Sermon for Pentecost 23 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I was on a hospital visit once, taking the elevator back down to the lobby, when a man with whom I was sharing the ride asked me “going up?” I thought it a strange thing to ask since he knew as well as I which direction the elevator was headed. I said “no, I’m going down to the lobby, too” and he replied “I mean are you going up in the rapture when Jesus comes back?” I chuckled uncomfortably and said “well, that’s a different question,” and then, thank God, the elevator door opened and I escaped. As I was walking away I heard a woman who was also in the elevator, and whom I assumed was my inquisitor’s wife, say in one of those whispers you can hear across a room “I think that means ‘no.’”

I imagine I’m not the first person of whom this man had asked this particular question on a descending elevator. I imagine he thought himself rather clever. I wonder if I was the first person in a clerical collar he had asked and how he would recount that story later to his co-religionists. Would he say that he had run into a preacher that didn’t believe the Word of God? Would it be further evidence of some prejudice he or his friends held about churches that weren’t really Christian? I’ve debated with myself whether I should have engaged the man and his wife in a theological conversation, whether such a conversation would have done any good for any of us or if we would have all left such a conversation feeling more smug and superior than he, she, and I already probably felt.

In his First Epistle to the Thessalonians, from which we just heard, Paul writes:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.

This has become a key text in the ideology of modern Christian fundamentalism, a key text in the ideology of my elevator inquisitor. You may know that already, but what you may not be aware of is how this came to be the case.

In the year 1827 an American preacher named John Nelson Darby popularized a theory called premillenial dispensationalism. He was building on some of the hypotheses of the seventeenth century puritan preachers Increase and Cotton Mather and the eighteenth century Welsh historian and Baptist preacher Morgan Edwards. While the Mathers and Edwards were somewhat oblique in their description of the eschaton, or end-times, Darby developed a remarkably specific vision of the future. Taking the passage from First Thessalonians as a centerpoint and placing it in the context of apocalyptic events described in the books of Daniel and Revelation, Darby presented what he believed to be a timeline for the end of the world.

While the theory is complicated the short version is as follows: Jesus will return and believers will be raised bodily into heaven and disappear, the unfaithful will be subjected to seven years of tribulation, Jesus and the Church will return to reign on earth for a thousand years, there will be a final battle between good and evil, and then the final judgment will take place and everyone will go to either heaven or hell.

This remained a somewhat marginal view until the 1909 publication of the Scofield Reference Bible. The first bible since the 1560 Geneva Bible to include commentary right alongside the Scriptures themselves, it encouraged one to read the bible in such a way as to accept Darby’s theory. Incidentally, it was also the bible which introduced the modern strain of “Young Earth Creationism”- the idea that God created the world sometime in the last ten thousand years. It is Scofield whom we can thank for Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, the popular Left Behind series of books (as well as the feature film starring everyone’s favorite crazy man, Nicholas Cage), the virulent antiscientism of tens of millions of US Americans, Christian Zionism, the claim that Barak Obama was either a Muslim or the Antichrist or both, and the most terrifying website I’ve ever seen-

The most remarkable part of this story is that a guy in the nineteenth century basically made it all up. Virtually nobody believed any of this stuff two hundred years ago. This is not to say that every Christian in the world believed exactly the same thing about the eschaton prior to Darby. There have been good and healthy debates between people who believed different things about the second coming, particularly whether things were going to get better and better or worse and worse leading up to Christ’s return and the General Resurrection. Each of these schools of thought can be argued on the basis of Scripture and traditional Church teaching. But each of these schools of thought reads the fourth chapter of First Thessalonians as referring to the General Ressurection on the Last Day which immediately precedes Christ’s judgment and his gracious act of establishing a new heaven and a new earth, not some early boarding pass for the heavenly banquet while the unbelievers are left in some kind of perdition.
This is neither a conservative nor a liberal point of view. Anglicanism/Episcopalianism teaches it. Lutherans and Prebyterians and Methodists believe it. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe it. Moderate and Progressive Baptists believe it. The Amish and the Mennonites believe it.

But a heck-of-a-lot of Christians in this country have been taught premillenial dispensationalism. Seven of the Left Behind books have reached “number one” on the New York Times Best Sellers list, which gives you a good idea of how popular the theory is. I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of television and radio preachers teach the theory- a theory (and I don’t normally make such a bold claim, but in this case I believe it to be justified) which simply doesn’t hold up under any serious program of reading and interpreting the bible. But why, you might ask, does it matter?

Is this not an issue on which we should just agree to disagree? I don’t agree, for example, with the Presbyterians on how many sacraments there are or with the Roman Catholics on papal infallibility. These issues seem more important or at least more relevant, yet I don’t get really exercised about their points of view, at least in my preaching.

First, I think theological positions like that have a basis in at least some ways of faithfully interpreting Scripture and Church Tradition. One can have civil, theologically informed debates over those issues. Maybe it’s some unexamined prejudice on my part, but I just don’t see the same conversation being possible with the issue in question. It’s almost like fundamentalist eschatology uses a language which isn’t intelligible to me, like I’m speaking in English and they’re speaking Mandarin, and neither of us even has a phrase book.

The other reason is that I honestly believe that premillenial dispensationalism produces a dangerous worldview. This is not a polite or absolutely inclusive thing to say, and I beg your pardon for that, but I believe this to be both true and deadly serious. The idea that one smart or lucky enough to be a believer should be spared difficulty while the nonbelievers deserve tribulation leads one to one of two equally dangerous conclusions- either we should stop caring about the plight of those whose creed is different from our own because God ordained them to suffer or else our only responsibility in this world is to rack up converts, put notches in our belts for the souls we (not God) have saved. I’ve not read the Left Behind books, but I have read exerpts of some of the nasty bits as well as interviews with the authors, and the tortures they describe being inflicted on nonbelievers(by Jesus himself, no less) is nothing short of despicable. It reminds one of the genre of film that has come to be called “torture porn” in which one is meant to get a kick out of horrible violence being inflicted on people. It dehumanizes “the other”, making the most depraved, wicked sort of hatred not only palatable but fun. It is not hyperbole to say that this sort of “entertainment” harms ones soul, and when one doesn’t believe it’s entirely fictitious it can eventually make one vicious.

The most terrifying thing to me is that there are people who completely buy in to this theory in positions of power in business and government making decisions based on it. I imagine there are people here now who agree with me on certain matters of our country’s foreign policy and those who don’t. That’s perfectly fine. Reasonable people can disagree. It scares me witless, though, to think that there are some people with a lot of pull with regard to our policy in the Middle East who honest-to-God believe that the modern state of Israel has something to do with Jesus’ second-coming.

I’m sure there are some here who disagree with me with regard to education and energy and environmental policy. That’s fine, too. Reasonable people can disagree. It horrifies me, though, that there are people deciding what textbooks our children read who don’t believe in science and that there are lawmakers and bureaucrats who believe that the world is going to end anyway, Jesus is going to give us a thousand-year-long do-over, so our planet is more-or-less expendable.

So, what do we do? I believe it is time for reasonable Christians to start talking about eschatology again, both in private conversations and public forums. We’ve been reticent to do so and have ceded that topic to a very vocal minority. It’s time for us to say that Jesus is coming again, but not to torture heathens. He’s coming to breathe new life where death reigns. It’s time to admit that we’ve made a hash of things, but we don’t get a millenial do-over so we’d better start being more virtuous and responsible and loving here and now. It’s time to start preaching the Resurrection again, because that message is a whole lot more compelling than anything a fundamentalist post-apocalyptic horror story can come up with.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I have complained from this pulpit before about the new lectionary (the Revised Common Lectionary, which we started using about a decade ago), so I won’t belabor the point too much. The lessons this morning all point to something quite wonderful which is at the heart of our Christian faith: namely, the hope of the Resurrection of the faithful. It is a very important matter of doctrine, of which we must be reminded as often as possible. Even so, this is the theological truth we focus on on the day after All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day (and for that matter, every Easter and every funeral and every time we recite the Creed). It has been the tradition of this parish for some time to combine All Saints’ and All Souls’ by reciting our necrology during the prayers of the people on this Sunday every year, and said tradition is more-or-less appropriate.

That said, the historic focus on this Holy Day has not been on all the faithful departed but on that peculiar group of women and men before whose names we put a capital “S” “Saint”. We are all, scripture tells us small “s” saints, but at least in our little corner of Christianity (actually the more the two-thirds of Christianity comprising the three great catholic traditions of Roman Catholicism Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism) we also recognize that there are women and men of special virtue whose memory ought to be celebrated. While not every church which has signed on to the revised lectionary can get on board with saints’ days and veneration and the like (it is an ecumenical lectionary, used by more reformed sorts of Protestants, particularly those who might opt to celebrate the anniversary of the Reformation rather than All Saints’ Day this week), it is a great part of our tradition, so I’d like us to focus on that for just a minute.

First, what does it mean to be a Saint? Well it comes from the Latin “Sanctus” meaning “holy”. The word in New Testament Greek which was eventually translated into “sanctus” or “holy” is “hagios” which simply means “set apart”. From an anthropological standpoint, there has since humanity became civilized ten or fifteen millenia ago been a sort of preternatural drive to set certain things apart from ordinary, profane things. This probably started with reverence for the dead, but developed quite quickly (at least in terms of the geologic time scale) to include tribal rituals and the like which were defined by what French sociologist Emile Durkheim termed “communal effervescence.” So, it seems that something about us means that we need to be able to set things apart, to distinguish the sacred from the profane.

As Christians, though, we believe that there is something in addition to the way we evolved as a species and became civilized which creates this need. In short, we set things apart because there really are “holy things.” There is something objectively, ontologically different about certain aspects of our individual and communal lives. There is something different and special and real about what goes on at the altar, which is why we have a sanctus (or “holy”) candle up there and why we ring sanctus (or holy) bells and why in some churches (and I hope we’ll be one of them pretty soon) have holy water fonts right by the church doors to remind the faithful both of the fact that this space is holy (set aside for worship) and that we are holy (set aside for God in Baptism).

So, why holy people? Why capital “S” Saints if we are already set apart, made small “s” saints in Baptism? It seems somewhat undemocratic, doesn’t it. Well, first of all, there are some ways in which Christianity as we have received it from Jesus and the Apostles is democratic and some ways in which it just isn’t. We are all part of the body, of the priesthood of all believers and there isn’t any human being that’s any baptized person who is inferior to any other in the final analysis. But we do have an hierarchical church and an hierarchical priesthood and it seems to me that a faithful reading of Scripture and of the Tradition of the Church suggests that this is as it should be. Most importantly, we have Christ as the head of our body. Christ is our King, not our duly elected president who happened to get enough votes from the apostolic electoral college.

There are those whom Christ calls to a special order of ministry, to represent Himself to the people. For one thing, that’s why we have an educated, trained, ordained, professional college of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons in the Church (and, dare I add, that this is why we pay them, and ask them to work at it full time). This is (to me, anyway) not a source of pride but of the most intense sense of humility.

There are also those whom Christ calls to be His most special representatives to a particular time and place and situation and whose lives of devotion can serve as a model for the rest of us. Or, as our Book of Common Prayer eloquently puts it, there are some called to be “the chosen vessels of [God’s] grace, and the lights of the world in their generations.” Some of us, myself included, call on these women and men to intercede for us, just as many ask a friend or a priest to pray for them or a loved one. For others, this is not a part of their piety, but the examples of the Saints can still instruct and inspire us. The courage of the martyrs, the wisdom of church doctors, the temperance of virgins, the fervor of evangelists, the conviction of those who work for Christ’s reign of justice and peace, should stir up in us the will and wherewithal to be vessels of God’s grace in our own generation. Their emulation of and commitment to our Lord and Savior should inspire us to be a little bit unsatisfied being small “s” saints. Our godly discomfiture should spur us on to try to be capital “S” Saints, knowing that most of us won’t make it, which is okay, but finding a greater satisfaction when we rest from all our labors, and know that we did our level best to confess before this world the name of Jesus.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 21 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The great English writer G.K. Chesterton once said of today’s Gospel, “Jesus here tells us to love our neighbors. Elsewhere the bible tells us we should love our enemies. This is because, generally speaking, they are the same people.” If you know Chesterton, you’ll know that this statement does not belie his public character; I don’t think there’s a whiff of sarcasm or misanthropy in it. Chesterton had plenty of “friendly enemies”—or to use the contemporary portmanteau: frenemies—chief among them George Bernard Shaw, people whom he loved greatly and with whom he disagreed viscerally. I think our current political class could learn something from Chesterton.

Indeed, we all can and must, because it is none other than a mandate from Jesus himself:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.

We may respond to this by asking “well, then, who is my neighbor?” In St. Luke’s version of the story, the lawyer who asks the initial question and receives Jesus’ famous response, proceeds to ask the second question—Who is my neighbor?—in order to trick Jesus, and Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

You likely remember how that one goes. The priest and the Levite—righteous men by Jewish religious standards—pass by the wounded traveler without offering any kind of assistance. The Samaritan, a member of a race and religion very much at odds with the Jews, rescues the traveler and pays his expenses during his convalescence. Who was the traveler’s neighbor? None other than a man whom circumstance had made his enemy.

We have a rather narrow definition of love, which I don’t think is unique to our time and place, but which is nonetheless misguided. We hear the word “love” and what do we think? We probably think of warm feelings for somebody because of some kinship or friendship or personal attraction. Warm feelings for somebody are well and good, but Christian charity is a much broader concept, and it seems to me to have little to do with those of whom we are predisposed to be fond.

Love in the Christian sense includes a commitment to act on behalf of those with whom we have little in common and even those with whom we are at enmity. Look back at that reading from Leviticus. Unfortunately it skipped several verses which are germane to our discussion of love. In the verses we heard, the Israelites are commanded to avoid prejudice and partiality, to avoid slander, to shun hatred, and to divest themselves of resentment and grudges. In the thirteen verses our lectionary skipped, the children of Israel are also commanded not to steal, not to put off paying an employee even one day, not to be cruel to those who cannot defend themselves, and even not to harvest all of one’s land so that the poor might take the produce around the borders of one’s farm. All of these commandments are summed up in that elegant but seemingly impossible commandment: love thy neighbor as thyself.

You’ve heard me say it before from this pulpit and here it is again, perhaps my most often repeated comment on the Christian life: love is about commitment and sacrifice. If one is committed to loving one’s spouse, he must sacrifice his own selfish concerns for the good of the relationship. If one is committed to loving one’s children, he must sacrifice getting what he wants and doing what he wants to a great extent in order to be present and to support the child. If one is committed to loving the poor, he’s got to do something about it at his own expense. If one is committed to loving Christ’s Church and those who do not yet believe, he must give sacrificially of his time, talent, and treasure to support the Church’s mission of reconciling all people everywhere to God and each other.

And the really hard part is that we cannot show partiality. We cannot choose to love only those whom we like. We must commit to sacrificing ourselves for those whom we don’t particularly like:

Love your enemies [Jesus says] and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This seems an impossible task, but in truth we already have the greatest example: Jesus Christ who laid down his life not only for the people with whom he had mutual fondness, but for those who hated him, those who spat at him, those who scourged him and nailed him to the Cross. We are commanded to take up our own cross, to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others as Christ had done. Will we do it?

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.