me” (Hymn 645:3). In the face of many enemies, within and without, we may repair to this church where Christ prepares a table before us giving up his blood for us once again. And at the end of our earthly lives we may follow the Good Shepherd to where he has gone before, through the gate of death into greener pastures. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life” (Jn. 10:27f NRSV).
“Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep…, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among you that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Heb. 13:20f).
April 26, 2015
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Ezekiel 34:1-10 Psalm 23 I St. John 3:1-8 John 10:11-16
Hymns: 205, 343, 317 & 663, 646
Most modern arts and sciences trace their ancestry back to the ancient Greeks. The humane quality of Greek sculpture and the rationality of Greek philosophy are so striking that we tend to forget that the Greeks were a highly religious people as well. In the summer of 1960 as I stood on Mar’s Hill gazing at the Parthenon, it struck me for the first time that that marvel of art and science had been built as a temple to the goddess Athena. St. Paul, on his first missionary journey to Europe, stood on Mar’s Hill and addressed the crowd: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription `To an unknown god’. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22f NRSV).
The ancient Greeks were not irreligious nor were any ancient people. Irreligion was left for modern man to invent. Some humanists of the last century insisted that God was bad for man’s ego. They said that for millennia religions have ascribed to God honors that properly belong to humanity. Since God does not exist, they said, all the sublime wisdom that past generations thought they had received from him had actually been produced from their own greatness of soul. So soon as the illusion of God was dispensed with, human spiritual grandeur would plainly emerge for all to see. And then a curious thing happened. For the first time in human history avowedly atheist societies emerged, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the People’s Republic of China chief among them. We need not speculate whether atheist societies would be more humane; we have before us the track record of such societies, to which over a fourth of the human race once belonged. Never in history have so many people perished at the hands of their own governments. When detached from its divine context, human worth does not grow; it shrinks. When God is banished from the stage, human rulers soon ascribe to themselves godlike qualities and make godlike demands for total devotion upon their subjects. What is more dangerous, those demands get met because the religious impulse to devotion is in-built. Modern folk, just as much as the ancient Greeks, have an innate sense of the divine. We, like they, await only a name to whom to address our prayer.
St. Paul gave us the name: Jesus. “He is the image of the invisible God;… for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible… He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:15-17 NRSV). In other words, “the one through whom all things were created is also the one in whom the enormous diversity of creatures is gathered and sustained as one coherent whole. No unimaginably distant galaxy, no inconceivably minute atomic element, no incomprehensibly sordid soul, is beyond the reach of Christ’s authority or outside the range of his dominion” (John Mogabgab, Vol. VIII, # 3). No wonder the Athenians were worshipping Christ before knowing of him. No wonder modern atheism is subverted by the atheists’ own souls, which seek God of their own accord. As Paul told the Athenians, our creator created us “to search for God, and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being…” (Acts 17:27f NRSV). Like fish in the ocean, like birds in the air, “in him we live and move and have our being.” Paul concludes, “For we too are his offspring” (Acts 17:28 quoting Aratus’ Phaenomena 5).
One might summarize the Christian spiritual life as an increasingly conscious participation in the ongoing life of the Trinity. All the spiritual disciplines and techniques of the Church have this enhanced consciousness as their goal. We are all related to God always whether we are aware of it or not. But what a difference the awareness makes! It is the difference between wandering about a room in the dark and having the lights on. The reason that light and darkness, blindness and sight are such prominent metaphors in John’s writings is that Christian conversion consists of becoming aware of something that is an already present fact, namely that in God we live and move, in him we exist.
God’s love is the water we swim in and the air we breathe. Even without our awareness of it, it is efficacious enough to keep our molecules glued together, that is, to keep us alive, in being. But consciousness is so important a facet of our humanity that being loved does us little good spiritually if we are not aware of being loved. We must be consciously rooted in Christ’s love in order for his love to fill us, flow through us and bear the fruits of love. William Temple once said that love of God is the root and love of neighbor the fruit of the tree of Christian faith. Though the vitality of the root system, being invisible, is judged by the abundance of fruit, it is the root not the fruit that is primary.
If I would be more loving of my neighbor, I would do well to focus upon the love of God. I cannot become more loving by trying to be more loving. I become more loving by being more beloved. But actually none of us can possibly be more beloved than we already are, since God himself has already assumed our flesh and been born among us as one of us to live with us and die for us that we might live in him. You can’t be more loved than that. So what we are really talking about is becoming aware of how incredibly beloved we already are. Out of that awareness, I love others.
In his farewell discourse Christ told his disciples, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15 NRSV). But what are his commandments? That we love God and love our neighbor. Specifically “this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 15:12).
Christ tells them, “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever” (Jn. 14:16). You will recall that Satan is the Accuser, the prosecutor. Christ on earth has been our defense attorney, our advocate. He has interceded for us. And as he explained at the Last Supper, his death was to effect the forgiveness of our sins. Now Christ, who is about to return to the Father, assures his disciples that the Father “will give you another Advocate to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth… You know him because he abides with you and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (Jn. 14:16-18 NRSV).
In other words, the Holy Spirit is not given as compensation for Christ’s absence but as the mode of Christ’s continuing presence. We will celebrate that gift on Pentecost, Sunday after next.
On the following Sunday, Trinity Sunday, we celebrate the fact that Father, Son and Holy Spirit: God above us, God beside us and God within us, are one and the same God. “On that day you will know that I am in the Father, and you in me and I in you… We will come to [those who love me] and make our home with them” (Jn. 14:20, 24).
It would appear that the inner life of the Trinity consists mainly of passing love around the circle. What Jesus is doing in this morning’s Gospel is inviting us to participate in the ongoing inner life of the Godhead. Sounds like a good offer to me.
May 25, 2014
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Acts 17:22-31 Psalm 148:7-12 I Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21 Hymns: 416, 513, 765 & 405, 705,
Friday night Sara and I had the pleasure of being at the opening of the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. It was a wonderful experience in a beautiful building. The program was the music of Richard Rodgers on the centennial of his birth. The highlight for me was Shirley Jones who first sang in the chorus of South Pacific fifty years ago. Next she starred in the movie Oklahoma. When she began singing “People Will Say We’re in Love,” my heart and mind raced back more than fifty years to the day my parents brought home two of a new kind of record that were long playing. The records they bought were South Pacific and Oklahoma. I was suffused with emotion as I remembered my parents singing “People Will Say We’re in Love” to each other off and on for the remaining forty years of their married lives.
On this Mother’s Day I want to publicly give thanks for having had a mother who genuinely loved children. I always knew she would love me no matter what I did. She gave me my first experience of unconditional love and thus made God’s love credible. I hope that many of you have been similarly blessed.
As I mused upon these matters, I also realized that the Episcopal Church has been a second mother to me. They say that home is where they have to take you in. Where ever we moved around the country, I also knew the Episcopal Church would take me in. Numerous Sunday School teachers and priests, who must have wondered what sin they had committed to deserve so difficult a student as I was, demonstrated and made credible God’s love for me. I hope many of you have had the same experience.
My own experience makes me grieve for the boys who were sexually abused by priests and thus had their trust in the Church betrayed. Unfortunately, these crimes are not even the worst sins Church officials have committed. My candidate for that are the witch-hunts the Church conducted for over two hundred years. “The European craze really dates from about 1468, when the papacy first declared witchcraft a crimen exceptum, and made those accused subject to torture. Once torture was authorized, the confessions multiplied, the number of victims and accusations increased, and the movement generated its own movement” (P. Johnson, A History of Christianity p. 309). Both Luther and Calvin, citing Exodus 22:18, endorsed executing witches. “On the whole, Anglican Protestants were not keen witch hunters, and during the whole period 1542-1736 many fewer than 1,000 were executed (by hanging) in England, against 4,400 in Calvinist Scotland during the ninety years beginning in 1590” (Ibid p. 310). The Church’s periodic sin has been so great that her very survival is evidence of God’s presence within her. Historically, every time the Church gets so corrupt that you would think one good kick would collapse it like a rotten building, the Holy Spirit blows through reforming and renewing it. Let us pray that the currant crisis in the Roman Catholic Church will result in a reformation. The Church is the oldest functioning institution in the world. She has seen the commencement of all the governments that now exist on the face of the earth and is probably destined to see their end.
Thursday we celebrated the feast of Christ ascension back to the Father. What did he leave behind? The one thing all historians, religious or not, can agree on, the one indisputable thing Jesus accomplished, is the Church. How was the world different after he left than it was before he came? The Church was not there before he came and it was there after he left. Before leaving, Christ prayed for the disciples: “I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world but they are in the world, and I am coming to you… As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (Jn. 17:10-11, 18-19 NRSV). How has Christ changed the world? Through the Church. She has been, and is, his hands and feet, arms and legs, his mouth. Virtually all the practices which even atheists view as most humane arose within Christendom and were pioneered by Christians. The Church invented hospitals, orphanages, asylums and universities.
Some Christians say, “I don’t need the Church; I have the Bible.” If it were not for the Church they would not have the Bible. The Church wrote the New Testament. In the 4th century she decided which of the books she had written she would set aside as authoritative and call the New Testament. Then the Church hand-copied the Bible over and over again for a thousand years until it became the first book printed in about 1450. Since then the Church has translated it into hundreds of languages that everyone might have access to it. Many folks are interested in studying the Bible but not Church history. But the Bible is Church history. And the place where they would stop reading is exactly where Christ is exultant because he has created the very thing he came to create. St. Luke wrote two books. The first is his Gospel in which he recounts the life of Christ. The second is the Acts of the Apostles; that is still being written.
Some folks say they love Christ but hate the institutional Church. They remind me of people who love their country, are not too sure about the government and hate politics. But they despise the very thing the American Revolution was fought to make possible and that the Constitution was written to institutionalize. Democratic politics is what distinguished this country from its origin. The institutional Church is the Church Christ himself instituted. “She is his new creation by water and the word; from heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride; with his own blood he bought her and for her life he died” (Hymn 525:1).
Some people are turned off not by the Church’s sin but merely by the Church’s being full of human beings instead of angels. Some people did not accept Christ because he was human and looked so ordinary. How did they expect him to look? Like God? It turns out that Christ is what the previously invisible God does look like. At the Ascension Christ returned to the Father with his humanity to permanently enrich the Godhead. Meanwhile the Incarnation continues on earth in Christ’s body the Church. “[God] has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22f NRSV). (The Bible itself has a rather high doctrine of the Church.)
Some people are scandalized by the Incarnation when they come to Church and find it full of people not obviously more spiritual than they themselves are. Anyone who has been in the Church for long has listened to a stupid sermon, had his feelings hurt, been misunderstood. Some leave forever saying, “The Church is nothing but a bunch of hypocrites.” Some stay and resign themselves to the fact that “the Church is just human.” Both responses are mistaken. The Church has as many faithful folk as she does hypocrites. Mostly she is full of folks who are both. We must surely learn that the Church is human as well as divine. But the Church is not only human; she is also divine. We have this treasure in earthen vessels but it is a treasure. To let go of that treasure is to let go of the divine purpose of our humanity namely to become united to God, that is, incorporated into the Incarnation. The Church is that community animated by the Holy Spirit filled with individuals no better than you and me. But “glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church…” (Eph. 3:20f, BCP 60,102)
12 May 2002
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Acts 1:1-14 John 17:1-11 Hymns 214, 525, 494
“IF YOU FORGIVE…”
Today, we have heard two accounts of the apostles receiving the Holy Spirit. The accounts have this in common: the Holy Spirit is not given them merely for their own comfort and edification; it is given to inspire and empower them to carry on Christ’s ministry.
The first account, the more familiar one, takes place on the Day of Pentecost, which is why we read of it today. The rushing wind, the tongues of fire and the proclamation of the gospel in fifteen different languages are all very dramatic. Did that really happen? What is indisputable is that the gospel was in fact preached to Parthians, Medes Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia” (Acts 2:9), to Greeks, Romans, Russians, Germans, Britons, Africans, Asians, Americans, to you and to me. We are here this morning because someone cared enough about our spiritual welfare in this world of spiritual warfare to pass along the good news that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (II Cor. 5:19). It is our privilege and our duty to hand on the tradition, to bring our children and invite our friends to the place of grace that is the Christian Church. The whole world must be re-evangelized in every generation because no one is born into this world knowing anything of Christ. A candidate for Holy Baptism is asked, “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” The candidate answers, “I will, with God’s help” (BCP p. 305). The Holy Spirit is God’s help.
Our Lord Jesus was an evangelist. He went from town to town proclaiming the good news of God’s in breaking kingdom. But that is not what got him into trouble. What got him in trouble is that he forgave sins. When he forgave the sins of a paralytic who was let down from the roof on a stretcher, some of the scribes said, “It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mk. 2:1-12). Blasphemy was a capital crime; it was the charge brought against Jesus at his trial. While hanging on the cross, Jesus even forgave the sins of those who had put him there (v. Lk. 23:34). The original apostles, St. Paul and Jesus himself all understood Christ’s death to be a sacrifice offered for the forgiveness of sins (v. I Cor. 11:23-25). That is why we remember Jesus and why we adore him. Clearly, forgiveness of sins is a major part of the Church’s vocation. Listen again to St. John’s account of the gift of the Holy Spirit. The risen Christ breathed on the Apostles “and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (Jn. 20:23 NRSV).
I suggest that the authority to forgive sins is the greatest authority Christ gave to the Church. How do we exercise this authority? In a formal and public way, we exercise it in the confession and absolution done in our worship services. In a formal and private way we exercise it in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, too little made use of, by the way. The Church has retained for the episcopate and priesthood the authority to absolve sinners in God’s name, but the Church has made provision, even in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, for a deacon or lay person to declare to the penitent Christ’s forgiveness (cf. BCP pp. 448, 450). This may be a distinction without a difference. In any case, what is done liturgically is a dramatization of what is to be the pattern of our daily lives.
I suggest to you this morning that the single most important spiritual power any one of us possesses is the power to forgive the sin of those who have sinned against us. We may have the power to release someone from hell. Christ, of course, commanded us to forgive in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt. 6:14-15; cf. Lk. 6:37 NRSV). Elsewhere, Jesus reverses the logic and says that, because we have been forgiven, we should forgive (Mt. 18:23-35). In any case there is an economy of forgiveness. George Herbert said, “He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass if he would ever reach heaven.” Forgiveness is our vocation, our duty and our privilege. It is one way we participate in the life of God.
I think that the essence of forgiveness is a decision to let go of a resentment against someone who injured you physically, emotionally, spiritually or financially. To forgive is not to forget. Forgetting is not necessary and may be impossible. Forgiveness does not mean that you decide that what was done to you was all right. On the contrary, forgiveness presupposes that it was not all right. The person who injured you had no right to do it and should not have done it. Does such a person deserve our forgiveness? Of course not. Forgiveness is a form of grace. Grace is always, by definition, undeserved.
Can you forgive someone who is not repentant? Yes. Jesus forgave the people who crucified him before they were sorry for having done so. Sometimes the sinner is only able to admit his sin when he knows he will be forgiven. It is only the assurance of God’s forgiveness that has enabled many of us to examine our consciences as fearlessly and thoroughly as we have.
You can forgive someone before he repents but the forgiveness does not become actualized in reconciliation until the sinner repents. Forgiveness is a form of grace. All grace is gift. A gift does not become a gift until it is received. If I offer to give you this book and you refuse to accept it, the book remains an offer not a gift. It is not a gift because I still have the book and you do not have it. All grace is like that. The most terrible power we have is that of nullifying the grace of God by refusing it. Forgiveness does not result in reconciliation until it is received. To receive forgiveness is to admit we need it, that we did something wrong.
But even when the forgiveness is not received and the relationship is not reconciled, it is still worth my while to forgive. It cleanses my soul. When I decide to no longer bear this particular grudge against you, I get to lay it down. My load is lightened. And I do not want to go to the judgment seat bearing a lot of grudges because I have been asking God almost daily to “forgive us our trespasses as we have forgiven those who trespass against us” (cf. Lk. 11:4; BCP pp. 54, 67, 336, etc.).
I said earlier that we have the power to forgive those who sin against us. That may not be quite accurate. To err is human; to forgive, divine. It is significant that Christ’s empowering the apostles to forgive sins follows his giving them the Holy Spirit. What we can do is to decide to forgive. The Holy Spirit can actualize that decision. I once had a parishioner who decided to forgive his father who had injured him in many ways and who had since died. How was he to go about it? We decided he should pray for his father every day and also pray for the Holy Spirit to remove all bitterness from his heart. And it worked. He really and truly was able to forgive his father. The decision to forgive is the most important thing.
Sometimes what we most need to forgive are not sins at all objectively but just things which caused us great pain or embarrassment. In 1945 when I ran out of clean underwear my Aunt Katherine, with whom I was staying, pinned a pair of her own panties on me and then she sent me off to kindergarten wearing them under my short pants. This was an act of stupidity rather than malice and was probably not a sin. But during the day the safety pin twisted and the lace hem of the panties slipped down and became visible. I was mortified and humiliated and I never forgave her for it. In 1992, while driving me to the airport after my mother’s funeral, Aunt Katherine said, “Sammy, you never have forgiven me for putting those panties on you, have you?” I thought for a moment and said, “No, I never have.” Of course, she had never asked for forgiveness. Eight years later, in 2000, I was back in Columbia, South Carolina for a dinner party celebrating Miranda’s graduation from college and found myself sitting next to Aunt Katherine, who was then 87 years old. Considering that she had not acted in malice and that I might never see her again, and that she had been very nice to my mother in her last illness, and that Jesus forgave sins and commanded us to do so, and that I had been praying the Lord’s Prayer all these years, I forgave her and told her so. It only took fifty-five years. My advice: don’t wait that long.
June 8, 2014
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Acts 2:1-21 Psalm 104: 25-35, 37 I Corinthians 12:3b-13
Hymns: 224, 516, 501 & 508, 525
Isaiah heard the heavenly seraphim singing the words we shall shortly sing in the Sanctus: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3 NRSV). If adoration is the purest form of worship, as I believe it to be, then today is a very special Sunday indeed. For today we do not focus upon any event of our salvation but only upon God himself in all his triune glory. Today we celebrate the insight we have been granted into the nature of God and we adore him Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It took the Church several centuries to understand the implications of God’s self-disclosure to us through the law and the prophets, the incarnation, resurrection and Pentecost. Our belief in the Trinity is summarized in the Nicene Creed we proclaim each Sunday. Today I want to talk about how God can be three persons yet one God and why each person is so important.
Let us consider, by way of analogy, the space within this Church. It is one space yet it has three dimensions: height, width and length. These three are not three parts of the space for all the space is height; all is width; all is length. Take any point within the space, like this one. It is part of the space’s height: we can draw a line through it from floor to ceiling and perpendicular to them. We can do the same with every other point. So all the points, that is, all the space, are part of the building’s height. But we can also draw a line through this same point from wall to wall and perpendicular to them. So the point is part of the space’s width as well as is all the space. We can also draw a line through this point from front to back. So the point is also part of the building’s length. All the space is length; all is width; all is height. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not three parts of God but three dimensions of God. All of God is the Father; all of God is the Son; all of God is the Holy Ghost.
There is one God; yet there are three distinct persons. There is one space; yet three distinct dimensions. Each is necessary. Consider how different this space would be were there not height. In that case, we would not have a three dimensional space at all but a flat plane. The ceiling would be collapsed to the floor and you and I would be red splotches upon it like bug splats on a windshield. If the width were missing, the walls would come together: splat. If the length were missing, the front and back would go splat. In each case we would be dead. This three dimensional space is abstract in that we cannot see, feel, taste or hear it. Yet it is very real and all of its dimensions are crucial to our very being. Within this space we live and move and have our being.
God is abstract in the sense that he is invisible, intangible, inaudible, incomparable and so forth. Yet he is the most real reality within which alone “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Each of the three persons of the Trinity is distinct and necessary to the fullness of God. Without any of them we have a two dimensional god, hardly a god at all.
Take for example, God the Father who is God above us. He is the mysterious, infinite, transcendent source of being. He is so far beyond our ken that it is much easier to say what he is not than to speak of what he is. We cannot see him, hear him, touch him, wrap our minds around him, accurately compare him to anything nor measure him. In other words, he is invisible, inaudible, intangible, incomprehensible, incomparable and immense. Of him we can make no accurate images even verbal ones. It is God the Father who preserves the transcendent, mysterious, otherness of God. Without him God would be easily reduced to Jesus of Nazareth whom we can picture (though Scripture never describes him) or to a fact of our own religious experience as the Holy Spirit often is. God the Father prevents our worship and conception of God from degenerating into idolatry.
But the other two persons of the Trinity are necessary as well. Without them, God would have no saving significance for us; indeed we would not know him at all. Our planet earth revolves around the sun and all life on earth is dependent upon the sun though it is 93 million miles away. Yet did not the sun reveal and give itself to us through its light and heat, which bridge the gap between sun and earth almost instantaneously, we would not even know the sun was there. Without sunlight, not only could we not see the sun, we could see nothing at all. God the Son reveals and brings God the Father to us. “All that came to be was alive with his life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines on in the dark, and the darkness has never mastered it” (Jn. 1:4f NEB). The Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the source of all revelation and all knowledge, whether religious or scientific, whether pagan or Christian. God the Son spoke to Moses and led the children of Israel through the wilderness and fed them there (cf. I Cor. 10:1-4). It was God the Son who became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, who came to live among us as one of us, to call us with our own voice, to embrace us with our own flesh, to suffer death to defeat death. “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (Jn. 1:18 NRSV). God the Father is God above us; God the Son is God beside us.
God the Holy Spirit is God within us. Like God the Son, he is God in relationship to us; like God the Father he is invisible and mysterious, coming and going like the wind (cf. Jn. 3:8). The Holy Spirit is the invisible force through which God inspired the prophets and subsequent disciples. He inspires artists’ creativity and gives the flash of insight to the scientist. St. Augustine said that the Holy Spirit is the love which binds the Father and the Son together. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the powerful love of God. Most importantly, he is God’s very own life force, the power of eternal life, which, once received by a human being, persists beyond the grave to eternity.
Without God the Holy Spirit, we would be left with a two-dimensional God whom we could revere and remember but never know intimately. Without him, God could elicit our worship but never inspire us. Without him, our redemption is an unintelligible transaction between the Father and the Son, remaining external to us. It is the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us, who enables us to grow into the full stature of Christ, to become the holy people God wants us to be and accepts us as if we already were. The Holy Spirit is the breath of God and the breath of Christ’s Body, the Church. The Holy Spirit is the breath of God and the breath of Christ’s Body, the Church. The Church is alive to the extent that she breathes in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God’s breath and the breath of Christ’s body, the Church. The Church that breathes the Holy Spirit is alive; the church that does not so breathe, dies. So the Holy Spirit is a crucial link between God the Father, God the Son and us. On the other hand, the Holy Spirit, without the other two persons of the Trinity would become a matter of hopelessly subjective experience.
The good news of the Holy Trinity is that it is the same ultimate reality which we experience as (1) the infinite, mysterious, creative reality lying behind, above and beyond all other reality, and (2) the Person who initiates a personal relationship with us, and (3) the felt force of life, love and wisdom. God the Father is God above us; God the Son is God beside us; God the Holy Spirit is God within us. The Holy Trinity is one God.
Having said all of this, I will agree with St. Augustine, that the only reason we say anything at all about God is to avoid saying nothing. Though he wrote a whole book on the Trinity, he said it would be more appropriate to simply stand before God in silence, awe and wonder. Or, if we must speak, to speak only in the words of adoration: “Christ, to thee with God the Father, and, O Holy Ghost, to thee, hymn and chant and high thanksgiving, and unwearied praises be; honor, glory and dominion, and eternal victory, evermore and evermore” (Hymn 82:4).
30 May 2010
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sealy, Texas
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 Canticle 2 Romans 5:1-5 John 16:12-15
Hymns 362, 365, 423, 368
The problem of evil is one I have thought much about and have often been asked about. I taught an adult course about it here last year. Evil can be considered as an intellectual problem or as a practical problem.
As an intellectual problem, evil raises such questions as: Why does God allow evil to exist? Where did evil come from? Why did this evil happen to me? Why do I do things I despise myself for? The Bible rarely addresses the intellectual problem of evil. One of the few places it does is in the story of the Fall of Man in the Genesis lesson just read. The story answers such questions as why snakes crawl on their bellies, why people dislike snakes, why childbirth is painful and why farming is difficult. More generally, it answers the question of why life is so difficult that it sometimes seems like a punishment. The answer is that it is a punishment for Adam and Eve having disobeyed God. Unfortunately the story raises as many questions as it answers. Why did God put a serpent in paradise to begin with? And how could Adam, dwelling in paradise, being in a state of grace, acting from an uncorrupt, finitely perfect human nature, do something so stupid and perverse as disobeying God? More generally the story has the defect of assuming that we have fallen from a past perfect state whereas all history and science indicate that there has never been a time when we were better than we now are. Our predicament is not that we are worse than we used to be but that we are little better than we used to be. And now our sin holds in its hands weapons of mass destruction undreamt of by Adam or Australopithecus.
Human evil remains an intellectual problem to this day. How can a modern, college educated man do something as obviously self-destructive as smoke tobacco as I did for forty-five years? How can a modern woman, who knows she is an alcoholic, who has been hospitalized near death from a damaged liver, who has been told that further drinking will kill her, who has been detoxified and A.A.’ed, go out and drink again? How can a teenager who wants to graduate from high school, who has five unexcused absences, who has been told repeatedly that one more such absence will, by state law, result in his dismissal, skip school again? Deluged with information about the deadly AIDS epidemic and with the means of safe sex lying readily to hand, how can anyone practice unprotected sex? How can a couple who care for each other, and want to preserve their marriage, be screaming at each other three hours after having left the marriage counselor? How could the most civilized and educated nations in world history begin and continue the First World War?
Perhaps human evil is an evolutionary lag. Perhaps our problem is that we still retain primitive instincts of aggression from our predatory, pre-human ancestors. In any case it is clear that we have something deep within us that is working against us. We have what the New Testament calls demons. But whether we call it an evolutionary lag or a demon or, simply, the power of sin, it is clear that each of us has within himself something that seems part of him yet is subversive to his well being, something that inhibits us from doing the good we respect and inclines us to do the very thing we hate (cf. Rms. 7:15). The real question is what to do about it.
Evil is not only, or even primarily, an intellectual problem. It is a practical problem. The real question is what to do about it: how to endure it, how to prevent it, how to overcome it. Solving the intellectual problem does nothing in itself toward solving the practical problem. Some people, myself included, are inclined to feel that once we have understood something, we do not actually have to do anything about it. Jesus took the opposite stance. He was short on explanations but long on action. The closest he ever comes to an explanation is in the parable of the tares (cf. Mt. 13:24-30). A man sows good seed in his soil but at night someone else sows weeds. The two grow up together. Servants come and report that there are tares among the wheat. “An enemy hath done this” the master replies. The master is God; the enemy, Satan. That is all Jesus ever says by way of explanation. He takes the power of evil seriously; he knows it results from something beyond mere human ill will. We need something more than a resolution to do better. The will to health is a necessary but insufficient condition of healing. His own temptation in the wilderness led Jesus to tell us to pray that we will not be led into temptation. He says (Lk. 10:18) that he has seen Satan fall from heaven, the point being that it is not Satan who is enthroned above. In the context of his times, Jesus says little about Satan. On the contrary, Jesus is focused almost entirely upon God. That is a helpful example for us. Is it not instructive that those ages of history when people have been most interested in the demonic have produced superstitions that themselves were demonic. Those most interested in witches began burning supposed witches at the stake. That is giving the devil more than his due.
Jesus was not interested in understanding evil but in eliminating it. He did not explain demons; he exorcized them. Some of those around him, like the scribes in the gospel just read, were so overawed by the power of Satan that they assumed only he could cast out demons. That is what lies behind their accusation, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of demons, he casts out demons” (Mk. 3:22 NRSV). Odd theology, as Jesus immediately points out: “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand…” (Mk. 3:24).
I see three lessons in this morning’s gospel. The first, do not focus on Satan; focus on God. To become preoccupied by the devil is to hand him a small victory already. Evil cannot be destroyed by focusing on evil; it can only be overcome by focusing on good and the God who is the source of good. You cannot drive darkness out; you dispel it by letting light in.
The second lesson is to join forces with whoever is fighting evil without worrying about under what auspices they are working. We should never fail to join a worthy effort because the others engaged in it are not Episcopalians or Christians or Americans. Jesus said, “Who are my mother and my brothers?… Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk. 3:33, 35 NRSV).
This dictum leads to the third point: evil is not ultimately an intellectual problem; it is a practical problem. The point is not to understand evil, much less to explain it away. (By the time some people get through talking about God’s inscrutable will, you would think that evil is not evil at all but part of God’s plan.) The point is to conquer evil. You can theologize about the will of God all you want but what Christ is looking for are others who will do the will of God. If you are an alcoholic it finally does not matter why. It does not matter whether your mother dropped you on your head when you were six months old or whether your siblings were mean to you or you have bad genes. The only thing that matters is that you are powerless over alcohol and your life has become unmanageable but that there is a power greater than yourself who can restore you to sanity. What Christ offers us is not satisfactory explanations but saving power. If you are fighting with the people around you, it matters much less why, than how you can find that peace which passes understanding. If your kids are taking drugs, it matters less why they started than how they are to stop. I doubt that criminologists, sociologists and psychologists will ever agree on why criminals commit crimes; the real question is how to stop them.
It is not true that you cannot cure a disease without understanding the etiology of it. Many cures have been stumbled upon and we do to know to this day why some of them work. I certainly do not understand why God works for us. But I know that he is powerful to save and I am grateful for the mysterious magnitude of his grace.
June 7, 2015
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Genesis 3:8-15 Psalm 130
II Corinthians 4:13—5:1 Mark 3:20-35
Hymns 376, 657, 508, 314, 580
What is the meaning of life? An ancient Greek answer is that life is a tragedy. Man, a noble creature, in many ways resembling the gods, yet lacking their immortality, overreaches his limits in pride and ambition and brings destruction upon himself and those around him. What is the meaning of life? A later answer is that life is absurd. “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” ( V, 5, 27). What is the meaning of life? Contemporary answers abound. A beer ad proclaims that “You only go around once; grab all the gusto you can.” A less sanguine answer holds that life is a dirt sandwich and every day you take a bite. Then you die. What is the meaning of life? The Church’s answers are contained in the Bible. Written over a period of eleven hundred years, it is essentially a romance.
The story begins before the big bang when the persons of the Holy Trinity, declining to hoard their being, create a universe, colonizing nothingness with being and darkness with light. After billions of years of evolution the Trinity is in a position to evoke a creature with whom God can break bread. “Then God said, `Let us make man in our image and likeness to rule the fish in the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all wild animals on earth, and the reptiles that crawl upon the earth.’ So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26f NEB). So begins Part One of the Biblical romance. Being a personal God, the Trinity chooses a particular people to be the agent of revelation and the thin edge of the wedge of God’s developing friendship with the human race. This morning’s lesson, drawn from Part One, takes place just after God had rescued the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. In this reading, God reveals his dream for the Hebrew nation: “You have seen with your own eyes what I did to Egypt, and how I have carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you here to me. If only now you will listen to me and keep my covenant, then out of all the peoples you shall become my special possession… You shall be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation” (Ex. 19:4f NEB). In other words, the Bible recounts the evolving relationship between us and the transcendent reality who created us to have fellowship with him and be his own representation on earth. The Bible is the story of the generosity of God and the ingratitude of man. The Hebrews, gathered before Mt. Sinai, “all answered together, `Whatever the Lord has said, we will do’” (Ex. 19:8 NEB). But of course they do not. The rest of Part One, the Old Testament, tells of all the trouble the Israelites get into by disobeying one or more of the Ten Commandments.
Part Two of the romance, the Gospels, begins with the Trinity’s extraordinary decision to send one of them to become a human being, to live and die as one of us. So He, whom the highest heavens cannot contain, yields himself to lie within the confines of Mary’s womb, there to fashion for himself arms of flesh with which to embrace us. Our cosmic lover comes to call us with our own voice. This morning’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel shows our incarnate God acting in character. “Jesus went around all the towns and villages… announcing the good news of the Kingdom, and curing every kind of ailment and disease” (Mt. 9:35 NEB). Here is God on the make, God the pursuer, the Heavenly Shepherd come down to earth, going in search of his lost sheep. Faced with the people who have frustrated him generation after generation, the Lord is not moved to anger at their disobedience, nor is he moved to contempt by their ignorance. Rather, “the sight of the people moved him to pity; they were like sheep without a shepherd, harassed and helpless” (Mt. 9:36 NEB). So our very personal Lord, who has come in person to seek us out, begins his mission by calling persons to himself: Peter and Andrew, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew and the rest of the twelve (cf. Mt. 10:1-4). These he sends out as extensions of himself to proclaim the gospel of God’s gracious kingdom and to heal the sick. He commissions them to the same tasks he himself undertook. This commission by the way should put to rest any questions about whether illness is God’s will. If it were, Christ would not have made healing a major part of his ministry. But the larger point is the answer to the question of the Church’s mission. Our mission, in every generation and in every locale, is exactly the same as Christ’s mission. Christian ministry is Jesus Christ carrying out his ministry on earth through us.
The apostles, like their Hebrew fathers before them, proved initially disappointing. Not only did they not fully understand Christ, they deserted him in his hour of greatest need. “[God] was in the world; but the world, though it owed its being to him, did not recognize him. He entered his own realm, and his own would not receive him” (Jn. 1:10f NEB). Rather we killed him. Greek mythology has a somewhat similar story; the god Dionysus enters a city incognito and is murdered by the citizens. But then Dionysus returns in his true identity and kills every man, woman and child in the offending city. Jesus does not do that. Rather he returns with forgiveness and blessing in his holy broken hands and recommissions his apostles to their task. Thus ends Part Two of the Biblical saga.
Part Three is contained in the Epistles and Acts of the Apostles. In this morning’s reading from Romans, St. Paul is still overwhelmed by the almost incredible implication of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: “For at the very time when we were still powerless, then Christ died for the wicked” (Rms. 5:6 NEB). Paul knows from his own experience that sin is not merely acts we do contrary to God’s will but is also a power that has us in its grasp. Like a demon or an addition, sin enslaves us more thoroughly than the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews. Spiritual slavery is always the more deadly. Sin turns us into enemies of God, of our fellow humans, of our own health. “But Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that is God’s own proof of his love towards us” (Rms. 5:8). Here then is the point of the whole story: love. Love is the content of the revelation; love is the purpose of the revelation; love is the character of the revealer. God loves even his enemies, even us. He always has; he always will.
Ancient peoples, surrounded by storms, mountains, searing sun and soaking rain, knew that they lived among many powers greater than themselves. Those powers they called gods. It has taken us millennia to learn that a single force lies behind the disparate powers of nature. It has taken desperate efforts of revelation on God’s part to teach us that that power is gracious. Now we may rejoice. “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life! But that is not all: we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ…”(Rms. 5:10f).
What is the meaning of life? Love. The Church understands life to be a divine-human romance. And the Christian faith is not idle speculation. It is expectation based upon memory. We remember when we were in the house of bondage and our lives were unmanageable. We remember when a power greater than ourselves lifted us up on eagles’ wings and carried us out of the house of bondage and made us his own, his beloved. We remember Paul and the many saints of our company who, having finished their course in faith, now rest from their labors. We remember the unfailing kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ. We remember that “at the very time when we were still powerless, then Christ died for the wicked.” We have experienced the vast resources of God’s great goodness and thus have little trouble believing his promise that, many as his gifts to us have been, they do not begin to empty the treasure house of his love but are mere foretastes of the glory which eternity itself will be insufficient to exhaust. Having drunk the draught of life he has offered us already, it seems altogether probable that it should become in us a spring of water welling up to eternal life (cf. Jn. 4:14). Having been transported thus far by God’s grace, we should not be surprised to hear him speak to us on our deathbed: “I will raise you up on eagle’s wings and bear you to a land of springs where you shall live and sing with me for all eternity.” Amen.
16 June 1996
A Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, TX
Exodus 19:2-8a Psalm 100 Romans 5:6-11 Matthew 9:35 – 10:8
“I have come not to bring peace but a sword” (Mt. 10:34 NRSV). Jesus deliberately has a style of preaching which precludes one from remaining neutral about what he says. Scholars call it “kerygmatic.” Today we would call it “in your face.” Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1:15 NRSV). One’s reaction to that demand is probably not going to be “Well, I will take that under advisement.” Jesus comes upon Peter and Andrew, James and John cleaning their nets beside the Sea of Galilee; he says, “Follow me” (Mt. 4:19). They had to choose to follow him or not. The sword Jesus brings is the sword of choice.
Some others have been called to choose Christ at great cost. Matthew Mamuya, whom I met in Tanzania in 1961, was reared Muslim. One night he had a vision of Christ standing in his bedroom beckoning him to follow. The next day he told his father he would be baptized. His father tried to kill him. Matthew fled from his home from whence he was banned forevermore. Here Christ’s prophesy proved true: “I have come to set a man against his father” (Mt. 10:35). That was over fifty years ago but this morning’s New York Times tells of Josef, a Pakistani convert to Christianity currently hiding out in Kabul, Afghanistan. “Afghan law protects freedom of religion, but the reality here and in some other Muslim countries, is that renouncing Islam is a capital offense.” Josef’s brother in law has come to Kabul looking for him. “If I find him, once we are done with him, I will kill his [3-yeard-old] son as well because he is a bastard [because] he is not from a Muslim father” (NYT 6/22/14 p. 5). “British Prime Minister David Cameron said recently that ‘our religion is now the most persecuted religion around the world’” (“The War on Christians,” The Weekly Standard 6/23/14 p. 31).
The Puritan tinsmith of Bedford, John Bunyan chose Christ over his family in a different sense. He was jailed after the Restoration for, in the government’s words, “devilishly and perniciously to abstain from coming to church” and being “an upholder of several unlawful meetings and conventicles to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of the kingdom contrary to the laws of our sovereign lord the king.” While in jail he wrote: “I have often brought to my mind the many hardships, miseries and wants that my poor family was like to meet with, should I be taken from them, especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all I had besides… I was a man who was pulling down his house upon the head of his wife and children; yet thought I, I must do it, I must do it” (quoted by William Barclay in The Gospel of Matthew Vol. I pp. 396f). While in prison he began Pilgrim’s Progress that was to become the second most read book in the American colonies, the Bible being the first. T. R. Glover wrote of Bunyan, “Suppose he had been talked around… Bedford might have kept a tinker more – and possibly none of the best at that – and what would England have lost?” (Ibid p.397).
Most any great moral issue will divide people into two camps, for and against. The greatest moral issue of the 19th century in this country was slavery. You were for it or against it. There was no middle ground. Sometimes households were split over the issue. We can tick off great issues since that have been divisive. Christ himself still demands our ultimate loyalty over that to family or nation. The choice for him does not usually entail splits within the family now though it certainly can. In Oxford, England, in 1994, I met a Russian seminarian whose parents were both members of the Communist Party and teachers of Marxist philosophy at the University of Dushanbe. He had disgraced them by becoming a Christian. My seminary roommate in 1962 was a graduate of Philips Exeter and Yale. His father, though senior warden of his Episcopal Church, was nonetheless appalled when Jim decided to go into the ministry. “Son, you could really make something of yourself,” he said.
The choice Christ asks of us today is not so likely to be between denominations as in the 17th century but between Christianity and secularism. The British poet Studdert-Kennedy wrote: “I bet my life upon one side of life’s great war. I must. I can’t stand out. I must take sides. The man who is neutral in this fight is without breath. I want to live, live out, not waddle through my life somehow and then into the dark. I must have God. This life’s too dull without. I can’t stand shivering on the bank. I plunge headfirst. It is a choice. I choose Christ.”
The cross Christ asks us to bear is not likely to entail the sacrifice of our bodies; it will entail the sacrifice of selfish desire. John Henry Newman described it as “the continual practice of small duties distasteful to us.” Christina Rossetti wrote: “Christ’s burden weighs heavily, not because of the burden’s weight, but of the bearer’s weakness. Lord Jesus, grant us daily grace for daily need. Daily patience for a daily cross. Daily, hourly, incessant love of Thee, to take up our cross daily and bear it after Thee” (Redeeming the Time p. 67).
I will close by quoting the greatest Episcopal preacher of the 19th century, Phillips Brooks: “It is possible for a man to be so taken up with serving God, whether in great or little tasks, that he never stops to ask for his own happiness or credit or culture; but as he goes on he is happy, though he never thinks of it; and men give him thanks which are more sweet than praises; and Christ is slowly formed within him day by day. So, as he forgets himself, his true self prospers. So, as he loses his life, he finds it where it is hid with Christ in God. With such a life possible, is it not strange that we can live the lives we do?” (Seeking Life and Other Sermons p. 192).
June 22, 2014
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Genesis 21:8-21 Matthew 10:24-39
Hymns 535, 673, 676, 450
One of the most effective Christian ministers I have known was Freddie Garcia, a former drug addict, who ran the Victory Outreach ministry in San Antonio. He said, “The Christian life is Jesus Christ living his life on earth through you, without any help from you.” That is very close to what St. Paul means by “being in Christ” or “living in the Spirit.” But the Christian life is subject to perversion in two opposite directions. It is about these twin perversions that St. Paul writes the Galatians.
The first perversion is legalism. There were in the Galatian church Jewish Christians as St. Paul himself was. They carried into their new life in Christ all their former customs and their former obedience to the Law of Moses, the old covenant. The problem came when they sought to impose obedience upon the Gentiles who became Christian. The Jewish Christians insisted in effect that the Gentiles had to become Jews before they could become Christians. They had to be circumcised and observe the Jewish dietary and ritual laws as well as the moral ones. This insistence raised the question of just how important the Law was and what place it had in God’s scheme of salvation.
From his own experience and observation, Paul insists that no one can be saved by the Law. The Law is an externalization of the will of God which we can never perfectly obey. So long as our relationship with God is mediated through obedience to the Law, it remains distant and either guilt-ridden or self-righteous. Some deceive themselves that they do obey God’s will perfectly and become obnoxiously self-righteous. Others, aware of their failings, become guilt-ridden. Their whole religious life becomes an arduous, frantic attempt to keep their noses clean and they become obsessively observant of how dirty other people’s noses are. When guilt is the only game in town the only way you can come close to winning is to be less guilty than the people around you. The possibilities for name calling are obvious.
St. Paul’s legalist opponents have their modern equivalents. Many of us, me included, have a tendency to turn Christianity into simply a new Law, a new morality. It is the most conscientious among us who are most prone to do this. But they then find themselves in a terrible predicament because the new law turns out to be much more difficult than the old law. Leviticus, in the Old Testament, says to love your neighbor (Lev. 19:18). But in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:43f NRSV). Ho, ho, ho; what do you legalists think of that? Of course it is a good law. It is even practical because love works better than hatred. I have never known any relationship to be improved by hatred, nor by bitterness, vindictiveness, pettiness – hatred’s little cousins. Hatred not only never converts the enemy to friendship, it also destroys the one who hates. Hatred is poison; it deforms the soul. It will work greater devastation on the one who harbors the hatred than on the one against whom it is directed. So I have no doubt that it is better to love your enemies than to hate them. There is only one problem. It is impossible to do.
The problem is not a lack of insight; it is a lack of spiritual power. Woody Allen said, “I am going to give my psychiatrist one more year, then I’m going to Lourdes.” St. Paul had been to Lourdes; that is to say, he had received by faith what he could not achieve by effort. Paul says that legalists negate the grace of God; that may be because they do not know it is available. One way we may avail ourselves of it is through prayer. You get down on your knees and say, “Lord, I hate my husband (or wife, father, boss) because he is my enemy. He has hurt me repeatedly over a long period of time and I am consumed by bitterness and hatred for him which is destroying me. Please send your Holy Spirit to soften my heart and make me a bearer of your grace to him.” That is life in the Spirit. AA calls it “letting go and letting God.” Call it a miracle if you wish; you will probably be right. But I have seen it work over and over again. I have seen the grace of God turn hatred into love. The legalist tries to live the Christian life by his own effort, but the Christian life is Christ’s life and cannot be lived without Christ.
There is another and opposite distortion of the Christian life and that is licentiousness. There were in the Galatian church Gentile Christians who had the opposite problem from the Jewish Christians. The Gentile world was a pretty raunchy place back then as it is getting to be today. Jews had a reputation for high morality in the ancient world because drunkenness was not high among them nor adultery, divorce, child sacrifice and so forth. Actually sociologists say that Jewish family life even today is the strongest among major religious groups in this country. Gentiles (the word just means non-Jews, as you know) on the other hand went in for such things as sorcery, temple prostitution, exposing infants, gladiator fights, orgies and so forth – what we used to call “pagan morality.” They did not have booze back then but they had a whole lot of wine. There were religious groups, the cult of Dionysus for example, who would get bombed out of their minds and figure that they were god-possessed and that anything they did while divinely intoxicated was alright.
These Gentile Christians, when they entered the Church, carried in with them a lot of pagan baggage. They liked the whole idea of being filled with the divine spirit; that rang bells for them. They would get converted, baptized, spirit-filled and then figure they were divinely inspired and could do no wrong. They had been liberated, enlightened, filled with the Spirit.
There is course a modern version of the antinomian, the libertine who interprets his Christian liberty as license to be radically selfish. I knew a priest who did not do his job very reliably and felt guilty about it. He went to a therapy group which worked wonders. It did not help him do his job any better but it helped him not feel guilty about it any more. Thereafter, when he failed to show up for an appointment and was confronted with the fact he would say, “Don’t try to guilt trip me. I’m not going to get back into that box.” Being a priest, he theologized his feelings. His theology amounted to the belief that Christ died on the cross to liberate him to be irresponsible to everyone around him.
True liberty is the ability to be who we essentially are. We have a lower nature in common with the lower animals which is governed by appetites of various sorts. To be carried along by that nature, to do what we want , when we want, with whomever we want, is not to be free at all but to be enslaved by our passions. “It feels so good; it feels so right. How can it be wrong?” Trust me, it can. If our feelings were a reliable index of God’s will, we would never have needed the Law to begin with. True liberty is to act in accordance with our higher, spiritual nature.
But no matter how Spirit-filled we are, we never cease to be sinners. The greatest saints have been most aware of this fact. It is precisely when we are most Spirit-filled that Satan can win his greatest victories. It is when you are a faithful Christian and in a position to win others to Christ, that you are the greatest danger to Satan and in the greatest danger from him. We must check our behavior against Scripture, my friends. To be truly filled with the Holy Spirit is to be more Christ-like. He is our touchstone; he is our criterion. St. Paul has catalogued for us the true fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22).
June 27, 2010
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Seely, Texas
I Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62
Hymns: 525, 660, 327, 564
We are familiar with the twelve apostles – Peter and Andrew, James and John, Philip, Nathaniel and so on. We hear about them a lot in the gospels and they all have churches named after them. But this morning Luke tells us, “After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him to every town and place where he himself intended to go” (Lk. 10:1 NRSV). Who are these seventy others? They were apostles inasmuch as the word “apostle” means “one sent out.” But we know none of their names. Presumably the twelve were not among them since Scripture says “seventy others.” They were then seventy anonymous apostles. By “anonymous” we mean “known only to God.” The tomb of the Unknown Soldier bears the accurate inscription “Known to God.” Fame means being known to men. To speak of the seventy as anonymous is to use a human way of speaking. To take that way seriously is to miss the way God works. God never promises his apostles fame.
Christ sent them on ahead of him to every place he himself intended to go. We speak of the twelve apostles as being disciples, followers. But these seventy are trail blazers going ahead of Christ, preparing the way. Every Christian who can point to a decisive moment of conversion can point as well to other moments and persons who were preparatory. Every convert can point to others who planted seeds or scattered the seed which the Lord later harvested. Some of you may speak of having invited Christ into your lives only in the last few years. But I say to you that Christ had a fifth column within your souls who opened the door to let him in. The Lord had sent secret agents ahead of him to prepare his way.
The parents who brought me to the font and the priest who baptized me as an infant planted a seed. And that seed was fenced in, watered and fertilized by rank upon rank of Sunday School teachers whose names and faces I cannot now recall. A blind woman, known to God though nameless to me, invited me into her Christian classroom in Biloxi, Mississippi when I was two years old. Another woman taught me in Russell, Kansas the following year, another in Queens, New York when I was five, another in Columbia, South Carolina when I was six, another in Sumter, South Carolina when I was seven, another in Arlington, Virginia when I was eight. Most of these blessed souls are surely dead by now and those who still grace this earth may remember my name no more than I remember theirs. But this scattered fleshly and ghostly faculty took me by the hand and led me to the fountain of life – led me, if not kicking and screaming, certainly at times giggling and throwing spit balls. And though I did not always drink, I remembered where it was. And in later years when near dead from imbibing the poisons of the kingdoms of this world, I there repaired to slake my thirst in the abundant waters of God’s enduring kindness. And whichever nameless saint it was who taught my childish tongue to sing, “Jesus loves this I know,” saved my life, saved my life. In her or him and in the person of the seventy or so other apostles Christ sent ahead of him, the Kingdom of God drew very near to me (v. Lk. 10:9). And I thank God for that; for I never would have found it on my own. In all my searching, I never would have found it on my own. This past Friday we concluded Vacation Bible School. There were surely sown seeds that in later years in perhaps desperate places will bear the fruit of eternal life.
Christ told the apostles he sent: “Whoever listens to you, listens to me, and whoever rejects you, rejects me and whoever rejects me, rejects the one who sent me” (Lk. 10:16). This is a commission of the highest authority and of the gravest responsibility; it is also a matter of plain practical fact. We would have little accurate knowledge of God’s gracious kingdom were it not for Christ and we would have no knowledge of Christ at all were it not for the original apostles. And neither we nor our children would know much of Christ were it not for those modern apostles, those preachers and teachers who came to us in his name. We are born ignorant.
In 1966, my wife’s aunt who was librarian at Pan American College in Edinburg, noticed a student looking befuddled and asked if she could help him. “Yes, ma’am,” he said; “I have to write a paper for history class and I am trying to find a book on…” Here he looked at the piece of paper in his hand and said, “Have you ever heard of a man named Adolph Hitler?” How could a college student, a mere twenty years after the end of the war, not have known of this monster of wickedness? Simple; no one had taught him. We are born into this world ignorant of monsters like Hitler and Stalin and ignorant as well of our Savior. “How shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have never heard?” Paul asked (Rom. 10:14). And how shall they hear without a teacher? And how shall they teach except they be sent? If you are called to this apostolate, you have a very high calling indeed. I believe Kaci is already signing up teachers for the fall.
The number of people we feed at the Way Station each week day morning has doubled and trebled since we began this ministry. It has grown for one simple reason: hungry people told other hungry people where they could find food. We call that evangelism; it is another form of the lay apostolate to which we were ordained at our baptism. “Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?” we were asked. “I will with God’s help” we said. In the Episcopal Church we have a simple, stress-free way of doing evangelism. We invite someone to come to church with us, someone who could do with some good news, someone who would profit from being in a community of grace, someone hungry for spiritual sustenance. Christ tells us, “You bring them; I’ll save them.”
Christ told the seventy, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house’. And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person” (Lk. 10:5f). So here is a third facet of our apostolate, peacemaking. In every family, community, business or profession there are stresses and strains which can be exacerbated by trouble makers or ameliorated by peacemakers. We are called go be the peace makers, to pour oil on troubled waters.
Last Sunday, Father Nutter spoke of Elijah’s mantle being cast over us. The bishops are said to be successors of the twelve apostles. Beloved, you and I are the successors of the other apostles sent into the world and to each other to teach good news, to pass God’s peace, to embody Christ’s love. We may never be famous but we will be known to God.
July 7, 2013
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
II Kings 5:1-14 Psalm 30 Galatians 6:1-16 Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 Hymns: 376, 691, 671, 686
“DO THIS AND YOU WILL LIVE”
“What is the minimum one must believe to consider himself a Christian?” a man once asked me. Well, this is a free country. I am not in a position to tell you under what conditions you may consider yourself a Christian. But I will say that what distinguishes us from Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and everybody else is that we have faith in God as Jesus understands him. And by “faith” I mean entrusting our lives to the care of God as Jesus understands him and trying to do the will of God as Jesus understands it. Put another way, Christian faith is believing in Jesus enough to follow him. Belief which does not lead to action is not faith but mere opinion. And nothing is clearer in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke than that Jesus cares more about our behavior than about our opinions. He said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt. 7:21 NRSV).
Today’s Gospel reading is a conversation between two Jews about a key religious question. What happens to me when I die? Does my life simply get snuffed out, like a candle flame? Or can I somehow, so join my life to the divine, eternal life, that I shall live beyond the demise of this body? “ Teacher,” a lawyer asks; “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk. 10:25 NRSV). Jesus shows his Jewishness by answering the question with another question in turning the lawyer back to the law: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” (10:26). [Quoting Deuteronomy 6:4f and Leviticus 19:18], “He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ And [Jesus] said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this and you will live’” (Lk. 10:27-28).
Notice what Jesus does not say. He does not say, “Get baptized” or “Go to Church,” “Go to synagogue,” “Believe the right doctrine, say the right words, have the right religious experience.” Rather he says, “Do this and you will live.” Do what? Love God and love your neighbor. It is that simple.
Ah, but what is love and who is my neighbor? The latter question was asked by the lawyer seeking to define the limits of his duty. Whom do I have to love? My wife and children? My parents? Aunts and uncles too? Everybody on my block? All Jews? The legalistic mind always turns an opportunity into an obligation. Jesus responds by telling a story.
A Jew was set upon by thieves who beat him up and left him for dead. Down the road came a Jewish priest and then a Levite; both passed the victim by. In modern dress, imagine yourself lying in the gutter. I walk right past you, so does one of our Layreaders; we do not want to get involved. Then along comes a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (a Samaritan in the story). “And when he saw him,” Jesus says; “he was moved with pity” (Lk. 10:33). Pity is what none of us want, until we are in dire need of it; then nothing else will do. The Samaritan owed the Jew nothing. The victim was a member of an enemy race who had contempt for Samaritans. The victim was anonymous, a dangerous condition in itself. “[The Samaritan] went to him and bandaged his wounds… Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn and took care of him” (10:34).
By his parable, Jesus gives a practical answer to a theoretical question. “Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked, meaning “whom do I have to love?” But why turn an opportunity into a chore? The real question is “whom do I get to love” and the answer is “everybody.” “Who proved neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?” Jesus asks. “He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’” In the New Testament Greek, the answer is “ho poiesas to eleos met’autou,” literally, “the one doing the mercy with him.” Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (Lk. 10:37).
Here is love as Jesus defines it. Love, as our culture defines it, is usually romantic passion. Romance is certainly one of life’s great experiences (though it can also be selfish, tyrannical and a motive for adultery and murder). Romance is fine as far as it goes; it is just not what Jesus means by the word “love.” He means what the Romans called “caritas” and we used to call “charity.” Love is pity in action, mercy in motion, practical kindness. Erotic love will get us into marriage; Christian love will get us into the kingdom of heaven. As the power of romance is most apparent in uniting opposites, Juliet Capulet and Romeo Montague, so the power of charity is most apparent in bringing together enemies.
At Fredericksburg, Virginia, on December 13, 1862, General Ambrose Burnside sent wave after wave of Union soldiers up a hill in a frontal assault upon Confederate artillery and infantry entrenched in a sunken road behind a stone wall. Hour after hour they came; row upon row they were shot down. Finally the Union army retreated to the bottom of the hill. “On December 14, [instead of asking for a truce], Burnside allowed his wounded to lie unattended in the no-man’s land between the two armies. The men writhed in misery or dragged themselves inch by inch toward the rear. Everywhere they were calling ‘Water, water.’ It was too much for Confederate sergeant Richard Kirkland to stand. Nineteen years old, Kirkland assembled canteens of water and walked onto the battlefield…, knelt before the nearest wounded Union soldier, and gave him water. For an hour and a half in the afternoon Kirkland continued his mission of mercy, carrying water back and forth from the Confederate lines to the Federal soldiers” (Robert E. Lee’s Civil War p. 132). He did this in plain view of both sides. No Confederate fired upon him though he was giving aid and comfort to the enemy. No Yankee fired upon him though he was the enemy. Both armies had regard for acts of mercy on a field of horror, the life of the kingdom of heaven appearing on the blood-soaked earth, eternal life being lived out in the midst of death. “Do this and you will live” (Lk. 10:28).
Several years ago I watched on television the interview of a Jewish man, now a professor, who had been hidden and saved by a gentile woman in Holland during the Nazi occupation. The woman herself had children. But at great danger to herself and family, she hid this boy and his sister throughout the war in her attic. Then the interviewer asked the professor, “If the roles were reversed, would you do the same?.” “No,” the professor said; “what she did was irrational and even irresponsible. She did not even know us; how could she put her whole family at risk for us?” “How do you explain her doing what she did?,” the interviewer asked. He shrugged his shoulders. “She was a saint,” he said. “Go and do thou likewise,” Jesus said (Lk. 10:37).
The Kingdom of heaven occurs on earth whenever and wherever God’s will is done on earth as it is done in heaven. Once when I preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan, in another parish, someone took me to task for preaching “works righteousness.” But I am simply being faithful to the mind of Christ. Even St. Paul, the recovering Pharisee, from whom we get all our prejudice against works, knows that faith must express itself in action. To the Church in Rome, Paul wrote, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments…are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rms. 13:8-10 NRSV). “You have given the right answer,” Jesus said; “do this, and you will live” (Lk. 10:28).
But doesn’t God give us eternal life as a free gift? He has certainly given us this mortal life as a gift; we did nothing to earn it. He is eager to give us the further gift of his own life, which is eternal. But life is not a gift you can stick in your pocket, much less put in the bank. We can only receive the gift of life by living it. We can only receive the gift of the divine life by living that life. In this Season after Pentecost I am talking about life in the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God as life force. The force of that life is eternal and the substance of that life is love. Ubi caritas, Deus ibi est = where love is, there God is. St. John said it first: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (I St. Jn. 4:16 NRSV). Jesus said, “Do this and you will live.”
14 July 2013
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Amos &:7-17 Psalm 25:3, 5-9
Colossians 1:1-14 Luke 10:25-37
Hymns 390, 529, Ubi caritas, 657
The science of ecology studies the interrelationships of living organisms with each other and with their environments. Though the science and the word are of recent coinage, the fact of our interdependence was recognized long ago. Our very word “universe” means “all created things viewed as constituting one system or whole” ( 1971, page 917). A storm on the sun has effects on the earth 93 million miles away. A volcano erupts in the Philippines and the weather in the United States is altered. Marriage is not merely a private affair but a living cell of the larger society. We need society’s permission, a marriage license, to get married. When marriages fail, society is weakened. The Rev’d John Donne put it so well in his meditation four centuries ago: “No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine own were. Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”
In an equally famous passage St. Paul in his letter to the Church in Rome says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Rms. 8:22 NRSV). We do not normally think of Paul as alert to nature. The numerous illustrations from nature, which adorn our Lord’s parables, are absent from Paul’s teaching. But here, perhaps recalling the curse God put upon the ground in punishment of Adam’s sin (Gen. 3:17), Paul includes nature itself in “the sufferings of this present time” (Rms. 8:18 NRSV).
What are “the sufferings of this present time” (Rms. 8:18 NRSV)? Partly he has in mind the sufferings endured for Christ’s sake; for he has referred to them in the previous paragraph (Rms. 8:17). Elsewhere Paul has enumerated his own sufferings: “Five times the Jews have given me the thirty-nine strokes; three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I have been shipwrecked, and for twenty-four hours was adrift on the open sea” (II Cor. 11:24f NEB). But I think Paul also has in mind a more perennial suffering, the numerous pains, hurts and griefs we experience from accidents, sin, sickness, failure, rejections and death. I mean “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” that Hamlet listed so eloquently: “The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes…” (Hamlet Act III scene 1).
You and I live in the wealthiest country in world history. We are surrounded with luxuries undreamt of by our ancestors, everything from an incredible variety of cuisines and entertainment to the best, most available medical care in world history. Yet we too may speak of the “sufferings of this present time.” For it is still painful to be born. It is painful to grow up. Schooling is demanding; dating is embarrassing; marriage is chancy; children are uncertain. When we have negotiated our own rapids we then worry about those our children must pass through. And when they are safe on the other side, we wince for the trials our grandchildren face. And underlying all these pains is a general malaise, a diffuse sense of futility that life is just one damned thing after another and then you die. Accompanying all accomplishments is a sense of incompleteness, of un-fulfillment. The meaninglessness of an endless cycle of birth, growth, competition, struggle, decay and death hangs over man and nature equally. “For the creation was subjected to futility” Paul says, “bondage to decay” (Rms. 8:20f).
All of these sufferings, Paul gathers together in a phrase in telling the Romans: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rms. 8:18). What is this glory? Paul says that the suffering of the whole universe is not pointless but is the travail of a woman in childbirth (8:22). What is being born in all this travail? Astonishingly, Paul says, it is God himself. We participate in an ongoing creation and incarnation. God is not only bringing new forms to life but joining himself to them. The child being born is the enlargement of the child born before all worlds, Christ. In Colossians, Paul wrote, “He is the image of the invisible God; his is the primacy over all created things… The whole universe has been created through him and for him. And he exists before everything and all things are held together in him… Through him God chose to reconcile the whole universe to himself, making peace through the shedding of his blood upon the cross — to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, through him alone” (Col. 1:15-17, 19-20 NEB).
If in the ecology of nature we all suffer together, we also are in the process of being glorified together. Paul says, “for the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rms. 8:19 NRSV). By “children of God,” Paul means all those, male and female, young and old, of all tribes and kindred, who have been joined to God the Son through baptism. We sometimes say that God is pure spirit. This is no longer so though it once was. But since the Incarnation, begun two thousand years ago, God is both spirit and flesh. The goal toward which the dynamic of universal life is groaning is the ever-larger enfleshment of the Holy Spirit. God meant Jesus Christ to be the first born of many sons and daughters. The incarnation is to be an ever-expanding reality. God is present within and joined to even his non-human handiwork. As Paul says, “the universe itself is to be freed from the shackles of mortality and enter upon the liberty and splendor of the children of God” (Rms. 8:21 NEB). Each order of creation incarnates God so far as is possible. The rocks and seas incarnate divine being; the plants and animals incarnate divine life; persons incarnate divine consciousness. The divine-human union begun in Christ is to be an ever-growing reality until at length there is no God without man and no man without God.
This is God’s plan. This is our hope. “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Rms. 8:24 NRSV). But we need not only wait in hope. We may live in hope. Men and women of faith live in the knowledge that our struggle is part of a universal salvation. Each act whereby we choose the good is a Christian deed by which we defeat the Devil and up-build the body of Christ. Each act of charity, each act of Christian courage, each act of virtue, each disavowal of vengeance, each spurning of the tempter’s offer is a raindrop of grace. Each is small, almost insignificant. But together the drops form a shower. Millions of them become a flood that rolls on, and overtops all dams. Let it roll; let it roll on inexorable, irresistible, benignant, sweeping the whole universe into the Kingdom of God.
July 20, 2014
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Wisdom 12:13, 16-19 Psalm 86
Romans 8:12-25 Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Once when I was in the Dairy Queen a man ahead of me was giving his order. Below me was the sound of moaning and pleading. I looked down and beheld a child with tears in his eyes. My heart was stricken. “Who is tormenting this poor child?” I wondered. He was crying, “Please, Daddy, please. I want one.” Then I realized he was simply importuning his father to buy him a Dilly Bar. “Why don’t you shut this kid up?” I wanted to say. Then the father did. He bought him a Dilly Bar.
One summer I went out to Santa Barbara, California for a week to stay in a retreat house run by the Order of the Holy Cross, an Episcopal monastic society. We did the four fold Prayer Book Daily Office plus the Eucharist every day. The one prayer that was said at Morning Prayer, Noon Day Prayer, Evening Prayer, Compline and the Eucharist was the Lord’s Prayer. We said it five times a day. It is also part of our Baptismal liturgy, Confirmation, Marriage, Unction and the Burial Office. The Lord’s Prayer is far and away the most known and said prayer, not only in the Episcopal Church, but in every Christian church. And it always has been.
It is possible that if Jesus of Nazareth came back to earth today, he would be dumfounded by our constant iteration of this prayer. He may not have been trying to teach them a prayer at all. Luke tells us our Lord’s teaching was occasioned by the disciples, having observed him so often in prayer, asking him to teach them how to pray. Jesus may have been saying, “When you pray, pray like this: `Father, thy name be hallowed…’” In other words, “Let your prayer be short, direct and to the point.” In the Gospel of St. Matthew which contains the more familiar form of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ teaching is preceded by his saying: “When you are praying do not heap up empty phrases like the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then in this way: `Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…’” (Mt. 6:7-9 NRSV).
But whether our Lord intended to teach his disciples a prayer or was giving them a model of how to pray, the Lord’s Prayer gives us an intimate insight into Jesus’ own spirituality. For one would suppose he taught the disciples to pray as he himself prayed.
Jesus begins, “Father” (Lk. 11:2), not “Our Father in heaven” as in Matthew’s version (Mt. 6:9), but simply “Father.” “Father” is Jesus’ characteristic way of addressing God. Luke tells us (23:34) that on the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” We are so used to saying the Lord’s Prayer that we perhaps do not notice the stunning incongruity of calling the author of the universe “Father.” Jesus is the first person in human history to do so as a usual practice. The characteristic Old Testament appellation for God was “Lord,” as well it might be. Jesus also calls him “Lord.” Matthew shows us Jesus praying, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent…”(Mt. 11:25 NRSV). It is precisely the high and holy, terrible and mighty Lord of the Old Testament whom Jesus calls “Father.” You and I do not use familiar language to powerful people. I never in my life called a bishop by his first name until one invited me to. Jesus assumes, and invites us into, a familial relationship with God.
God is also the King. We know that because in the next breath, Jesus says, “your kingdom come” (Lk. 11:2) and only a king can have a kingdom. But the king is father. When Prince William, Duke of Cambridge becomes king one day, most everyone will address him as “Your Majesty”; they already address him as “Your Royal Highness.” But baby George, born last Monday, can call him “Daddy.” Mark tells us that, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me” (Mk. 14:36). The word “Father” here translates the Aramaic “Abba” the word Jesus actually would have used. But “ab” is the Aramaic for father; “abba” is perhaps the intimate, childish form “Daddy.” Jesus later told his disciples “whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it” (Lk. 18:17). Jesus is inviting us to address the Lord of heaven and earth “Abba,” “Papa,” “Dada,” “Daddy.” He is explaining how he himself has entered God’s kingdom, namely by throwing himself into God’s embrace as an ingenuous, innocent, trusting child enthusiastically throws himself into the arms of his affectionate father. Jesus has risked with God a trust and an affection we ourselves rarely vouchsafe to anyone. That risking is what we call “faith.”
“Father” has been a very powerful and somewhat problematic metaphor in Christian spirituality. For each of us the image inevitably references our human father. Some fathers abandon their children; others are foolishly indulgent; some are attentive; some are abusive; none are perfect. My own father was a formidable figure. He was a paragon of virtue. He was kind but somewhat distant. He kept his own counsel. He spanked me only three times in my life but his look of disapproval could knot my stomach. I always knew my mother would love me whatever I did. But my father’s love, or certainly his approval, which amounted to the same thing, was conditioned upon my comporting myself honorably. Some theologians have argued that, since God is intrinsically beyond sexuality, it is as appropriate to call God “Mother” as it is “Father.” I suppose that is true but we bypass Jesus when we do so. For not only did Jesus teach us to call God “Father” but we have access to God’s unconditional love through Christ. Without Christ’s life, teaching and death, we would know only the forbidding figure of the Old Testament. I can approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, in spite of my many sins, because I bring with me Christ’s sacrificial blood as entrance fee.
As father and king, God is both loving and powerful. I am glad he is both. If he were loving but not powerful, he would simply be a poor wretch beside me. If he were powerful but not loving, he would terrorize me. Calling God, “Father,” as Jesus invites us to, says a great deal about who God is; it also says something important about who we are. “We are children of God; and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ (Rms. 8:16f NRSV). And if our father is the king, each of us is a prince or princess not of Cambridge but of heaven.
Father and king are simple images. The prayer Christ taught us is simple. If Jesus was a mystic, we do not know it from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark or Luke. Jesus does not teach his disciples how to meditate or contemplate. He does not offer techniques for being united with the ground and abyss of Being-Itself. Rather he prays that God’s will be done and urges us to will to be instruments of that will. He does not teach the love of ecstatic union but the charitable love of neighbor and forgiveness of enemies.
I was taught that there are five kinds of oral prayer: adoration, thanksgiving, intercession, confession and petition. Of these adoration is the highest because it is the most God-centered and disinterested. Intercession is lofty because it is praying for the needs of others; that is what Abraham is doing in this morning’s Old Testament reading. Thanksgiving is always the appropriate response to grace given. Confession is tough and necessary. Petition, which is asking for things for oneself, is the most primitive and childish form of prayer. Yet the prayer Jesus taught his disciples is one petition after another. “Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins… And do not bring us to the time of trial” (Lk. 11:3-4 NRSV).
Of course you can say that this was a beginner’s prayer, and no doubt you are right. But isn’t it nice to know that Christ gives us permission to begin to pray as beginners. It is okay to pray even if we are selfish and demanding and childish. In fact Jesus would probably point to that kid in the Dairy Queen as a model of petitionary prayer. Keep on whining and pleading and carrying on for what you want from your Father. Keep it up long enough and maybe he will give it to you. He will certainly give you something good. “Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Lk. 11:9).
July 28, 2013
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Hymns: 410, 635, 711, 707, 637 Genesis 18:20-33 Psalm 138:1-4, 7-9
Colossians 2:6-15 Luke 11:1-13
Some years ago I walked into a liquor store to buy some wine. On the cash register was one of those cards that said “In God we trust; all others pay cash.” As he took my money, the proprietor said, “How’s the preaching business? Been bringing in the cash? Been getting rich?” “I beg your pardon?” I said. “Sorry Padre” he replied; “but I’m a cynic. I don’t believe all that airy-fairy stuff. And showing me the money I had just given him: “I know what makes the world go round.” “Son,” I said, “the world was going around for millions of years before money was ever invented. And if you think that little piece of green paper is going to stand between you and disaster, you are not a cynic; you are naïve. We are always just a tire screech away from death. I would rather trust the power that really does make the world go round.”
The farmer in the parable of the rich fool reminded me a little bit of that liquor store proprietor. The parable does not mention cash because 1st Century Palestine did not have much of a cash economy. For most of history wealth has meant land and the farmer must have had a lot of it because it yielded him heavy crops (cf. Lk 12:16). What is wrong with that? Nothing at all. The problem was not the farmer’s wealth; it was his attitude toward it.
Was the farmer selfish? I suppose we could make a case that he was. Someone once said that money is like manure. If you spread it around it can do a lot of good; if you pile it up in one place, it just stinks. And that is what the farmer was about to do with his grain, pile it up in one place, tear down his barns and build bigger ones. It never occurred to him to spread it around a little, maybe help out some people less fortunate than himself. At the close of the parable Jesus refers to “the man who amasses wealth for himself and remains a pauper in the sight of God.” (Lk 12:21)
I think we can successfully argue that the farmer was selfish but that is not the point Jesus is making. Jesus does not call him selfish or crooked or unrighteous; Jesus calls him a fool. Why? Because the man trusted in his wealth for his ultimate security and happiness. Human beings are complex creatures made from the dust of the ground but in the image of God. We are physical creatures with physical needs and we are spiritual beings with spiritual needs. The farmer’s problem was that he tried to fulfill his spiritual need with material wealth.
Our physical needs are really rather limited. All of us need a certain amount of air, water, food, clothing, shelter and transportation and material wealth will secure that for us. But beyond that, material wealth does not do us a whole lot of good. Rather than compare money to manure, I will offer a less pungent analogy. Compare it to air. All of us need a certain minimum amount of air to survive but that is all we need. I can’t breathe twice as much air as you can; you do not need four times more air than I have. If you had it, what would you do with it? Try to breathe four times faster so you could use it all up? The same thing is true of food. We all need a certain amount to survive but we can only eat so much. Do you need four times more food than I do? Once our physical hunger is satisfied, more food does not do us any good. Our physical need for food is very limited and food cannot satisfy a spiritual need. Someone has said that God’s love won’t put food in your stomach. That is not quite true since it is God’s love that provided the bountiful earth to begin with. But let that pass; say it is true. It is also true that putting food in your stomach will not make you feel loved. And people who keep putting food in their stomach in order to feel loved just wind up getting fat and still feeling unloved. How much material wealth do we need and what good does it do us? I would be very unhappy if I lacked food, shelter, clothing and transportation. But suppose I have all that and am still not happy! What then? I make a great mistake if I conclude that what I lack is more of the same. If I go out and buy a second set of everything so that now I have two houses, two cars, twice as much food as before, do you think I will be twice as happy? And if I owned three of everything, would I be three times as happy? On the contrary, I would be getting very frustrated by now. Next stop is the psychiatrist or the liquor store or both.
The trick is that we are spiritual beings as well as physical ones and our spiritual needs are greater than our physical ones. Our physical bodies need air, water, food, clothing and shelter but not much of any of that. Our spiritual selves need beauty, justice, truth, meaning, love and self-worth. Most of all we need a satisfactory relationship with God. Our physical hunger is finite; our spiritual hunger is infinite and is a hunger for the infinite, namely for God himself. Until that need is met, nothing else can satisfy us. The man who owns three Cadillacs is not attempting to meet his physical need for transportation; he is attempting to meet his spiritual need for self-worth. He is saying to the world: “Hey, look at me; look at what I own; this must mean that I am a great guy, right? Right? Right?” How great we are physically depends on our height and our weight. How great we are spiritually depends on a whole bunch of things that have nothing to do with automobiles or money or grain piled up in a barn. Things like “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience.” (Col. 3:12) None of that other stuff can even buy us security. As finite creatures living in bodies with built-in obsolescence, real physical security is not to be had. It makes sense to eat right, sleep right, exercise and stop smoking. It makes sense to have a lock on your door, to not walk alone in dangerous parts of the city at night and to maintain a police force and an army, navy and air force. But having taken those sensible precautions, we have done about all that we can do to guard our bodies. If you have four locks on your door, you will not be four times more secure than I who have one. If you keep ten loaded guns around your house, you will not only not be ten times more secure than I, you will probably be less secure.
Real physical security is simply not to be had. We are all of us always only a bad biopsy away from death. The reason materialism is foolish is that the materialist focuses his hope, attention and affection on a lower order of creation that is temporary, transient and remains extrinsic to himself. I cannot incorporate my money into my soul, nor my car, nor any of my other possessions. Whey my soul is required of me, perhaps this very night, I leave behind all my material goods and venture into eternity furnished only with what compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, love, peace, and wisdom” (cf Col. 3:12-16 NEB) I have incorporated into my soul. “You fool, this very night the things you have preserved, whose will they be?” Good question. Have you made a will?
If the power that makes the world go round is malevolent, no number of locks on the door or storage barns or fall-out shelters will save us. If God means us well, what he wants for us is that we outgrow these bodies and this world before we have to leave them. And he has given us the means to do it. The rich fool’s death was frightening and sad because he trusted to his possessions and had not even begun to outgrow them. How frightening to be suddenly stripped naked of all that you had relied upon. “That is how it is with the man who amasses wealth for himself and remains a pauper in the sight of God.” (Lk 12:21)
3 August 1986
Church of Reconciliation
Eccles 1:12-14, 18-23 Ps 49 Col 3:12-17 Lk 12:13-21
Hymns 1, 594, 339, 591
My maternal grandfather lost his business in the depression and never had much money thereafter. But my grandmother, in spite of hardships, was always able to hold her head up high because, in her own words, she knew who she was. She meant that she was a member of a fine, old family.
The phrase “old family” is misleading since all our families are equally old. We all had parents who had parents who had parents going back to pre-historic times. None of our ancestors evolved from a frog two hundred years ago. What we call an “old family” is simply one which has remembered its history. The year after my mother died I became interested in my roots and spent my days off in the genealogical section of the public library. I had previously relied on my parents to be the memory keepers and story tellers; I could ask them “Now who was it that great aunt Mabel married?” Now I had to be the custodian of the memory. I am glad I spent that year doing research; it helped me feel connected and rooted in spite of having been orphaned.
“Roots” was a popular novel and television series some years ago. It was about a modern Afro-American who traced his roots back to Africa. I think that is a fine thing to do. I wanted my children to learn American history and the history of Western Civilization so they would know who they are. Neither Pericles nor George Washington is my blood kin but they are my cultural ancestors to whom I am indebted and in whom I take pride.
Most of all I wanted my children to be rooted in the family of faith. We are members of one of the oldest families in the world with an unbroken history stretching back over 3,000 years, the family of Abraham who is our progenitor not by blood but by adoption and grace. I want my children, all our children, to know the stories of the faith of their ancestors. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place he was to receive as an inheritance and he set out not knowing where he was going” (Hebs. 11:8 NRSV). By faith Peter left his nets and followed Jesus. By faith Paul saw a universal church when it was still a sect of Judaism. By faith Francis founded an order of brothers to preach good news to the poor. By faith the Pilgrims saw a promised land where there was but yet only rocks and hardship. By faith Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus. By faith we shall keep Palmer strong and vital during this interregnum. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebs. 11:1 NRSV).
I want our children to learn the stories of faith that they may become men and women of faith and be able to hold their heads up high in times of adversity because they know who they are – brothers and sisters of Christ, and whose they are — children of the most high. The world will be constantly telling them who they are: you are beautiful; you are ugly; you are smart; you are dumb; you are cool; you are a creep; you’re a winner; you’re a loser. So it is important while they are still young to be steeped in the truth of their identity given them at baptism. They are the children of God by adoption and grace. They are inheritors not of dirt but of the kingdom of God. Each is a prince or princess, a child of the king of heaven and earth.
But our children will not learn unless they are taught. And they will not be taught unless there are teachers. Some of you have completed three years of Education for Ministry; we now need you to put that education to work by teaching. Some of you are long time members of Bible Study groups; we need you to share your learning by teaching. Many of you have taken adult courses here; we need you to pass your learning on to the next generation. All gifts received must be shared. That is the logic of life and the rhythm of the Christian faith.
I want to add this note. Fifty five years ago, during my first year at college I was struck by a sign near my dorm which recounts why the founders of this, the first American college, acted to establish it in 1636: “After God had carried us safe to New England and wee had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reard convenient places for God’s worship and setled the civill government, one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.”
Today the Church needs an informed lay ministry to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ in a secular culture. Please help rear up that ministry.
11 August 2013
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston Texas Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 Luke 12:32-40
The most persistent heresy in Christianity is Docetism, which says that Jesus was not really a human being but was God masquerading as a human being. No one who walked the hills of Galilee with Jesus doubted for an instant that he was human. Jesus got hungry as we do; he thirsted; he had to relieve his bladder and bowels; he felt pain; God knows he suffered pain. It was only after and because of the resurrection that the first Christians were driven to the realization that he must somehow be divine as well. Though Docetism in various varieties was proposed and argued at various councils for four hundred years, the Church steadfastly proclaimed and has ever since that Jesus of Nazareth really and truly was a human being. I am glad he was because otherwise he could not be for us, in the words of this morning’s collect, “both a sacrifice for sin and also an example of godly life” (BCP pp. 180, 232). He can’t be an example to me if he is not human. Though many pious Docetists do not believe it to this day, I believe that Jesus was human and this morning’s gospel reading, which shows Jesus in a very human light, is one reason I believe it.
Jesus has just heard of the murder of his friend John the Baptist. After two abortive attempts to get away from the crowds (cf. Mt. 14:13, 23) so he can grieve in solitude, he leaves Jewish territory altogether and goes for a respite to the Gentile district of Tyre and Sidon. He does not go there to heal anybody; he goes to get away from the crowds that want to be healed. “Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon” (Mt. 15:22 NRSV). This is the last thing in the world Jesus wanted to hear.
He then does the same thing you do when you are in a foreign country and become besieged by beggars. You ignore them, right? Maybe you give something to the first beggar and the second. But then all the other beggars see that you are generous and come running. That is the problem with grace: everybody wants it. That is why the homeless the Way Station is feeding have increased from 82 a day in 1990 to over 400 a day in 2014. Because our Way Station volunteers began taking names on June 6th, I can tell you today that in the last two months Palmer has fed over 2,900 different people. When all of a sudden there is a crowd of beggars following you down the street, you keep walking and try to ignore them. You may glance at them and shrug your shoulders meaning, “Hey, I’m sorry; I can’t help you” but really meaning, “Please leave me alone; I’m here on vacation.” So we understand Jesus’ first response to the Syro-Phoenician woman: “he did not answer her at all” (Mt. 15:23). We also understand his second response: “He answered, `I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’” (Mt. 15:24). In other words, “Hey, I’m sorry; I can’t help you, okay?”
But it is not okay because the woman’s daughter is sick and she has heard that this man can heal. So, “she came and knelt before him, saying, `Lord, help me’” (Mt. 15:25). Jesus’ third response is “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mt. 15:26). At this point every Docetist preacher begins explaining that Jesus did not really mean what he said, and besides, dogs are his favorite animals. Nonsense. He is on vacation; he does not want to be bothered and he is racially provincial. He is human. And he saw his ministry at this point as that of a Jew to other Jews.
What the woman now does and does not do is all-important. She does not huff off, saying, “Well! No one has ever spoken to me like that!” Nor does she slink off whining, “He hurt my feelings.” Her pride was less important than her daughter. Casting pride, anger, and hurt aside, she replied to Jesus in great humility and with great dignity, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Mt. 15:27). In this poignant moment, the limitations of Jesus’ humanity — his fatigue and his provincialism — are overwhelmed by the faith of a woman who does not even belong to his religion. “And her daughter was healed instantly” (Mt. 15:28 NRSV).
This nameless Gentile, this dog, is the only person in Scripture who crosses swords of wit with Jesus and wins. The universal mission of the Church may have begun in this encounter when Jesus realizes that neither faith nor the grace of God is restricted to any race, creed or nationality. Here is the breakthrough God prophesized through Isaiah centuries previously: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to…love the name of the Lord and to be his servants, these [too] I will bring to my holy mountain;…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa. 56:6-8).
Jesus was rejected by the religious authorities of his own people and faith. As the converted Pharisee Paul of Tarsus told the Romans, because of Israel’s rejection of the gospel of Christ, the gospel was taken to the Gentiles. This Syro-Phoenecian woman, this anonymous Gentile is the first of millions upon millions who have been incorporated into the people of God since. Because of her faith and persistence the gospel spread abroad through Asia Minor, North Africa and Europe reaching by the end of the first millennium even the barbarians in Norway. In the thousand years since it has spread throughout Asia, Africa, to the Americans reaching even the denizens of Houston, Texas. Because of the universality of Christianity, Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church has been able to have a brilliant Norwegian organist for the last three years.
Perhaps Jesus had this Syro-Phoenecian woman in mind when he counseled us to pray persistently like a woman who pesters a judge in the middle of the night until he at last helps her (cf. Lk. 18:1-8). There is a great moral for prayer in this story. If you want something from God, ask for it. He must get tired of all of us tugging at his coat, like children at the supermarket, saying, “Give me this and give me that.” But do not worry about God; he can take care of himself. I no longer bother him about little things I can take care of myself. But if something is important to me, I will ask for it every time. I may not get it. He may have something else in mind. It may not be possible. But I will ask. And if my daughter were seriously ill, you better believe I would ask for her to be healed. I would ask for it again and again and again until she was either well or dead.
If you want something from God, ask for it. So what if you have been disappointed before? So what if your feelings have been hurt? So what if you are mad at him? Do you want your daughter to get well or don’t you?
August 17, 2014
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, TX
7:45, 9, 11 Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 Psalm 67 Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 Matthew 15:21-28
Hymns: 537, 470, 321, 539
Jesus asked the disciples “’Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets’”(Mt. 16:13 NRSV). The world has said many things about Jesus. Some have even said that he never existed, that he is a fictitious character. Oh really? Invented by whom? The disciples? One day some fishermen got together and dreamed up this complex, baffling and compelling figure and then went out and died for their invention? Not bloody likely. Far more likely that Jesus created the Church than the other way round. He was real all right. But who was he? The answers the world has given are endless and Jesus is not really interested in them. He quickly cuts through the list to ask the crucial question, “And you…who do you say I am?” (Mt. 16:15 NEB).
What you think about Jesus makes a difference. Would you say for example that Jesus is truly human, as human as you are? The Church has always taught that he is. But what do you say? If in the last analysis Jesus is not really a human being, then, whatever else he is, he can never be an example to us. He is then like some bright angel who swooped down from heaven whose beauty we may admire but can never emulate because angels are a different order of creation. In sly self-exculpation a man once told me, with a shrug and a wink, “I’m no angel.” Well I knew that already. We are only human. But how only is the only? If Jesus is human, then the possibilities for us are magnificent. His conquest of temptation in the desert is possible for us. His faith in the Father, his love for the brethren, his courage before Pilate, his dignity in adversity — all these are possible for us. Christ is our great exemplar.
“But who do you say that I am?” (Mt. 16:15 NRSV) What you say makes a difference. What for example would you say about Jesus’ relationship to God? Would you say with Paul that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (II Cor. 5:19 RSV)? The Church can and does say, not only that God was in Christ, but that God is in all of us. The artist finishes a painting and can say, “That is the product of my head and heart and hands, of my skill and passion. Now that it is finished, it stands apart from me but it also embodies part of me; I am in that.” How much more can God say that of us because we are not oil and canvas but living spirits who can communicate with his Spirit? Humanity is God’s attempt to embody and express himself in history. Because we have wills of our own the attempt goes awry and often produces blasphemous results. No god-likeness without free will, no free will without the potential for great evil. To call Jesus “the Christ” is to say that through one man’s fidelity God found the self-expression he so long sought. It is to say that the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, in addition to being the freely willed accomplishment of a real human being, express the life and mind of God as well. Jesus, who was the man-for-others is God’s man as well, the God-man, the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Can you say that? I can. It comes down at last for me to the resurrection. Did it happen? Or is the report of it simply the product of the apostles’ faith? Given the state of the apostles’ faith on Good Friday, the state, rather, or their despair, their apostasy, I deem it far more likely that the resurrection created their faith than that their faith created the resurrection. You do not go out and get crucified for something you know to be a lie. By raising Jesus from the dead, God convinced me that Jesus is both Lord and Christ, the Holy One of God. So I say. But I did not for a long time.
“But who do you say that I am?” For a long time my answer was, “I’m thinking about it.” I said with Abelard, “”= “I seek to understand in order that I might believe.” I began studying the Bible seriously when I was a sophomore at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School; we had a required course in it. For years thereafter I took and audited courses, read books and conversed about the Bible, theology, philosophy and the history of Christian thought. But there came a time when I had learned all that I was going to learn about what other people thought of Christ. And still there came the insistent question, “But who do you say that I am?” The evidence for and against him was stacked up on both sides but was finally inconclusive. There was evidence enough for faith but not so much as to make the venture unnecessary.
And so I took the plunge and said with Anselm, “” = “I believe in order that I may understand.” To believe is not to make a claim to know something you do not know; it is to make a commitment to Jesus Christ as one’s own Lord and Savior and thus to enter that crucible of faith within which alone one may truly come to know him. In 1975 Sara and I had known each other for eighteen years; we had corresponded and conversed intensely and endlessly for two years. We had come to know each other as well as we could in the relationship we then had. At age 34 Sara had never been married and was somewhat wary of marriage. We both knew we had no guarantee that we would have a great marriage but we had come to the point where we either made the commitment or forget about it. We decided, “What the heck. In for a penny, in for a pound.” That was thirty-six years ago. I know her now in a depth and to a degree which would have been impossible outside the crucible of marriage. To act in faith is to act without complete certitude, without a guarantee, to commit yourself irrevocably when what is at stake is your whole being. It is like getting married.
Who is Jesus? There comes a time when we must answer. There are some who simply recite the creed in the half-conscious way they have been doing all their lives. They believe in a general way but have never thought deeply about it. They come to church because they always have. They have a cultural religion, a habit rather than a faith.
There are some who just keep thinking about it. They are spectators not participants. They stand of the edge of the Church’s life and observe it from outside the circle of faith secretly hoping that some tremendous occurrence will push them over the edge without their having to decide to jump. They are students of religion but not religious. Christ remains for them an object of great curiosity but not devotion. What Christ seeks are not students but disciples. The spectators may find my sermons interesting because they give them something to think and think and think about. But my sermons are just what I think and say. What I say will not save you. What say makes all the difference.
“But who do you say that I am?” There comes a time when your answer to Christ’s question, addressed to you personally, is all that matters. The Church’s faith won’t save you, your parents’ won’t. Mine won’t. Only God can save you and you can only know him, and he can only reach you, through your faith.
Christ withdraws from the crowds. He turns his gaze from the company of the disciples. He looks at you directly and asks, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mt. 16:15 NRSV).
August 21, 2011
St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Houston
Exodus 1:8 – 2:10 Psalm 124 Romans 12:1-8 Matthew 16:13-20
Hymns 427, 513, 525
Jim was my roommate my first year in seminary. His path to seminary began during his sophomore year at Yale, when his roommate was implicated in the so-called Suzie Scandal. Suzie was a 14 year old girl from the nearby town of Hamden who, over a period of time, had sex with as many as twenty students in Calhoun College, including Jim’s friend. Jim knew what his roommate was about to do was wrong, but he did not say anything to him about it. When the facts came out, his roommate was expelled from college and arrested on a charge of lascivious carriage (v. New York Times 1/27/60 p. 24). Jim took his troubled conscience to William Sloan Coffin, the college chaplain. “I did not warn or remonstrate with my friend about this because I did not think it would do any good and because I was afraid of losing his friendship,” Jim said. “You sacrificed your friend to your friendship,” Coffin said. “You ought to have been willing to sacrifice your friendship for your friend.” Jim, who was a good Episcopalian, also said, “And I thought, ‘Who am I to judge?’.” Coffin replied, “You had already made a judgment in knowing it was wrong. The question was what you were to do with your judgment.” We are tempted to take our judgment to everyone except the sinner himself.
All of us make judgments of various kinds all the time and we are also under a variety of judgments. You get tested each Saturday afternoon you are here. Please know that it is not your worth as a human being that is being judged. You are not even being evaluated on your knowledge, just on what you have articulated in writing that is relevant to the questions asked. Another sort of judgment you are under is an ongoing discernment of your fitness for the ordained ministry of the Episcopal Church. We withdrew a student from the program this summer, not because he flunked a course nor because he is a substandard Christian, but because, in our judgment, he lacked that dar de gentes, that gift with people, that is needed to be an effective parish priest. It is possible to be a saint and not be an effective parish priest. St. Jerome would have been a horrible parish priest.
Once you are ordained, you will be under minute and constant judgment. Every member of the parish will have an opinion of you. Many will attribute to you virtues of which you are almost wholly innocent. Occasionally some will make unwarranted adverse judgments as well. If someone accuses you of sexual misconduct, the bishop may inhibit you, announce to the congregation that a charge has been brought against you, and forbid them and you from speaking to one another while the investigation runs its course. You will be subject to an increasingly elaborate system of ecclesiastical discipline.
This morning’s gospel reading presupposes a system of ecclesiastical discipline and is thus, almost certainly, an anachronism. Jesus could not have spoken these words in their present form. The teaching presupposes a Church which did not as yet exist. The teaching speaks of Gentiles and tax gatherers as people to be shunned; whereas in fact Jesus scandalized conscientious Jews of his day precisely by befriending tax gatherers and sinners (v. Mt. 9:10f). The teaching assumes a limit to our attempts to reconcile whereas by word and example Christ sets no limit upon forgiveness. Immediately after the gospel just read, “came Peter 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” (Mt. 18:21ff KJV).
Lastly Jesus did not speak these words because the gospel read is a deliberate mistranslation of the Greek original, in which Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you” (Mt. 18:15 RSV) (Ean de hamartese ho adelphos sou). The translators of the NRSV decided to do Jesus the favor of improving on his language so he would not seem sexist. For his familial language, they substituted, “If a member of the church sins against you” (Mt. 18:15 NRSV). Better they should have said, “If your brother or your sister sins against you.” Jesus speaks out of, and invites us into, a relationship of filial intimacy with God. His disciples asked him, “Teach us how to pray.” He said, “When you pray, say ‘Our Father, who art in heaven’” (Mt. 6:9). Not Lord, not King of the Universe, not Almighty God, but Father. We are family, brothers and sisters. And because we are family, ongoing alienation is intolerable.
Alienation is being separated from someone to whom you belong. I am a stranger to people I have never met who have never heard of me. That is simply a fact of life. But if I become a stranger to my wife, that is estrangement. If I am alienated from my father, my daughter, my brother or sister, that is sin. Sin is alienation, estrangement. Sins are acts that produce alienation or proceed from a state of alienation. The power that overcomes alienation is love. The highest form of love is forgiveness because it is love of the enemy, the one who has hurt you. It may be particularly difficult if the enemy is your friend, your spouse, your parent, your child, your brother. For then, in addition to having been hurt, you have also been betrayed because the offender is one you trusted.
Nowhere do we have such opportunity and necessity of practicing Christian love than within the family, that most intimate and intense of Christian communities. The person I am most likely to sin against is the person closest to hand, my wife. If I do it often enough I can make her life a living hell. No one can so eloquently and accurately catalogue my faults and failings as she. If she chooses to be my chief critic and judge and condemns me, she can make my life a living hell. If she accepts me despite my failings and forgives me my sin, she can release me from hell. Whom do you have power to release from hell?
Many people think forgiveness is a great idea until they have something serious to forgive. Then they think it unjust or inappropriate or impossible. Of course it is unjust and inappropriate. The offender ought to be punished, perhaps banished. And surely some things are unforgivable. If someone tore your clothes off and beat you within an inch of your life, and then nailed your hands to a wooden beam and hoisted you up to hang by them, that would be unforgivable — unless you were Christ-like. To err is human, to forgive divine. When we forgive, we are doing something divine.
If I sin against you, please tell me. If I don’t get it, bring someone with you to help spell it out. Perhaps I will be contrite and apologize; perhaps you can forgive me and we can be reconciled. I probably did not even mean to do it. It is said that a gentleman never insults anyone unintentionally. But I am not there yet; I can be oblivious.
Douglas MacArthur, when superintendent of West Point had inscribed over the entrance to the gymnasium, these words: “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that upon other fields on other days will bear the fruits of victory.” Here in these small monthly gatherings at Camp Allen when we come together in Christ’s name, let us practice skills of gentle confrontation, repentance and forgiveness; for we will surely need them elsewhere. In the family size churches some of you will serve, these skills, become virtues, will bear the fruit of holiness.
7 September 2008
Iona School for Ministry, Camp Allen, Texas
Ezekiel 33:7-11 Psalm 119:33-40 Romans 13:8-14
The Holy Bible is family history. It tells the story of the evolving relationship between God and the people of God. It was written over a period of eleven hundred years.
The first great insight the Hebrews received was that there is only one God. That was totally contrary to what every other culture in the ancient world believed. This insight was so crucial that the recitation of it constitutes the creed of Judaism to this day. “Hear O Israel the Lord our God is one Lord.” This Shema is recited at every synagogue service. Muslims have a similar creed. “I testify that there is no God but God.” This Shahada is reiterated throughout the Islamic world daily.
Monotheism seems obvious to most of us but it was very difficult to believe. In times of stress many Hebrews reverted to worshipping something visible and tangible. After their 13th century B.C. Exodus from Egypt, they reached Mt. Sinai, and Moses climbed the mountain to commune with God. The folks left down below soon get nervous and make a golden calf to worship. How silly. And yet how difficult we still find it to rely upon an infinite power we can neither see nor touch. Still idolatry is a temptation. Still we focus godlike expectations upon those who are not God. Many is the husband or wife who resents his spouse for not having made him happy. The marriage service nowhere promises that your spouse will make you happy. There are depths to our souls that no human being can reach let alone fulfill. We also I think have godlike expectations of our presidents. We have a free market economy. What makes the market free is that the government does not control it. Why then do we credit or blame the president for the state of the economy? There is only one God and the president is not he nor is your spouse nor are you nor am I. That is the first great Biblical insight.
The second insight is that God is holy. He is not just an apotheosis of the nation’s will-to-power. He will not take Israel’s side no matter what they do. He demands that they be holy – not just that they worship him but that they imitate him, that they do not steal, murder, commit adultery, bear false witness or covet their neighbor’s goods. God’s holiness was a new revelation. The Greek gods — Zeus and Aphrodite and that bunch — were not holy. The Hebrews learned and taught all of us that God is holy.
The problem of what the holy God is to do with wayward souls is major motif of Scripture. The early chapters of Genesis say that God was so disappointed with the human race that he wiped most of it out and started all over again with Noah and his immediate family. That did not work of course. Pretty soon people were as bad as they had ever been. God, says the Psalmist, “looks down from heaven to see if there are any who are wise, if there is one who seeks after God. Everyone has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one” (Ps.14:21).
The problem of wayward souls, of lost sheep, is still with us of course. Some sheep just nibble their way lost. Keeping their heads down they go from one green tuft to another and through a hole in the fence and later cannot find a hole to get back again. So do some of us, heads down following our self-interest from one immediate gratification to another, look up one day to discover that we are lost. Some are lost because they never had any direction to begin with. They grew up like weeds untended, neglected, untaught in the midst of a moral vacuum. Others rejected the sound direction they received and are lost through vicious living. The rebellious youth gets high on illegal drugs and lives to tell of it. A lazy soul, despising school rules, cheats and gets away with it. A greedy soul steals and goes undetected. Another, defying his own conscience, commits adultery and is not caught. But the voice of conscience, overridden grows weaker. Each act of sin makes the next more likely. An act begets a habit; a habit begets a character; a character begets a fate. The one who boldly struck out into forbidden territory is lost. The cheater is expelled, the thief imprisoned, the adulterer left alone, the drug addict dead of an overdose.
Some of us are lost by our own deliberate flight from God’s majesty and consuming love. Francis Thompson wrote,
“I fled him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled him down the arches of the years;
I fled him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind
And in the midst of tears I hid from him and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong feet that followed, followed after.”
We have many ways of getting lost. What is God to do? The Hebrews mainly envisioned God as a righteous king who punished those who broke the law. They thought him also a merciful king who forgave those who were truly contrite and returned to him with heart as well as garments rent. Many Episcopalians are good Jews. We too believe God is one and holy and will forgive most people if they truly repent. Some of you think God will even forgive you if your sins are not too serious and if you have not become a lost soul.
Enter Jesus of Nazareth who says we have not understood the half of God’s love. God, Jesus says, is like a woman – not once in the Old Testament is God imagined as a woman – a woman who has ten dimes and loses one of them. It is only one dime but she accounts herself impoverished without it. She turns her house upside down looking for it and when she finds it, invites her neighbors in to rejoice with her (cf. Lk. 15:8-10).
If we feel lost, perhaps we are. If we feel guilty, ashamed, sullied, unclean, defiled, perhaps that is an accurate perception of our condition. What is not accurate is the fear that God cannot abide us, can hardly stand to be in the same universe with us. The point of the Incarnation was God coming to be on the same plane with us. George Buttrick comments: “When the creature showed no reverence for the Creator, the Creator stooped in reverence before the self-disfigured soul of the creature… A doctor cannot set a limb from the other side of the street; Love cannot cure our loveless ness from the other side of the sky” (Interpreter’s Bible Vol. VIII, p. 265).
“The Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Lk. 15:2 NRSV). Yes. Christ did then and he does now. He is delighted with the sheep that stay within the fold and keep their noses clean. The lost sheep he goes in search of. How long does he search for it? How far does he search for it? Christ tells us plainly: “until he finds it” (v. 4). Down the nights he goes and down the days and down the arches of the years. He climbs the height of the cross and plumbs the depths of hell until he finds it. And having found it, he does not beat it, berate it or drive it before him. It is tired and miserable. So the good shepherd puts it on his shoulder and carries it home calling on all heaven and earth to rejoice with him.
You and I may have committed great sins. But how many of you have participated in the murder of a saint? Saul of Tarsus did. He held the coats of those who stoned St. Stephen to death and cheered them on (v. Acts 7:58-60). Years later, writing to Timothy, he said, “even though I was formerly a… persecutor, and a man of violence… I received mercy… The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost” (I Tim. 1:13-15 NRSV).
12 September 2010
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 Psalm 51:1-11 I Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10 St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sealy, TX
Hymns 646, 439, 343, 708
The Parable of the Unrighteous Steward is one most preachers hate because, as Rudolph Bultmann put it, there is nothing edifying in it. It presents a criminal as a model. But I like it because it shows that our Lord had a sense of humor. There is much humor in the Old Testament but not much in the New. But the passel of rascals in this parable is comic indeed. An absentee landowner hears that his resident manager is squandering his property; he demands an accounting. The manager covers his embezzlement and makes friends for himself against the day of his deprivation, by helping the tenant farmers. He tells each to rewrite his rental agreement – not a hundred jugs of oil but fifty, not a hundred bundles of wheat but eighty. They gladly cooperate in the subterfuge. The landlord is enough of a rascal himself to appreciate the manager’s acumen and praise him for it.
Joachim Jeremias, an authority on the parables, thinks that in the original Greek text “the Lord” (ho kyrios) who praises the dishonest manager is not the landlord but Jesus himself (v. Rediscovering the Parables p. 34). Why would Jesus do such a thing? He commends him for realizing the urgency of his situation and acting decisively. He was very shortly to be deprived of property. What could he do? People who work sitting down usually make more money than those who work standing up. The manager was a sitting down type. He was not strong enough to begin laboring in the fields after living by his wits all his previous life. He now used his wits and his master’s money to make friends with the tenant farmers who did labor so that they might befriend him in his time of need.
Though not an example of virtue, the manager was in one odd respect an example of the right attitude toward money: it is to be used. The verse following this morning’s passage says, “The Pharisees… were lovers of money” (Lk. 16:14 NRSV). They are not the only ones. It is easy to love money. It seems to represent freedom – freedom to travel, to not work, to buy food, clothes, cars, houses, whatever we wish. But wealth is a sly servant; it wants to take control, to dictate, to dominate our lives. Paul Tillich said that our actually god is whatever our ultimate concern is. What is that concern to which you subordinate all over concerns? There is your god. Our ultimate concern becomes the organizing principle of our lives; all other concerns, values, activities become arranged around it. Materialism becomes terminal when instead of using material resources to make life better for ourselves and others we reduce our ultimate goals to the possession of things. If money is our ultimate concern we have gone beyond loving it to worshipping it. Wrong priorities, Christ says. Worship God; love people; use things.
Mammon is the Greek word that we translate “wealth” but it also means, “that which endures, that which may be relied upon.” But Jesus knows mammon will not endure. I was first struck by the ephemerality of material possessions in 1969 when a parishioner in New York named Millie Bowman died. She was childless and had never married. Her only living relation was a niece who was in charge of disposing of her property. Some clothes and furniture she could give to Good Will Industries. But much of her stuff was worthless. For several hours I helped the niece cart Millie’s stuff to the incinerator – knickknacks, underwear, photographs, a dance card from 1919. Some things precious to Millie became trash the moment she died. People are centers of meaning; things are intrinsically meaningless. People bestow meaning; things do not. God is eternal; human souls survive death; things pass away. Love people; use things; worship God.
Helmut Thielicke comments: “[The dishonest manager] is above money and is not a slave to it. He compels the money to perform a service. The money will one day forsake him, but those whom he has helped with it will remain faithful to him and take him in… The day will come when we shall be stripped of all things in which we put our confidence here below. We shall stand before the throne of God in utter poverty… And in that place, God will ask: ‘Who can testify for you?’” (The Waiting Father p. 14). Have you used things to help people who will stand up for you? Or have you used people to acquire things? The Rabbis had a saying, “The rich help the poor in this world but the poor help the rich in the world to come.” St. Ambrose said, “The bosoms of the poor, the houses of widows, the mouths of children are the barns which last forever” (quoted by W. Barclay, The Gospel of Luke p. 209). Use things to serve people.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Grushenka tells Alyosha a story she heard as a child from the family cook:
“Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘she once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘you take that onion then. Hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her; ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ And he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.”
One could do worse. Some have. Worship God; love people; use things.
22 September 2013
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Amos 8:4-7 Psalm 113 I Timothy 2:1-7 Luke 16:1-13
I wrote in a column, a few months ago, that each person is responsible for his own actions. That remains true. But there is another truth as well and that is that we are bound up with one another. The Triune God has created us to be mutually supportive and responsible. The Very Rev’d John Donne put it like this: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man a is piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” ( XVII).
In this morning’s disturbing parable, Jesus tells of an anonymous rich man who goes to hell. We are not told why he goes to hell. Toward the end of the story, the tormented man cries out “Father, Abraham,… if someone from the dead visits [my brothers], they will repent” (Lk. 16:30 NEB). So there seems to be something to repent of but we are not told what. All we are told about the rich man is that during his lifetime he “dressed in purple and the finest linen, and feasted in great magnificence every day” (Lk. 16:19). What is wrong with that? Nothing, except that the rich man was not alone.
There was another man, named Lazarus, who lay at the rich man’s gate, covered with sores, and so poor that he would gladly have eaten scraps from the rich man’s table. We do not know why the rich man was rich nor why the poor man was poor. We are not told that the rich man obtained his wealth from oppressing, robbing or despoiling Lazarus as for example
King Ahab despoiled Naboth. On the other hand we are not told that the rich man was frugal and industrious while Lazarus was a lazy bum. The fact that Lazarus was lying at the gate rather than sitting, suggests that he was crippled but we do not know for sure.
I think it is difficult to discern why most people are as rich or as poor as they are. We like life to make sense. The Marxists think the rich obtain their wealth by oppressing the poor. Some Capitalists like to think that the rich have worked hard and the poor have been lazy. But life is not so simple as either one of those scenarios. My best friend from college is now president of the Rockefeller Foundation. His salary was published in the newspaper recently. He makes five times what I do. He is brighter than I and has more energy, self-confidence and flair. But mainly he went into a more lucrative line of work than I did. He certainly does not work five times harder than I do. Nor do I work twice as hard as some people I know whose income is half mine. The salaries of all the diocesan clergy are published in the diocesan journal. Surveying them, I cannot say that they accurately reflect the quality of each one’s priesthood.
Even those who can fairly claim to have earned every penny they have, did not earn the body and mind they earned the money with. The single most accurate predictor of wealth today remains what it has always been, the accident of birth. Were you born American or Somalian? In the 20th Century or the 2nd Century? White or black? Of wealthy parents or poor ones? Of parents who nurtured and encouraged you or of ones who neglected or abused you?
The rich man was not responsible for Lazarus’ poverty but he had some responsibility to him as a fellow human being.
Lazarus “ glad to satisfy his hunger with the scraps from the rich man’s table” Jesus said (Lk. 16:21). The implication is that the rich man did not so much as give him the scraps from his table. The rich man did not cause Lazarus’ hunger but he could have alleviated it with little cost to himself. And he did not. The law of the time prohibited you from doing evil but did not require you to do good. But Jesus expects us to do good because our heavenly Father has done good to us. Jesus frequently points to God as an example for the godly (cf. e.g. Mt. 5:43-48). God uses his great power to help the week. And he does not hoard his great wealth but shares it. God’s bounty has given us the creation, the earth, the sea, the air, our very souls and bodies.
Christian charity is simply being generous as Christ was generous and as Christ told us to be. How to translate Christian charity into effective social policy is a much vexed question. William Temple, the great Archbishop of Canterbury, and many other Anglican and Roman Catholic theologians of the last hundred years, were Christian socialists. It seemed obvious to them that societal goods should be owned by society at large and not by specific individuals. But societal ownership turned out to mean government ownership and vast, ineffective, unresponsive, and frequently corrupt bureaucracies. The rich were impoverished but the poor were not enriched. So today, societies as diverse as China and New Zealand are rapidly back-peddling from socialism.
The Great Society legislation of the 1960’s produced multitudes of government programs some of which were ineffective and so have been discontinued. But other programs, which were effective, had funding cut from simple selfishness. What will work and what will not are legitimate matters of debate as indeed they are being debated. But we must not abandon the enterprise. How the wealthy can best help the poor, in ways that help them help themselves, will be a matter of much trial and error. But we must keep trying. How the strong can serve the weak instead of exploiting them is not always clear. But the goal of service is true, fixed, unalterable.
How I vote is a facet of my Christian responsibility. But I vote only once every two years. In the meantime, the means of Christian responsibility lie close to hand. Every six weeks or so a team from this parish spends a Saturday nailing sheetrock into place as part of the ministry of Habitat for Humanity. The homes Habitat builds for the poor, in cooperation with the poor, endure. In Homestead, Florida the only houses left standing in one block were those built by Habitat. Paul Conly (826-6707) is in charge of our Habitat team. About every six weeks a team from Reconciliation goes down to the San Antonio Metropolitan Ministry shelter to serve breakfast on Sunday mornings. If you want to join them call Gilson Scurlock (822-7408). Once a month Mary Earle or I go work at Christian Assistance Ministry downtown. They hand out emergency aid – food, clothes and diapers mainly. Call Ginger Wilbur (O: 223-6648) if you want to be part of that.
When I am down at CAM, I find my emotions being whipsawed between pity and anger, respect and disgust. Some of the people who come for help have had very bad luck; others have made very stupid choices. CAM is there to help them all, to feed the hungry and offer suggestions to the misguided. I guess I am always trying to figure out which of the poor are deserving. But I do not want to press this enterprise too far. For, as Hamlet said, “Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?” (Act II, Scene 2, line 561). Most of all, I do not want to be complacent. The prophet Amos said, “Shame on you who live at ease in Zion, and you, untroubled on the hill of Samaria…” (Amos 6:1 NEB). The sin of the rich man in Jesus’ parable is that he was able to feast at ease every day while his brother, a child of the same heavenly Father, lay hungry at his door.
Jesus’ parable has this moral. If what you want is justice, then turnabout is fair play. If you have gotten the long end of the stick in this life and get the short end in the next life, you will have no complaint coming. If on the other hand, what you want is mercy, then show mercy.
27 September 1992
Episcopal Church of Reconciliation, San Antonio, Texas Proper 21C Amos 6:1-7 Psalm 146 I Timothy 6:11-19 Luke 16:19-31 Hymns: 574, 583, 339, 609
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mk 10:2 NRSV). As so often when asked a legal question, Jesus first refers the questioner back to the Mosaic law (cf. Lk 10:26), which in this case is found in Deuteronomy 24:1 which begins, “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce…” A hotly debated issue in Jesus’ day was how “something objectionable” should be interpreted. The conservative school of Rabbi Shammai held that the objectionable matter could only be adultery. The more liberal view of Hillel was that it could be most anything: the wife burning the man’s supper, her speaking to a strange man, her speaking disrespectfully of her husband’s family. Rabbi Akiba said it could even apply to the husband finding a woman who was fairer in his eyes than was his wife (v. William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, page 239).
That law was a concession to your hardness of heart, Jesus replies. It does not express God’s intention. The intention of the triune God, I suggest, was to confer upon us that gift of community enjoyed in the Godhead. Thus the sexually undifferentiated God created us male and female in his image – neither sex bearing the whole image but the two together bearing it. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife.” The Greek is esontai hoi duo eis sarka mian , literally, “shall be the two into one flesh” (Mk 4:8). We are not created complete but with the capacity for becoming so through love. St. Augustine made the profound suggestion the first two persons of the Trinity are united by the Holy Spirit who is the love between them. “Therefore what God has joined together,” Jesus concludes, “let no one separate” (Mk 10:9).
Twenty centuries have come and gone since Christ spoke these words. The progress we have made since consists of this fact: now women too can divorce their spouses. When I was a child it was not very easy for either sex to do this. You had to have grounds for it. The other person had to have done something wrong: beat you up, gambled away all your money, committed adultery, run off. A sign posted on a public notice board in Williamsburg, Virginia read, “My wife has left my bed and board and I am no longer responsible for her debts.” But now we have liberalized the rules and have no-fault divorce.
“I am leaving you now. It is not your fault. I have just found someone younger, prettier, who really understands me. It is not my fault. I can’t help how I feel. I did not mean for this to happen.” A woman in my parish in San Antonio divorced her husband because, I kid you not, she had outgrown him spiritually. She had learned to throw pots; she did yoga; she had joined a book club; she came to the Taize service. He came home from work and just sat in front of the TV. She had become creative and he was still the same slob she had plighted her troth to twenty years previously until death them did part. Not his fault really (though you’d think he could have at least come to the Taize service). It could not be not her fault; she was spiritually expanding in all directions. I knew a beautiful, athletic woman in Philadelphia who got married in her twenties and two years later got multiple sclerosis. Two years after that her husband left her because, as he put it, “I can’t take this. It is not what I had in mind; it is not what I signed up for.” Can he do that, dump his wife when she is dying? Oh, yeah. It is perfectly legal. But it sure is not what God had in mind.
What God had in mind was articulated by Christ in a passage often read at weddings. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love… This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:9, 12 NRSV). Jesus points to the Father as the example for how he himself acts and urges us to act (cf. Mt. 5:43-48). And what is the Father’s example? How does he love? The Hebrew word that repeats throughout the Old Testament is hesed which we translate “steadfast love.” I urge the juniors to underline that phrase whenever you see it. Steadfast love, not fickle but faithful, not here today gone tomorrow but enduring, persistent, dogged love, semper fidelis. In spite of his anger at his people’s infidelities and injustices, God goes on loving them. Regardless of his threats to forget them, he does not, cannot. “Can a woman forget her nursing child or show no compassion for the child of her womb?” he asks through Isaiah (49:15). “Even these may forget but I will not forget you.” Hesed is love that maintains itself as love even in the face of rejection and unworthiness. Hesed is the love of God culminating in Christ’s ministry culminating on the cross.
Commitment is the stuff of several sacraments: baptism, confirmation, ordination. Yesterday, Bishop Harrison in effect said to Christ what Ruth said to Naomi: “Intreat me not to leave thee or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest I will go… Thy people shall be my people and thy God my God” (Ruth 1:16 KJV). Commitment, hesed, is the essence of that love we pledge one another in the sacrament of marriage. I adore you for all about you that is wonderful and I accept you in spite of all that is not. I am with you for better or worse. I will rejoice with you and be among the crowd applauding when your life’s work prospers but if it fail, and the applause stop, and the crowd disperse, I will be there regardless, beside you and for you, for richer, for poorer. I will laugh and frolic with you in the beauty of your health and youth. And when you are old and broken, barely held together by bailing wire, I will be there still, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, ‘til death. That is how Christ loved us. There is hesed.
I did a wedding for a young couple at Laguna Gloria in Austin a few months ago. They were only marginally churched. It rained. The bride was distraught. Her wedding was “ruined.” I felt sorry for her and tried to find the words to explain that the sacrament of Holy Matrimony is not the wedding; it is the marriage. I have received the grace of this sacrament in finding myself loved beyond my deserving by my wife who over a thirty-year period has made the incredible love of God not only credible but indubitable. She knows me as I am and loves me anyway. In spite of my many sins and failings, she has not hardened her heart toward me. To be loved most by she who knows me best is grace indeed.
Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? Yes but it is not what God had in mind. In the beginning, of course, it was not what we had in mind either, those of us who are divorced. Neither did I have in mind Christ’s love because I did not then begin to know the dimensions of it. I hardly knew enough to come in out of the rain when I got married the first time. Some of us have been given a second time the high privilege of knowing one human being down to her backbone and keeping faith with her. To those of you who have not had that chance, I offer this good news. Those whom Christ commanded: “love one another as I have loved you” were not married couples but his disciples generally. Those who remain soft-hearted and are minded and willing to be channels of God’s hesed will not lack opportunities for doing so.
8 October 2006
The Iona School for Ministry, Camp Allen
Genesis 2:18-24 Psalm 8 Hebrews 2:9-18 Mark 10:2-9
When I was 21 years old I spent a summer working in East Africa. One day while in Mombassa, Kenya I was walking along and saw a beggar sitting on the sidewalk ahead of me covered with sores of some sort. I wanted to cross over to the other side of the street to avoid him but was ashamed to do so. I felt sorry for him and so dropped a couple of shillings in his cap as I walked past without really looking at him. Then I heard a sort of scrabbling sound. I turned around and saw to my horror that the coins had missed the cap, had fallen on the sidewalk and he was trying to pick them up but had no fingers on his hands. I stood there transfixed. Finally I quickly reached over, picked up the coins, placed them into his cap and hurried off. An observer told me I should not have done that because he was a leper. For the rest of the summer I kept looking at my hands to see if I was getting leprosy. That was in 1961. I can well imagine the horror with which leprosy was regarded two thousand years ago.
Our lessons this morning are about lepers. Naaman was the commanding general of the Syrian army. He was probably the most powerful man in the country next to the king. But then he got leprosy and was helpless to do anything about it. I know a neurosurgeon at Palmer Church in Houston who, as you may imagine, is not lacking in self-confidence. He came back to church in his mature years because his wife got cancer and for all his training and all his brilliance and all his wealth, all he could do for her was sit at her bedside and pray. He took her to the best oncologists of course but he realized that not only was her fate out of his hands, it was ultimately out of theirs as well. So he raised his hands to God.
When Naaman shows up at the door of the king of Israel with a note from the king of Syria saying, “Please cure my general of leprosy”, he throws up his hands. “Am I God?” (II K 5:7) No, and neither am I and neither are you which is a point worth remembering because sometimes I find that people are frustrated or humiliated or ashamed essentially because they are not God. Sometimes I have told a penitent in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, “I can not absolve you of this because it is not a sin. It is just part of your finitude.”
Naaman perhaps found it humiliating to come cap in hand to the king of a nation less powerful than his own. If so, it was more humiliating still to be sent to the humble home of a local prophet. No wonder he was outraged when the prophet did not even come out to speak to him. His outraged pride almost kept him from being cured. Almost, but he listened to reason. Besides, he wanted his leprosy cured.
Pride was not a problem for the ten lepers who approached Jesus eight hundred years later. They were long past that. They were not only diseased but considered unclean and incurable and were outcast, required by law to stay out of cities and to give passers by wide berth. Ancient Jewish law, as our own modern laws, had the intent of protecting the community. It did nothing for the lepers who thus had opprobrium piled upon illness. The outcasts approached Jesus. Perhaps they had heard that he healed people; perhaps they had heard that this particular man of God was more into mercy than purity. They trusted him enough to do as he instructed perhaps because they had nothing to lose. “And as they went, they were made clean” (Lk 17:14). Too bad that faith is so often a last resort.
We read of lepers living eight hundred years apart, all of whom came to a man of God in faith born of desperation, all of whom did as they were told and all of them were cleansed. Two of them had one other thing in common. Two returned to give thanks – Naaman to Elisha and a Samaritan to Jesus. Perhaps being foreigners they were in less expectation of receiving grace from Israel’s God and were thus the more grateful. The ten who did not return had their cure but could have had so much more; they had the gift but missed the giver. The two who returned to give thanks completed the loop, closed the circuit of that relationship of grace and gratitude, which lies at the core of the Christian life.
There is an intrinsic relationship between grace and gratitude, which is clearer in some other languages. In Spanish, gracia is grace; gracias is thanks. Our word gratitude is from the Latin gratia meaning grace. Gratitude is a self-rewarding virtue in that those who possess it are much happier than those who do not. The Greek word for gift is charis. We are all charismatic, that is, gifted. For we awake each morning in body we did not create to a world we did not create. We breathe air we did not create with lungs we did not create. We see natural beauty we did not create with eyes we did not create. So weekly the Church does Eucharist, that is, thanks giving. My parents were not especially devout but they said grace before each meal. Giving thanks before we eat is a small thing but it distinguishes us from the lower animals. The proper response to grace is always gratitude. It keeps the relationship between the giver and the gifted going. James Bowling Mozley, the Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford in the late 19th century, said in a sermon, “The grateful spirit alone believes, because it alone acknowledges the source of its life and being, the Author and Fountainhead. The grateful spirit alone finds God; to it alone he reveals himself” (University and Other Sermons, p. 260). God has given us many gifts. All he asks is that we be grateful and that we become ourselves gracious. Some of us do not return to God to give thanks because we are afraid to or ashamed.
Leprosy has not disappeared. Between two and three million people in world today are lepers. Seven thousand cases have been reported in this country in the last forty years. 1984 was the year in which the most new cases were reported, 456 of them. Texas is one of the five states with the highest incidence of leprosy. So it is not impossible that you will contract the disease. Far more likely of course, we will be disfigured by something else. Far more likely than that, we will suffer from a disease of body or spirit which is invisible and perhaps the more deadly because of that. Have you ever felt leprous, unclean? Have you ever felt that if people could see beneath your appearance to the person you really are that they would cast you out of the church? When the priest pronounces absolution after the confession: “Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins…” have you ever thought, “If he knew what I have done, he wouldn’t be saying that”? If so, you are an invisible leper.
Most sinners of former times find ready sympathy in today’s Episcopal Church. Adulterers, for example, will not be required to wear a scarlet letter. But in each century, each community of faith has its outcasts, people whom it deems appropriate to revile and hate. In the contemporary Episcopal Church the sinners upon whom we heap opprobrium are racists, rapists and child molesters, the last of whom we would like to wear placards. I hope that none of you is so vile a sinner as that. But if you are, you may still come to Jesus, crying out as the lepers of old, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Lk. 17:13). And he will have mercy on you. He will receive you and maybe even perform a miracle of healing. Come to Jesus. You do want to be cured, don’t you? God loves even you because, as Bishop Hibbs once told me, “He can’t help it. It’s his nature.”
14 October 2007
Episcopal Church of Reconciliation, San Antonio, Texas
II Kings 5:1-3, 7-15a Psalm 111 Luke 17:11-19
The Jews are a persistent people. The Old Testament tells of many other peoples inhabiting the ancient Near East in addition to the Hebrews: “the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, Hivites and Jebusites” (Gen. 15:19 RSV) to name a few. Have you ever wondered what happened to all those peoples? They were overrun by various empires and then exterminated — not physically but religiously and thus culturally. They lost their identity. Why? I will tell you.
Each of those nations had their own gods whom they relied upon to protect them. When the people were conquered, they figured their gods had been defeated by the gods of the conquerors; so, they abandoned them. The Moabites for example became just part of the Babylonian empire. There was no more Moab; there was no more Moabite religion; pretty soon there were no more Moabites. The Jews were also conquered by all these same empires: the Babylonian, the Greek and the Roman. But they did not abandon their God. Some concluded that God had allowed the catastrophes to befall them as punishment for their many idolatries and injustices, their violation of the covenant.
But others accused God of breaking the covenant and made bold to try him in his own courts. Listen to the Psalmist: “Then didst thou announce in a vision.., `I have made a covenant with him I have chosen, I have sworn to my servant David, “I will establish your posterity for ever…”’ Yet thou hast rejected thy anointed king, thou hast denounced thy covenant with thy servant, defiled his crown and flung it to the ground… How long, O Lord wilt thou hide thyself from sight?… Where are those former acts of thy love, O Lord, those faithful promises given to David?” (Ps. 89:19, 3, 38, 46, 49 NEB). Some Jews confessed to God; some berated him; they all kept talking to him. They kept praying.
Is berating God the best way to relate to him? Maybe not but it is better than not relating to him at all. The psalms are still read daily by Christians all over the world. And, more to the point, they are still read by the Jews who are still here, still going on, still praying two thousand five hundred years after they were conquered by the Babylonians. On the other hand the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, Hivites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites are long gone, as are, come to think of it, the Babylonians. The Jews are a persistent people.
Jesus was a Jew. He was persistent and, in this morning’s gospel reading, urges us to be. He tells the story of an unrighteous judge who does not want to be bothered to give a widow justice. But she is so persistent in pestering him that he finally gives her justice just to be rid of her (cf. Lk. 18:1-8). Jesus does not say that God is like the unrighteous judge. But he probably knew that God can like an uncaring judge when we petition him earnestly for what we need and he does not give it to us. What should we do then? “Keep at it,” Jesus says. Jesus told the parable to show that we “should keep on praying and never lose heart” (Lk. 18:1).
But is pestering God the right way to pray? There is only one wrong way to pray and that is not to pray at all. We may ask our Father for what we need; we may even ask him for what we want that we do not really need. It is always appropriate to ask. We may even ask out of ignorance and selfishness. When the disciples James and John foolishly come to Jesus asking that they may sit at his right and left hands in his glory (cf. Mk. 10:35, 37), Jesus does not get huffy with them. He patiently explains that what they want is impossible. God will never be angry with us for praying foolishly.
Jesus is not holding the judge up as a model for God; he is holding the widow up as a model for prayer. Specifically it is her persistence he commends and recommends. The widow was in a weak position. Women did not have much legal standing to begin with and this woman was single. She was probably poor. The judge would have been a local landowner empowered to hear minor cases, not inclined to be sympathetic to a poor widow. But the widow does not lose heart. So many of us do. None of us like to get rejected. And when we do get spurned, we are apt to wander off nursing our pride and hurt feelings saying, “Well, I will never ask anything of him again. Never again will I expose myself to such rejection.” Do we give up on our relationships too easily nowadays — our relationships with our kids, with our parents, with our spouses, with our church, with our God? The widow harried the establishment and prevailed. Jesus says, “Have courage; you’ve got to have heart; hang in there; persist.”
Sometimes we abandon prayer not because we have had some great disappointment but out of simple laziness. Urban Holmes, the late dean of the Episcopal Seminary in Sewanee considered laziness the greatest enemy of prayer; he called it “the demon of the noonday sun.” Persistence is a necessary element of faith. It means hanging in there when nothing good seems to be happening. Great saints, known as models of prayer, sometimes went through periods of dryness lasting for months. They sought for God as in a parched land and he was not to be found. But they persisted. Persistence, constancy, faith in the sense of fidelity, are necessary ingredients in any long-term relationship whether it be a job, a friendship, a marriage or our life with God. Jesus asks, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk. 18:8 NEB).
Jesus exemplified what he taught. He did not give up on God and he did not give up on his disciples. God himself models this constancy. He has never given up on us. He believes in us. In spite of everything the human race has done, he is still hanging in there with us. The collect a couple of Sundays ago, spoke truly: “Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve…” ( p. 234).
Today is pledge Sunday when we put on the altar a pledge to give back to God, through his Church, a certain proportion of our money. There is another gift he desires and we need, for our souls’ health, to give and that is a portion of our time. Time is even more important than money because our time is our life and our money is not. Usually when we speak of giving our time to God, we are talking about doing volunteer work, which of course is important. But giving our time to God directly means spending time in prayer. That is the single most precious gift we can give and it is the one that most directly nourishes our soul.
This morning I ask you to make a pledge of time to God. A way to do that is to get out your personal calendar and schedule five minutes a day to spend with God alone. You may spend those five minutes in peaceful recollection. You may spend them in imploring God for justice, as the widow did, unreservedly, emphatically, persistently. You may spend them in self-abandonment — leaving your soul on God’s doorstep as a destitute mother in the old days would leave her infant on the doorstep of a rich family she knew to be charitable. There is no wrong way to pray except not to do it at all. I make you this promise: if you will honor your relationship with God by persistently giving him five minutes of your time every day, he will honor that gift and will reward you for it. He is always more ready to hear than we to pray and is wont to give more than we either desire or deserve.
22 October 1995
Genesis 32:3-8, 22-30 Psalm 121
II Timothy 3:14 – 4:5 Luke 18:1-8a
Hymns 9, 292, 585, 522
If anything is worth doing, it is worth doing right. My father drummed this piece of advice into my head and I have tried to live by it. So this morning I am not speaking to you off the top of my head. I have pondered the scripture for today and have carefully thought through what I am to say. I have tried to do it right. I expect others to do it right as well. The choir is here rehearsing every Thursday evening. I expect our acolytes and other lay ministers to get here on time. Nothing used to irritate me more than for someone to wander in here at the last minute and presume to read the word of God without having done his homework. If it is worth doing at all, it is worth doing right. Last Sunday was Covenant Sunday. We spoke a great deal about stewardship prior to that but we did not say anything about a standard for giving. Some years ago the Episcopal Church adopted tithing as the minimum standard for Christian giving. In other words, all of us are urged to give away ten per cent of our gross income each year. I wish everybody in the parish did that. Let’s do it right.
The quality we are striving for, or should be striving for, is, in a word, righteousness. We cheat God, we cheat ourselves, we cheat each other, if we aim for anything less.
The people renowned for their righteousness in First Century Palestine were the Pharisees. We entirely miss the imact of our Lord’s parable if we do not realize that the Pharisee in it was, by all the standards of his day, a genuinely righteous man. His spiritual discipline included a twice weekly fast. Can any of us say the same? He did give away ten percent of his income. How many of us do that? He had never committed adultery. Can all of us say that? He was not a thief or a rogue. How I wish all the merchants and repairmen I deal with were like him (cf. Lk. 18:11 ff).
The tax collector, on the other hand, was a slime ball. He was a collaborator with the hated, occupying power. Tax collectors lived off whatever money they collected in excess of the quota the government had given them. Imagine what life in Houston would be like if policemen and judges got to keep a percentage of the fines they imposed on us. So the tax collector had thievery built into his profession.
Jesus said, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector (Lk. 18:10 NRSV). Everyone who listened to Jesus knew that the former was the good guy and the latter the bad guy. So Christ’s conclusion is stunning: “I tell you, this [tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other” (Lk. 18:14). Why?
God does not justify the Pharisee because the Pharisee is quite capable of justifying himself. His whole prayer consists of cataloging his virtues for God’s benefit. , which is here translated “justified” is translated by the New English Bible as “acquitted.” Perhaps the Pharisee’s sins are not acquitted because he has none. Once, when the Pharisees were criticizing Jesus for eating with sinners, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Mt. 9:12 RSV). The Pharisee seems to be in good shape. But even those of us who are well, are well advised to see a physician periodically. For, we can feel well and look well and yet have a deadly illness. Spiritually the Pharisee did; his deadly illness was pride. The Pharisee’s sins are not acquitted because he does not ask for acquittal. He does not ask God for anything at all. Not even God can give a gift to the man who has everything.
For all his rigor, the Pharisee makes it easy on himself by comparing himself to an obvious sinner: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people… or even like this tax collector” (Lk. 18:11 NRSV). Anybody can win at that game. You can always find somebody worse than you to compare yourself to. Even I can do that. Jesus holds up God himself as the standard for emulation: “If you love only those who love you, what reward can you expect? Surely the tax gatherers do as much as that… There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds” (Mt. 5:46,48 NEB).
Jesus takes righteousness very seriously indeed as God himself does. Yet the only people Jesus gets angry with are the Pharisees, the most righteous ones. Why? Because, they misunderstand righteousness as its core. Human righteousness essentially is the imitation of God. “Be ye holy as I am holy,” God told the people of Israel (cf. Ex. 19:6; Lev. 11:45). The Pharisee is blind to the core of God’s holiness which is mercy. The Pharisee condemns the person God wants to redeem. Luke tells us that this parable was aimed at those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Lk. 18:9). And in the other incident I referred to, after telling the Pharisees that those who are well have no need of a physician, Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means: `I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Mt. 9:12 RSV). God has many characteristics but the core of his being is love. If you miss that, you miss the whole thing.
The tax collector has almost nothing going for him. But he does have two things. He has humility; he knows some things against himself. I am as in favor of self-esteem as the next fellow but the people who frighten me are those who know nothing against themselves. The tax collector has humility and he has trust enough in God’s mercy to think it at least worthwhile to ask, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Lk. 18:13 NRSV). Somewhere in the depths of his benighted soul, he had latched onto the one essential thing: God’s mercy. And that was enough to pull him up from the quicksand.
A couple of you have asked me why Jesus seems so critical of the righteous. This parable is particularly relevant to us at Palmer because most of us are righteous; we try to do the right thing most of the time. We may cheat a little on our taxes, our spouses or in business but by and large, in the main, on the whole we are to the righteous side of the spectrum which runs from the Pharisee to the tax collector. It is thus important to reiterate that God much prefers righteousness to unrighteousness. God loves righteousness and demands it. So does Jesus who, in the Sermon the the Mount, says, “unless your rightousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20).
Then let us be as righteous as we can. But in dealing with the unrighteous — the bums, the drunks, the addicts, the good-for-nothings, the thieves and rogues, the slimeballs, we must not condemn those whom God means to redeem. Jesus was righteous but he sought out the unrighteous to invite them back into God’s gracious kingdom. Surely our task is to do the same. Christians are called to be evangelists, bearers of good news.
Another moral is addressed to the part of each of us which is the tax collector. Most of us have a piece or our past or present, a hidden side of the self, of which we are ashamed – the unlawful piece, the promiscuous one, the frightened or ravenous or lonely one. We do not often present this face to each other, for what would they think of me if they knew that about me? It is a mark of deep Christian community that we be able to share our sinful side with some of our fellow Christians. We always can share it with God. For Christ has demonstrated to us in his entire ministry that we may come to God in our sinfulness as well as in our righteousness. We may bring the whole of ourselves to the temple, the good and the bad, the just and the unjust, the engraced and the disgraced. For God wants intimacy with all of us.
The bottom line is this: much as God loves righteousness, he loves us even more. And if forced to choose between the two, he prefers intimacy with a sinner to having to applaud from a distance the righteousness of a Pharisee.
25 October 1998
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church 7:45, 9, 11, 6
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 Psalm 84:1-6 II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14 Hymns: 423, 693, 336, 555
One of our young men who went off to a fine college in the east, came home with a tee shirt that said on front “We’re not conceited” and on back, “We’re just better than you.” I admired the shirt for its humor and candor.
I also think most Cowboy fans at least enjoy Kenny Gant’s strutting before kickoffs and his shark dances after tackles. They are all in good fun. But in general arrogance and conceit are not much admired among people and never have been.
In Sophocles’ play , the goddess Athena says, “The gods love men of steady sense and hate the proud” (line 132). Euripides’
Hecuba says, “We boast, are proud, we plume our confidence — the rich man in his insolence of wealth, the public man’s conceit of office or success — and we are nothing; our ambition, greatness, pride, all vanity” ( 623). In Plato’s , Socrates says, “The three kinds of vain conceit… the vain conceit of beauty, of wisdom, and of wealth, are ridiculous if they are weak, and detestable when they are powerful” (49B). Marcus Aurelius underscores the ridiculous by contrasting men when they are being imperious and arrogant to what they look like naked, when they are going to the bathroom, making love or shoveling food into their mouths (cf X, 19).
The gifts God has given us, beauty, wisdom, wealth, are things to be grateful for not proud of. Pride is called vanity because it is in vain, that is insubstantial. “Vain” has the same root as “wane.” A college English teacher, watching coeds walking across campus, muses thus upon the vanity of beauty:
“Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.
Tie white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.
Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.
For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a lady with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished — yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.”
(John Crowe Ransom “Blue Girls”)
The vanity of wisdom and wealth was noted by the Psalmist: “For we see that the wise die also; like the dull and stupid they perish and leave their wealth to those who come after them. Their graves shall be their homes forever, their dwelling places from generation to generation, though they call the lands after their own names” (Ps. 49:9-11 pp. 652f). How silly, he seems to say, to claim to own a piece of land that preceded us in existence by a thousand years and will survive us, and all memory of us, by a thousand years.
Shakespeare noted the vanity even of monarchy even when kings had great power. The deposed Richard II says:
“within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court; and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp;
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks;
Infusing him with self and vain conceit —
As if this flesh, which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable; and humored thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle-wall, and — farewell king!”
The Bible certainly knows much about pride and vanity. The Book of Proverbs says “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18 KJV). And the very theme of the Book of Ecclesiastes seems to be: “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (Eccl. 1:2 KJV). But in today’s gospel reading Jesus is not talking about pride in general; he is denouncing specifically religious pride. As usual, those who have aroused his ire are the Pharisees, those reputed to be most devout, the most religiously conscientious of their day. His indictment of them is two fold.
First he criticizes them for turning the faith into a joyless obstacle course. “They make up heavy packs and pile them on men’s shoulders, but will not raise a finger to lift the load themselves” (Mt. 23:4 NEB). Our Lord is referring to the fact that the Pharisees added on to the Mosaic Law many additional requirements that were hindrances rather than helps. For example the fourth commandment which forbids work on the Sabbath Day for all Israelites and their children, servants and animals (cf. Ex. 20:8-11) was clearly intended to give everybody a day off, a day of rest. But the Pharisees said you could not walk farther than 3,500 feet on the Sabbath, nor could you fix yourself a meal, nor could you move any object out of your path because all that constituted work. By the time the Pharisees got through with the Sabbath, it was a burden not a boon. That is what Jesus means by them laying heavy packs on men’s backs.
But it was not their teaching that evokes Christ’s greatest criticism. In fact he says they sit in Moses’ seat and most of their teaching is valid and should be followed. He second and great criticism is that the Pharisees do not really follow their own teaching. In other words, Jesus calls them hypocrites. He says, “Whatever they do is done for show. They go about with broad phylacteries and with large tassels on their robes…” (Mt. 23:5). Phylacteries were little leather boxes inside of which were four scriptures (Ex. 13:1-10, 11-16; Dt. 6:4-9; 11:13-21) all which spoke of binding the law upon one’s forehead. Christians of course do not wear phylacteries. We wear crosses. I do not hear Jesus telling us not to wear crosses. I do hear him saying that those crosses had better not be just for show. Wearing a cross as a sign of commitment is one thing; if there is no commitment, it is hypocrisy. A cross worn on the breast of a dedicated Christian is effective evangelism; if it is just a piece of jewelry, it is an empty symbol, a vanity.
Human beings being what they are, I imagine most of us are guilty of some hypocrisy. But hypocrisy is not the form of false pride that I find most frequent or most deadly among Episcopalians. We are so reticent that we are more likely to fly under no colors than to fly under false ones. Our besetting, and very deadly sin of pride is the pretence that we are fine, thanks, when we are not. The reluctance to ask questions when we are ignorant, the reluctance to go to the doctor when we are sick, the reluctance to seek forgiveness when we are sinful, the reluctance to ask for help when we are desperate is the deadliest form of pride. I have seen people literally kill themselves rather than ask for help. I have seen people go to their doom clutching their pride as if it were their most precious possession instead of the thing that is killing them.
I have always thought that Richard Cory must have been an Episcopalian:
“Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
`Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king,
And admirably skilled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.”
(Edwin Arlington Robinson, “Richard Cory”)
Jesus said, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Mt. 23:12). In contrast to Richard Cory and the Pharisees, “Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened” (Mt. 7:7).
31 October 1993
Episcopal Church of Reconciliation, San Antonio, TX
Micah 3:5-12 Psalm 43
I Thessalonians 2:9-13, 17-20
Hymns: 9, 482, 490, 473
“There came to Jesus some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection” (Lk. 20:27 NRSV). Surely the Sadducees would feel at home in our present culture. Much of our advertising is based on the premise, sometimes made explicit, that “you only go around once; grab all the gusto you can get.” Some atheists have said that the resurrection is the vain imagining of cowardly men, not that atheists are noted for their heroism. Atheists usually join fundamentalists in taking Biblical images literally but while the latter revere the images as if they were God himself, the former make sport of them. “Heaven must be getting pretty crowded by now what with millions of people dying every year,” they say. “How can the streets of a spiritual realm be paved with material gold?” they ask. “Must we really sit around playing harps for eternity? It sounds pretty boring to us.” The Sadducees had a different question. A woman had seven husbands. Which one will have her in the resurrection?
Jesus’ answered that none would have her but God and God will let her be. Jesus then refers to the nature of the God who revealed himself to Moses in the bush that burned and burned but was not consumed. God identified himself thus: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” (Ex. 3:6). God’s name, indicative of his essential being, is “I AM” (3:14). He is the God of is-ness not of was-ness or might-have-been ness. He is the God of Being not of nothingness
Modern science traces the long saga of God’s donation of being to us who do not have to be. Fifteen billion years ago God began colonizing nothingness with being and darkness with light. Over hundreds of millions of years he patiently evolved ever-higher forms of life from inorganic matter. Monerans became prostitans and trilobites and fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and primates until finally God evoked a creature with whom he could hold converse. Having taken so much time to create us for companionship, would he be content with a relationship so fleeting as the length of this mortal life? Jesus knew that “he is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive” (Lk. 20:38 NRSV).
The Sadducees did not believe Jesus. They were the party of the rich who collaborated with Rome and wielded such power as the Romans allowed locals. They were the conservatives who accepted as Scriptural only the first five books of the Bible, which do not mention resurrection. They were happy with their life as it was and did not need hope of a better one. But surely they were shortsighted in this. Death mocks us all, rich and poor alike; “for we brought nothing into this world and it is certain that we can carry nothing out” (I Tim. 6:7 KJV). Job said, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither” (Job 1:21 KJV).
Death may be a seemly end for the elderly. When I gazed upon my mother’s body, wasted and shriveled by its eighty years of use, it seemed fitting that we should lay it to rest. But a young person’s death is shocking. We used to call today “Armistice Day”; it commemorated the end of the Great War that C. S. Lewis survived but ten million other soldiers, most of them youngsters, did not. On this day we bought poppies, reminiscent of those immortalized by John McCrae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Today we remember our dead. On this Veteran’s Day we especially remember with gratitude the young men and women slain in our nation’s wars. We mourn their loss, the adult life they never got to live, the potential they never fulfilled. But truth be told, my mother never fulfilled her potential either. And neither will I, and neither will you, not in this life.
In saying this I do not merely mean that as children we had unlimited dreams and as adults accommodated ourselves to limited realities. I do not merely mean that even the man who claws his way to the pinnacle of success eventually retires from being a big man to become merely an old one. I mean that even the greatest worldly wealth is a false infinity, a paltry token of the infinite riches we long for. It is no mere conceit that we instinctively feel ourselves to be of infinite worth. That truth makes it the more maddening when we become petty and make ourselves of no account. We are meant for life abundant and not one of us over the age of eight lives that life to the fullest. Children hurl themselves into life’s arms with abandon and cry copiously when rebuffed. But we do not. We have learned to trim our expectations and hide our hurts. I sometimes think we do not seek life so much as we seek to avoid it.
Secular society which, like the Sadducees, disbelieves in the resurrection, eats as best it can afford, drinks rather more than it should, makes merry appalling though its merriments become and is terrified of death. The Christian Church is not terrified. Had Christ not risen from the dead, there would be no Church. As the child of the resurrection, we are bound to believe and proclaim it.
The Sadducees could not believe in the resurrection. What I cannot believe is that the God powerful enough to create this universe from absolutely nothing is powerless to prevent its dissolving into nothingness again. I cannot believe that the eternal Word, able to create these intricately wrought and exquisitely crafted physical bodies (cf. Jn. 1:3), is incapable of re-clothing them in fabric closer to that of his own gloried body (cf. I Cor. 15:44). I cannot believe that the Life who breathed life into clay would be content to have its ultimate destiny be dust. I cannot believe that the God who called Moses to himself would commit him finally into any arms but his own. I cannot believe that the God of our fathers who led the children of Israel out of the house of bondage, through the Red Sea and the wilderness would not lead them as well through the valley of the shadow of death. I cannot believe that the God who would not permit his holiness to be violated by his own people whom he loved would permit his nature to be spat upon by death who is his enemy. I do believe that the God who came to woo us in great humility will win and wed us for his eternal joy and companionship. I believe that the Almighty God who raised his son up from the dead will give new life as well to our mortal souls; for, we too are his children. I believe that death is a false infinity.
With Job “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God; whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold and not as a stranger” (BCP p. 469). This life, whether lived for eight years or eighty is but brief prelude to eternity, a short flight of steps to the throne room of the most high. If the steps prove to be eighty, let us climb them with the dignity that befits those granted an entrance into his kingdom. If the steps be but eight, praise God.
11 November 2007
The Iona School for Ministry and the C. S. Lewis Conference, Camp Allen, Texas
Hymns: 372, 526, 585, 335, 690
Job 19:23-27a Psalm 98 II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
At the end of the liturgical year our lections are about the end of the world. The end is always pictured in frightening colors. “For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be” (Mk. 13:19 NRSV). The Graduale of the Faure Requiem, begins: “Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death on that awful day when the heavens and the earth shall quake, when Thou shalt come to judge the world by fire… That day shall be a day of wrath, calamity and misery, a mighty day and exceedingly bitter.” The Dies Irae in our 1940 Hymnal began: “Day of wrath! O day of mourning! See fulfilled the prophets’ warning, Heaven and earth in ashes burning!… Death is struck and nature quaking, All creation is awaking, To its Judge an answer making” (# 468:1,4)
For much of my life many of us lived in fear that we humans would anticipate the command by thermonuclear catastrophe. One of the more frightening times in my life occurred while at age twenty-one, I was reading 1914, Barbara Tuchman’s history of the arrogance, miscalculations and blunders that eventuated in the First World War. One day I had the chilling realization, “These people who were running those countries were not any smarter than I am. Oh, my God. The people with their fingers on the button right now may be no smarter than I am.” At that time, 1961, the Soviet Union had a deliverable warhead of fifty megatons, that is, equivalent to fifty million tons of TNT. The one we dropped on Hiroshima, which killed almost a hundred thousand people, was only twenty thousand tons. I imagine that Russia still has that warhead but since the end of the Cold War my fear that the world would end that way has subsided.
Then in 1999 I read a book about the demise of the dinosaurs. A meteor ten kilometers in diameter crashed into the Yucatan peninsula sixty-five million years ago with an impact equivalent to a hundred megaton bomb. The secondary effects of the impact turned the earth dark and cold for months. “By one estimate, half of the genera living at the time of the impact perished. This was one of the five great biological mass extinctions we know of in the Earth’s past… That one terrible day undid the benefits which 150 million years of natural selection had conferred upon the dinosaurs, making them ever fitter to be the large land animals of Earth” (Walter Alvarez, T .rex and the Crater of Doom, pp. 15, 130). What is to prevent a similar meteor or comet from hitting earth again? Nothing.
Putting my retirement to good use, I read another book last year, this one entitled A Short History of Nearly Everything. One chapter was on volcanoes. Most volcanoes build mountains and are cone shaped on top. But a few explode so violently that the top is a vast subsided pit called a caldera. “The biggest blast in recent times was that of Krakatau in Indonesia in 1883, which made a bang that reverberated around the world for nine days, and made water slosh as far away as the English Channel” (p. 226). A much, much larger volcano is in Wyoming. All of Yellowstone Park, all 2.2 million acres of it, is the caldera of a super volcano – not an extinct super volcano, an active one. “It sits on top of… a reservoir of molten rock that rises from at least 125 miles down in the earth. The heat of that hot spot is what powers all of Yellowstone’s vents, geysers, hot springs, and popping mud pots” (p. 225). Scientists calculate that it has had a massive eruption about every 600,000 years. The last eruption was 630,000 years ago (v. p. 228). The earth as we know it will come to an end. We just do not know when.
Will Yellowstone blow in my lifetime? I doubt it. Surely the likelihood is that the world will end for each of us before it ends for all of us. Most likely, each of us will go to meet our maker before he comes to summon all who remain. The Dies Irae and all requiem masses were sung at the funerals of Christian individuals. “Lo! the book, exactly worded, Wherein all hath been recorded; Thence shall judgment be awarded” (465:5). Death is always a time of reckoning. When we die, those who knew us will pass judgment upon us. What will they say about you, those who are not assigned to preach your eulogy? What judgment would you pass upon yourself? My mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer on an Ash Wednesday. She died the week after Easter. She saw her death coming and had time to apologize to me for her shortcomings as a parent. I had time to tell her that she had been a wonderful mother, that I was very grateful to have had her for a mother and that I loved and admired her very much. Many people do not have time. Their death is sudden. To whom do you need to apologize? To whom have you been meaning to express gratitude? Who needs to know the dimensions of your love and admiration? A man in my former parish was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He lived for about another year. His widow told me that it had been the best year of their marriage. They lived it eschatologically, that is, with the end in view. They did not take each other for granted; each day was a great gift; the now was precious; life was too short to sweat the small stuff or to be petty. For what end are you living?
Those who wrote the Dies Irae knew enough against themselves to fear judgment. About thirty years ago the Gallup Poll found that most Americans believed that hell exists but few thought they were in any danger of going there. We are a nation of optimists. Or perhaps we just understand how gracious God is. I regret for their sake that those who wrote all the Dies Iraes did not have a greater grasp of God’s graciousness. He unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid is also he who came among us to search out his lost sheep and died on earth that we might live above. In him absolute truth is conjoined to infinite love. To see ourselves as God sees us is a humbling but redemptive experience. What if all of us could see each other as God does? Jim Crane describes that last judgment:
“The end came very suddenly and in a way no one ever expected – not like Revelation and not like the prophets of atomic holocaust had predicted. Nothing happened – absolutely nothing.
“At first everything seemed exactly as before. People got up in the morning and started about their business. It didn’t even hit us at first that there was something wrong, terribly different. Each of us could see ourselves exactly as we are. We stood naked in the eyes of God!
“For the first time we really saw each other. We confronted each other fully as persons. The inner man was suddenly visible for all to see, and each had the power to see fully unhampered by his own limitations of vision.
“God had given us his vision, and we were judged.
“This was the last revolution. Governments fell, wars were ended, all of society turned upside down. Many of the first were last, and some of the last became first. Not a drop of blood was shed” (Jim Crane, A Fable).
“Publish glad tidings, tidings of peace, tidings of Jesus, redemption and release” (Hymn 539.
18 November 2012
Redeemer Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
Daniel 12:1-3 Psalm 16:5-11 Hebrews 10:11-25
The power of new president may be severely circumscribed by his razor thin margin of victory. But our presidents’ powers have never been as great as many of us imagine. President Truman, in the waning days of his administration, mused thus about President-elect Eisenhower, “He is used to being obeyed. He will come in here and give orders right and left and then be astonished that nothing happens.”
For most of history the man with the power was the king whom one disobeyed him at one’s peril. Political power, military power, sometimes even religious authority, was centered in the person of the king. When studying Old Testament in college, I not only had to memorize the kings of Israel and Judah but also many of the kings of Assyria. Shalmaneser III, Tiglath-Pileser III, Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon were some of the names that used to trip off my lips. These men were important because their word was law. They had life and death authority over their subjects. The history of their countries was in large part a chronicle of their ambitions and follies.
By the first century, the Roman Empire held undisputed sway over the Mediterranean basin. By A.D. 30, Roman power was centered in the person of Tiberius, the second of the emperors. Palestine was too remote and peripheral a place to merit a visit from the emperor himself. Rather the imperial rule was exercised through the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. In some ways, Pilate had less power than President Clinton does. Pilate could not go winging across the ocean to Asia, nor could he be in instant communication with any leader on earth, nor could he send thermonuclear warheads zipping across continents. But in many ways he had more power than our President; for, he was judge as well as executive. He had the power to inflict corporal or capital punishment upon whom he wished, that power symbolized by the faeces of ax and rods. Or as he put it to the figure before him, “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” (John 19:10 NRSV. So men trembled before Pontius Pilate, as they do not before Bill Clinton.
Most men trembled before him but not the man who stood before him now, not Jesus of Nazareth. Pilate asks him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Jn. 18:33). It is a loaded question of course. To answer, “Yes” would be to put one’s head in the noose. The politically correct answer was that given by the crowd: “We have no king but Caesar” (Jn. 19:15). “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked, perhaps with amusement. No one looking at Jesus, standing sandal-shod, wearing a homespun robe, his face already marred by blows, though not nearly so marred as it would shortly become, could imagine for a moment that he was in fact a king. The mind that conceived thermonuclear fusion as a device for powering the stars stood before Pilate in person. Pilate eyed him suspiciously, “Are you some kind of a king?” he asked. Something like that. “`King’ is your word,” Jesus replied.
King is indeed our word. Despite appearances it is not an inappropriate title. Planets obey him; only we do not. “Glorify the Lord, you angels and all powers of the Lord, O heavens and all waters above the heavens. Sun and moon and stars of the sky, glorify the Lord, praise him and highly exalt him for ever” (BCP p. 88). Glorify him they do; only humans do not.
King Henry V of England, on the eve of Agincourt, mused upon his position: “Upon the king! Let us our lives, our souls, our debts, our careful wives, our children and our sins lay on the king!” ( IV i 247). Our sins have surely been laid on Jesus. Above his cross, Pilate added the ironic superscription, “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews” (Jn. 19:19). No one could have imagined that five hundred years later Jesus would be acknowledged as king in Rome itself and that the Church that worshipped him would be the only institution still functioning in the erstwhile capital of the Roman Empire. No one could have imagined that for a thousand years thereafter any man who would be king in the western world would first have to kneel and swear allegiance to Jesus Christ the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. No one, watching Christ’s confrontation with Pilate could have imagined that two thousand years later Christ would be worshipped on every continent whereas Pilate would be known to history only because he crucified Christ.
No one could have imagined it because we all judge by appearances. Kings are like peacocks, they enhance their appearance with a panoply of pomp and pageantry to make themselves appear grander than they are. God does the exact opposite. He masks his glory at all times. He hides behind his handiwork. To human demands that he show himself, he replies only with the daily sunrise. In reply to our constant demand for favors from him, “rain and snow fall from the heavens and return not again but water the earth, bringing forth life and giving growth, seed for sowing and bread for eating” (Isa. 55:10 RSV cf. BCP p. 87). If our self-effacing God were to become incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth is exactly who he would become.
Considering the character of God and the character of man, what is most amazing is not that God came to earth in the person of a carpenter’s son, but that we eventually figured it out. Someone put it like this: “He was born in a stable in an obscure village, from there he traveled less than two hundred miles. He never won an election, he never went to college, he never owned a home; he never had a lot of money… Nineteen centuries have come and gone; empires have risen and fallen; mighty armies have marched and powerful rulers have reigned. Yet no one has affected men as much as he. He is the central figure of the human race. He is Jesus Christ” (One Life).
The Jews arrested him; his disciples deserted him; Pilate condemned him; the crowd jeered him; the soldiers crucified him. But God “raised him from the dead [and] he enthroned him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all government and authority, all power and dominion, and any title of sovereignty that can be named, not only in this age but in the age to come. He put everything in subjection beneath his feet, and appointed him as supreme head to the church” (Eph. 1:20-23 NEB).
This is the Christian gospel. This is the summary of our proclamation of who Christ is. This we proclaim now on the last Sunday of the Church year and always, forever. Jesus Christ is king of kings and lord of lords. The only limitation upon his power is his inability to make us obey him.
26 November 2000
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston
Daniel 7:9-14 Psalm 93 Revelation 1:1-8
John 18:33-37 Hymns: 494,483,324,544,450
At baptisms we ask prospective godparents: “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ” ( p. 302). Today, on All Saints Sunday, we commemorate our great godparents. We remember and give thanks for the saints — not so much the famous saints like Peter and Paul, Francis and Joan of Arc, each of whom has his or her individual day in the church calendar, but that vast company of obscure men and women, living and dead, who, by their prayers and witness, have helped us grow in faith. We commemorate them with gratitude; for these heroes and heroines of faith have shown us by their lives what it means to be a Christian. We celebrate their glory; for, they have achieved what we strive for.
A saint is a holy person. “Holy” is a heavy-duty word which I never hear used seriously to characterize anyone. When it is used sarcastically, it refers to someone who is self-righteous or ostentatiously pious, someone who reads nothing but religious books and listens to nothing but religious music. None of the real saints were like that. A holy person is a godly person. The Christian notion of what a godly human looks like is Jesus of Nazareth. A saint is a Christ-like person. Let us take a moment to consider what sort of person the human being, Jesus of Nazareth, was.
The eldest of several children, Jesus grew up in the small town of Nazareth in the rural province of Galilee. He lived there the first thirty years of his life without making an impression on anyone as a leader or a wise man or a particularly pious fellow. We know all this from the townsfolk’s reaction when, during his ministry, Jesus goes to the synagogue in his hometown, reads the lesson and gives a sermon. They all say, “Where did this fellow get all this stuff? This is just the carpenter’s boy” (cf. Mk. 6:1-6). I would suppose Jesus was a rather quiet young man who spent a fair amount of time alone in the hills with God. I say that because he did the same thing in later life.
About age thirty he has a life-transforming experience. He goes to hear an itinerant prophet, is baptized by this prophet and goes off into the wilderness to be alone with God for an extended period. He emerges from his retreat on fire with God. But unlike many men, perhaps most men, who become God-obsessed, Jesus does not preach fire and brimstone. He does not go around denouncing all the sin and corruption of the church and society of his day. And let me say, parenthetically, that such sin is always to be found; every age is a corrupt age. Those who embark upon a career of denunciation will never have far to look to find things to denounce. But Jesus’ message is one of grace. The God he knows and proclaims is a generous father who is very powerful and very beneficent. He makes his rain fall on the good and the bad alike (cf. Mt. 5:43-48); he is especially interested in seeking out lepers, prostitutes, publicans, sinners and disreputable people of all kinds and bringing them back into his family. It is in obedience to his vision of who God is and what God wants that Jesus himself eats with sinners and tax-gatherers (cf. Lk. 15).
Because God is so powerfully present to Jesus, he is powerfully present in Jesus. Jesus proclaimed the nearness of God’s kingdom. In truth the Kingdom came near in Jesus; he embodied it. He was so subservient to God, the power and grace of God worked through him. When Jesus laid hands on people, the lame walked, the blind received their sight and even a dead man was raised to life. Perhaps most significant of all, sinners were forgiven. They were not forgiven because they were not really sinners. They really were sinners. They were bad people. They were enemies of God. In forgiving sinners, God is forgiving his enemies, the very thing Christ told us to do, the very thing Jesus himself did on the cross to those who had just finished driving the nails into his hands. Everything Jesus did and everything he told us to do was in imitation of God’s own character and actions. The saints are those Christians who do what Jesus told us all to do.
Do such people really exist? Yes, they always have in every generation. They exist today. Here is one example. Some years ago a woman named Sue Norton walked into the holding cells of a local jail seeking out the man who had just been convicted of murdering her parents. Having found him, she stuck her hand through the bars to touch him and said this: “I’ve not hated anyone in my whole life and I’m not going to start now. If you are guilty, I forgive you.” The astonished man blurted out “I am.” She prayed that God’s love would be revealed to him. “`Lady!’ With arms raised as if to protect himself the man spun away from her. Then he turned back. `There ain’t never been nobody been nice to me before’” ( Nov. 1994 p. 1). Sue Norton is a saint.
Two things about sanctity are very clear to me. 1) Sanctity is not just religious common sense. It is Christ-like. It is difficult. It goes against the grain of instinctive selfishness. It is always counter-cultural because every age is a selfish age. Sanctity goes way beyond being a good, decent person. It goes the whole way to heaven and brings heaven down to earth. The kingdom of heaven walks around on earth in the person of saints. 2) Sanctity is possible. It does exist. It is what we are called to as Christians. It is what we aim at in the Baptismal Covenant ( pp. 304-305). Christianity aims no lower than at that convergence of the human and the divine that we see in the life of Jesus and in lives of his saints.
How does one get to be a saint? Even if one has an extraordinarily life-transforming experience, one must still follow that up with diligence because Satan will be there to try to pervert it as he was after Jesus’ baptism. There are two ordinary paths to sanctity. One is the inner path of spirituality. One spends time alone with God in prayer and meditation attempting to surrender one’s heart to God and align one’s will with God’s will.
The second ordinary way is the outer path of ethics. One wills to do the deeds of a saint regardless of how one feels. One consciously and deliberately wills the welfare of another person even if one does not feel much affection for him. I think it important to point out that we do not know what Jesus felt most of the time. We know what he said and did not how he felt about it. One can act unselfishly before one feels unselfish. If you act unselfishly long enough, the heart follows. The Bible says of Christ: “For the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2). Some saints are so full of joy they act self-sacrificially but for others the sacrifice comes first. In this morning’s collect we ask for “grace so to follow your saints in all… godly living that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared…” ( p. 245). Many people have told me that happiness came into their lives after they started caring about someone in addition to themselves.
The word “saint” is misleading because it has an either/or sound to it. In fact, sanctity is a matter of degree. Unless we have lived our entire lives thinking only of ourselves, we are all sanctified to some extent. Sanctity is a life-long vocation. The important thing for any of us is to take the next step. Today we remember with gratitude those who have been exemplary Christians for us, our spiritual godparents. We take encouragement from the fact that the saints pray for us. Today we also reaffirm our commitment to the vocation of imitating Christ, the vocation Paige Elisabeth Colbet embarks upon this morning.
6 November 1994
Episcopal Church of Reconciliation, San Antonio, Texas
Ephesians 1:15-23 Matthew 5:1-12
Hymns 625, 293, 296, 526, 287:1-5
Let us count our blessings. I am grateful to have been born in this country instead of in Syria or Afghanistan, or Haiti or most any other country. I am grateful for all who established and have maintained our American government and grateful as well for the right to criticize and complain about it.
I am grateful to have been born after anesthesia had been discovered and penicillin made widely available. Without the latter my wife and I would both have been dead long ago. Without the former I would have suffered excruciating pain a number of times. I am grateful to have been born with all my wits and limbs intact and that my four children were as well. I am grateful for my health and for my health insurance.
I am grateful to have been reared by parents who were devoted to each other for fifty-three years until parted by death. I am grateful for a father who exemplified duty and honor and for a mother who loved me no matter what I did. I am grateful that I have lived in a time of prosperity rather than during the Great Depression my parents began work in. I am grateful that I never had to fight in a war; my father was in two of them. I am grateful for a wife who has stuck by me through thick and thin for thirty-nine years and who is interesting and a pleasure to live with.
I am grateful to be here at all. I awake each morning in a body I did not create to a world I did not create. I behold beauty I did not create with eyes I did not create. I listen to music I did not make with ears I did not make. I eat tasty, nutritious food I did not grow or prepare. I am the recipient of many gifts from a gracious God and from my gifted fellow human beings. I am grateful for having learned of our generous God by being reared in the Episcopal Church rather than in a church that would have filled me with fear or guilt or both.
I am grateful for the talents God gave me, for the privileged education I received and the many extraordinary teachers I studied under. I am grateful for having been able to make a living doing what I most loved and felt called to do. I am grateful to the people of Palmer who appreciated what I was good at and forgave what I was not so good at. I am grateful for having been able to retire and that I can still help out here on occasion.
These are some of the things I am grateful for. What are you grateful for? Let us take a minute or so to individually count our blessings before saying together the Litany of Thanksgiving.
26 November 2014
Holy Cross Chapel, Palmer Church, Houston, Texas
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 John 6:25-35
Hymns 290, 690, 397
Samuel Rutherford Todd, Jr., was born in South Carolina, prepared at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Austin, Texas, studied philosophy at Harvard College and theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. An Episcopal priest since 1966, he has served parishes and schools in New York, Mexico and Texas. He is currently the Academic Dean of the Iona School for Ministry which educates men and women for the diaconate and priesthood. He is married to the former Sara Ann Sanborn. They live in Houston, Texas, with a rescued terrier.
A collection of sermons, one for each Sunday in the liturgical church year, by an Episcopal priest and scholar. The Christian Church has seen the commencement of all the governments and all the dynasties that presently exist on the face of the earth. No doubt she will live to see their end. When we consider the fact that the Christian Church was already ancient before Columbus made land fall upon this continent and was centuries old already before the Saxon had set foot in Britain or the Frank had crossed the Rhine, and when we consider the fact that she exists today, not as a relic, much less a ruin, but as a growing, vibrant reality, I think we must conclude that she lives because he does. Something happened, indeed.