Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

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

This morning’s Gospel reading is a tough one. Jesus says some pretty disquieting things in the Gospels, but what we read today might strike us as the most offensive thing in the bible. A man who wishes to become a disciple asks “Lord, let me first go and bury my father [and then I will follow].” And how does Jesus respond? “Leave the dead to bury their own dead.” Another wishes only to say goodbye to his family before setting out, and Jesus responds “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” Jesus seems to be contradicting even his own prophetic heritage- you’ll remember from today’s Old Testament lesson that Elijah permitted Elisha to literally “put his hand to the plow and look back”, to take his oxen back home and say goodbye to his own family before following the prophet.

How do we deal with this hard teaching of Jesus? I don’t know entirely, and I’m starting to wish that I’d chosen to preach on the Epistle! Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel are shocking. This is the Jesus whom so many equate with “family values”, whatever people who use that phrase mean by it, and Jesus’ words here seem diametrically opposed to those values.

I think we do violence to Jesus’ teaching if we opt to spiritualize it entirely. That’s a trick we’ve probably seen before in another context. Often a preacher, when given Jesus’ teaching about money (namely, his command to give it all away), will turn the whole thing into a spiritual exercise, saying “well, you don’t have to give all your money away, just don’t place all your trust in the wealth you have. Be ready to lose it if it comes to that.” Certainly, the meaning of Jesus’ teaching in that matter is complex, but there’s something more to it than how we’re supposed to feel about money. We are supposed to do something.

It’s much the same with regard to Jesus’ teaching about family. He’s not just saying, “be ready to lose your loved ones in the normal course of events (as they die or move away or whatever) without losing your faith.” It’s not an entirely spiritual teaching, even if we wish it were because the spiritual meaning is so much more comfortable than a meaning with any practical implications.

But, then again, we can’t come to terms with an entirely literal reading of the teaching either. There is a chance that Jesus meant exactly what he literally said, but that would go against the expectation of the rest of scripture and of the Church’s historical teaching, namely that commitment to one’s family is not only “okay”, but is enjoined on us as a holy obligation.

So, it seems to me, there is something more complex in Jesus’ words than either the simple literal meaning or the entirely spiritualized meaning.

Perhaps, and this is just a hunch (albeit a hunch with some theological training backing it up), Jesus is warning his interlocutors and all of us, his prospective disciples today, against making excuses. Specifically, I think he may be warning us against making our commitments to family an excuse for not doing his work.

Now, before I seem to say something too scandalous, let me explain what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that there aren’t family obligations which affect how we approach our own ministries in the church and in the world. I’m not saying that missing a Sunday from time to time to be with a sick loved one is going to get us in trouble. I’m not saying that becoming a little less active in some role or another because you’ve got young children or teenagers is wrong. I’m not saying that family commitments shouldn’t figure in to how we discern what God is calling us to do and be. Quite to the contrary, family obligations are obligations given to us from God, and fulfilling those obligations is an important way to do God’s work.

What I do think we learn from reflection on the Gospel, though, is that sometimes misunderstanding the nature of those obligations can keep us from doing that to which we are called. In other words, we can convince ourselves that there is a barrier which doesn’t exist between our desire to serve and our ability. For example, I heard a number of anecdotes when I was in seminary from some of my older classmates. This is changing nowadays, but a decade-and-a-half ago very few young people went straight from college to seminary. I was the only one in my class who had done, and it took some effort to convince my bishop that I didn’t have to go have a career in some other field and enter the ordained ministry in middle age, as had been the ordinary pattern for the previous half-century or so. Anyway, many of these classmates of mine had felt a call to the priesthood for years, but believed it to be absolutely unfeasible because of their children’s need for stability. So, many waited until all the kids were out of the house and in college fifteen or twenty years later and then realized that they could have moved earlier, the kids could have been in a good school and had friends and probably would have loved going to seminary with mom or dad, particularly in New York City where we were.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the case in every family’s situation, but what I’m saying is that we’ve got to reflect on rather than dismiss the possibility of some sort of ministry out of hand. We might find that our family obligations preclude volunteering to serve at the mission, or serve on vestry, or whatever. Or, we might find that we can fit it in or, better yet, involve our family. The point is that individual situations with regard to family or work or any other commitment will open up new avenues for ministry and close others. It’s our responsibility to avoid making excuses and consider how precisely we might be able to follow, what that can look like for each of us in the context of his or her own life. Scale back involvement in one area if you need to, ramp it up in others if you’re able. We’ve just got to do the hard work of thinking about it and praying about it first. If we do that, we might be surprised what we can accomplish for the sake of the Gospel.

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

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

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

I think we forget sometimes just how cruel the ancient world was. Infanticide, often by means of exposure, was a daily reality in antiquity, practiced by parents of unwanted or “imperfect” babies. Bloodsport was a common pastime. Slavery was nearly ubiquitous (it must be noted on this Juneteenth that modern Europeans perfected the institution of slavery as a means of cruel debasement in the Americas, and it was in many respects far more brutal than the form slavery took in the ancient world, but it was more widespread in antiquity, every major Empire in Europe, Asia, and North Africa practicing it, with the singular exception of the Persians, though even they have an asterisk next to that in the record book of history).

Most shockingly of all, the very concept of qualities like mercy and generosity and loving-kindness beings goods in themselves–not simply means for gaining some advantage–was essentially unheard of before Judaism and organized charitable activity (not philanthropy meant to attach one’s name to a public building or service, but honest-to-God aid to the poor and marginalized) did not exist before the Christian Church. Even famously atheist historian Tom Holland, acknowledges in his most recent book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, acknowledges that while he cannot personally affirm the metaphysical claims of Christianity, the moral principles established by Christianity and their influence as our religion grew, undeniably made the world a much less cruel, mean, scary place.

All of this is to put into context something which might have struck you as odd in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus saves the man from the country of the Gerasenes from demonic possession. We know that this is not a Jewish community, but a pagan, Gentile one, both by virtue of being on the opposite side of the sea of Galilee (a largely culturally Greek region) and because somebody is keeping pigs there, which no Jewish commmunity would have tolerated. Now, by contemporary standards or by ancient Jewish standards we might have expected this miracle to have been greeted with joy and awe by all, except perhaps the swineherd who lost his pigs. But how did the people of this city respond? They were afraid and they asked Jesus to leave.

Here is a naked man who lives in a cemetery. Mark’s version of the story tells us that this man would rant and rave and cut himself with stones. One would think seeing this man come to his senses would be a cause for celebration, but not so in the country of the Gerasenes.

It is hard to say precisely why this would be the case. There are various theories. The one I find most convincing is, believe or not, from somebody with whom I generally vehementky disagree, French philospher and critic René Girard. Like a lot of people who get fixated on a particular idea or theme to the point of trying to explain everything by reference to it, Girard developed a view of anthropology which held scapegoating as the primary mechanism by which human culture is established. This leads to some pretty outrageous claims from a Christian standpoint, particularly as it regards the meaning and purpose of Jesus’ crucifixion.

However, in at least this one instance we see the power of the theory to explain otherwise seemingly-inexplicable behavior. Why on earth would anybody want a person to undergo this horrible experience and be disappointed that he’s been healed? Presumably even the most heartless members of a community would at the very least want to be spared having to look at this horrible scene day after day. Because, sinners that we are, we might sometimes want to have a target for our collective guilt and loathing. Just so might we communally impute our problems onto one unlucky person–he must have sinned that this befell him, his sin is greater than mine, and so he bears my sin, too. Look, we don’t even need to stone this one; he’s doing it to himself.

Think this doesn’t happen today? We have seen all too clearly, all too recently with tragic effect what happens when an individual or a group of people convince themselves that their problems cannot possibly be blamed either on themselves or simple bad luck or even thorny systemic issues with no simple solution, but must, rather be blamed on an individual or a class of people. That person or group over there is entirely to be blamed and must be made to suffer, whether they be schoolchildren or the congregation of a church or synagogue or elected officials or an entire sovereign nation in Eastern Europe. Resentment, thus, becomes the primary mode of interacting with the world until that Other is made to suffer, and this has been used by fascist dictators and Marxist revolutionaries alike to create untold suffering. There will never be a shortage of angry young men, and now they’ve all got internet-connected computers in their basements to make the scapegoating more efficient.

Is there good news here? Yes. In fact it is The Good News. Jesus can save us from this cycle of rage and recrimination. When the man formerly possessed of Legion is healed, he is given not only freedom but a job to do–namely telling the people of his own city that there is a better way to live. We don’t know for certain whether or not the Gerasenes eventually accepted this message, but I suspect so, because I suspect Jesus wouldn’t have set the man to this task unless he knew it was going to work.

It can work and it does work and it will work. The catch is that it requires our own conversion, our own turning away (every day, perhaps) from pettiness and the desire to see ourselves as more deserving of God’s love than the person with whom we have the least in common, with whom we are at most enmity. It requires us to recognize that even the one who is most unlovely to us is just as loveable to God. Because in Christ, the one who has the most to need for forgiveness can, when given the gift of grace, is the greatest messenger of the Lord’s universal love. Because the church’s greatest persecutor might well become her greatest Apostle, as of old Saint Paul was made worthy to be. Because in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. For Christ came to save us all, and we must see each and every human heart as a fit place in which the Spirit of God might take up residence, to transform, and to be made and inheritor of the promises of the Gospel and a herald of the same.

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

Sermon for Trinity Sunday

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

It’s that most wonderful day of the church year where you are subjected to my dense ramblings about the most difficult concept in Christian theology to understand or explain, so let me start with a bit of silly self-disclosure. It is, in fact, a bit of a confession. I am not alone in being “geeky” about both Church history and about things more traditionally called “geeky”: Star Trek and Dungeons and Dragons and things of that nature. For whatever reason, I am friends with lots of clergy around my age who have similarly combined church-nerdery and science-fiction, fantasy, and gaming “fandom.”

So, my confession is that my online handle, my username, on Twitch and Discord–the primary platforms where people stream their videogame and tabletop game content and chat about it live–is “Quicunque Vult”, the first two words and Latin title for what is traditionally called the Athanasian Creed. Occasionally I will leave a comment during a livestream, which invariably makes some poor professional videogamer try to pronounce Quicunque Vult when he or she is playing a challenging game in front of an audience of hundreds or sometimes thousands. I hope that this is not online trolling, but rather internet evangelization, and that they will look up the Athanasian Creed as soon as they’re finished with their livestreamed game session. Perhaps the chances of that are slim, but I live in hope.

Now, I realize that while its unlikely that any given professional gamer will have heard of the Athanasian Creed, it may (unfortunately) be similarly unlikely that even a life-long churchgoer will have been exposed to it either, unless they had a particularly pedantic priest teach their Confirmation class. In the old days, and still in the Church of England where they have retained the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the faithful would have recited the Athanasian Creed instead of the Apostles’ Creed several times a year, including on Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. Naturally, they’d also recite it on Trinity Sunday (the Feast we observe today), because it is the earliest expression of the fullness of our Trinitarian belief as Christians. It is in our prayerbooks on page 864, and while I am sore tempted to have us recite it in full this morning, I won’t for two reasons. First, it’s in remarkable small print in our prayerbook which, as somebody with premature presbyopia, I can understand would be a difficulty for some. Second, because the bishop has been in recent years less inclined to grant me permission to stray from the rubrics, I reckoned there was about a 95% chance he’d say “no” if I asked to substitute the Athanasian for the Nicene Creed today, and I decided it wasn’t worth getting him irritated at me over it. That said, I commend it to you for your edification after church (or now, if this sermon is getting too much in the weeds for you).

The TLDR (“too long, didn’t read”) synopsis of the Creed is this: the Christian faith is defined dogmatically (that is to say in its essential doctrine, not in the pejorative sense we sometimes associate with the word “dogmatic” these days) by its understanding that God is three persons in one substance, or essential reality. If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is, it’s ultimately a mystery, but we do have some language given by God in Scripture to get close to the divine meaning. Each of these persons–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–is equal in glory and majesty, in being eternal and uncreated, and in being almighty and ultimately incomprehensible.

They are distinguished not by rank or activity (it is not, as I’ve said in previous Trinity Sunday, sermons that there is a division of labor within the Godhead) but, rather, firstly by the fact that the second person of the Trinity (the Son) is eternally begotten of the Father–that the First Person of the Trinity is in some sense the origin or font of what the Church Fathers called Deitas or “godhood” from whom the Son eternally received the same–and, secondly, that the Third Person of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit) proceeds from the First and Second Persons, that he is sent by the other two.

Now that’s a lot of theological hair-splitting, which is among my favorite pastimes, but you may well ask what the point is. The point, I think, is that the Holy Trinity is defined not by the way we human beings typically, sadly define our relationships in a transactional way–who’s job is this or that; who’s in charge of whom–but rather by preëxistent, equitable relationships of perfect love and by mutual mission (sending) to accomplish the divine will. Thus, the mystery of the Trinity is the heart of the Christian community as God intends it to function. That is to say that the mission of God, the Trinitarian Mission, is the model for the Church’s mission.

We are all one body, individually members of it, and equally redeemed and worthy. Love is the only principle by which our relationships within that body should be defined. And this love naturally leads to mission, to sending. Just as the Father’s love necessitated the sending of the Son to redeem the world and the love they shared, which is the Holy Spirit, inevitably led to that same Spirit’s being poured out upon all flesh that Good News might be spread to the ends of the earth, so should our unity in love inevitably lead to apostleship, to going out to be heralds of the Gospel in a world for whom that Good News is its only hope.

What is the alternative? Church history, I contend, shows us that treating the revealed truth of God’s Triune nature as a matter for merely rational debate, for deconstruction, naturally leads to a worldview in which the individual is entirely on his own to save himself, and anybody with a robust sense of one’s own sin-nature and status as redeemed by Christ alone, knows this to be an exercise in futility. We have seen this transition before over the course of just a few hundred years, a relatively short period in the context of the Church’s history, and you’ll forgive my somewhat unecumenical tone here, which I hope you know I only take when the issue at stake is essential to Christian belief and practice.

Both in England and in this country, the Puritans began by attempting to purge our church of its Catholic content, including, eventually, the dogmatic statements of the Church Fathers, Creeds included. Having purged their version of the church of its universal birthright, some took theological expurgation as the primary mode of religious discourse. Thus they attempted to cast off revealed truth as a whole, in favor of only that which could stand up to the assumptions of Enlightenment-era reason. The first thing to go was the Doctrine of the Trinity, and one was left with Unitarianism (our famous 18th Century American Deists being, for all intents and purposes, a subset of the same). Eventually, the great majority of these Unitarians came to the logically-necessary end of this project of theological-sloughing, and “purified” the church of the “presumption” of making any claim whatsoever about the truth or falsity of any theological proposition, adopting “Universalism”, which is really a euphemism for claiming that religion must merely be a personal aesthetic choice rather than any kind of consistent, commonly held belief system.

Now, I’ve known some Unitarian Universalists over the years, and they’ve mostly been perfectly nice people attempting to live moral lives. But, it seems to me an awfully lonely way to live, to believe the point of religion is to make some kind of meaning for myself–just for myself lest I presume to push it on somebody else–in a seemingly meaningless world, without recourse to saying “this is true (or false)” without adding the codicil “for me.” This strikes me as making the statement meaningless at best, and probably of making the whole endeavor of finding meaning itself inherently, ironically meaningless. All of this is to make the bold claim (about which somebody, not me, should write a monograph) that the road to theological perdition begins with the rejection of the Trinity and ends with being incapable of saying anything meaningful about religion at all.

So, today, we give thanks for, of all things, a theological concept. Lest we be tempted by the spirit of the age to claim that a theological claim is neither here nor there, that it is an entirely private matter, we can set our hope on the proposition that there are at least a few that change everything about how we live our lives and how we find meaning and purpose as individuals and as a community. God made everything and called it good. God came among us and died for us and rose again. God enlightens and inspires and strengthens us to live in love and to spread that love to all. These claims are either true or false, not just “for me” but for the whole world. Believing them to be true changes everything for the better in this life and gives us the assurance of even greater things in the next.

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