Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

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

We are presented in both our Old Testament lesson in Job and in our Gospel lesson from Mark with that question which has haunted theology, both Christian and Jewish, for millennia–namely “how do we account for evil”? Here I mean both moral evil (our tendency to harm rather than shield the innocent) and natural evil (why even without apparent human agency, the innocent are besieged and killed by diseases and disasters at least presumably governed entirely by natural laws). You may remember me saying when these readings came up in previous years (our lessons, if you didn’t know, are on a cycle that repeat every three years), that this is what we call theodicy, it’s the trickiest question in theology, and the response to it in Job is essentially “you’re not God, so you can’t understand.” This may or may not be satisfying to you, but the older I get the more comfortable I am with the proposition that I don’t need to understand everything. A dear friend of mine, who is a scholar of one of the great Christian writers of the Twentieth Century, Flannery O’Conner, gave me a framed picture of one of O’Connor’s most famous quotes which sits above my desk, and which serves as a constant reminder and encouragment to me: “Evil is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.” O’Connor “got it”, just like Job finally “got it”, and as I hope some day I’ll get closer to “getting it.”

So, this time around I want to focus on a particular question which may not be obvious if you’re not reading the Gospel in the original Greek. Jesus is asleep in the midst of the storm, not as the disciples feared because he didn’t care, but (this is just my wild suspicion) because sometimes getting obviously agitated over the presence of evil, which is ubiquitous, just gives it more air (how appropriate a lesson when evil takes the form of a windstorm!), and a calm and measured approach is likely to be more effective. Anyway, the disciples were in no state to get that message, if it were Jesus’ intention, so they wake him up, he rebukes the storm and it abates. A reader of the Greek will recognize that the verb translated “rebuke” here is epitimao, which is the same word used whenever Jesus casts out demons, and it’s famously the verb we find when Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for trying to tempt him to avoid the crucifixion; in that account, then Jesus quite literally demonizes Peter. Anyway, the point is that this is no ordinary storm. We are meant to understand that it is of supernatural and literally demonic origin.

So what do we do with this? We’re about to get into some spooky stuff here, about which I’m of two minds, as will become clear. On the one hand we need to grapple with the fact that despite our modern aversion to conversations about the angelic and the demonic, perhaps because we don’t want to be accused of superstition, this is a theme in scripture we need to take seriously. On the other hand, I think we need to avoid giving too much air to speculation about these matters, potentially opening ourselves up to things best ignored as if we were Jesus sleeping in the boat. So, I’m going to attempt to tread carefully here.

I worry sometimes that I fail to thread a needle in some matters, because of my natural aversion to what I take to be intellectual extremism and spiritual enthusiasm from both directions. There is a fine line, I think, between care and sobriety in theological reflection on the one hand and “wishy-washiness” on the other. The matter in which I’m most prone to this difficulty is when considering and called to comment on the nature of evil. On the one hand, I’m firmly convinced by scripture, church tradition, and experience that evil is a supernatural force, that it is not simply reducible to psychological and sociological factors. On the other hand, I admit that I find it at least creepy and at worst quite dangerous when some of our coreligionists reduce every difficulty one may experience in life to a demonic force.

Two recent experiences have highlighted this tension for me. First, I was speaking with a colleague whom I consider to be my best priest friend in this diocese. He and I are on opposite ends of the spectrum with regard to the old churchmanship divides that used to (and, thank God, mostly no longer) lead to partisanship within the church–he is firmly within the evangelical/low-church camp and I am firmly within the Anglo-Catholic/high-church camp, but we’re both orthodox and we both love Jesus, so that doesn’t matter to us. Anyway, we were discussing some challenges he’d been having in his parish and he said something like “they say the devil works harder to tear you down the more faithful you’re trying to be, but you know I’m an evangelical, so I would say that.” To this I responded, “I don’t think you have to be an evangelical to recognize that reality, only a Christian, and I’ve experienced that, too.”

On the other hand, many of you know that Annie and I frequent the weekly bible study at the county jail, which sometimes I lead and sometimes somebody else does. There are a couple of the other leaders who seem always to fall back to claims about Satan and spiritual warfare. The most uncomfortable for me, though I kept my peace for fear of not being asked to lead bible studies in the future should if I got into an argument in front of the inmates, was from a local pastor of a rather charismatic congregation. He claimed that he had performed several exorcisms, that the bible had given license to all Christians to do the same without any special education or training, and he implied that all issues a believer might have were at least potentially a result of demonic possession, the facts of the particular case being ascertainable by him after a conversation with him. If I could have responded in the moment, I would have tried to warn him and those listening to him that this approach is very dangerous, opening the way to nothing less than spiritual and emotional abuse. Just because there are supernatural forces which try to frustrate God’s designs does not mean that there aren’t also natural phenomena, including psychiatric conditions, which may be the root cause of the majority of the cases in which he is riding in, half-cocked and hell-bent for leather.

I’m grateful to be part of a tradition within Christianity that can hold these two perfectly cotenable proposition–that there are both explicable natural phenomena and inexplicable supernatural phenomena–together in such a way as to care for the whole person, body and soul, and avoid the equal risks posed by both a cold materialism and wild-eyed superstition. The truth is not always found “in the middle” but I think this is one case where it almost certainly is.

I belabor this point because I think different church bodies and different individual Christians have a tendency to err in one direction or the other–either toward scientism or superstition. The local charismatic pastor and jail bible study leader erred in one direction, but I suspect most of us within the so-called “mainline” of American Protestant Christianity err in the other direction. This, I think, was implicit in my friend’s almost apologetic tone in blaming his evangelical churchmanship for even positing the possible existence of Satan.

We would be convicted of this error, though, if we simply took the Gospel accounts seriously. It is fashionable in some quarters to try to say that all of the accounts of apparently supernatural dangers and bondage in the bible are a product of a benighted age, and if the wisdom of modern science and modern medicine were only available the issues in these stories would have been resolved by therapeutic means (in the case of accounts of possession) or accepted as naturally determined and irreparable (in the case of the purportedly demonic storm at sea).

This assumption raises a question, though, which the proponents of such a view must answer-namely, “Do you claim that Jesus was a charlatan, then, or merely that he was ignorant and superstitious?” Since I cannot believe Jesus to be either of these things, I think I am compelled by reason to say that in addition to synapses and neurotrasmitters and sociological models and meteorological patterns (Galilean or otherwise), none of which do I deny, there are also spiritual forces which seek to frustrate God’s will for us and for the world and which Jesus came to defeat, to free us, and to usher us into a more perfect life now as well as an entirely perfect life in the world to come.

And there is a second question, like unto the first. What shall we make of the fact that Jesus is said to have succeeded in freeing people from their demons, in rebuking the demonic storm, or for that matter in healing the sick without access to modern medicine, of feeding multitudes with a few meager loaves and fish, &c., &c., &c.? What of rising from the dead? Either this was all made up, and twelve dudes from an historically marginal culture and background managed to pull off the greatest con-job in human history and (stupidly) decided to be killed rather than spill the beans, or else it’s true, miracles happen, supernatural evil exists, the tide was turned by a man who also happened to be God, and despite the fact we are still assailed by powers we cannot understand, much less combat by ourselves, the final victory is very much at hand, and God in Christ will save us to enjoy him along with all the saints and all that we love with the love of God for all eternity. I think you know where I stand on that question. And (not to sound anti-intellectual, one of the very few faults I’ve never been accused of!) if it means that some things on earth are not problems to be solved but mysteries to be endured, if it means I don’t have the pithy answer to every question that’s ever occurred to one in moments of doubt and confusion, I’m a-ok with that!

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

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

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

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself.

Would that that were so with anything I try to grow!

I must admit, I’m no expert in the ways of horticulture, but it’s that time of year where everything seems just to miraculously pop up. Driving around the fields of rural Ohio, I find myself more and more out of my depth with regard to the agricultural imagery in scripture. “Weren’t these parables meant to speak to our own experiences in ways with which we could relate?,” I thought. Well, I have a hard time relating.

We are meant to relate to these stories, and Jesus and his apostles used all sorts of metaphors to appeal to different sorts of audiences. For urban audiences Jesus and the apostles used urban imagery for the Kingdom of God- “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” of which the writer of Hebrews speaks and which serves as the dominant metaphor in Revelation as well as in Luke’s Gospel.

On the other hand we findeven more agricultural imagery for the Kingdom of God in the scriptures. This is especially so in Mark. The kingdom of God is like a mustard plant or a fig tree or a vineyard. Anyway, we see both types of imagery, both metaphors, throughout the New Testament, and it was probably because, just as the Church does (or ought to do) today, wherever Jesus or his disciples happened to be they were attempting to make their point in contextually appropriate ways. A farmer in some far-flung corner of first century Palestine probably wouldn’t have any way to conceptualize golden streets and the like, or at least it wouldn’t have meant as much to him as some other metaphor. A merchant in Jerusalem or Rome, or a twenty-first century priest who knows next to nothing about farming, on the other hand, might be lost if he were confronted with metaphors dependent on knowing the particularities of planting and reaping crops.

All that said, I don’t know if a modern farmer would relate to the metaphor or not, whether this experience of apparently automatic growth rings true or if the he must baby his crops along during the growing season. I do know, however, that a great deal is out of his hands in that process, dependent on rain and temperature and other factors he must simply accept. Thanks to modern science, I suspect farmers today probably basically know more about how the crop gets from a little seedling to a plant large enough to harvest than did a first-century farmer, but I wonder if that makes it any less amazing when it happens. Despite knowing the physical processes by which this growth takes place, the phenomenon itself can be breathtaking and even mysterious. The farmer planted the field and it just seemed to grow. Day after day, the crop kept getting bigger and he didn’t know how it happened, or even if he did, it was still pretty amazing.

So it is with the Kingdom of God. There’s little we can do to make it happen. In fact, the best thing to do, in some sense, is to get out of the way and let it happen. Like the seed which the farmer spread the Kingdom of God undergoes a mysterious growth. “The earth produces of itself” Jesus said. The Kingdom of God comes about of its own volition, not ours.

This may seem simple enough, but in fact there was a group in the Church during its early years which held precisely the opposite view. These people were called Pelagians, because their leader was the fourth century British monk Pelagius. The Pelagians believed that humankind was so free that it was ultimately capable of saving itself. The Kingdom of God, for Pelagians, was something which the Church was meant to build.

Lest we think we are a lot smarter than those benighted heretics of the fourth century, this very same idea has been extremely popular in modern times. I know this is one of my hobby horses, so I’ll spare you yet another harangue about the mistakes of nineteenth century liberal protestantism. The point is that the same mistake is made by many contemporary believers, and even theologians, who place more emphasis on what we do than what God does, and this is dangerous territory.

This does not, however, mean that we’re off the hook entirely. While on the one hand the seed sprouted and grew he knew not how and the earth produced of itself, it is important to note that the farmer spread the seed to begin with. While we cannot take responsibility for building the Kingdom of God, while it is sheer hubris to take credit for that which only God can do, we nonetheless have a role to play. The fact that God alone brings about our salvation, that He alone is the efficient cause of the Kingdom, does not get us off the hook and permit sloth or quietism.

Hear what St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians:

I planted, Apol’los watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Paul does not degrade his own efforts or those of his fellow apostle and assumed rival Apollos. Rather, he puts those efforts into the proper context. He does not say that human efforts at building up the Church are in vain, but that those efforts are used by God to His ends. There is a strong sense of cooperation in Paul’s account of human effort: “We are God’s fellow workers”, he says.

It seems that this is the case because even though sin disables us, even though it means we cannot do anything without God, we were in some sense made to cooperate with God. The creation story in Genesis tells us that we was made in the image of God. One way of understanding this is that we were made with the same creative capacity as God. God is the Creator, and we, His creation, are also given the ability to be creative. We may work alongside God in His continual, creative effort to make all things new in Christ Jesus. Whether any given one of us is more suited to planting or watering, to serve God through teaching or leading or evangelizing or any of the other gifts which the HolyoHoly Spirit might give us, our precise role in God’s plan is a matter for discernment. What is sure, though, is that we are simultaneously called to cooperate in some way with God and to recognize that God alone gives the growth.

And whether any of us is terribly good at planting or watering or whatever, we can take comfort in the fact that God’s Providence will give the growth in miraculous ways. Like the farmer who just spread seeds and waited or the mustard seed which became a great plant, what God accomplishes will amaze us when on the last day we behold it. For now, let us be content to do a little, put one seed into the ground or dig one hole for the Kingdom, knowing that nothing good that we do, though it be dwarfed by what God Himself does, will be lost for eternity, but will remain in the life of the world to come. For these good works are not really ours, but they are the effect of God working in us infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

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

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

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

It occurred to me earlier this week, while thinking about this Gospel reading, how where we find ourselves in biblical stories can change over the course of time. When I was younger–having adventures in less than completely safe parts of the world and making vocational decisions that seemed strange to friends and family, like going into the priesthood–I identified more with Jesus in today’s reading, doing the thing his heavenly Father wanted him to do regardless of popularity. (As an aside, when asked “where do you see yourself in this bible story?” the answer “as Jesus” is probably not the best one, though I’m sure I’ve been forgiven for my adolescent grandiosity.)

These days, though, I can identify more with Jesus’ family who is worried about him. It’s probably natural that one becomes both more protective and more conformist as one ages. As you know, I don’t have children to worry about, but that doesn’t stop me from being concerned about decisions other people I care about make. The most ridiculous example of this for me recently–and this is embarrassing to admit, but that’s kind of the point–is how I’ve been thinking about a YouTube presenter Annie and I like to watch leaving his position at a well established network to start his own business recording music and designing board games. This is not somebody I know that I’m worrying about, and so it’s surpassing silly that I should be concerned that he is making an imprudent professional move. Imagine what I’d be like if I had actual human children making decisions about their lives!

I wonder how many of us have been through a situation similar to Jesus’ in the morning’s Gospel, whether we were the young man making inexplicable decisions or the family member worried about him. Our Lord was, let’s be honest, causing scandal, and his family was afraid he’d gone mad. When Jesus’ family finally approaches, Jesus’ response is not especially polite:

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” 

One wonders how Jesus’ family—the mother and father who raised him and the kinsmen with whom he grew up—felt about this. One suspects they might have felt horribly betrayed!

This is certainly a shocking story, though I think it has something to tell us, and it may be something which some of us are unwilling to hear. I know it makes me uncomfortable, particularly since, as I said, I worry about decisions made by people I’ve never met.

We’ve all heard stories of family expectations seriously impeding a young man or woman’s development into the kind of person they feel God wants them to be. Moving off to college? That’s madness! Choosing to live somewhere besides the family property? Madness! I should hasten to add, that there is plenty of difference between genuine concern and natural protectiveness on the one hand and the makings of codependency on the other, and recognizing that God has given agency and the capacity to make decisions (even bad ones) to those we care about is a good thing to keep in mind.

Anyway, I don’t mean to suggest that we have no responsibility to honor the expectations and hopes of our elders. I do, however, mean to suggest that parents and other family and friends need to respect the potential vocations of their loved ones. When I say “vocation”, I don’t mean profession, but rather calling. Perhaps God is truly calling a son or daughter into a life which takes them far away. Perhaps God is calling a loved one to an endeavor we might think is irregular at best or foolish at worst. The trick is to help that person discern God’s call and support him or her when he or she has made a prayerful decision.

The risk in not doing so is to be either purposefully at odds with God’s will or uncomfortably convicted by Jesus’ assessment of his mother and brothers when it’s too late to say “I don’t understand, but I support you.”

We know that in Jesus’ case, even if his family were caught off guard by his comments in today’s Gospel, reconciliation was effected. Our Lady was present at the cross, keeping her vigil, surely knowing that as horrible as it all seemed her son was following the Will of his Heavenly Father. None of us is as gracious as the Blessed Virgin, though, so we must be all the more reticent when we may be dissuading somebody from following God’s will for them. When we’re conscious of this pitfall and prayerful in our response, we not only avoid a great deal of grief. We are able, at last, to see just how unexpectedly God can work through loved ones and circumstances we never would have imagined.

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