Sermon for the Baptism of OLJC 2019

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

During the process that brought us the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and that sustains its current use, there was a watchword (if you’re being charitable) or a buzzword (if you’re being a bit more honest) which has come to the fore in our theological and liturgical discourse- “baptismal ecclesiology.” In terms of noticeable differences, perhaps the most obvious was that Baptism, rather than Confirmation, became the requirement for the reception of Holy Communion. Many of you have noticed that when I recognize there are first-time visitors I make an announcement to this effect–that all baptized Christians may receive–so, you may correctly assume that I don’t find this an especially problematic thing.

The other major effect is that we’ve started in the last forty years or so to talk more about ministry being not the sole province of ordained bishops, priests, and deacons but of all the faithful. This is also, I’d argue, a very positive thing. One of the things I’ve most loved about being the Rector here at Trinity is that I don’t feel like I’m doing the work of the Church and of the Gospel all on my lonesome. I do not take this for granted! Sometimes clergy get the feeling that they are the “hired hand” expected to do all the working, praying, and dying-to-self that some others had felt they had outsourced to them. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am extremely grateful for you people.

So, all that is good stuff, and it’s based on some pretty good theology. Baptism is not only the mystical washing away of original sin- it is that, and it’s more. It is full inclusion into the body of Christ, and the baptismal promises of the 1979 BCP are like the ordination vows of the laity – a metaphor which some are uncomfortable with because of a perceived clericalism in its expression, but I think it help us appreciate the responsibilities the Christian life places on us.

So, what’s the problem? Well, I am not the first person to suggest this, though it is considered somewhat impertinent these days to do so in ecclesiastical circles. We have, I fear, displaced the Sacrament of Confirmation, and thus forgotten its importance as a Sacrament. Indeed, some have derisively spoken of Confirmation as having been maintained merely to give bishops something to do in addition to Ordination which priests cannot. Others have spoken of it, less stridently but just as dismissively, as a rite in search of a meaning.

I’ll speak next week during our Christian Education class after coffee hour more extensively about the nature of the Sacraments and of their number- namely seven: two being the Dominical Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist (so-called because they were established by our Lord in the Gospels), and the five others, Confirmation among them, being no less Sacraments of the Church (this is not the universally held view, but it is at least the majority view, and the one which I hold, as well as it being the position taught invariably within the Western Church for a thousand years).

Anyway, to refer to something as a Sacrament (this is a spoiler for next week’s class) is to claim that it is an objective means of God’s Grace mediated by the Church. This is not to say that God’s Grace cannot be experienced subjectively (say through personal, spiritual experience) or outside the mediation of the institution of the Church (say through acts of Divine Providence or even miraculous intervention), but rather that we have received seven means whereby God’s Grace may be said to be effective by virtue of the Church’s action, as Augustine said ex opera operato, or simply from the work itself being carried out. This is why you don’t need to worry about whether or not I’m an especially personally holy man when you receive Communion, for example. It is the very Body of Christ you receive regardless of Fr. Drymon’s personal qualities or lack thereof.

So it is with Confirmation, and this is why simply calling it a rite of passage or a mature affirmation of faith is insufficient. To bring this back, at long last, to the text which inspired this rant, today’s lesson from Acts, Peter and John did not travel to Samaria because the Samaritans had reached the age of accountability or memorized the Apostles’ Creed and the answers in the Catechism (which I still had to do back when I was confirmed during the Dark Ages), but because the Grace of Baptism was to be completed by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the Faithful by the laying on of Apostolic Hands, the importance of which we recognize today and thus continue in faith even if the rationale has been obscured in the wake of baptismal ecclesiology.

During last week’s eschatology lecture I mentioned my favorite New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, and coincidentally (or providentially? I don’t know!), he wrote something about this passage in his popular Acts For Everyone which I think gets to the point. It’s a somewhat lengthy quote, but its pithier than I’d manage, so it’s a net gain in terms of your time and attention, for which I am ever grateful:

“More important still, from Luke’s point of view, than the fact of Samaritans hearing about Jesus as Messiah, is what happened next. Many of the local people believed and were baptized in the name of Jesus. News of this reached the leaders in Jerusalem, and they made an unprecedented move. It appeared that, despite the Samaritan converts coming to faith and being baptized, they had not experienced the holy spirit in the same way that Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem had done on the day of Pentecost. This seems to have been interpreted in terms of the significant move that was taking place across the traditional boundary of culture and suspicion. It was important, they appear to have concluded, that what was happening in Samaria would not be dismissed by suspicious people in Jerusalem or elsewhere as merely some eccentric occurrence which could be waved away and discounted, leaving the new movement belonging only to bona fide Jews. So, just as church leaders in the fifth century decided that it was important for the bishop and only the bishop to lay hands on people in what has come to be called ‘confirmation’, thus making it quite clear that the new believers really are being welcomed into the central life of the church and not merely into some sort of private club, the Jerusalem apostles decided to send Peter and John to Samaria to lay hands on the converts and pray for the holy spirit. This they did.”

Thus, the Grace of Confirmation was, in fact, doubly gracious. You see, the Samaritan converts were objectively given the gift of the Holy Spirit, confirming their Baptisms before the larger Church, and the Church herself received the Grace of God giving growth in numbers and in faithfulness thanks to the inclusion of these formerly lost sheep from outside the fold of Israel.

And so it remains today. No doubt, a mature affirmation of one’s faith, the personal acceptance of the promises one’s parents and godparents made at Baptism, is an occasion for a significant, subjective experience of God’s Grace. There’s nothing wrong with that. But far more important, I’d argue, is the objective gift of the Holy Spirit, that same Spirit confirming the Grace of the first Sacrament, whether or not we appreciate or understand it. More important even than the realization of God’s grace in our all-too-human hearts and minds, is the objective reality of God’s Grace, God’s undeserved favor and love, whether or not we can contemplate or even fully accept it.

So, yeah, I’m going to start Confirmation classes again on the first Sunday of Lent, as has become my pattern, but I feel I should amend my typical plug in light of what I just said. Instead of “are you ready to make a mature affirmation of your faith?” how about “do you desire to receive the Grace of the Holy Spirit in a new and different way, whether you understand it or not?” We’ll take some time exploring that question, trying to make sense of what it even means to receive the Grace of the Holy Spirit, but perhaps that desire is enough, at least to start.

Stay tuned for that, and in the mean time, give thanks that the good work of Christ’s saving love has already been begun in you in Baptism, and pray that the same Grace may be visited on those who are struggling with their faith, have lost it, or do not yet believe. God stands ready to bless us all, because he has already claimed us. As Isaiah wrote: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

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

Sermon for Epiphany 2019

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

For some time I’ve been playing around with this idea that the splits in Western Christianity which began in the Sixteenth Century Protestant Reformation (the results of which we’re still dealing with today) were less about differences of opinion about what Jesus said, but more about differences of opinion about what St. Augustine said. I’ll not bore you with too much more than that thesis (unless I ever get round to writing a book on the matter, in which case I’ll play it for all it’s worth). I would suggest, however, that our sad divisions have too much to do with questions about justification, that is, the precise mechanism by which one avoids hell and gets into heaven.

Specifically, I think they have to do with how Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians read Augustine’s denunciation of the heretical soteriology of Pelagius differently. Perhaps this is surprising, though perhaps not to those who came to my soteriology lecture last month, but that particular question (“By what mechanism in particular are we saved?”) is disputable by faithful, fully orthodox Christians. This is not to say that questions of Justification are irrelevant. Rather, the debates of the Sixteenth Century (which are still debates I hear people engaging in) often try to oversimplify the terms of the argument such that it is no longer a good faith argument.

There are, nonetheless, some ideas from this centuries-long debate which I find useful, not because I can get on board with a reformed view of the mechanism of Justification, but because they are insights with broader implications. One of these, believe it or not, is a Wesleyan concept called “prevenient grace.”

If any of you grew up Methodist you might have been taught this belief. In brief, it’s the idea that God’s Grace is already at work in us at birth. Before a child is baptized, before somebody in some far-flung land with no experience of Christianity hears the Gospel, God’s love and favor already abides with him or her.
We see this phenomenon, I believe, in this morning’s Gospel reading. The Magi were neither Jews nor Proto-Christians. They were likely Zoroastrian priests who practiced astrology and aimed at acquiring other esoteric knowledge. They were, in short, occultists. We even get the English word “magic” from them. Our English translations of scripture tend to chicken out and call them simply “wise men”, since we Christians don’t tend to look too kindly on the occult (nor should we, I’d argue), but let’s call the wise men what they were: pagans.

Yet, these pagan priests knew there was something to see in Bethlehem. They even used their “wicked” astrology to get there. (I wonder how many of us make this connection when we put a star on top of our Christmas tree.) The Magi were drawn to the Christ Child and thanks to what was no doubt divinely granted intuition they protected him from Herod.

I think this has something to teach us about how we approach those who don’t believe or who believe in something very different from us. I think it teaches us that we should go beyond just being civil, just being polite because our mothers taught us never to talk about politics or religion (at least mine did… see how that worked out).

We should, rather, see those who disagree with us as children of God, endowed with Grace from their Creator. This is not to say that all religions are just different paths up the same mountain, as it were. There are some who believe that (there are some here who do, and that’s fine) but I don’t. What I think most of us can affirm, though, (unless you’re a hyper-Calvinist and believe in a capricious God who has only given Grace to a few) is that each of us has an innate desire to seek God and to please God, and that should give us all a common purpose and mutual love.
May our own epiphany, our own striking realization this season, be of God’s presence as it is made manifest in friend and stranger, in coreligionist and non-adherent, in those from whom we are now estranged but pray will be reconciled to us and to God through the perfect love of Christ which binds all Creation together.

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

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2018

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

You may have noticed that we began this evening’s liturgy with a peculiar para-liturgical element, “The Proclamation of the Birth of Christ.” It is taken from the Roman Martyrology, a sixteenth century catalogue of saints published as Europe transitioned from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar. I used it both because I think it’s a beautiful text and also, more importantly, because it places the events which we celebrate tonight in the context of both human and sacred history.

Perhaps it seems obvious to you that the God has a role in history, but it is not necessarily self-evident. What in theological terms we call “Divine Providence”—the idea that God is sovereign over time and history, that God oversees the long arc of the progress of the created order (general providence) and miraculously breaks into that order from time-to-time (special providence)—is, I would argue, a non-negotiable tenet of the Faith. This creates some issues regarding human agency, but you’ve come to celebrate the Birth of Christ, not to hear me give a theological disquisition on free will, so for now (one night only!) I’ll spare you and simply say that I think this theological problem is soluble.

Anyway, the proposition is that God is sovereign over history, that he is Alpha and Omega, the Lord of all that was and is and is to come. This may seem obvious to the one who believes, yet it is not so obvious to the world at large. Since Lyotard coined the term metanarrative (actually, métarécit, since he was French and all), there has been a skepticism in intellectual circles about such grand, unifying theories about the progress of history. This is for good reason. Marx believed that history was the story of class struggle, that the proletariat would revolt and seize the means of production, that they would establish a humane society based on common ownership, and that this would signal the end of history. He was wrong. Francis Fukuyama believed that the end of the Cold War signaled the end of the development of history, in which Western liberal democracy and free-market capitalism would be adopted as the final achievement of human civilization’s evolution. He was also wrong.

What these views and so many other grand, universal stories of the human experience (so many other metanarratives) lack, though, is imagination. They are materialistic in the proper sense, not in the sense that they are concerned with human control over things (though both Marx and Fukuyama fall victim to that problem), but in the sense that the material world is the only thing that exists. We are basically bags of meat that, in the aggregate, behave in predictable ways and organize ourselves along lines that a smart enough socialist could see a mile or a millennium away, and whether we end up blowing ourselves up, baking ourselves to death, or solving everything through our inherent genius and adaptability, we are, nevertheless, all there is.

What’s the alternative? With apologies to any postmodern hipsters in the congregation tonight, I do not believe that the answer is the one given by Lyotard & al.: to reject metanarrative in favor of a million different “little stories”, playing whatever language game contextually suits us. This seems to me just as unmoored from anything eternal as a materialistic “grand story.” This seems just as unimaginative, just as dull, just as stifling.

Rather, I believe with all that I am that the only answer is the reassert “The Story.” I believe the answer is to posit, contra mundum, perhaps, that history does have a purpose, that it comes from someplace and that it is going somewhere in particular, and that the only way to make sense of that long process is to look back to the hinge point of human history, to the divine vertical line in the long horizontal line of human striving through time, which gives our whole story its cruciform shape.

We look back to twenty-one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah, thirteen centuries from Moses, eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the Judges, one thousand years after the anointing of David as King. We look back to the year of the one hundred ninety-fourth Olympiad, the seven hundred fifty second year from the foundation of Rome, the forty-second year of the reign of Octavian. We look back to that very specific moment when human and divine history intersect to see the one, true God taking flesh in Jesus Christ.

This, my sisters and brothers, is the turn of the tide. This is the moment when the world rejoices, for in the first breath of an infant in Bethlehem of Judea, the world has been given its own first breath, faint and fearful at first, but growing in timbre and temerity until all the world can hear the angels’ song: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

My sisters and brothers, tonight we have been shown that we are highly favored. We have been shown that the God who made the world loved it enough to enter it, that in a moment of time all of time has been redeemed, that at the turning point of history God gave us the promise that at the end of all things, he will be there and all races and peoples and nations will stream to his light, as it were the Star of Bethlehem, and will kneel before him as did the wise men of old.

My sisters and brothers, this is not just “our story.” It is “The Story.” The savior of the nations has come among us and will come again. This night we travel even unto Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place; we kneel at the crib; we worship the Christ child; we feed on God’s mercy in the most precious Sacrament. But then, upon the Lord of Love being born anew in our hearts, we heed his call to spread that love, because it is not ours to keep. The Trinitarian Mission, the pouring forth of divinity from the Godhead into this messy world, is, by its nature, not solipsistic, nor is it a treasure shared by a few enlightened. It is perfect love unleashed on all humanity, that our mortal race, from the beginning of time through the last day, may be saved from sin and death, from systems that oppress and forces that frustrate the will of God for the human family. Now we treasure these words and ponder them in our hearts, as Our Lady did, but soon we most, like the shepherd, return to our fields, praising and glorifying God, and sharing this Good News with all the world.

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