Sermon for Lent 1 2019

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

I should probably give up church supply catalog browsing for Lent. It’s something I like to engage in from time to time, not because I engage in retail therapy with church funds (I don’t), but rather because I occasionally find something whose very existence confuses or horrifies me. This can sometimes be a sort of brief, though perhaps masochistic distraction from more important things in life and ministry. I’ve seen all sorts of weird and wonderful things in these catalogs, from baptismal fonts that are shaped just like toilets to chasubles that appear to have been designed by somebody under the influence of a psychotropic drug. I say I should probably give this up for Lent not because it’s a distraction (which we all need, on occasion), but because it can make me feel smug about my own putative good taste.

That said, there was a product I recently saw in one of these catalogs that I could not make sense of in terms of either taste or sacramental theology, and which I’m still trying to get my head around. It was a box of communion hosts, and it claimed three things about the bread. See if you can identify which one of these is not like the other: these “wafers” are gluten free, organic, and kosher. Did you catch it? Here’s a hint, neither celiac disease nor a belief that the Body of Christ should be protected from synthetic insecticides and fertilizers should, in my opinion, be erected as stumbling blocks to participation in the Lord’s Supper. I am, however, curious as to why there would be a market for kosher communion hosts. Perhaps I’m missing something, here.

Now, if the church supply company in question had existed in the sixth or seventh decade of the First Century, there might have been a market for these hosts, though I suspect they were still using either substantial loaves or unleavened cakes of wheat or barley, depending on whether or not they reckoned the last supper to have been a Passover meal or not (the synoptic gospels say it was and John’s Gospel says it wasn’t, and I tend to believe the latter, though this is a minority opinion).

Forgive this brief digression, but it’s one of my many hobby horses. The last supper (and its very early adaptation into the church’s first Eucharistic practices) was almost certainly not a ritualized seder meal of the sort that would develop in later Judaism, which is why I’ve always argued that Christians trying to do Seders during Holy Week is not just an example of cultural appropriation, but is based on wildly historically inaccurate assumptions. Christians doing Seders makes about as much sense as Jews celebrating the Eucharist. Here endeth my rant about that.

In all events, as I said, perhaps in the fifties or sixties A.D., had there been such a thing as a church supply catalog, there might have been a market for this Kosher Communion bread, because it was still unclear to many in the primitive church whether or not a Gentile had to convert to Judaism before becoming a Christian. This was the first great controversy the church would face after its establishment in the wake of Christ’s Resurrection, and it would necessitate the first ever meeting of a church council (the Council of Jerusalem as described in Acts 15).

The presenting issue was for understandable reasons (and forgive the indelicacy here) whether or not circumcision was required for Gentile converts, but the real issue was whether or not any of the Old Testament ritual and dietary laws were applicable to Gentile Christians. In this Council, the Apostles determined that conversion to Judaism and the keeping of these Jewish laws was not required for a Gentile to become a Christian.(There were a very few, very specific exceptions to this ruling because they were rules–seven of them after you do a little exegesis and interpretation–which preceded the Law of Moses and were actually enjoined on Noah after the Flood and were thus reckoned universally applicable. Only one of these was a dietary law, and if you can tell me what it is during announcement time, I have a special prize for you!).

So, this is a rather long introduction to give you the context in which today’s Epistle is written. “For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.” This is one of Paul’s later letters, written around A.D. 57, at least half a decade after the Council of Jerusalem, and Paul has mellowed a bit on the Jew-Gentile controversy (about five years earlier, in his Epistle to the Galatians, he literally says he wishes those demanding Gentiles be circumcised would go step further in that same direction themselves, if you catch my drift).

He’s a bit less incendiary in his response to this same issue in Romans. Even so, that he has to address the issue suggests that there is still controversy in the Christian community about whether or not the Law of Moses remained mandatory. One can infer from the lesson we just heard that a party within the church still claimed following the Law was necessary for Salvation (hence Paul’s insistence that faith in Jesus’ Resurrection was the only requirement for Salvation), and that, just as had been the case in Corinth and Galatia and Philippi before, some were using their status as circumcised or their practice of keeping the ritual and dietary laws of the Old Testament, as ways of feeling and acting superior to the Gentile converts who did not.

One might imagine a Gentile Roman Christian bringing a homemade barley loaf to be offered at the Sunday Eucharist and a Jewish Roman Christian meeting him at the door, slapping it out of his hand and saying “get that junk out of here! I brought this bread, which is gluten free, organic, and, most importantly, kosher to celebrate the Lord’s Supper!” Sadly, I have no doubt that a generation later some in the gentile faction likely used the fact that their side won this debate to turn right round and denigrate the faith of the Jewish Christians who lost the argument.

You see, the heart of the problem here is not exclusive to the Judaizers and the Gentile converts of the primitive church, or else this would be little more than an (I hope) interesting history lesson. The heart of the problem is not whether or not one must keep the Mosaic Law; that was merely the presenting theological issue which uncovered the deeper issue in the hearts of the people.

The deeper issue, which is still with us today as much as it was in the First Century, is that we can use our family background or religious bona fides or pharisaic trust in our own righteousness to denigrate the faith of those who are different and to place heavy burdens on those whose faith is new or weak.

“I am a cradle Episcopalian and my family has been part of this parish since its founding!” Well, that’s an interesting personal fact, but it doesn’t mean the newcomer loves Jesus any less than you do. “I pray the daily office of morning and evening prayer every day and I spend an hour in contemplative practice every morning before my first cup of coffee!” Good on you; I wish everyone did things like that, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get a better room in hotel heaven than the notorious sinner who prays for Christ’s forgiveness on his deathbed. When politics and religion intersect in this regard it can be worst of all, whichever side of the political spectrum one is on. “I’m a real Bible Believing Christian(TM) and have all the right traditional beliefs about current social issues, just like Jesus!” or “I’m the most #woke #SJW in Christendom and believe all the right things about human liberation, just like Jesus!” I have seen both of these apparently polar opposite positions used to denigrate the sincerely held Christian commitments of others and exclude them from one’s view of what constitutes saving faith in Jesus Christ.

The great irony here is that even the presenting issue of the first century (placing one’s faith in religious heritage rather than Christ) missed the point that their own religion had taught prior to their conversion to Christianity. This morning’s lesson from Deuteronomy describes the festival of Shavuot or Pentecost (we share the name of this holiday because the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts happened on the Jewish holiday). In the Jewish context, as established in Deuteronomy, this festival celebrates both God’s provision of the harvest and God’s provision of the Law. As the first fruits are offered by the priest, the people make the response “A Syrian ready to perish was my father” or (in the more modern translation we use outside of this season) “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” “אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי” What does that mean? It might strike us at first as a bit of proud family history, right? Like, it might be the equivalent of “my ancestors came over on the Mayflower and today we celebrate being members of the Daughters of the American Revolution.” Well, it’s really quite the opposite. It is a bit more like starting your family history by saying “my great-great grandaddy was a horse thief.” The “Syrian ready to perish” or “wandering Aramean” either refers to Jacob or Laban, and it probably refers to both. These were shady dudes. I’ll not rehearse the whole story for you again; many of you know it.

The short version is that these two men spent twenty years trying to defraud each other over marriage contracts (without, it should be noted, any concern for how Laban’s daughters felt about marrying Jacob) and their feud contributed to the Israelites falling into bondage in Egypt. It’s also worth noting that there is a play on words in the Hebrew text here. The word for Syrian or Aramean, אֲרַמִּי, can be understood as a form of the word רַמַאִי which means “deceiver.”

The point is that even such ignoble beginnings can be turned to God’s purposes and redeemed by God’s grace. We don’t stand on our own righteousness or an impressive pedigree, but God’s grace which alone can save us, Jew and Gentile, all sinners made righteous in God’s sight by the blood of the lamb.

If you were here on Ash Wednesday, you heard me say something along the lines of the purpose of Lent being about recognizing the connection between Law and Gospel: namely, that the Law convicts us so that the Grace of God’s saving work may be received. To use hopelessly contemporary language we “get real” during this season, admitting that on our own things can seem pretty hopeless. The moment we think we’ve “made it”–that we are God’s special gift to the world because we think we’ve become perfectly moral and pious and “together”–we find we’ve just fallen victim to yet another sin, that of pride and a trust in self-sufficiency that we can only fool ourselves into believing to be true until we take another fall, which inevitably comes.

Does this mean Lent can start to feel a little gloomy? Well, sure! To quote that great theologian Demi Lovato “Sorry Not Sorry.” Don’t Google that after church, please. The Good News in all this is that we don’t have to be perfect. Thank God for that, because we never will be in this life. We just have to be reminded pretty frequently of this reality; at least I do, because I’m just smart enough to rationalize all my sinful actions and sentiments and not nearly smart enough to realize that I’m engaging in such rationalization until the common worship of the church shakes me out of it by reminding me I’m still a sinner. The end product is freedom, but I’ve yet to have some kind of permanent conversion of life that means I don’t need that reminder pretty regularly. In other words, I need the continual conviction by which the Law accuses and finds me guilty so that I can stake my claim again and again on Grace alone.

Thank God we don’t have to place our trust in piety or pedigree or propriety and thank God we are reminded again that we are in some sense all descended from a wandering Aramean and God sees we are in bondage and yet the same God remains mighty to save.

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

Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2019

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

Those of you who have come to know me over the last three years know that I joke sometimes about my “high and dry” approach to Christianity. I’ve said jokingly that while many of my fellow millennials claim to be “spiritual but not religious”, I am “religious but not spiritual.” I’ve playfully (I hope) said things like “why should I love God and my neighbor with my whole heart, when I’m perfectly practiced in loving them with my whole head?”.
So I make these jokes, and then something happens like it did yesterday. I was reading again the passage from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, and I just start weeping like a baby. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him… [For, we are reckoned] as dying, and, behold, we live.”

These are powerful words as we struggle with Law and Grace. The Law has convicted us of our ongoing, scandalous inability to follow even the simplest of God’s moral requirements. Whether they be the simple summation of the Law found in the Ten Commandments God gave to Moses, or the even simpler summation of those ten which Jesus himself gave us–Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul and love your neighbor as yourself–we miss the mark over and over again.

Okay, maybe you have achieved moral perfection; some views of Christian Sanctification believe that is a possibility in this life, though I don’t. But for the sake of argument, maybe it’s possible and you’ve achieved that; if so, I might become a Donatist (that is, a heretic who believes the efficacy of the Sacraments depend upon the righteousness of the priest administering them) and ask you to replace me at the altar, because I’m still a flagrant sinner in need of constant Grace. I feel more like the “spider or some loathesome insect” whom the greatest buzzkill in American religious history, Jonathan Edwards, said God holds over the fire. Now, I don’t believe God regards us this way (nor do I think Edwards really did, he was just being more parenetic than I have the courage to be in the pulpit), but I do believe God has every right to regard me this way if He wanted to.

And this is the beautiful and heartbreaking and liberating truth we remember today. God “hath made him to be sin for us who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”

The Gospel is not about moral improvement. That’s not to say moral improvement isn’t laudable or enjoined on us or possible by the Grace of God. It is, but that isn’t the Gospel. An old, ascetical theologian near the end of his life, was asked if he had made much spiritual and moral progress, and he said something like, “well, I’m old now, so I don’t have as much energy to sin as I used to have, so there’s grace in that.”

The Gospel, the Good News, is not that we can become more moral or pious if we try hard enough. We have tried and failed and the Law has convicted us. The truth of the Gospel is that the righteousness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has been imputed to us while our just deserts would have been hell or annihilation. The Gospel is that while we have been regarded as dead, “behold, we live.”

We need this reminder, which is why, as I’ve said, the Law still serves a purpose. We need to be reminded especially when all seems to be going well and we seem to be on our best behavior and seem to be making great strides in our spiritual maturation, that we are still sinners and we’re still going to die.

This is why Luther (whom I don’t usually quote) ironically called good works and piety “great sins”, because in time our inner sinfulness could twist the record of those good works into arguments for self-justification, distracting from our need to utterly rely on the unearned gift of God’s favor through the justifying work of Christ alone.

All that said, let me say something about the ashen smudges you’re about to receive on your heads, the annual reminder that you’re a sinner and you’re going to die. There is always the question of whether to leave them on or wash them off. Is it an evangelistic tool or is it a way of practicing one’s piety before others in direct violation of Our Lord’s words in today’s Gospel? The more I have considered it over the years, the more convinced I am that it doesn’t matter. It’s not that the question is irrelevant or that we shouldn’t interrogate our intentions whichever choice we make. We certainly should! I think it doesn’t matter because either leaving the ashes on or removing them can be internalized as an act of self-justification. One can either leave them on and be in danger of practicing one’s piety openly or one can wash them off and be just as guilty because in so doing one feels more justified than the one who left them on. Either way, this is a reminder of how Original Sin has placed us in a catch-22, and only God can save us.

What I would suggest, however, (and this idea is not original to me) is that whenever you wash the smudge off–whether you go home and do it immediately or wait until your bedtime ablutions–consider that act of washing them off a bit more intentionally. Consider that action as a type (and here I use type in the sense not of kind but of sign or symbol) of baptism. Just as we have been reminded that we are sinners and we are going to die, so the sign of that reality is removed, “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him… [For, we are reckoned] as dying, and, behold, we live.”

Just as we are reminded of God’s Grace by receiving the Sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood shortly after these ashen crosses remind us we are in need of it, just as your removal of the same can be a reminder of the Grace that saved us from sin and death, my prayer is that in the midst of this holy season, we might be reminded regularly of that reality. When we rehearse the Decalogue on Sunday mornings and realize just how many of those commandments we’ve broken, when we slip up and fail at whatever Lenten discipline we’ve adopted or when we realize that our success in keeping that discipline is starting to go to our heads, when we’re so darn good think we can do it all on our own or when we start to fear that we are so sinful that even God could not forgive us, that we remember the work wrought once and for all for our redemption and life eternal and that we make yet another beginning to the task of founding our hope in God alone.

+In the name of the same God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.