Sermon for Pentecost 10 2017

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

Due to last Sunday having been a principal celebration of the Church, namely the Feast of the Transfiguration, we missed our weekly dose of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, which is a shame, because one of the central assumptions underlying the universal nature of the Christian mission assumed in this week’s lesson was not reckoned to be a given, but required an argument, at least insofar as Paul understood his audience’s assumptions. So we need to back up a bit and catch up.

Paul admits in what would have been read last week had it not been for the holiday to being in great sorrow and unceasing anguish for his own people. He even goes on to say that he would accept being “accursed and cut off from Christ” for the sake of the Jews, from whom came up the law and the prophets and a man named Jesus of Nazareth. And it seems that “here endeth the lesson”. But, in reality, there’s much more to be said.

Our first response might be that Paul’s sorrow regards the failure of the law to produce righteousness. Paul immediately counters this assumption by insisting that the Word of God (which spoke through the law and the prophets) cannot possibly fail. Rather, he says, the “children of Israel” is not an entirely ethnic or racial reality but a spiritual reality: those Gentiles who accepted the consummation of the Law in Christ are to be reckoned “children of Israel” and those Jews who rejected said consummation were not “children of Isreal” in this most important, spiritual sense.

Paul again anticipates a possible objection to this line of reasoning: namely the suggestion that this would make God out to be unfair. He did, after all, promise Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that their descendants would be God’s chosen people, and this business about spiritual rather than actual descendants being “the children of Israel” seems too clever by half.

Paul gives what might strike us at first as an unsatisfying answer. God, he says, has mercy on those whom he wants to show mercy, and we’re not God. This might strike us as unsatisfying, because it seems to gesture toward a sort of Calvinistic “double predestination” which I mentioned briefly a couple of weeks ago. That is to say that God has chosen those whom he intends to send to hell and we have no part in the matter. But, if one were to read Paul closely here one would find that that’s not what he’s saying at all. That God has decided to be merciful to the Gentiles does not imply that He has chosen to reject the Jews. Rather, God has mercy on the faithful, whether they be faithful in Christ or faithful to the Law. It is simply that those who had pursued the latter seemed by-and-large to have failed in their pursuit. It is in response to this failure that Paul is “in great sorrow and unceasing anguish” for the sake of his kinsmen, and it is why he laments “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God is that they may be saved.”

Finally, Paul comes to the “twenty-four thousand dollar question”, the question which his argument in the preceding two chapters of Romans makes unavoidable: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people?” He is swift in his response. “By no means!” Paul himself was an Israelite. Jesus himself was a Jew. And what’s more, Paul says, while the majority of his kinsmen had stumbled, they have not yet fallen. “As regards election,” he puts is “they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.” You will forgive my use of a phrase which some of you might find a bit too evangelical, but it is appropriate and true. Paul’s deepest desire is that his people may come to “accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour.” The joy obtained from such a relationship predicated on God’s Grace is greater than any joy that could be obtained by other means. Even so, Paul is insistent that God is not a liar and he doesn’t take back gifts he’s given. The Jews are saved, but Paul wants his kinsmen to experience Grace as he has come to experience it. This is why, with regard to the missionary impulse we find in this morning’s Epistle, Paul has to remind his audience that it is, indeed a mission to all: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek [he writes]; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

So that, in a nutshell, is how Paul’s argument develops in the central chapters of Romans, but one question remains, and it is the answer to this question from which we find something applicable not just for the Christians in ancient Rome, but for us as well. Why did Paul spill so much ink into addressing this question specifically?

To answer that, we need to recognize who Paul’s initial audience was. The church in Rome was a remarkably diverse group. It was situated in the capitol of the most powerful Empire in the world, so this little church would have likely counted among its members people from all over the known world. The most important distinction, however, as you no doubt know, was the distinction between Jews and Gentiles, of which there were many of both in the Roman church.

Paul’s letters were always occasional, which is not to say infrequent, but rather that each was written to respond to a particular issue within the local church. The distinction between Jew and Gentile and how this distinction effected the mission of the church had become controversial. Paul had already had to justify his practice of preaching to Gentiles before the council of the apostles in Jerusalem, and he had convinced the apostles that the Gospel was meant for all, not just for Jews. But just because the apostles had been persuaded by Paul to open up the church to Gentiles, local churches still had that most pernicious of problems which we see still see today: namely, the division of the world into “our kind of people” and “those people”.

It is safe to say that this very issue had caused dysfunction in the church in Rome, just as it had in other churches. Jewish Christians might have seen themselves as elite, being the inheritors of word of God as it had been passed down for centuries. Gentile Christians might have seen themselves as superior, since it was not their forefathers but the forefathers of the Jews who had botched things up by not following the Law. There may have been heated arguments within the church in Rome about who really deserved to be there. Paul’s discussion about Jews and Gentiles, then, would have been an attempt to combat the elitism and sense of superiority each group likely held.

I hate to burst anybody’s bubble, but this still happens today. We still divide ourselves according to race and social class and where one’s “people” are from and all other sorts of distinctions which we spend far too much time thinking about. If you don’t believe me, consider the sad business that happened in Virginia this weekend. It’s a hard thing sometimes to realize that while (I hope) most of us try to behave as if there really is only one race that matters (that is, the human race), we can’t just assume that everybody’s figured that out yet.

Indeed, each of us, no matter how enlightened we think we are, can build these walls between ourselves and others by making even subtle, unconscious assumptions. I know I do. Probably one of the most important experiences in my life, as silly as this might sound, was spending the first several years of my ordained ministry in the rural South, and getting to know people who spoke with rural southern accents who were smarter than I am. I was relying on this sort of easy prejudice that if you sound like Larry the Cable Guy, you’re probably dumb or something. First of all, that’s not that guy’s real accent, but more importantly it’s just not right. I can’t claim that that lesson in humility completely stuck; I know that’s still a prejudice I have deep down that I need to work on and (at least) be aware of. Anyway it’s very easy to make those kinds of assumptions and thereby create barriers between one’s own sort of people and “outsiders.”

The Gospel and the love it is meant to stir up in us for God and each other does not recognize these walls we build between people. The Gospel, Paul reminds us, is for everyone: Jew or Gentile, black or white, prince or pauper, native or newcomer. May we set aside our proclivity to divide the world between “us” and “them” and see each and every human being as somebody whose heart is a proper place for the living Christ to take up residence and to receive the love which God has given us and expects us to share.

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

Sermon for Pentecost 8 2017

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

There are few things as potentially amusing and as potentially instructive as listening to a small child pray. It is typically a mix of both the amusingly selfish and the inspiringly selfless, expressing those two truths about all Christians (namely, our transformation into new people in Baptism and our constant struggle with our old, creaturely obsession with self) which we adults are usually too clever to make so obvious.

If you have a child in your life and you’ve not listened in on his or her prayers before bedtime (which I hope children still do) I would encourage you to do so. You’ll likely hear some rather selfish stuff—prayers for a new bicycle or a less irritating sibling—but you’ll likely also hear some rather moving examples of Christian charity: prayers for sick friends, for mom and dad, for that sibling (despite how irritating he might be), and so forth.

As I said, we adults are clever enough to monitor the prayers we give around others. But how often in our private conversations with God do we forget to ask ourselves if we’re really praying aright? There are two prayers from our Book of Common Prayer which are directed for use as concluding collects for the Prayers of the People which I think we are wise to think about. One asks God to “Accept and fulfill our petitions, we pray, not as we ask in our ignorance, nor as we deserve in our sinfulness, but as [God] know[s] and love[s] us in [His] Son,” and the other asks God to “Help us to ask only what accords with [His] will; and those good things which we dare not, or in our blindness cannot ask, [to] grant us for the sake of [His] Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”

How often do we fail to consider the fact that God may know what’s best for His people? How often do we pray without reflection for personal benefits and even for the benefit of self at the expense of others?

About twenty years ago, a very popular book called The Prayer of Jabez came out. It was written by a fellow named Bruce Wilkinson, and he based the book on a rather obscure passage from 1 Chronicles. So popular was this volume that three versions for children of different ages were released in the years following its publication. And what did this book instruct its readers to do? To pray very specifically for personal benefits in the areas of finances, social influence, and the like. Throughout the volume is an unstated assumption that God ought to respond to man’s desires rather than the other way round. Sadly, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, the popularity of this book and of the “prosperity Gospel” more broadly suggests that it is very easy to pray for oneself unreflectively, to forget those bits from the prayerbook about our difficulty in praying aright.

In this morning’s Old Testament lesson we are introduced to a figure better than most in regards to being reflective in prayer. At Gibeon the Lord seems to give Solomon a blank check, as it were: “Ask what I shall give you,” he says. God forbid that He should say the same thing to me. I’d probably ask for a trust fund and a vacation home. But Solomon responds, “Give thy servant therefore an understanding mind to govern thy people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to govern this thy great people?” Solomon prays that he may have the gifts to serve God’s people, rather than for “long life, or riches, or the lives of [his] enemies,” and for this God grants Solomon’s request.

Of course, not all prayers for ourselves are selfish, and we don’t have to pray only for God to give us gifts to do His work (though, this is one thing we should always pray for). It is perfectly appropriate to cry out to God in our distress and ask for relief. When we are ill or sad or frightened, God is ready to hear us. The danger is when we cannot see past ourselves, past our own needs and desires, to see how God might be needed in the lives of others, and how we might, through prayer, be given strength to reach out to those in need of His Grace.

The difficult truth, though, is that we’ll never be so adept at discerning the complex motivations that do battle in our souls to become perfect in prayer. Unless you’re a lot more self-aware than I, prayer will always include at least a hint of self-interest. Does this mean it’s a losing battle, that we may as well not pray? By no means! We hear in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans the good news that we who have been redeemed, who have been regenerated in Baptism, have a prayer-partner who prays for us and in us and who finally perfects the complex, tortuous words we offer up to the Almighty:

[W]e do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Remain steadfast in prayer, then, with confidence that God will hear and answer us “not as we ask in our ignorance, nor as we deserve in our sinfulness, but as [He] know[s] and love[s] us in [His] Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” and that the Spirit which gives us the words we need has given us the strength to say those blessed words against which even the Gates of Hell cannot triumph: God the Father has made us His sons and daughters through Jesus Christ and loves us and listens to us as any father should: with compassion and understanding and an overwhelming desire that we should live in peace and felicity all the days of our lives and in eternity with the Triune God. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 6 2017

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

I spoke last week about some important distinctions one must make in order to understand Paul’s argument in the central chapters of Romans- namely the distinction between flesh and body and (σαρξ and σομα) and between mind and reason. As a reminder, Paul does not condemn the body, he does not encourage a denial of matter, space, time, the created order in favor of some airy fairy ghostly spiritualism. Rather he condemns the sin-nature, which he calls flesh, which has perverted the created order. Further, his reliance on the capability of mind is not a simple, blanket affirmation of cleverness, but something more specific, which I did not quite manage to define in last weeks sermon. Keep these distinctions in mind as we look at this week’s Epistle.

Paul writes that our flesh, our sinful nature, has so corrupted us that we are unable to be justified by works of the Law. Note that this is not an acknowledgment that the Law itself was somehow insufficient, which would suggest that God was involved in some sort of trial-and-error experiment with human salvation, but rather that Original Sin has made us unreliable partners in a Covenant which was good in itself. This may seem like splitting hairs, but it really has important implications with regard to both the perfection of God and what I call “theological anthropology”- the attempt to understand what it means to be human in light of our realization that we are creatures of a God who wants to be in a relationship of unity and love with his Creation.

A discomfort with our experience of evil in the world and our inability to square it with an orthodox account of God’s perfection has led to the rising popularity in some liberal protestant circles of something called “process theology”, which claims that God, rather than being the great “I AM” is, like humanity, in the process of becoming perfect in coöperation with us. This may seem appealing, and indeed I think we may be excused for holding such a view implicitly or subconsciously when going through difficulty. I often say at funerals that it’s okay to question God’s plan in the midst of tragedy. The effects of moral evil (like Auschwitz) or natural evil (like those who may have lost a great deal in this week’s flooding) are such that we may be forgiven for questioning God’s perfection in power and love. But, you see, that’s not the end point. The end point is a reaffirmation of God’s perfection in spite of it all. The project of process theology suggests that the beginning of that work is its end, that a sort of theology of protest and an assumption that the best we can do is help God in the process of getting better at doing his job. Questioning God is a perfectly natural response to trouble, but basing an entire worldview on it is the height of arrogance. Worse, it’s a craven rejection of human responsibility, cloaked in the disguise of so-called “high anthropology,” because it is fundamentally based on an assumption that Original Sin and free will, those two tricky but necessary elements of the Christian worldview, do not apply.

Whether we’re talking about the failure of the Law to produce righteousness as Paul does in Romans or about more modern debates regarding the problem of evil, the suggestion that the trouble lies with Almighty God can, I think, be countered pretty simply to my mind. Let’s make it as simple as possible, though. How many of you saw the Marvel Avenger’s film from about five years ago? If you haven’t, there’s a bit in the final battle between the world’s greatest heroes and the Norse god Loki and his forces. The Incredible Hulk – you know, the one whom you don’t want to make angry because he turns into a giant, green monster – beats the super-villain up and proclaims “puny god.”

If God is a God whom we are helping achieve perfection, it seems one would be better off reading a self-help book on a Sunday morning rather than gathering to worship him. No, the God whom we worship, Paul reminds us, is not a God of our own making. Instead, we are a people of God’s making whose pleasure, we are reminded, is effected by our regeneration in the Spirit, a Spirit which is alive in us by virtue of our Baptism, which has washed away the stain of Original Sin, replacing our fleshly natures with a spiritual one. Again, remember, it is not our bodies being counted or the rest of the material world being mere veils obscuring some ghostly realm, but our whole selves, body and soul, being spiritually animated, one might say, changing something essential about us and how we find our place in Creation by virtue of a new life given us now, just as we are, in preparation for the resurrection of those same mortal bodies on the Last Day.

And finally, Paul reminds us that having put away the flesh and become alive in the Spirit, we set our minds on things of the Spirit.  I read this week a discussion of this new reality by N.T. Wright, the former Bishop of Durham, whom some of you know is among my favorite contemporary Christian writers. As a side note, Wright has quite a diverse corpus of writings (dozens of books actually) and if you’re interested in reading an active theologian and biblical scholar and don’t know where to start, you’re in luck. If you’re a theological neophyte, I’m not kidding, start with the books on whose jackets he is credited as “Tom Wright” and then work your way up to the books where he is named “N.T. Wright.” The former are intentionally very accessible and the latter get in to more complex matters.

Anyway, the good bishop Wright writes that what Paul is describing here is more than just turning your attention to different matters; it is, rather, a complete transformation of the mind such that one experiences reality in a new way. Let me say again, it is not about ignoring the reality of matter and space and time, the stuff of Creation, in order to focus on abstractions or esoterica. Instead, it is a new way of perceiving ourselves, our fellows, and the world in which we live such that the light of Christ illumines all. A friend of mine used to refer to this as seeing the world through cruciform spectacles. I like to think of it, you may recall from other things you’ve heard me say in this pulpit and elsewhere, as an alternative epistemic mode. I’ve called this mode “self-possession” and Thomas Aquinas describes it as “an openness to other beings at the ontological level.” Put simply, it is more than simply focusing on higher things but is an wholly different way of coming to know anything. It is the sensate Spirit which we have, our minds having been renewed and freed from the flesh.

This new way of being in the world and knowing it, though, is more than just a means of understanding. It is the way to the kind of knowledge which produces life and peace. This is an interesting phrase Paul uses. He is here quoting directly from the Book of the Prophet Malachi, in which faithfulness to the Old Covenant, to the Law, is that which produces “life and peace.” Now Malachi was concerned with how that Covenant was not being observed, and specifically with moral and ritual laxity among the priests of the Jerusalem temple. Paul is concerned, instead, with the will to accept this new way of being, the New Covenant in its fullness.

So, I sometimes sound like a broken record, but it bears repeating: this New Covenant is in one sense easier and in another sense harder than the Old. Whereas obedience to precept upon precept may be onerous if one is not of a mind to be obedient, acceptance of the Grace of the New Covenant requires not merely a single choice to receive a boon from God, as some peculiar versions of Christianity might suggest, but an ongoing choice to accept it by one’s own free will and the difficult task of living up to the responsibilities implied by living the Risen Life. The demands of charity as determined by a good conscience require hard work, but the inspired mind of a child of God, freed from the flesh makes it possible, and, with some significant practice, even natural as the virtues are nurtured by prayer and the sacraments and the unflagging support and encouragement given us by a God who wants us to succeed in a life of holiness and devotion.

Life and peace are there for the taking. We’re given the tools thanks to a renewed and spiritual mind, a regenerate soul, a heart full of God’s love. Choose life and peace, cherish it for the gift it is, and pray for endurance that even in the midst of trials our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joy is to be found.

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