Sermon for 5 Lent 2018

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

“Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchiz’edek.” Thus, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews describes Jesus’ priesthood, but what on earth does it mean?

We don’t get much help from the 110th Psalm which the author references, one of only two places in the Old Testament where Melchiz’edek is mentioned. Here’s an exerpt:

The Lord has sworn and he will not recant:*
“You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.”
The Lord who is at your right hand will smite kings in the day of his wrath;*
he will rule over the nations.
He will heap high the corpses;*
he will smash heads over the wide earth.

I don’t know about you, but this seems a rather strange, disturbing way of understanding Jesus’ place in salvation history. Certainly, the kingship of the Father overturning temporal rulers and the Kingdom of God taking precedence over earthly nations is central to Christian eschatology, but the bit about heaping up corpses and smashing heads seems contrary to the New Covenant, which is, at its heart, all about love.

I think a better way of understanding what the author of Hebrews means is to look back to the fourteenth chapter of Genesis. After a losing battle with Chederlao’mer, the King of Elam, Abram’s nephew Lot had been captured. Abram led a force of Hebrews to rout the king and take back his kinsman. After succeeding in battle, this strange figure comes to Abram and his victorious army:

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, “Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand.” And he gave him tithes of all.

After this, Melchiz’edek disappears from Hebrew Scripture, the only exception being in the psalm already mentioned.
Even with so little information, we can glean a few things from this brief passage. Firstly, Melchiz’edek was not a Jew, but seemed nonetheless committed to the God of Israel. Secondly, he received tithes from Abraham, suggesting his superiority to even the father of God’s chosen people. Thirdly, he is the first figure in scripture to be called a priest (the Hebrew word kohen) a title normally reserved to priests in the temple in Jerusalem. And finally, he brings forth elements which would become sacerdotal for both Jews and Christians- namely bread and wine.

We can employ here what is called the typological meaning of scripture. The idea (employed from very early on in Christian biblical interpretation and even within the New Testament) is that certain things in the Old Testament, particularly obscure things, can be understood as foreshadowing things in the New Testament. So, last week we heard in the Old Testament this strange story about Moses holding up a bronze snake in the wilderness that the ill could gaze upon and be healed, and then in the Gospel Jesus explained that this was a type–a foreshadowing–of his own death on the cross.

Likewise, while at first obscure, the author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus makes sense of the meaning of Melchiz’edek. Just as Melchiz’edek was not a Hebrew, Jesus (while a Jew himself) instituted a Covenant open to Gentiles. Just as Melchiz’edek was of higher stature than Abraham, so is Jesus the final consummation of the Law and the Prophets. Just as Melchiz’edek was the first priest, Jesus would become the first and Great High Priest of the New Covenant. Just as Melchiz’edek offered bread and wine, so did Jesus offer his Body and Blood for our sins and give it to us in the appearance of bread and wine.

In some ways, Melchiz’edek was the priest par excellence of the Old Covenant (despite arriving generations before the establishment of that Covenant) and Jesus is the priest par excellence of the New Covenant. While the priests in the temple obediently offered their sacrifices, they were in some sense a shadow of the perfect and more universal sacrifice of Melchiz’edek. While the priests of the New Covenant (mostly goofy chaps like me) obediently offer the sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood at the Altar week-in and week-out, these sacrifices are dependent on the one perfect sacrifice of Jesus.

As we draw closer to those great three days when we recreate the tremendous sacrifice and glorious triumph of our God, let us remember what a Great High Priest we have: how the perfect sacrifice for our sins and the great freedom we’ve been given, is ultimately dependent not on our piety, not on how we struggle to attend to the sacred mysteries at the altar and the font, but how it is all an objective gift of our only mediator and advocate–the one priest through which priesthood is given to His Body and Spouse, the Church.

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

Sermon for 4 Lent 2018

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I preached at Evensong at the Cathedral in Cleveland on Wednesday and had an interesting experience afterward. A young woman approached me after the service was finished to express her gratitude for something I did in the sermon, namely acknowledge the reality of sin. She said it was refreshing and encouraging to hear a preacher do that in the Cathedral, suggesting that this was not a common occurrence. I wish I could say that this surprised me, but it didn’t. Reflection on this basic truth about our nature is deemed by some to be too negative, and is too often replaced with a sort of positive humanism that might sound comfortable but has little to say, I would argue, about the reality of our situation as fallen people in a fallen world and how we are to be saved, namely not through our own worthiness but through Christ.

What encouraged me about this interaction, and what I thought could be instructive for all of us, is that this young woman was not upset or depressed about reflecting on the reality of sin, but seemed instead to find comfort and encouragement in it. Coming to terms with sin and redemption can be a very joyful thing because we can finally internalize the truth of today’s Gospel: “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Even in this most penitent season then we may, paradoxically, rejoice in our penitence.

This Sunday, the fourth in Lent, has been called Laetare Sunday, which comes from a Latin word meaning “to rejoice”. It comes from the first word of the old Latin Introit, or entry hymn, which would have been sung in the Roman Catholic Church (and in some catholic-leaning Anglican parishes) every year on this Sunday until Vatican II suppressed that bit of the Mass. The hymn goes like this:

Rejoice ye with Jerusalem: and be glad with her, all ye that love her: rejoice for joy with her, all ye that mourn for her: that ye may drink and be satisfied with the milk of her consolations. I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord.

Thus, church would have begun on a very high note indeed, and in the midst of Lent at that! That’s why we have rose-coloured vestments today, by the way, a much more joyful colour than the purple of the rest of Lent, at least in the eyes of church tradition.

All of this is to say that that woman who found joy in penitence, who wanted to be part of a church in which she could acknowledge sin, was quite right. Redemption makes no sense without something to be redeemed from. Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross for us wouldn’t have been anything more than an historical fact had it not been that we needed and are in need of saving.

St. Paul knew this well, which is why in his letter to the Ephesians he may in one breath say that we “were dead through the trespasses and sins in which [we] once lived” and in the next breath proclaim the joyful news that God has “made us alive in Christ…and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places.” Paul knew that we could not be perfect by our own efforts, but “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is a gift from God.”

This is very good news for all of us. In fact, it is the Good News. We can only fully appreciate it, though, we can only attain to the joy which God intends for us, when we recognize that we are too sinful to dig ourselves out. This realization releases us from perfectionism, which is terribly close to narcissism. Only when we get over ourselves, when we realize that we cannot attain perfection on our own terms, that we need an Other will we experience the joy of redemption. Of course, getting to the point of experiencing this joy may not be entirely pleasant, because it requires that we be honest with ourselves. The process of recognizing our own fallen-ness, our own sinfulness, is full of tears and travail. But we may take the psalmist’s affirmation to heart in the midst of this process of self-searching: “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning,” reads Psalm 30. Or from today’s psalm:

Some were fools and took to rebellious ways; *
they were afflicted because of their sins.
They abhorred all manner of food *
and drew near to death’s door.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, *
and he delivered them from their distress.
He sent forth his word and healed them *
and saved them from the grave.

It is only after the realization that we are sore afflicted, that we have the capability of recognizing that only God has the power to save us, that we are not expected to save ourselves, and that in this fact we may rejoice.

In all events, I wish you all not only a productive and edifying Lent, but a joyful Lent. May God give us such an awareness of His redeeming love that we no longer remain captive to our own sinful pride or to the perfectionism which leads us to deny sin, but come to the full realization that He “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him,” not perfect, sinless people, but “everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Let us pray.
Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy Grace may mercifully be relieved. Through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who with thee and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth, one God, world without end. Amen.

Sermon for 3 Lent 2018

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

I used to follow a group on the Facebook called “religious but not spiritual”. The group’s description stated “the most important thing is having an institutional relationship with God.” It was, of course, a joke about the contemporary trend of people claiming to be “spiritual but not religious”, and it was mostly a place for people to publish a specific type of meme, in which two pictures were set side-by-side, with the word “no” under one and “yes” under the other.

So, for example, there might be a photo of someone doing a yogic sun salutation on a mountaintop with a “no” under it, next to a picture of the three sacred ministers at the altar in a Tridentine Latin Mass with a “yes” under it, or (my favorite) a woman showing her wiccan idols next to an elderly woman playing bingo with her good luck charms. One of the memes on the page that has stuck with me included to paintings of Jesus. On the left was a rather sappy looking watercolor of Jesus petting a couple of lambs with a “no” under it, and on the right was a Renaissance painting of the Battle of Armageddon in which Jesus is levitating above a great conflagration of angels and demons in battle with a “yes” under it.

Now, as much as I prefer the Renaissance painting of Armageddon (just because it looks really cool), I suspect most of us tend to think of Jesus as the kindly chap petting lambs. When we compare this serene, kindly Jesus with today’s Gospel reading we might experience some cognitive dissonance. Perhaps some of us might compare our own vision and experience of our Lord with today’s Gospel and find ourselves either confused or troubled. This is not the nice Jesus who goes round doing good deeds. The Jesus we see in today’s Gospel reading, the Jesus who fashions a whip of cords, who overturns the tables of the money-changers, seems angry and scary and all-too-human. This is not the Jesus we’re comfortable with.

This story has made some people uncomfortable enough to try to explain it away. Stanley Hauerwas, a noted pacifist scholar and professor at Duke Divinity School, has suggested that Jesus did not have a violent, visceral reaction at all in the temple that day. Rather, Hauerwas claims, that He was merely performing a careful, well-planned show in which he actually caused no harm to any person or property. This show was to make a point but there were no real consequences as such. Like many modern scholars who engage in trying to get a clearer picture of the historical Jesus, Hauerwas’ Jesus ends up looking eerily like Hauerwas.

But this is not fair to the story as we know it from scripture and it presents a very flat view of Jesus indeed. We have a desire, it seems to me, to fashion a God who affirms everything about us. We want a Jesus who only calls to us “softly and tenderly” when we’ve gone astray, not a Jesus who overturns tables; not a Jesus who uses both his staff and his rod, as the psalmist puts it, to comfort and correct us. We want to construct a God who is eminently palatable and comfortable and who doesn’t really want to change anything about us. But to envision God in this way is to build an idol. It is to ignore the words from today’s Old Testament lesson: “You shall not make for yourself an idol,” it says, “whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Yet we do fashion idols “in the form of [something] that is on the earth beneath.” We fashion idols out of ourselves, thus putting ourselves in the place of God.

The problem of the money changers, and of many of us, myself included, is not a lack of religion. Rather, the problem is the propagation of irreligion, bad religion. The money changers knew enough about their Jewish religion to pervert it. They knew that sacrifices were to be made in the temple, and they chose to capitalize on it. Just so, when we cast Jesus in our own image, we know enough about Christianity to pervert it, to turn it to our own ends. Whatever I do or say becomes God’s will and I can point to a distorted image of Jesus to justify it. We don’t even recognize that the Jesus we see looks strangely like ourselves.

So, this sermon has become a bit depressing, even for a Lenten sermon, for which I apologize. There is hope here, though. It is appropriate that we are hearing this hard Gospel reading during this Holy Season. Lent provides us a special opportunity to invite Jesus into the temples of our own hearts and lives so that he can turn over a few tables in each of us. Lent calls us to be open to a sort of spiritual renovation—a transformation in fact—which is not of our doing but is something Jesus works in us. That’s part of what all the prayer and fasting and penitence of these glorious forty days is about. They are not ends in themselves, much less are they schemes for self-improvement. Rather, they are meant as a preparation, so that Christ may fashion each of us into temples worthy of his abiding presence, and when He comes to dwell in us we may not perceive him as a little version of ourselves—with all the assumptions and bigotries and narcissistic tendencies that we have—but as the image of the true God.

Naturally, the process can be painful. There was upset and confusion and turmoil that morning in the temple, and so will there be upset and confusion and turmoil in our own hearts when Christ comes in to do his transforming work. Christ said, “take up your cross and follow me.” Being conformed to Our Lord instead of conforming our vision of the Lord to ourselves means sacrifice, which is hard. Even so, we know that the end of such suffering is a renewed relationship with the Father, and ultimately unending life in His presence.

This is not to say that we will always be fully aware that our spiritual hardships are to the end of bringing us into a fuller life with our Lord. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth century priest and spiritual writer, spoke about consolation and desolation. In his own life, as I suspect is the case for many of us, God worked in Ignatius’ heart not only during the periods of consolation- that is, of clarity and comfort and peace. In examining his own life, Ignatius discovered that God was just as much at work during the periods of desolation- that is, of pain and aridity and depredation. It was only after these dry periods, though, these seasons of discomfort, that Ignatius was able to figure out what God was up to. It was only in hindsight that he discovered how present and active God was when He seemed most distant and disinterested.

We see just this sort of thing in today’s Gospel, in fact. The Jews demanded a sign to prove Jesus’ authority. Instead of the sign they demanded, however, Jesus responded by saying “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” At the time, this statement would have been as confusing and troubling as Jesus’ actions in the temple. Yet, just like the cleansing of the temple itself, just like all moments of turmoil and desolation, the saying was pregnant with meaning and truth which could only be understood after the fact. It was only after the Resurrection that the disciples remembered the saying and realized that Jesus was talking about His own body being raised up. It is often only after we’ve come out of the wilderness that we realize what God was up to.

All of this should give us hope that in the often painful exigencies of life God is at work making Himself known. This is Good News for all of us. Despite our confusion and pain, God is working His purpose out in ways which we cannot now imagine. Our response to this blessed truth should be openness and endurance. We must be open to God’s will even when we find it uncomfortable or perplexing. We must be open to Christ working in us, when He turns over the tables in our own lives, strong in the assurance that in conforming us (and the whole world) to Himself, He will put all things to rights for His faithful people.

And, in the midst of such pain and confusion, we must heed the Apostle Paul’s mandate to “run the race with endurance”. We must endure in prayer and fasting and devotion, for these practices give us sustenance in our times of pain and confusion. And just as the angels ministered to Our Lord in the wilderness, so will God’s Word give us strength in the dry seasons of our lives. Just as God gave His people manna in the desert, so will the Body and Blood of Our Lord give us sustenance when we are wandering. And at the last, when surrounded by the light of Resurrection, we may look back on our own lives, and indeed on the whole sweep of history, and see that God was not absent even once, but was hard at work transforming this old, fallen world into His Kingdom.

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