Sermon for Pentecost 13 2019

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

The readings appointed for this morning offer a grab bag, as it were, of challenging themes, from the Moses’ ultimatum to the children of Israel to Jesus’ discomfiting words regarding the sacrifices inherent in following the Gospel. There is much unpacking and explanation that should be done for both of these readings, but perhaps another time. I want, instead, to focus on the Epistle, Paul’s letter to Philemon. I feel compelled to focus on the Epistle, if for no other reason than because this is the only Sunday in the entire three year lectionary that we read from this little, relatively obscure book in the New Testament. The book is only twenty-five verses long, and we read twenty of them this morning, and we won’t hear them in church again until 2022. So, here’s our one shot at Philemon.

All of Paul’s Epistles can be called “occasional” in the sense that each of his letters is written to address a particular concern of a local church or of an individual. We’re fortunate that much of the situation which gives rise to the letter to Philemon can be inferred from the text.

Paul opens the letter with a little bit of what one biblical scholar called “holy flattery” in which Paul praises Philemon’s faithfulness. In other words, Paul butters Philemon up. He knows that his request will be unpopular, and yet he is confident enough in its appropriateness to claim his Apostolic authority, should Philemon refuse to take the recommendation. “Accordingly,” he writes, “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you.” Like a parent, Paul wants Philemon to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, but he’ll force the issue if it’s important enough.

Finally, Paul gets to his request. He has run into this character Onesimus, or rather Onesimus sought Paul out, the Apostle being imprisoned at the time and not likely to come upon someone by chance. This Onesimus was Philemon’s slave and had run away. The precise events surrounding Onesimus’ escape are unclear, but what is clear is that the runaway slave is frightened of his master’s response should he return.

Indeed, Onesimus had reason to be frightened. According to Roman Law, a master could do just about anything he wished to a slave, and typically, a runaway slave, upon being returned would be branded on the forehead and would sometimes be forced to fight with beasts to the death. Slave and master would be brought back together, reconciled in a sense, but without any sense of equality.

But Paul pushes reconciliation on Christian terms, which is to say that real reconciliation is effected between people whom God has already made equal, and the terms of Christian relationship is fraternal rather than hierarchical. Hierarchies exist (between employer and employee, between parent and child, and so forth), and those hierarchies exist for the common good; but getting beyond the practical, often necessary distinctions which serve to make society function, on the deepest level the relationship between Christians as Christians is that of brotherhood and sisterhood.

Philemon should have known this, because he had surely heard it before. He had surely heard Paul’s radical reënvisioning of Christian relationships, because our equality under Christ was so central to Paul’s message and because Paul and Philemon were apparently so close. In all events, Philemon was about to hear that message again, not just in this private letter, but read out in the local church, which met in his own home.

We know that Philemon and his household lived in Colossae, because so many of the people whom Paul mentions in his Epistle to the Colossians are also mentioned in the Epistle to Philemon, including Onesimus himself, who is called “one of yourselves” in Colossians. In fact, the original copy of the Epistle to the Colossians, as we learn in the text of that letter, was delivered by Onesimus, probably also carrying the Epistle to Philemon. Whereas today’s reading was a private letter encouraging Philemon to do the right thing, the Epistle to the Colossians would have been read publicly in the church. And what does that letter say?:

Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scyth’ian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.

What is Paul doing here? I think he’s hedging his bets. If the private letter doesn’t convince Philemon to have mercy on Onesimus, perhaps the same message read out to the whole Christian community will force his charity in the matter.

Tragically, considering the sad history of slavery over the following two millennia, Paul never explicitly demands manumission of Onesimus or abolition of slavery more generally. Nineteenth century Anglican biblical scholar J.B. Lightfoot wrote, “the word emancipation seems to be trembling on his lips, and yet he does not once utter it.” Paul does, however, hint at it in the last verse of this morning’s lesson:

Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

What more could Philemon do than what Paul had demanded in the letter? Well, set Onesimus free from slavery.

In all events, either because of the private letter to Philemon or the public letter to the Colossians, we know that Onesimus was made free. Ignatius of Antioch informs us that Onesimus went on the be Bishop of Ephesus, and the Apostolic Constitutions tell us that Onesimus and Philemon died together as friends, free men, and martyrs during Nero’s persecution of the Christians.

At its heart, the Epistle to Philemon is a challenge to all of us still. Certainly, the days of slavery are happily over in this land, but we still build walls between us for the sake of power or propriety. We still have a hard time creating relationships of genuine love as brothers and sisters, because we still see divisions which do not exist in the mind of God: divisions of race or class or power. We still permit our authority to distance us from those in our charge, or lack of power to scare us from building relationships with those we see as being “above us.” But if a slave and master in first century Greece can be reconciled, can become equals, can die together for the sake of their Lord, then our divisions can cease, too. May God do it, and may we be ready.

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

Sermon for Pentecost 12 2019

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

This morning I am going to do something I’ve never done before, which is to take as my text not one of the appointed lessons, but rather the collect of the day. This is for somewhat selfish reasons, because it is my second favorite collect in the Book of Common Prayer. (I’ll use my all-time favorite to conclude the prayers of the people today, as you may be mildly curious and the rubrics do allow it). I hope it may also be worthwhile, as I worry sometimes that the collect often gets short shrift.

Allow me a brief digression here for the sake of some liturgical education. A “collect” is simply a prayer of a particular form with a particular purpose. Typically three are used at our weekly Eucharist–the collect for purity (“Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, &c.”), the collect of the day (which is determined, naturally, by what day of the church year it is), and a collect concluding the prayers of the people (which is at the Celebrant’s discretion). Some services of the church include fewer than three, for example weddings and funerals, and some include many more, like the proper liturgies for Good Friday and the Easter Vigil.

In all events, these collects take a particular form, which might be summarized as follows: “You, who, do, to, through.” (1) “You”-address God the Father; (2) “who”–refer to an attribute of God; (3) “do”–petition God for some benefit; (4) “to”–express the rationale for said petition; and (5) “through”–request the mediation of God the Son, and typically though not always, in the power of God the Spirit. So, a quick example of a collect might sound like “(1) Dear God, (2) you want the best for your children, (3) give us strength and courage, (4) so that we can serve you well, (5) in Jesus’ name. Amen.” I don’t know if this was the experience of others of you who grew up Episcopalian or similar, but when I was a kid I was given this pro-tip: if you’re ever put on the spot and asked to pray extemporaneously in public, you can use “you, who, do, to, through” to construct a functional, literate-sounding prayer on the spot. Try it sometime, and impress friend and stranger alike.

In addition to being of a particular form, collects serve a particular purpose in the liturgy. In fact, they have historically served two purposes, both related to the meaning of the term collect. First, these prayers would literally serve to collect, or bring together, the people gathered to celebrate the rites of the church. This was particularly the case in large processions, where at each station (say a church or holy site) those in the procession would be collected together by the prayer. This is why we have two collects near the very beginning of the Eucharistic liturgy (the Collect for Purity and the Collect of the Day); they are meant to gather us into the larger act of prayer which constitutes the whole of the liturgy. Secondly the prayers serve to collect the individual prayers of those gathered into one common prayer, hence the inclusion of a collect at the end of the Prayers of the People.

So, enough with the preliminaries; let’s take a look at today’s Collect. The original version can be found in the Gelasian Sacramentary from around the year A.D. 750, so we are praying a very ancient prayer indeed. Cranmer’s translation (a modern version of which we used this morning) is notable not only for its poetry but for at least one interesting addition which we’ll get to in course. Let’s take it line by line–perform a sort of exegesis on the prayer itself–to get a fuller picture.

“Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things.” God is a god whose power and beneficence are two aspects of the same quality, which is God’s perfection. Unlike the gods of the nations, the God of Israel and of Jesus is both all-powerful and all-loving. He has the power to give us all that is needful and the will to do the same. “Who is like the Lord our God,” the Psalmist writes, “who sits enthroned on high, but stoops to behold the heavens and the earth? He takes up the weak out of the dust, and lifts up the poor from the ashes.” We may well answer, “none is like the Lord our God,” for indeed, there is none other.

“Graft in our hearts the love of your name.” But what is this name and what does it mean that our hearts should be the trunk into which so green a shoot or the organ with which so lively a tissue should be joined? The name is at least two-fold. The most holy name by which the Lord identified himself to Moses in the burning bush, אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה אֶהְיֶה , whom the Jews call “ha’shem” (literally, “the Name”) abbreviated in the Hebrew bible as the Tetragammaton, YHWH, (Yahweh): “I am that I am.” This is the God whose very being is indisputable because he is existence itself. He is that in which we ourselves subsist, without whom we are nought. It is this One, Being-In-Itself, whose indwelling spirit permits us to say not merely that we are alive (as opposed to being dead), but even that we are (as opposed to being nothing).

And the other name of God, the love of which is grafted into our hearts, is the precious name of Jesus. For as St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Phillipians:

God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This is why, you may or may not have noticed, some of the faithful (myself included) bow our heads at the very mention of our Lord’s name. It is not because the name of Jesus is a totem or a magic charm, but because we are called to love the one whose name it is and enthrone him in our hearts, just as he has been made King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

And into what stump is this shoot or into what organ is this tissue grafted? It is, no doubt a dead stump or a necrotic organ, for sin has brought death to us. Even so, that which has been grafted on has healed and given new life to that which once was dead.

“Increase in us true religion.” Here we see a fascinating and appropriate addition by Cranmer, who added the word “true”, not present in the Eighth Century Collect. I think we’d be wrong, however, to assume this is only applicable to his 16th Century context. If you know your church history, you’ll remember the primary concern in Cranmer’s day was the Catholic/Protestant divide in the Church of England. (if you don’t know your church history, we’ll likely be covering all this during the Christian Education time during coffee hours this autumn). While Cranmer’s definition of “true religion” may well have left some of us out (particularly those of us on the less-reformed end of the Anglican spectrum, like myself), this remains nonetheless an important distinction, and we do well to see how it translates in the reality of our current context.

There is, I will argue to the end if needs be, a distinction between true and false religion. This is not a popular thing to say in the Year of Our Lord 2019. We have been led to believe that religious propositions are privileged things, that nobody who disagrees is permitted to interrogate them, and if you do, you’re either a fundamentalist of whatever religion you subscribe to or a rabid atheist. I am nevertheless convinced that there are true and false religious propositions, and my background in philosophy at least makes me extremely suspicious of any claim being held as true for me and not for you or vice-versa, when it seems to be a theoretically falsifiable claim.

I’d rather have a jolly debate with a proper atheist about the existence or non-existence of God than a muddle-headed conversation with a post-modernist about the truthiness of the God of my understanding versus his. I am somewhat comforted by the fact that my own belief along these lines makes my position equally unpopular among both liberals and conservatives, depending on the putatively “false religion” in question.

So what, then, is true religion. I believe it is two-fold, and I at least feinted in this direction in last week’s sermon. It is both orthodoxy and orthopraxy- both right belief and right action. It has ever been the belief, among both Christians and Jews, that the two are inextricably entwined.

“The end of the matter,” says the teacher in Ecclesiastes, “all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.” The Deuteronomist writes “So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” But how are we to love him whom we have not known? And how are we to fear him whom we have not distinguished from the idols of the world or of our own hearts? That which precedes our love and service is nothing less than the belief of all that He promises He is and has done for us. That he has in truth become incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, being born of the Virgin Mary, that he has borne our sins and paid our debt on thee Cross of Life, and that he has been raised, Body and Soul, from the dead, just as we shall be on the last day. If this is not so, Paul tells us, we are of all people most to be pitied, for we are fools.

Yet assenting to the propositions of true religion is, as I suggested last week, not the end but the beginning. “The proof of the pudding,” as the cliché would have it, “is in the eating.” Or, as the Epistle General of St. James says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Or the Prophet Micah: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

“Nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.” The collect concludes with the promise we are given should we hold fast to the faith given us by the in-grafting of the Love of Christ’s name in our hearts. Note well that it is only by God’s sustenance that the fruits of faith are able to grow. I said already, it is not the rotten stump or necrotic flesh of our hearts which by themselves can produce that which is life-giving, but rather that which is grafted on, Christ himself and love for him, which brings it forth. Our own contribution in this regard is secondary at best. “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything,” Paul says, “but God who gives the growth.” This is why our faith before any particular faithfulness, our belief in the truths of the Gospel before we have the capacity to even begin a life of righteousness, is so important. This does not mean all our lingering doubts must be eliminated before we can participate in God’s saving plan, it does not mean we have to get every aspect of our theology worked out before we accept that Christ Jesus has some work for us to do, but it does mean that we begin this whole, messy process of living faithfully by earnestly praying the prayer of the epileptic boy’s father in the ninth chapter of Mark’s Gospel: “Lord, I believe. Help thou mine unbelief.”

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