Sermon for Pentecost 18 2018

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

Those who are somewhat aesthetically inclined will probably have experienced something I have over the years. One can take a text which rubs one the wrong way and have it sung to a beautiful setting, and the text doesn’t seem so bad. It especially helps if it’s sung in another language, but even that is not particularly necessary.
One of those texts, which I encountered in school (and I apologize if this is seen as heresy by the schoolteachers in the congregation) is Pilgrim’s Progress. I hated it. It could have been John Bunyan’s puritanical beliefs conflicting with my own burgeoning high-churchmanship, or it could have been my adolescent grandiosity which held that straight allegory was just lazy writing. Anyway, I didn’t like it until I heard Ralph Vaughan Williams’ opera based on the text.

And the text actually does make a good point. Life, Bunyan said, is a pilgrimage, a journey toward our eternal reward, and it is beset by dangers and distractions. The life of faith is a life of resolve. One must remain steadfast to get past the pitfalls which are set before us by the machinations of evil forces. That is real pilgrimage. Going to Jerusalem or Rome or to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in England (a trip I plan to make next summer) are good exercises. But the real pilgrimage is that of life, and it’s not as easy as getting your visas and jumping on an airplane. As Bunyan wrote, or actually as the hymnwriter Percy Dearmer paraphrased Bunyan, “He who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster, let him in constancy follow the Master. There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.” There are many dangers along the way, but the pilgrim approaches them with the boldness that comes from a living faith.

The prophet Jeremiah found out the hard way. In this morning’s Old Testament lesson he wrote, “I did not know that it was against me that they devised schemes, saying, ‘let us destroy the tree with its fruit. Let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will no longer be remembered!’” That the way of faithfulness, the good pilgrimage, made one to be at odds with the world was a hard lesson for Jeremiah, and yet in the end he had faith that God would pave the way for his progress. He realized that it was no one but the God of Israel who judged righteously, who tried hearts and minds and brought about justice.

Likewise, the psalmist knew that only God could deliver him from the scorn of his enemies. In one breath he laments “The arrogant have risen up against me, and the ruthless have sought my life; those who have no regard for God.” But in the next breath he proclaims “Behold, God is my helper, it is the Lord who sustains my life.”
It is, I am humbled to admit, John Bunyan, who got it right, too. “Who so beset him round with dismal stories, do but themselves confound, his strength the more is. No foes shall stay his might, though he with giants fight; he will make good his right to be a pilgrim.”

Even more, however, than the flesh and blood enemies of whom Jeremiah and the psalmist wrote, the devices and desires of our own hearts can serve as the chief enemies which confound our progress as pilgrims. And perhaps chief among these obstacles is the sin of vanity. In Pilgrim’s Progress, the pilgrim, named Christian, faces perhaps his most difficult test at Vanity Fair, where he and his traveling companion, Faithful, are put on trial, accused by characters like Lord Hate-good, Envy, Superstition, and Pick-thank. If all this sounds weird, try reading the whole book.

It is a Vanity Fair of sorts which serves as the obstacle to the Apostles in today’s Gospel:
Then they came to Capernaum; [it says] and when [Jesus] was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

Jesus, of course, knew the answer before he asked the question, and so he revealed that great paradox which is at the heart of the Christian life “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

How counter-intuitive this truth is in our day and age. If you watch much television, and watch all the reality shows found thereon, you’ll know that fame and self-promotion are now, as ever, very prevalent objects of desire. Now I don’t begrudge the fame of the American Idol or the Survivor or whoever is reckoned worthy of dating the Bachelor, and I don’t even know for sure that everyone appearing on such programs is self-absorbed. I don’t even begrudge people who enjoy watching such things; I might feel the temptation do so if we had television in the Rectory, so thank God we don’t. However, I wonder if these things are a symptom of a culture too much in the grip of vanity.

So how may one avoid this pitfall on the pilgrim’s road? How do we combat the inordinate desire for greatness and recognition which militate against our progress? I wish I knew the answer to that question better than I do. I have, however, been fortunate enough to begin to answer it for myself, not because I’m especially humble and not because I’m an especially good servant, but because I’m in a position to see some good examples. Since I sort of know what happens around the parish, I’m lucky enough to see some of the hard work that people here do with no apparent desire for recognition or reward. I know that many do the same kind of work in the community or at their workplace or in their homes. I shall not name names, because said servants might be embarrassed to be called out, precisely because they have no desire to be seen as the greatest. I’d say they know who they are, but many probably don’t because they’re not concerned about sizing themselves up against their fellows. I want to be more like those people. As much as I kinda don’t like John Bunyan, I want, to say along with him “Since, Lord, thou dost defend us with thy Spirit, we know we at the end shall life inherit. Then fancies flee away; I’ll fear not what men say, I’ll labor night and day to be a pilgrim.”

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

Sermon for Holy Cross 2018

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

There is no Christian symbol as ubiquitous as the image of the Holy Cross. Many of us wear a cross or crucifix round our necks. I wear a crucifix underneath my clothes; an oft-overlooked fact about our tradition is that the pectoral cross is – along with the ring, crozier, and mitre – a distinctive symbol of the office of bishop, so wearing my crucifix outside my clothes would be seen as more-than-a-little presumptuous. That said, the cross I wear under my clothes means a great deal to me not only because it is such a powerful symbol of salvation but because it was a gift given me by upon the occasion of my ordination to the priesthood nine years ago.

Even those churches which historically disdained the use of any kind of imagery or symbolism in worship and church architecture seem to have come round to embracing the use of this symbol. Congregationalists and Presbyterians two hundred years ago would never have had a cross-topped steeple on their churches, instead having a more secular symbol such as weathercock-topped cupola. A cross on a steeple or around a neck would be seen as a graven image, an idol. Today, it’s not uncommon to see crosses on steeples or in the sanctuaries of churches in the reformed tradition, despite their historical reticence about images.

In any case, the use of cruciform imagery seems to have become as popular in the Reformed traditions as it always has been in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism. You’re as likely to see a cross worn as a necklace by a Baptist or Presbyterian as by a member of those three “small ‘c’ catholic” churches. If you see a giant cross somewhere off the freeway you are probably pretty safe in betting that it was erected by an evangelical church, despite the historical irony implicit in that assumption.

This is all well and good. We are reminded of the power of this image today, on which we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Cross, transferred (with the bishop’s permission) from Friday. This holy day was orignally added to the kalendar to commemorate the discovery of the True Cross in Jerusalem by St. Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, and the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built on the site of that discovery. It has become a day to meditate the sacrifice made thereon for our sake, a sort of autumnal Good Friday.
But unlike Good Friday, the most sorrowful day of the Church year, today is meant to be a little bit more upbeat. We focus today more on the gracious, joy-giving benefit of the Cross than on the dismal scene we revisit each Holy Week.

The Holy Cross is a paradox, and I think it’s appropriate for this paradox to make us feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s glorious and hateful. It’s joyous and devastating. I really believe that if the Gospel isn’t making us uncomfortable then we’re not looking hard enough. So, I beg your pardon, but now let me attempt to make you uncomfortable… Why don’t you wear an electric chair around your neck? Why doesn’t somebody build a giant replica of a gas chamber that can be seen from the freeway? We see this symbol so often that we forget that while it obliquely represents a theological claim having to do with justification and salvation, its more literal referent is a device used for state-sanctioned murder.

I say this to suggest that the meaning of this symbol has, I think, become debatable in light of postmodernity. For good or ill, there is no longer any single Christian meta-narrative, if there ever was one – no big unifying explanation of everything to which we all subscribe. Thus, the Cross’ meaning for me may seem nonsensical to somebody else and vice versa.

I suspect that it means something very different for me than it does for the kind of person who’d erect a giant cross off the freeway. The cross Sonya gives Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment means something different from a cross in a vampire story or Paul Newman’s cruciform posture after his character eats fifty eggs in Cool Hand Luke. Maybe the crucifix hanging in your house means something different to you than what the crucifix hanging in your neighbor’s house means to them.

Now, despite what it sounds like, I’m not saying this to suggest that individualistic meaning-making is just alright. I might be biased, but I think the Faith of the Church trumps Joe Blow’s internet-assembled philosophy every time. What I am saying is that the chief symbol of our faith is so full of meaning that it’s easy to take one aspect as a sufficient definition of the whole or else to treat the symbol as empty in-and-of-itself.

So, let’s have a go at defining this symbol more thoroughly. I’m certain this sermon is just a beginning outline of that definition; it cannot be comprehensive as I’m not that smart nor have we enough time, but here we go.

Let’s start with the negative definition, what the Cross is not. First, It is not a fashion statement. That doesn’t mean wearing one is bad, whether ornate or simple. It does, however, mean that if we spend a whole lot of time thinking about whether the baroque crucifix or the funky, colorful cross best fits the image we’re trying to project, then we’ve missed the point.

Second, the Cross is not a battle standard in some external war with unbelief or the unbelieving. Sure, there is a lot of martial imagery in the bible, but it’s used not as a mandate for militant evangelism but as an image of the internal struggle between our old selves and our regenerate, resurrected souls and bodies. When we start speaking about our own mission in terms of winning a battle for God instead of God winning for us, we’re getting into dangerous territory. I encourage you to think about our processions (whether just the weekly entry of the choir and ministers or the occasional trip we take around the block led by the cross) as a sort of liturgical irony. We look like the most pathetic of military processions. The general at the back of the line hasn’t even ever been in a fistfight. All we can do is love our enemies to death.

Finally, the Cross is not a totem. It’s not a symbol we ought to use to exalt our tribe by defining ourselves in opposition to another. It’s a fine line between boasting in the Cross of Christ alone, as St. Paul commends us to do, and using this holy symbol as a way to make ourselves look or feel superior. Here’s a good rule of thumb. It doesn’t always hold, but it does more than you might think. If it’s counter-cultural to the point of being uncomfortable, then you’re probably following the Gospel. Using a Christian symbol in the First Century Roman Empire marked its user as someone who ought to be avoided. Putting a big honking Cross in your front yard in Findlay, Ohio, whatever your intentions, does not mark you as somebody taking a courageous stand. Whether you mean it to or not, it probably sends the message that you think you’re pretty special and God might just love you a little bit more than your neighbor.

Now for the positive definition. First, the Cross is a symbol of defeat. Yes, Christ won salvation for us, taking death itself as a kind of prisoner of war. But he did it through surrender, by embracing defeat. We ought to do this a bit more ourselves, and I think the Cross is a good way for us to imagine it. For one thing, we’ll each of us have a better, holier death if we accept it when the time comes, just like our Lord did. One hopes that particular end doesn’t come untimely, but those failures we experience in the midst of life, too, will be easier for us to whether and recover from if we inspect them through cruciform lenses. When my life seems completely out of my control, I take comfort in knowing that even Jesus entered a period of passivity in order to effect the salvation he was sent to accomplish.

Second, the Cross is a symbol of self-sacrifice. Christ calls us to take up our own cross and follow him. How often we minimize this mandate! People sometimes talk about their irritable co-worker or their gouty toe as their “cross to bear,” but our Lord calls us to a greater sacrifice. Such sacrifice certainly takes many forms. Perhaps it’s giving up your free time to help others. Maybe it’s giving that Christmas bonus to the poor instead of buying an Xbox. Maybe it’s actually giving up a little bit of self-reliance and self-determination for the whole rest of your life by availing yourself of the sacrament of Marriage. Going back to what I said earlier, the Gospel can make us uncomfortable, and if we’re loving our brothers and sisters like Jesus told us, it’s not going to be rainbows and cotton candy and trips to the zoo every day.

Third, the Cross reminds us to be mindful of the violence done on our behalf. That’s the bit about the electric chairs and gas chambers I was on about a little while ago. You may or may not agree with me about the ethics of war and capital punishment. With regard to the former, I’m not an absolute pacifist, but sometimes I’m worried that Jesus was and that might put me on the wrong side of things. With regard to the latter, I think it’s wrong, plain and simple. I’m not asking you to agree with me on those issues. I am asking you to be concerned with the potential for communal sin in those cases and others. Jesus was killed by the state. It doesn’t matter whether it was the temple authorities or Pilate or somebody else who had the biggest part to play. Every tax paying person in the Roman Empire had at least an unwilling role in that sin’s commission. Culpability is even more of an issue in our context, since we’ve got a more-or-less democratic system of government. People are killed in wars waged on our behalf, whether or not the war is or can be justified. People are killed on our behalf in prisons in our state and others, whether or not an execution is or can be justified. Maybe some of these are no-win situations with regard to sin. Maybe we’re boxed in by the fallen state of our world, and we have to choose the least terrible of universally bad options. I don’t know. But I do believe that the instrument of Christ’s passion ought to give us pause before we let ourselves off the hook.

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, the Cross is the symbol of salvation. What that actually means, though, may not be as obvious as we think. For at least the last five centuries we’ve been obsessed with the mechanics of salvation. How is it effected? What is required of us? What’s the best metaphor? How dare you call it a metaphor? I think I’ve mentioned before that one of the ideas I’ve had for a monograph if I ever had the time to write one would be to argue that the Protestant Reformers and the Catholic Counterreformers were arguing with each other about what St. Augustine said rather than what’s actually in the bible. I think we’ve spent to much time and energy over the centuries obsessing about how the cross saved us and not enough time and energy meditating on what from and what for.

The answer most will give to this question is hell and heaven. That’s part of it, certainly, perhaps the most important part, but we can begin to experience salvation in this life, too. Life with God is a whole heck of a lot better than life without God. The Cross doesn’t just open the doors to everlasting life. Christ’s sacrifice gives us salvation in this life. I don’t mean better health or more money or teeth as straight and white as Joel Osteen’s. I mean the Cross opens to us a better way of life. I think life itself can be cruciform, and that’s what salvation in this life looks like. We are saved from self-obsession. We learn to love in tangible ways. We start to see that business of self-sacrifice as freeing us from burdens that some people think they want to carry (“Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems,” as the Gospel according to the Notorious B.I.G. would have it). We learn to pray and we sometimes actually feel like someone is listening. We start to feel the love of God and each other in this place and outside it. We recognize that our homes, our families, can be contexts in which God’s Grace is visibly expressed. We no longer wallow in guilt and self-pity. Our horizons are expanded to include all to whom God’s care is extended. We realize that this, our lives conformed to a symbol we’d overlooked so many times, is enough for us for now and into eternity.

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

Sermon for Pentecost 16 2018

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

The great thing about the lectionary is that it forces us to hear passages of scripture which we otherwise might not hear, usually because of the timidity of the preacher. If the whole of scripture is inspired, this forces us to wrestle with difficult texts, the nasty bits I might not choose to preach on, particularly if I’ve had a busy week. Well, I’ve had a busy week, but the lectionary won’t permit me, or us, to be lazy this morning, because the Gospel reading contains one of those nasty bits.

“[Jesus] said to [the Syrophoenician woman] ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’” This is not the sweet, friendly Jesus we sometimes imagine painted in pastels and stroking lambs by the Sea of Galilee. Rather, Jesus’ response to the gentile woman seems gruff, even nasty. Some apologists have taken Jesus’ response to the woman as a test, a test he knew she would pass, in order to make a point. They would say that Jesus knew all along that his mission was to all people, not just the Jews, and that he was coaxing a dramatic, memorable example out of the Syrophoenician woman.

Well… maybe. But perhaps such an interpretation stems from an ancient heresy to which many, myself included, sometimes retreat. The heresy was called Apolinarianism (or in its less extreme version, Euthychianism) and it was the ancient opposite of another heresy, called Arianism. While Arians believed that Jesus was just a man like any other, though he had progressed spiritually to the point of being god-like, Apolinarians believed that Jesus wasn’t a man at all. He was, to their mind, the same person as God the Father, and he was merely veiled in human likeness. Though he looked like a person, he did not struggle and grow like a person. To the Apolinarians, Jesus could easily have stood up in the manger and started preaching to the sheep if it wouldn’t have scared everyone too much.
Now the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus charted a middle way between Apollinarianism and Arianism.

Certainly, Jesus was and is God incarnate. He was and is fully God, as the Apollinarians claimed, and His identification with the Father and the Holy Spirit meant that during his earthly life he had a greater insight into the Will of the Father and the Work of the Holy Spirit than any other human being ever could have had. But, Jesus was and is also fully human, as the Arians claimed. He not only had a human body, but a human mind and spirit. He wasn’t just God operating a body as if it were an automaton. God is no homunculus. Jesus was, rather, truly, fully human, and that meant that he grew. He grew not only in his physical body, but in his mind, in his own understanding of his life and work and identity as the Son of God.

This being the case, maybe Jesus wasn’t testing the Syrophoenician woman. Maybe at this point in his ministry, Jesus really believed that his mission was only to the lost sheep of Israel. Perhaps, God the Father was making his Will known to the Son in this incident, just as he would later do in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus prayed that the cup of crucifixion might be taken from him. Perhaps this Syrophoenician woman was truly an angel, in the older sense of the word, which literally means messenger. Perhaps God the Father sent this woman into Jesus’ life as a messenger, to make it known that indeed his ministry was broader than he had initially thought, that he came to give life to the whole world, not just to Jews but to Gentiles, too.

I like this picture of Jesus a whole lot better than the pastel-painted, sheep-stroking one. It makes a great deal more sense of his saving work on the Cross, for how could some static disinterested figure really be a Savior? How could such a sacrifice really be sacrifice. Tertullian, the Church Father, said that “that which is not taken on cannot be saved”, so how could Jesus have saved humankind if he hadn’t taken on everything about us, including the very human phenomenon of being perplexed and then being brought out of that perplexity, of following one direction in life and recognizing that one needs to make a course correction, of being open to growth and renewal in the face of the very human penchant for comfort and inertia.

So, the fact that Jesus changes his mind in today’s Gospel, to put it very bluntly, shouldn’t trouble us so much. Not every human tendency is ipso facto sinful, so we need not reject our treasured belief that Jesus was like us in every way “but sin”. What would have been a sin is if Jesus had been shown this new avenue for God’s Grace, seen that the Father meant to expand his love and saving help to the Gentiles, and had ignored it. But Jesus responds faithfully to this new insight into his mission. He heals the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, and then proceeds immediately to the Decapolis, a region whose population was heavily Gentile.

The Syrophoenician woman’s response led to a moment of clarity and resolve for Jesus, and I hope that all of us have such moments. I know that I do. I know that when I’m praying ceaselessly about some particularly vexing question about my own life, God has a tendency to make His Will known with clarity and, sometimes, the sort of instantaneity with which Jesus got the message in today’s Gospel. Not always, of course, and like anyone I can struggle with a problem for a long time without figuring things out. Even so, I’ve found that an openness to where God might be leading me and a commitment to prayer usually leads me in directions in which I had no idea God wanted me to go. It happened to Jesus, and it can happen for any of us if we will take the time to get quiet, to pray, and to listen. Try it, and you might be surprised where God takes you.

Let us pray:

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.