Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

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

Today’s Old Testament lesson came from the relatively short book of the Prophet Amos, which, along with the other so-called “lesser prophets”, gets a great deal less air time, as it were, than the more lengthy prophetic books like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In some cases this might be because the latter include more prophecies which we believe to have been accomplished or reinforced in the New Testament. Amos’ prophecy was a great deal more immediate. He predicted an earthquake and it happened about two years later.

Even so, there is much we can learn from this little book. Amos was probably the first prophet to have his prophecies written down. Biblical scholars have become surprisingly good at dating these things, and we are pretty sure that today’s Old Testament lesson was from a vision Amos had and preached about sometime between the autumn of 750 BC and that of 749 BC. In this sense, Amos would have been the first Old Testament prophet, an appropriate bookend to the figure usually reckoned the final prophet, John the Baptist, of whose demise we heard about in today’s Gospel.

Anyway, as the first prophet with a book, Amos set a program which other prophets would adopt, and this is specifically the practice of denouncing the unrighteousness of Israel. As the chosen people, the children of Israel would have been used to hearing prophets’ denunciations of their neighbors and approbations of Israel.

Now, Amos begins his prophecies in a manner which his contemporaries would have recognized. For the first two chapters of the book, we may read of the Lord’s wrath against the Edomites and the Moabites and the Philistines and so forth, and for about the first ten minutes of his sermon, Amos’ audience would have been quite comfortable. These were the familiar old denunciations which jingoistic pseudo-prophets would have given them before, and which would have served as pabulum for a people very much set in their ways.

But then would come the bit Amos’ audience wasn’t expecting. “Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up out of the land of Egypt.” He had sounded so much like all the other prophets, his audience must have thought, and then he had to go and kick over the ant hill. He had to denounce Israel! It is little wonder that at the end of today’s reading, Amos is told in no uncertain terms that he had better just head back to the farm, away from God’s own native Israel. Perhaps a better end than John, who we learned was beheaded for much the same thing, but still a disappointing reception.

Amos’ audience must have been furious, because what he was doing was saying that the chosen people had the same sins as the Gentiles, that they were just as guilty and that, in a sense, they had lost their special status. They had become just like the pagan people who surrounded them, and thus were no better.

And what were the sins of Israel which made this the case? They were both moral and religious. On the one hand, though the birthright of the Israelites was a strong moral code which protected the helpless and the outsider, the people had begun to “oppress the poor” and “crush the needy”. They had become both greedy and, Amos pointed out, lazy.

But in addition to this moral bankruptcy, the Israelites had become religiously unfaithful. This is just under the surface of today’s reading, the story of the plumb line. God was to level out the land of Israel in a manner they might have found counterintuitive. God said, “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste.” These were places which were erected to the glory of God, and in the time of Amos they had not been universally replaced by the Jerusalem temple as the locus of sacrifice, and thus they remained important places of prayer and devotion.

In fact, the places where Israel worshipped provided an all-too-simple means whereby they could overlook their own iniquity. This is a form of hypocrisy we might have noticed even today, and which from time to time I’ve noticed in myself. Now I’m the first to admit that religion is an important, powerful thing. It connects us to God. I’m not at all suggesting that being “spiritual but not religious”, as many contemporary people would say they are is preferable, and I personally don’t see how that’s ultimately tenable (but that’s the topic for another sermon). What I do mean to say is that sometimes our religion can be perverted to the point where it either justifies everything we’re already doing or it gives us an excuse to go out and be nasty people and still be self-righteous about going to church a lot. This was the point God was making through Amos by saying that he’d knock down all their temples. It was the point that a later prophet, Hosea, made even more explicitly when the Lord told him, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings.”

The prophets can get polemical and make their points in shocking ways, and a fulsome appreciation of prophetic literature as a whole suggests that sacrifice and worship were not seen as unbeneficial or any less necessary than they had been. Rather, the point is that without faithfulness to the moral laws of the Old Testament, the Israelites could not render an acceptable sacrifice. The “high places and sanctuaries” and even the Jerusalem temple were built in vain. The Christian analogue to this is that if we’re not prepared to live a life informed by the virtues, we’re not making it better by showing up at church. Both virtue and religion, both moral commitment and worship, must be held together. This was the point Amos was making and Hosea and even John the Baptist who, we may recall, referred to the religious authorities of his day as a “brood of vipers”.

As Christians we have a benefit, however, in that our worship life informs our moral life and gives it shape. I don’t just mean that my musings from the pulpit can occasionally encourage good behaviour, though I hope from time to time I might succeed in doing so. No, our whole liturgical life is constructed in such a way that faithfulness in worship can help make us better Christians. We are exposed not only to theological truths but to moral teaching by our extensive use of scripture in worship. But even more than that, and in a way we cannot possibly understand or quantify, our regular, faithful reception of the Holy Communion slowly, mystically transforms us into the kind of people God intends us to be. Christ is not just made known to us symbolically in the breaking of the bread; he literally comes to dwell in us when we receive his Body. Thus, we truly do take these Holy Mysteries to our own health and salvation if we do so aright. We take them to the end of being transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit and conformed to the very body of Christ.

This takes some of the pressure off, because it means that it’s not all about what we do. It’s what God does in us. Yet we must remain open to the ways in which Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament is at work transforming us, or we can easily slip back into the hypocrisy and empty religiosity which Amos preached against. So, when you approach the altar this morning, and from now on, I encourage you to consider how the Sacrament is at work in your own transformation, how it is that it strengthens you to live in accordance with the virtues, and even how you might have stood in the way of that transformational work. In the end, the strength we need to be the kind of people God intends us to be is available at this very altar, and it is simply ours to be open to its power to change us.

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

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

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

Trigger warning: I mention the existence of partisan politics in my sermon this morning. However, you will not be able to analyze the following text in such a way as to figure out where I am situated vis-á-vis American political parties. If you read between the lines, you may be able to figure out how I feel about another country’s politics, but it will get you no closer to being able to translate that into our own political system, so try not to speculate, because I really think it’s neither here nor there.

I think it is manifestly unwise to engage in what might be perceived as party politics in the pulpit. Note that I use the term “party politics”, rather than simply “politics”, because it is almost impossible to always avoid saying anything which might suggest some government policies might be more in keeping with the Gospel than others. Even then, though, I try to be circumspect, because I’ve heard enough sermons that technically don’t say something like “the Democrats are right” or “the Republicans are right”, but one need but scratch the surface to see that this is really the preacher’s point. When Paul said that he strove to be all things to all people he was speaking primarily with regard to Jews and Gentiles in the early church, but I think he set a good standard for today’s church, which should proclaim the Gospel in ways that all can hear, regardless of voting preference and party affiliation.

I was thinking about all this for a couple of reasons. For one, Independence Day, which we just observed, always reminds me that my Christian Responsibility and my civic duty are not coterminous, but the former certainly informs the latter, since (at least for me) my Christian commitment must inform every aspect of my life. Thank God that we do not have an established church and religious tests in this country. (I know that’s strange coming from an Anglican, since historically our church, not so much in America, but certainly in England, has been among the most brazen Church-State “integralists” in this regard!) However, one cannot and should not have two competing worldviews in one’s head to deploy in different spheres of life, as if one could be a Christian on a Sunday morning and a secular humanist on election day. I think religious tolerance and a hesitancy to impose uniquely Christian expectations can themselves be Christian values.

I was also thinking about this because–perhaps incongruously but I hope not unpatriotically–I stayed up later than I usually do on Independence Day night following the results of the UK parliamentary elections. For twenty years and more, since I lived in Britain, I’ve particularly followed the ups-and-downs of the Liberal Democratic party, whose very name may be confusing to Americans, since (though this is an oversimplification) they may be seen as the centrist party ideologically between the Tories and Labour. The Lib-Dems had a big night, going from 11 to 71 seats; it doesn’t appear (at least from the publications I read) as if our country’s mainstream press has picked up on this rather big story and its implications for British politics going forward.

Anyway it reminded me of a period during which this party was in a crisis, having faced electoral implosion in 2015, after a noble if politically misjudged decision to join the Conservatives in forming a coalition government. They named a new party leader, Tim Farron, who only lasted two years in that post, and his decision to resign was, to me at least, devastatingly sad. He explained that he could not see how he could remain both a political party leader and a committed, faithful Christian. How heartbreaking, especially considering that this was in a country which, unlike our own, is constitutionally Christian with an established church. We should not, I repeat, have religious tests to hold office in this country, but that is not to say that we cannot appreciate or desire faithful men and women who bring core Christian values–mercy and justice and hope and love–to bear on how they lead and govern.

I bring all this up, because both our Old Testament and our Gospel this morning point to the difficulties and dangers inherent in bringing God’s Word to bear on the body politic. Ezekiel is warned that his own people are a rebellious house, that the leadership which remained in Israel after the rise of the Babylonians may not accept his prophetic word, and that national disaster could follow, which indeed it did. Likewise, Jesus said that a prophet is not without honor accept among his own people, no doubt because that prophet has a word which challenges his people–how they live and move and have their being in a social and, dare I say, sometimes political sense.

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that all politicians or preachers can or even should be prophets. When a preacher claims as much for himself or herself, it strikes me more often than not that they are engaging in party politics in a narrow sense rather than in encouraging and enabling those values which are central to the Kingdom of God. I’ve heard preachers do just this from both the right and the left in sometimes subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways. I have two basic rules of thumb in this regard. 1) If someone claims to be undertaking the prophetic vocation, he or she is probably not. 2) More controversially, prophets don’t have pensions, so if one has dedicated one’s whole ministry to such action, it may be wise to do so as something other than a full-time parish priest. That’s just my opinion, and there are notable exceptions–Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero come to mind–but note well, they lost more than their pensions as a result.

We are not all called to the prophetic task in the proper sense, I think (though some would disagree), because that vocation in its fullest expression is one which I believe God gives the “prophet proper” in a way which he or she cannot deny and cannot mistake for something else–whether than something else be a vague feeling or a political bias. Being a prophet is not, as the youngsters these days say, a “vibe.” I don’t doubt that God can still appoint men and women to this task, but as I already suggested, this often ends in literal martyrdom, not just losing an election or getting some parishioners mad at you for “preaching politics from the pulpit.”

However, we can and should all bring our Christian values to bear on all aspects of our lives–how we live and support each other in our families, how we do our jobs, what we choose to do with our leisure time, how we use the wealth we have beyond that which we need to live in modest comfort and security, and (yes) even how we interact with our communities and country with regard to public policy. We should interrogate where our values come from–do they come from the Gospel or from somewhere else. And, here is perhaps the most political thing I will say, though I don’t think it’s controversial and you may be diasppointed if you wanted me to get controversial, so sorry– There is not a single political party’s platform or manifesto, in this country or any other, that is in 100% agreement with the values of the Gospel.

There is a song I love, written by Woody Guthrie, but which he never set to music or recorded. I first heard it in a recording from British singer Billy Bragg accompanied by the American rock band Wilco. The first verse goes like this:

Let’s have Christ for President
Let us have him for our King
Cast your vote for the Carpenter
That they call the Nazarene

Would that this were an option, but I regret to inform you, that as strongly as you might feel about any candidate or party, Jesus himself is not on any ballot this election cycle. You picks your person and you takes your chances. The important thing is that we do so in a spirit of prayerful discernment and of charity to your neighbor, by whom I mean, among others, the person in this church who will have chosen differently from you, because I guarantee that person exists. And thank God that we can come together in this place, if nowhere else in our polarized society, to worship the only man who can govern our lives and hearts and the entire universe, whose principalities and powers are now in some sense under his governance and which will on the last day be conformed entire and whole and perfect under the reign of the King of Peace.

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

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

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

I’m sure I’ve said this a dozen-or-more times from this pulpit, but I’ll keep repeating it, because it’s one of those hobby-horses I have: we live in a death-denying culture. We can shield ourselves from the reality of death to a certain degree, and we can even convince ourselves that we can avoid it. I wonder if all the exercise equipment and quasi-medical products we can see advertised and all of the elective plastic surgery so many of us undergo prey on our inability to accept the fact that, in the absolute best case scenario, we will all grow old and die.

Over the last few days I’ve been struck by the contrast between how those mature in the faith deal with death and how the broader culture does. Many of you know that I buried two of our beloved sisters in Christ this last week–Beverly McCoy and Leah Richardson. I was impressed with both of them and with their families, not just as the funerals were planned and undertaken, but the faith, hope, and spiritual maturity all involved had over the last several months in my regular visits with them. Here were two women and two whole groups of family and friends who seemed to “get it”, for which I remain grateful.

In stark contrast to this, Annie and I had the opportunity to see the Cincinnati Opera’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata on Friday evening. The opera concludes with a tragic death, tragic not because it was unexpected but because of the character’s inability to move beyond her dissolute moral life, even at the very end. That said, the director of this particular production either completely misunderstood or (more likely) intentionally contradicted the entire point of the opera through various production tricks, attempting to turn the story into a celebration of self-determination, “found family”, and solidarity in moral license. He turned a rather straightforward morality tale into a celebration of post-modern, egocentric, pseudo-spirituality, in order to both engage in death-denial, and in a rather self-contradictory fashion, to scrape up some meaning in death from the perspective of a post-modernity in which God no longer exists. What as shame that beautiful musical performances from both the cast and the orchestra was marred by such an unfortunate deconstruction.

Ultimately, I think this come from a profound discomfort with death, which even Christians are not immune to. Secular reimaginings of opera aside, when it comes to those within or at least nominally friendly to the faith, this comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of death, and the Christian understanding that it is both bane and blessing, depending on how we understand God’s purpose for it.

On the one hand death was initially an aberration. It was not part of God’s original plan for humanity, and that means that we shouldn’t berate ourselves when we find it too much to handle. Listen again to what the writer of Wisdom said: “God did not make death and he does not delight in the death of the living…through the devil’s envy death entered the world.” In this sense, death is an evil, an effect of the fact that we live in a fallen world. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” God’s will is for life, and not only for life but for life abundant, a life fully lived in His ways. Death came later, and fights against God’s plan to an extent.

And yet death is inescapable because of our condition, because of the reality of evil and of original sin. Death is not illusory; it’s not a trick to test our faith, to see if we really believe in the resurrection. I remember one day in seminary when our systematic theology professor said something which became scandalous to my classmates, I think because many of us weren’t really listening to what he was saying. He said, just this directly, “when you’re dead, you’re dead.” There was scandal because some of my classmates thought that our professor was denying the resurrection. Quite to the contrary, he was trying to help us understand how profound and wonderful the resurrection of the dead really is. There’s not something about us inherently which makes our souls immortal. The Christian view is not that we are essentially disembodied ghosts which after death keep on living just as before. That’s not actually the traditional Christian view, that was Plato’s view and it became popular much, much later in Church history. That view does ultimately deny the reality of death and turns it into an illusion.

Conversely, the traditional Christian view is that death is very real. That the whole of us—body, mind, and spirit—experiences death, and there’s nothing about the way we’ve been created which permits us to avoid that. Far from denying the resurrection, this makes its truth all the more wonderful. When we are dead it is not our own nature but God’s power and grace which brings us to new life. The resurrection is not something we do automatically, it is something which God brings about.

Today’s Gospel reading makes this point. Jairus’ daughter was dead. Not merely dead, but really most sincerely dead. Yet Jesus knew that because of the promise of God, death was like sleep for her. Jairus’ daughter was no less dead, but her death was a period of rest and expectation. It was not the expectation of an automatic transmigration of her soul to some different sphere of being, but that God in Christ would literally bring her to life. And this He did, and this is our own hope for ourselves and our loved ones. While the dead rest in peace, and while we too will enter into that sleep, we have assurance that Christ will bring us back to life fully, not as disembodied ghosts, but as whole, holy, incorruptible people, with minds, spirits, and bodies. When at morning prayer or baptisms or in our own private prayer lives we recite the Apostle’s Creed and proclaim “I believe…in the resurrection of the body” we’re not speaking in metaphors, as I remember I said on the Sunday after Easter. The Church really does teach that there will be a bodily, physical, literal resurrection, and this is so much more comforting than the idea of “pie in the sky when we die, by and bye.” It’s comforting and exciting. It means that the life of the world to come is not contingent on anything we do, but on the grace and creative power of God, or to use the language of Wisdom “the generative forces of the world [which] are wholesome” because God creates and controls them.

And so, knowing that death is real but not the end we can over time come to terms with it. We are called to embrace death in a sense. We are commanded to love our enemies, and death is an enemy we’re called to love, as strange and difficult as that might sound. We are called to love and embrace the reality of death because we do know that it is only through death that we are born to eternal life. For even the evil of this world, death being part of it, can be transformed in such a way that it accords with the ends God intends. All that we need to do is trust God, and keep alive a robust hope in the resurrection.

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