Sermon for Pentecost 26 2018

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

It is only once in our whole three-year lectionary cycle that we get to hear from the Prophet Daniel, so as wonderful as this morning’s Epistle and Gospel are, I feel I should focus on this strange Old Testament book. You’re likely to have heard the more well-known incidents from the book—the fiery furnace and the lion’s den and so forth—but it’s the really weird bits, like Daniel’s dream of the four beasts and that interesting character, the Archangel Michael, whose first appearance is in this morning’s lesson, which are perhaps more interesting.

Like most hopeful tales, Daniel was paradoxically written in the context of desolation. A little history: after the death of Alexander the Great the known world got divided up to his forebears, and by the 2nd Century B.C. the King Antiochus Epiphanes came to rule over Israel. Antiochus instituted a program of Hellenization, conforming the customs of conquered peoples to the Greek standard. This included mandatory worship of Zeus rather than the God of Israel, and imprisonment or even death for those who failed to comply. Needless to say the Jews were not tickled with this state of affairs, and although a number gave into Antiochus’ pressure, a faithful remnant remained true to God despite certain persecution. A goodly number, despite the personal cost, stayed true to the words of the psalmist:

Their libations of blood I will not offer,*
nor take the names of their gods upon my lips.

It was in the context of this difficulty that the book of Daniel was written. It’s a funny little book, and in some ways out of place in the Old Testament. It is partially in Aramaic rather than biblical Hebrew, the only Old Testament book to use the more modern dialect. It was, you see, written for the people alive then to read. Daniel is neither straight prophecy nor standard history, but allegory, much like the New Testament book of Revelation.

The author of Daniel was writing about the struggles of his people in the present, during the Greek occupation, but he placed the story in an older context, the days of the Babylonian captivity. Instead of Antiochus Epiphanes he wrote about Nebuchadrezzar and Belshazzar. The very present reality which was implied underneath the text would have been apparent to the faithful Jews suffering under the yoke of foreign rule, and it was not explicit enough to get the author or his readers into more trouble (just like, as you may know, John used coded language in Revelation in order to speak about the Romans without being explicit enough to get his readers crucified themselves).

And the similarities between Daniel and Revelation do not end with the fact that both are obscure and symbolic. Both books are written in the context of horrendous persecution, but both are among the most hopeful books in the bible. Revelation presents us with the vision of a new heaven and a new earth in which God has put all things to rights for his faithful people. Just so, Daniel presents a remarkably hopeful vision in the midst of a situation which would lead most to despair:

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, [it says] some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

This is the first explicit mention in the bible of the Resurrection of the dead, the great hope which Jesus himself would define and enable. It was only in the midst of an apparently hopeless situation that the most hopeful message in the history of humankind was revealed.

So it is for so many of us. Steve Miller was no theologian, and though it’s not literally true, there’s something to that old lyric “You know you got to go through hell before you get to heaven.” Christian mystics throughout the centuries have recognized that great hope and joy comes out of apparently hopeless situations. As I’ve mentioned before, St. Teresa of Avilla wrote about aridity, dry periods which seem always to precede spiritual breakthroughs; St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote about the twin experiences of desolation and consolation, the former being the precursor to the latter; and St. John of the Cross wrote of the “dark night of the soul”, a period of pain and fear which preceded his own spiritual awakening.

This is not to say that God causes pain. God did not will that the Jews should suffer under the yoke of the Babylonians and the Greeks, that early Christians should be put to death by Rome, that all the nasty experiences that we might suffer in our lifetime should have visited us. However, God can and does use those experiences as a means for revealing his glory and love. Just as Jesus said to his disciples in today’s Gospel: “do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come… This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” May we, then, recognize that in the midst of our own troubles, God is still at work, bringing about a new and better creation; let us pray for patience in the midst of these trials, knowing that at the end of every death comes the light of resurrection.

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

Sermon for Pentecost 25 2018

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

My wife was on the board of the local community theater group back when we were in Arkansas, and it occurred to me how shocking it would have been for a priest’s spouse to be involved in such a venture only a few hundred years ago. The theater was considered borderline unacceptable by many church people, and actors were considered the worst of the worst. There is a famous church in New York, the church of the Transfiguration, which made quite a splash by permitting theater-folk into the church. Actors were reckoned a lowly bunch, and the bad rap didn’t start with John Wilkes Booth or even the bawdy seventeenth century plays that the puritans had banned before the Restoration. In fact, the idea that acting was a most disreputable profession can be traced back at least to the ancient Greeks, who coined an interesting word for play-actors: hupokrites. Hypocrites.

I don’t share this little lesson in etymology to deplore the theater, which I quite enjoy, but to help flesh out what we’re up against with the sin Jesus warns against in today’s Gospel. “Beware of the scribes,” he said, “who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

You see, hypocrisy is like malicious play-acting, putting on a performance whose audience doesn’t know is a show, for an undetermined but usually high cost of admission. And when the subject matter of said performance is religious, the deception is dangerous indeed.

And, what’s worse, the actors in the charade that is religious hypocrisy can be very good, so good that their tactics are only seen once tremendous damage has already been done. Religious hypocrites have gone from devouring widows’ houses to committing horrible acts of violence, physical and spiritual, against the weakest among us. And it’s not only the so-called “crazies”, the David Koreshes and Jim Joneses of the world, but ministers, priests, and rabbis from the American religious mainline. “Beware the scribes,” indeed!

But let us change the focus from these, turn around the camera which captures their shows, because nothing is easier than pointing out hypocrisy in others. Such radical forms of hypocrisy can serve as an easy distraction, because we can always say, “well, I’m not as much a hypocrite as him.” The difficult task, the hard work which we all need to do, is to search our own hearts for what apparently minor hypocrisies any of us is prone to commit.
I’m in an especially dangerous position, because, though a sinful person like anyone, my profession means that I walk around in long robes, and I do have the best seat in the synagogue (except when the bishop comes and displaces me from it). It is a short step from doing my job and exercising my authority appropriately to clericalism, and it’s an even shorter step from clericalism to outright hypocrisy.

But I am not alone in these dangerous waters, you see, for every single Christian can fall into it because of pride or simply negligence. A good model for all of us, however, is found in the second half of this morning’s Gospel.
“Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.'”

Now, the point is neither that rich people and their contributions are bad nor that penury is a laudable choice. If all you have in the world is “two small copper coins”, I’m not advising that you put it in the offering plate this morning, because I don’t want to be accused of devouring widows’ houses. The point is quite different from this.

In both Mark and Luke, the story of the widow’s mite, as it’s come to be called, immediately follows the denunciation of the scribes, and biblical scholars will tell you that this is intentional. Both episodes are meant to be understood as meditations on the same theme, the dichotomy between authenticity and hypocrisy. This is why, though neither Mark nor Luke says it explicitly, it is believed that those putting great sums into the treasury were actually doing it with great pomp and ceremony, ostentatiously drawing attention to their generosity. In other words, they were play-acting, just like the scribes. They wanted to be seen as surpassing “holy”. Giving generously wasn’t the problem, it was giving simply to be seen giving that was. The widow did not make a great deal of her offering. She just gave it.

Money is an obvious example, because it’s so tangible. It can be both a great source of good and potentially harmful to the soul, and we can often see the effects either way, comparing those who give selflessly and those who either become miserly or who give for self-aggrandizement. I challenge you to consider this as we wrap up our annual pledge drive next week. But money is just the most tangible example of this dichotomy of hypocrisy and authenticity. In reality, all that we do and say has implications in this regard. When we follow the widow to the treasury, the treasury of merit as the medievals called it, we deposit all our good works. Whether what we do is authentic or hypocritical, God can no doubt use it to His own ends, but it is only a true offering and a sacrifice if it’s done for the love of God, and his people, and his Church rather than for the love of attention.

In some ways, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir, because, as I’ve said from this pulpit before, there is a great deal of selfless work done around this place and in our community by many of you. Even so, we all, myself especially, need an occasional reminder along these lines. Thank God that we have such good examples. If you look hard enough, you’ll see the little acts of loving-kindness you catch your friends furtively doing, not blowing a trumpet but toiling in the dark. You can find examples in the stories of saints long gone on to their reward who took their master’s call to heart by giving of their energy or of their wealth or of their very lives. If nothing else, you can find a very good example in the poor, nameless widow from Jerusalem who all those generations ago gave her two mites, and was, no doubt, richly rewarded by her Father in heaven.

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

Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday 2018

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

On Friday, All Souls’ Day, I was reminded again about the degree to which, for the Christian, life and death are held in an uncomfortably close tension, a tension which I’ve said before from this pulpit that our culture tries to defuse by simply, and dishonestly ignoring the latter. I took a trip down to Marion, Ohio to act as the bishop’s deputy, consecrating a new columbarium where those formerly interred at St. Paul’s Church in that town are now committed. Sadly that parish will be declared extinct at diocesan convention next weekend. So we were not only doing fulfilling our obligation to the departed on Friday, but mourning the death of a congregation. Yet even in the grief over that death, we were called to celebrate the truth of Christ’s promise of new life.

It is that same tension with which we wrestle today, which is why the Church, in its wisdom, observes All Souls’ Day (the commemoration of all the faithful departed) the day after All Saints’. The miracle of the Resurrection doesn’t mean anything unless we appreciate its counterpoint- the reality and tragedy of death.

To return to a theme which I try to bring to light at least to some extent every Easter (much to the consternation of our natural impulse to focus exclusively on the bonnets and lilies and other happy things that accompany that joyous day), the Resurrection is only an amazing, life-transforming thing because death is so hard and inscrutable. Because death was not God’s original plan . It never was. Creation was perfect and deathless until sin entered the world. Death is an aberration. It is a tool of the enemy, and has only by the Grace of God been transformed into something greater and more mysterious and more hopeful.

I wonder sometimes if the real distinction between the capital “S” Saints whom we commemorate today and the lower-case “s” saints whom we commemorate tomorrow has less to do with the Church’s process of canonizing particularly special people, and more to do with what the former have to teach us about death. Specifically, I think it has something to do with how they held on to their own lives (their own plans and desires) loosely, while holding on tightly to life in others.

The apostles and martyrs did not give up their lives because life was meaningless or temporary or tenuous. They gave up their lives because they cared so much for the lives of others. Ascetics and virgins did not avoid attachment to the pleasures of this world as some sort of denial of ordinary life. They took on that lifestyle to work and pray for others, that they might enjoy all the good gifts which God had bestowed on the earth.

In this way the Saints serve as examples, but Christ Jesus himself is, of course, the greatest example. Notice in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus did not tell Mary and Martha that it was going to be okay. Jesus didn’t say some fool thing about God needing another angel when he took Lazarus. Jesus wept. Even when he presumably knew how things were to unfold, we are told that he was still “greatly disturbed” when he approached the tomb.

Christ gave life to the dead man, but he did not treat his death as if it were a minor inconvenience. He treated it as the tragedy it was, as the affront to God’s final plan that every death is- whether shocking or expected; whether tragic or a bittersweet relief from suffering. God is not a murderer.

Jesus cared deeply about the death of Lazarus, but he held on to his own life loosely. This is not to say that he treated his life as if it meant nothing. He knew it was a precious gift from the Father, and that’s why he asked if the cup might be passed from him. But he also knew that his life, though precious, was not his own, but belonged to God and could be poured out for the life of the world. So it was with the Saints, who did not give their lives because their lives were worthless, but because they were precious, because they knew they had come from God and were going to God and were willing to spend what time they had in service to their master.

So it should be for us. We can do certain things to help us have a good death. We can plan and pray and have the hard conversations with those we love before the practical matters surrounding death become urgent. Even more importantly, we can live, as Christ did, as the Saints dis, in self-giving service to others. That, my sisters and brothers, is what it’s all about: loving each other as Christ loved us. Caring more for others than ourselves, not because any of us is worthless, but precisely because each of us is infinitely valuable to God.

God did not put us on earth because heaven needed a waiting room. Only a very silly, capricious God would waste time creating such a world. God did not put us on earth to test us, to see if we were good enough to get into heaven or lucky enough to have the right beliefs or say the right prayer or use the right theological language to “be saved.” Only an evil God would leave our ultimate fate to moral luck, to some sort of cosmic roll of the dice. God put us here because this life is worth something. God put us here because we have an opportunity to become Saints ourselves- to recreate and share the love He has for us with each other, not just as a preparation for eternity, but because this life itself, this contingent, temporary life provides us with something even heaven cannot. We have a chance to be God for each other. We have a chance to learn more about love in preparation for the life of the world to come, so that we can appreciate perfect love when we finally experience it.

So, I think maybe this life is less a waiting room and more a classroom. We have an opportunity to learn and grow and live in love, just as Christ loved us, an offering and sacrifice to God. Be Christ for those around you who mourn. Allow others to be Christ for you. Feed on the Grace of our Lord and Savior at this altar, and then go forth to be bread broken and wine poured out to bring nourishment and joy, life and peace, to a community and a world that needs you, Christ’s own body, now and until Christ’s return.

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