Sermon for Pentecost 17 2017

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

One of the things I‘ve enjoyed over the years about being involved in local civic groups and boards is that it has afforded me a chance to get to know people who subscribe to other expressions of the Christian faith. I have to admit to knowing precious little about popular American religion except for what I’ve gleaned in church history classes and through the media. Thus, I love talking to people from other “flavors” of Christianity, because I always learn something that would not have occurred to me about how different kinds of Christians approach the Gospel.

A few years ago I was on a car trip to a meeting with a couple of friends from one of the I was a part of at the time, and (as often happens when I’m in the mix, for some reason) the discussion turned to religion. These two friends of mine were both Baptists, but Baptists of different sorts. One was a Southern Baptist and one was a Free-will Baptist. Having no idea what distinguished one from the other, I asked what the primary theological distinction (if any) was.

After some discussion they both agreed that it came down to different views on the permanency of a salvific experience. Whereas one group held that an experience and acceptance of God’s Grace at a pivotal point in one’s life assured eternal salvation (the pithy phrase used was “once saved, always saved”), the other group held that one could reject such an experience later on and “backslide”, as she put it, to a state of reprobation. This concept was new to me, and trying to inject a little humor into the conversation I admitted that I doubted Episcopalians would split over such an important theological issue, but we might do in a debate about whether one should use port or sherry for Holy Communion. In truth, I was rather impressed. If my friends’ assessment were the case (and I have no reason to doubt it was), it means these two groups broke communion not over petty issues of personality conflicts, but over a real theological issue- an issue as central to the Gospel as the nature of salvation. While the division of the Body of Christ is always a tragedy, something about splitting over such a critical issue seems a great deal more laudable than splitting over whether there should be a new roof on the church or whether there should be flowers on the altar. The latter reminds me of a spoof article on the web I read a few years ago titled “Forty-seven Church Splits Finally Brings Doctrinal Perfection.”

Anyway, this is a rather lengthy introduction to a short sermon about something this conversation got me thinking about- namely, the issue which had caused these two types of Baptists to fall out of fellowship. After doing some research, I’ve discovered that the crux of the issue is found in this morning’s epistle: work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. One way of interpreting Paul’s mandate to the Philippians is to claim that we’re never 100% sure of our status with regard to salvation, and we have to remain faithful to ensure it. Another interpretation holds that the “work” done with “fear and trembling” is confirmation rather than cause; it stands as assurance of salvation to the weak, though ultimately the faithful, were they to sit down and really think about it, would find such assurance in their initial conversion experience. This, it seems to me, is the crux of the issue between my two friends’ churches.

I want to offer a third way to approach this question. This is not a proposition for an expanded catechism, but rather a personal perspective which you may “take or leave”, as it were, but I think it is more compelling not only for an adherent of a catholic sort of Christianity, but for any Christian who might find weighing the two alternatives above frightening or stultifying.

The two alternatives given by my friends rely on two assumptions from two different periods of church history. The first is a concern with the mechanics of “justification”, which came to be seen as coterminous with the notion of “salvation” in the great debates of the sixteenth century. Put simply, both the Protestant reformers and the Catholic Counter-Reformation as it was embodied in the Council of Trent, assumed a definition of “salvation” which was neither more nor less than the mechanics whereby one was given eternal life in heaven.

The second assumption is of a much later origin, having its nascent stage in the Great Awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and finding widespread acceptance in contemporary American evangelicalism. This is the assumption that a personal, affective religious experience of some sort or another is necessary for salvation (which is still reckoned by many Christian groups to be identical to justification).

The second assumption is, to my mind, easier to reject. Its relative novelty in Christian thought would seem to reject the validity of the religion of the majority of people who have claimed Christianity for eighteen hundred years (and, indeed, the majority of Christians in the world today- though they may not have been seen as a majority to one living in the bible belt of America). I’m not suggesting that a personal, affective religious experience of conversion is a bad thing. It is an incredibly good thing when it happens. What I am suggesting is that claiming such an experience to be a prerequisite to one’s entry into heaven is unjustified and unbiblical.

The former assumption—the one equating salvation and justification—is a bit harder to unpack. I think the best way forward is a little Greek. The Greek noun most commonly translated as “salvation” in our English New Testament (and, indeed, in our lesson from Philippians) is “soteria”. This word, in both the biblical context and in its uses throughout the history of Christian theology comprises several ways in which one might be saved and several things from which one is saved. One is saved from the fires of Hell and promised eternal life. That is what we called “justification” and it is one terribly important meaning of “soteria”. One is also saved from the influence of sin and given freedom to live righteously. One is saved from self-obsession and given freedom to live in humility, sacrificing one’s own good for the good of others, just as Christ is said to have done in that wonderful hymn which constitutes the first part of this morning’s epistle reading. One is saved from ignorance and given freedom to pursue truth and wisdom. All these elements and more make up the biblical notion of salvation, and to suggest that justification is the only meaning misses a great deal of the Good News we are given thanks to the divine mission of Christ Jesus.

So, I think the following axiom might better reflect the mechanics of salvation (and it’s a great thing to say to somebody who comes to your door or asks you on the street if you’ve been saved): I was saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved. I was objectively saved, justified and given a life free from the stain of original sin, when I was baptized (even if that happened when I was a little baby and didn’t know what was going on). I am being saved as I strive with fear and trembling to humble myself, to take the form of a servant, to turn daily away from the world, the flesh, and the devil toward the foundation of my greatest hope. I will be saved on the last day, when the graves give up there dead and we stand at last before the judgment seat of Christ and we hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.” 

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

Sermon for Pentecost 16 2017

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

The most pernicious theological problem which Christianity has faced since its inception, and which likewise bedeviled our Jewish forbears, is what we call theodicy or “the problem of evil.” “Why do bad things happen to good people?” If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, how can He permit suffering? As I’ve said before, if you can answer that question sufficiently, be my guest; you’ll be hailed as the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas. The best I can tell you is read the Book of Job and see if you find it’s answer satisfying.

I sometimes wonder, though, if our real problem comes from a question antithetical to the traditional question of theodicy- namely, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Now, this question is not very theologically difficult, but I think that if we were to interrogate our own sense of justice, we would find it poses some spiritual difficulty. The psalmist laments, “[The wicked man’s] ways prosper at all times; thy judgments are on high, out of his sight; as for all his foes, he puffs at them.” St. Augustine complains, “I live well and am in need; and the unjust man abounds.” Well, it seems like Jonah had the same problem in this morning’s Old Testament lesson.

Many of you probably remember the story of Jonah, but a quick refresher might be helpful. Jonah, an Israelite, is called by God to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh, “an exceedingly great city” which served as capitol of the Assyrian Empire. This is in the 8th Century B.C., when Assyria is expanding and threatening the Kingdom of Israel. So, Jonah had reason to be a bit intimidated by God’s request, and in a moment of what may seem to us rather unclear thinking, he decides to try to run away from God, quite literally. He boarded a ship going the opposite direction from Nineveh, but the ship encountered a storm at sea. Jonah was forced to admit to the crew that the Lord God might have had reason to be a touch peeved with him, and offered to let them throw him into the sea. So, that’s precisely what they did, and as the Scripture says “the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah.” After three days in the belly of the fish, Jonah reckons prayer might help, and indeed upon the prayer’s completion, the fish “spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.”

God doesn’t waste time, and He comes to Jonah as soon as he makes landfall. “Get up,” God said, “go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message I tell you.” This time, having realized that his initial disobedience was more than a little unwise, Jonah got up and did as the Lord had commanded. When he arrives in Nineveh, Jonah preached repentance, and to his great surprise, the Assyrians listened. The king mandated acts of contrition, and the populace obeyed. God withheld His wrath; by all accounts Jonah had succeeded in his task.

By all accounts, that is, except for Jonah’s. Jonah did not rejoice because of the Lord’s mercy. Rather he sat beneath a bush and sulked. Why, he thought, did God not impose His judgment upon the Ninevites? He had sworn in His wrath that He would make an end of them, and Jonah really wanted them to get their just desserts. They had it coming, after all.

The funny thing is, though, that Jonah’s just desserts would have been to die at sea. He had it coming, too. But, God’s mercy, in both cases, trumped His justice.

Likewise, Jesus’ parable in today’s Gospel, presents a picture of God’s mercy which upsets our notions of justice. There are laborers who work in the vineyard all day, and there are those who put in a half-day’s work, and there are some who only put in a few hours on the clock. Yet the latter get just as much pay as the others. It might be hard to notice, at first, how counterintuitive the parable is, because we’ve allegorized it so much and have agreed (on a sort of cognitive level) to its theological point. But do we really, deep down, believe the Good News it has for us. What if we were hearing this parable for the first time, like the disciples, and if we were to take the story it tells on its own terms, without immediately identifying the landowner with God. Well, we’d find the parable terribly upsetting. It’s not fair! If we had been working all day, we’d either expect the late-comers to be docked some pay, or we’d demand a bonus. If the landowner were operating justly, he’d have to do that, we’d say. It’s just like Jonah’s indignant attitude. It wasn’t fair, but is fairness the only virtue?

It seems to me that in secular society and in some quarters of the Church there exists today an assumption that the moral life or the Christian Gospel are primarily, or even almost exclusively about effecting some vision of justice. But, such a vision of the moral life and of the Gospel cannot be the full picture. It cannot be the full picture because it leaves out the central quality of our faith. What did our Lord say? “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world: but that the world through him might be saved.” This is not primarily a matter of justice, but of mercy. Yes, we believe that Christ shall return to be our judge, but he also serves as our advocate before the heavenly throne. His sacrifice upon the Cross, and the perpetual sacrifice of the Eucharist were not given for our benefit because we deserved it, but because of God’s mercy and loving-kindness. We are not brought through the waters of Baptism as a symbol of our innate worthiness, but as a real act of regeneration, God’s mercy making us worthy despite ourselves.

This should give us pause when we begin to judge. Of course, judgment is necessary in some cases: in courts of law, and academic examinations, for example. We hope mercy operates in these contexts as well, but judgment is necessary. Sometimes the Church must act on behalf of Christ her head to judge profound evil in the world and within Herself. In instances like these, God’s judgment and ours is an expression of love. But how much more lovely is mercy? The Church has something which no other ideology in the world, as far as I can tell, had ever come up with before Christ: a full-throated endorsement of forgiveness. Forgivenes, not for the sake of demonstrating benevolence and power, nor for the sake of currying favour, but simply because we were forgiven first.

We have been made a people of mercy, because in Baptism we were, I like to say, given a pair of cruciform spectacles. We were given the means of seeing the world through the lens of the cross. Thus, the mercy we are called to show is a sacrificial sort of mercy. Our innate sense of fairness, of justice, is transformed in our seeing, in the light of unbounded, unbidden mercy, because when we look through the Cross the light we see is resurrection light. May we be so illumined by that light that when we see each other on that day, the day of Christ’s return, we may see each other and ourselves no longer as unworthy Ninevites, nor as unaccomplished vine-dressers, but as fellow members of Christ’s one Body and co-heirs of His eternal kingdom.

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

Sermon for Pentecost 15 2017

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

One element of this morning’s Gospel which I think we rarely focus on is just how much money Jesus is talking about in the parable. We learn that the slave owes ten thousand talents to his master and that the same slave is owed one hundred denarii. It’s easy enough to leave the story knowing simply that the slave owes more than he is owed, but we miss an important element if that’s all we know.

In reality, we are dealing with measures of currency here which we can estimate. We know that the wage for a day’s labor in the first century was one denarius. This means that what the slave wants from his compatriot is no small sum. It’s almost a third of his annual income. It’s not like he had just spotted his friend a fiver. I think most of us would be more than a little concerned if somebody owed us this much and couldn’t pay up. So, at first we might have some sympathy for the slave.

But then, look at how much debt had been forgiven. Ten thousand talents. A talent is a weight of measure rather than a currency, but most scholars of the period in question have determined that a talent was worth roughly six thousand denarii. So ten thousand talents would be sixty million denarii. That’s sixty million days worth of wages- 164,383 and a half years, not counting Sabbath days.

If that’s hard for you to get your mind around, we can look at it a different way. Like I said earlier, a talent is not a currency but a weight of measure. It was roughly thirty-three kilograms or about seventy-three pounds. When used as a measure of debt and credit in the ancient world, the assumption would have been that gold was the basis of determination (there was no such thing as fiat money until very recently). So, if the slave owed his master ten thousand talents, he would have owed him 330,000 kilograms of gold. Right now, a kilogram of gold is worth nearly 60,000 dollars. So, if we were to assume that gold were basically as valuable then as it is now, the slave would have owed his master the equivalent of 19 billion 800 million dollars.

Of course, this is ludicrous. Nobody would lend an individual, especially his own slave, 20 billion dollars. Only 8 people in America, the richest nation in the world, have more money than that. I think the point, however, is just how ridiculous it seems. How could one get so bent out of shape about a few thousand dollars when he just had a twenty billion dollar debt forgiven?

Well, as ridiculous as it seems, we do just that. We have been regenerated—given new life and the forgiveness of sins—through Baptism. Christ died for our sins that we might live, but what do we do if somebody says something nasty about us? What do we do if somebody cuts us off in traffic or cheats us out of a few bucks or acts rude to us? We don’t forgive. We do what the enemy of the psalmist is described as doing:

He put on cursing like a garment*
let it soak into his body like water
and into his bones like oil;
Let it be to him like the cloak which he wraps around himself,*
and like the belt that he wears continually.

We love cursing and take no delight in blessing. We let our petty beliefs about what we deserve push us to clutch tightly to our resentment until we are defined by it.
I get very worried, as many of you know, when the death of anybody, even a monster like Osama bin Laden, causes celebration in the streets. I get very worried when state executions are presented as justice being done. What concerns me is public reaction, and I think it’s safe to say that mercy is not a virtue which our society values terribly much these days.

Jesus calls us to forgive our brother. There is a translation issue in Jesus’ response to Peter. He might have said “forgive seventy times” or “seventy seven times” or “seventy times seven” (that’s 490 times, but the way). What precisely Jesus said doesn’t matter so much, though, because it seems that what he meant was “keep on forgiving”. There’s no limit.

There’s a lovely prayer attributed to St. Francis in the back of the prayerbook (page 833 if you’re interested), and it seems to sum up what Jesus is saying to us today: it is in pardoning that we are pardoned. The greatest gift we’ve ever been given is pardon, but it comes with a caveat. Being forgiven we are obliged to forgive.

It’s hard sometimes, particularly when we are sinned against in ways more brutal than a rude word or being cut off in traffic. Unless we get around to forgiving, though, the Cross is emptied of its meaning for us. When we fail to show mercy, we are even more ridiculous than the slave who demanded his hundred denarii. When we confuse justice with revenge we may as well be nailing Christ’s hands to the cross ourselves, because we’ve forgotten what that sacrifice was all about to begin with. But when we forgive, we start to become more worthy of that label which we give ourselves. We become more worthy of being called Christians.

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