Sermon for Pentecost 23 2019

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

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

We hear haunting words in today’s Gospel, and they are not to be taken lightly. Every year at about this time, the lectionary turns to what we call “eschatology”, last things, the bible’s witness to the oftentimes frightening nature of all that leads up to the world to come. Wars and insurrections, earthquakes and famines and plagues, dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. These are what Jesus tells us will happen, and it rousts us out of our complacency pretty quickly. Interestingly, these were also Jesus’ words of admonition to his disciples, who were at that time speaking idly about how lovely the Jerusalem temple was.

We learn from the first century historian Josephus, that the temple was indeed grand. It was built like a royal cloister, with magnificent purple drapes, vines made of gold, huge stone doors that could be seen from a great distance. The temple itself was enormous, one of the largest buildings on earth at the time. But, that God’s house was a touch ostentatious was not in itself a bad thing. It was God’s house. It was built in God’s honor, and its splendor was meant to reflect God’s glory.

The problem arose when the disciples got too caught up in the building for its own sake and forgot that its grandeur was only a dim reflection of God’s glory. Whatever we mortals construct in an effort to honor God will eventually be destroyed. They are ultimately finite. They are finally insufficient. Like us, the works of our hands will eventually come to naught.

This does not, however, let us off the hook. It does not exempt us from the responsibility of honoring God and working to do God’s will. It is in the end, though, a reality check: a reminder that the Kingdom of God does not depend on the works of our own hands, but on the infinite grace and power of the One who made us. All the temples we construct are among those things which will pass away.

So, why do we build these temples? Why do we construct grand cathedrals, and develop programs, and work tirelessly in all manner of church related activities if it will all pass away? We do these things, knowing full well that all shall return to the dust. Why? We do them because we are meant to be witnesses, and all that the Church does is (or should be) toward the end of God’s mission, that all should be restored to unity with God in Christ. In this time between our Lord’s life on earth and His coming again, we are called to point both backward and forward. We are called to point back toward Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as we also point forward to the day of His return. The grandeur of our churches and the beauty and solemnity of our liturgies and the programs we develop and the works of Christian charity we undertake, all these things must serve to point beyond ourselves to Christ our king who is to come.

And so, our work is not in vain but we must remember what the nature of the work that we are about is. Christ will usher in the Kingdom in God’s good time, and we are admonished to avoid those who would speculate about when and how. Our part is to witness to that Kingdom; to point to it; to pray that Christ might be made known to those who know Him not; to tell the old, old story to a world yearning to hear it; and to wait in eager expectation for that day, even amid things that are passing away. As a friend of mine once said, we Christians are in advertising, not management.

To put our responsibility in more extravagant terms, we are all called to be martyrs. The Greek word we translate as martyr in the New Testament really means witness in the legal sense of the word. We are not, thank God, necessarily called to die for the faith. It is, however, our bounden duty, our obligation, to be witnesses to Christ: to be those who are able to point to Him as the source of light and life who is coming again. For a few this does mean death, but for all it means sacrifice. “They will arrest you and persecute you,” Jesus tells His disciples, “they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name…You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.” The way of the cross is not all sweetness and light. It is occasionally (or more than occasionally) painful and onerous, if we’re doing it right. Yet it is in the way of the cross that we find our greatest joy. To quote a popular William Alexander Percy hymn, which I’ve quoted here before:

The peace of God, it is no peace,

But strife closed in the sod.

Yet let us pray for but one thing-

The marvelous peace of God.

In this in-between time, we will experience not a little discomfort if we are striving to do God’s work. Even so, we have every reason in the world to press on, for ours is the God who cares for His people and shall put all things to rights. As God said to the prophet Malachi, “For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” And as our Lord said, “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” We keep striving because we know that death is not the end. We know that the Lord comes swiftly, and then we shall meet Him face to face.

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

Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday 2019

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

Until the adoption by the Episcopal Church of the Revised Common Lectionary a few years ago, the first reading on All Saints Day, from the book of Ecclesiasticus, began thusly: “Let us now praise famous men.” The new lectionary has unfortunately dropped the reading for what a friend pointed out to me earlier this week seemed a somewhat inadequate Old Testament lesson which unfortunately skips several key verses in a sort of Readers Digest Condensed version of Daniel 7. I’ve said from this pulpit before, beware when the lectionary skips verses; I’d encourage you to read those left out after you go home. In all events, I think the Ecclesiasticus reading captured the real sense of this morning’s feast better than even a full appreciation of the Daniel lesson: “Let us now praise famous men.”

That said, it is impossible to remember all the saints by name, to succeed in praising all famous men. There are too many of the named, famous, canonized saints alone to praise them all, not to mention all those saints who happen not to have been formally canonized, or whose memories have faded over the centuries. So, permit me to share just two stories of saints, a diptych of sorts, one ancient and one modern, to provide an entry point into the concept of saintliness.

The first is St. Clare of Assisi, who lived during the 13th Century. Most well known for being one of St. Francis’ earliest followers, Clare was very active in good works herself, most notably founding the Order of Poor Ladies, a women’s counterpart to the Order of Friars Minor (or Little Brothers) that her brother Francis had founded. Perhaps Clare’s most shining moment came in the year 1244. Fredrick II, then Holy Roman Emperor, was at war with the pope, and had employed bands of Saracens to plunder churches and monasteries throughout the Italian countryside. The marauders had made it to Assisi, and while they were scaling the convent walls, Clare, though she was ill, had herself carried out to the gate holding the blessed Sacrament, a consecrated host, up in sight of the enemy. Prostrating herself before it, she prayed aloud: “Does it please Thee, O God, to deliver into the hands of these beasts the defenseless children whom I have nourished with Thy love? I beseech Thee, good Lord, protect these whom now I am not able to protect.” Whereupon she heard a voice like the voice of a little child saying, “I will have them always in My care.” She prayed again, for the city, and again the voice came, reassuring her. She then turned to the trembling nuns and said, “Have no fear, little daughters; trust in Jesus.” At this, a sudden terror seized their assailants and they fled in haste.

The second saint, though never formally canonized or entered into a church calendar, was the Rev’d Dr. George Hendric Houghton, who served as rector of New York City’s Church of the Transfiguration—“the little church around the corner” as it was and still is known—from 1848, when at the tender age of 28 he founded the church, until his death in 1896, forty-nine years later. He is best known for opening the church to actors and other theatre folk, who were reckoned an unseemly crowd in those days. Houghton’s finest hour came in July 1863. President Lincoln had instituted the first military draft in American history, in an attempt to encourage voluntary enlistment into the Union Army. A large group of outraged New Yorkers commenced a riot which held the City captive for nearly a week. For years, the Church of the Transfiguration had served as a stop on the underground railroad, and during the riot came to house a great many of the city’s black population, who feared gang violence. The angry mob, caught up in the irrationality of their group mentality, decided that blacks were mostly to blame for the war and the draft. So they headed for the little church with the intent of murdering those who had sought refuge therein. The mob twice thronged the gates of the churchyard, and policemen on duty warned Fr. Houghton that they could not insure their protection. With firm resolution, Fr. Houghton lifted the processional cross from its place in the church, walked out to face the rioters, held the cross before them, and shouted, “Stand back, you white devils; in the name of Christ, stand back!” With these courageous words, the mob dispersed, and those in the church remained safe until the end of the riots.

What both St. Clare and Fr. Houghton had in common is a word that has sadly fallen out of our vernacular. The word is virtue. We’ve come to think, since the Enlightenment, that ethics is primarily about making the right decision when posed with a moral problem by applying some moral calculus. Modern people think in terms of actions, good works and mistakes, rather than character or virtue. But what made St. Clare and Dr. Houghton and all those famous men and women we see on the Church Kalendar of saints, wasn’t that they were smart enough to figure out how to do the right thing most of the time. Rather, they were instilled with virtue and filled with the Holy Spirit, such that it became less a matter of decision making and more a matter of living in a way that their prayer and practice and commitment to Christ had made second-nature. I doubt that St. Clare or Fr. Houghton sat down and tried to figure out what action would lead to the greatest happiness for the most people, as the utilitarians would, or whether standing up to the mob should be a universal law, as Kant would have it. No, it was a lifetime of commitment to prayer and service and sacrifice which imbued them with courage and respect for life and a sense of obligation to “the least of these.” It was not just about doing good things, but about growing into good people, becoming saints.

And here is the hard part. We are all called to be saints. We have all been given the gift new life in Baptism, new life just as profound and miraculous as the that which Jesus gave to Lazarus. The responsibility we are given thanks to that gift is that we should all become saints. I don’t just mean in the broad sense; as you may know “saints” was a term used for all Christians in the early church, and indeed we all have the promise of the life of the world to come. In that sense, all baptized Christians are saints, but I mean to say something even bolder. We are all called to nurture in ourselves and in our fellow Christians the virtue which made many to be “famous men”, to be not only “small ‘s’ saints”, but “capital ‘s’ saints”, whose lives of virtue point to Christ himself, by whom the love of the Father is made apparent, and through whom the power of the Holy Spirit works wonders which are beyond our wildest imaginations.

Today, we will welcome a new “small ‘s’ saint” into the household of God. Our soon to be brother in Christ Zachariah will make a number of promises, and in so doing will vow to continue grow into a saint whose virtue makes Christ known, to start the process of growing into a “capital ‘s’ saint.” And then, each of us will make his own promise to do “all in our power to support him in his life in Christ.” In other words, all of us, the whole community of the faithful, will vow to help him grow into a model of Christian virtue, will vow to help him and all the baptized become Saints. This is a tremendous responsibility, but we can be assured that it is not only up to us, but up to God, who begins his new creation in the water of baptism, who gives new life to those who would approach that water, and who has given us all the assurance, as it is written in the Wisdom of Solomon, that each of us, and Zachariah, and “the souls of [all] the righteous are in the hand of God.”

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

Sermon for Pentecost 19 2019

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

In his Second Epistle to Timothy, the Apostle Paul encourages his young protégé to “be unfailing in patience” to “always be steady [and] endure suffering” for the sake of his ministry. Timothy could have had all of the skills we associate with effective ministry: a clear understanding of and passion for the Gospel, an engaging preaching style, a “thick skin” (a critical trait for a priest to have), but none of that would get the job done if he had not the patience to persevere. Perseverance, Paul knew, was the most important factor for a successful fisher of men.

I must admit that patience is not my most well-practiced skill. Let me explain what I mean, because I suspect there are at least a few here in the same boat, as it were. I think I have a fairly good amount of patience with people. This is important in my position because I deal with all sorts and conditions of people every day, each with a unique problem or concern. Most of these people (you people) are pretty easy to get on with, to love even. Sometimes people, no matter how much I love them, can be a bit annoying, especially to an introvert such as myself. But, I can be pretty patient with people.

I am not, however, patient with God. When I want some kind of help from on high, some affirmation of myself or some experience of consolation, I want it fairly quickly. Sometimes, deep down, I convince myself that I could do God’s job more efficiently than God does. Of course, that’s the kind of pride which preceded the fall, and which precedes my own embarrassing falls from time-to-time. I can be pretty patient in my relationships with each of you, I can even force myself to be patient in my relationship with people on the other end of the telephone line at the internet company or pension group helpline. Believe it or not, I’m getting more patient with people in the left turn lane who never want to go right when the light turns red. (I insist, at least two, and possibly three cars can legitimately make a left at that point, though my wife has a different opinion). All that said, though I’m getting more patient on those fronts, I have trouble being patient in my relationship with God.

I wonder if Jacob had that problem, too, and that’s why God decided to wrestle with him at Penu’el. You’ll remember that up to this point, Jacob had done pretty well at getting what he wanted, even if it meant being a little less than honest. Perhaps, Jacob needed to learn an important lesson which had heretofore been beyond him, namely, that the blessing of God, which once seemed so easily forthcoming due to Jacob’s cleverness would eventually require more persistence. Jacob’s struggle with the Lord at Penu’el would be realized by the nation of which he was the father, which had to fight to remain faithful, whose relationship with God would indeed become an extended struggle, as they strayed and wrestled with the sin that led them astray and, indeed, with the prophets whom God appointed to bring them back. God’s persistence in remaining faithful to Israel demanded that Israel itself show such persistence in maintaining its end of the relationship.

Likewise, the widow in the parable from Luke is meant to stand as an example for believers who must remain persistent in prayer. Just like the children of Israel had to persevere in keeping the law, to wrestle with the powers that would prevent them, so too must the Christian wrestle with the pride and indolence which tears her away from maintaining her relationship with God—a relationship which requires the Christian to pray diligently, to read the scriptures faithfully, and to receive God’s Grace in the Eucharist regularly.

But persistence is not required only because sloth can creep up on our souls. Persistence is necessary because our expectations can sometimes lead to disappointment: when our prayer seems hollow and God seems not to answer, when our study of Holy Scripture seems to leave us with little inspiration, when the strength and consolation we once drew from the Sacrament seems to have ceased, as water ceases from a well that’s dried up.

Christian mystics, like St. Teresa of Avilla, whose feast day occurred this week, call this phenomenon “aridity”, which means “dried up”. We’ve all probably experienced this at one point or another. It can be discouraging, and it can elicit some unfortunate reactions if we’re not ready for it.

We can stop praying and reading the bible and receiving the Sacrament altogether. This is like assuming the oasis in the distance must be a mirage, so it’s better to sit down in the desert and dehydrate to death instead of venturing toward the potential life right in front of us.

Or, we can blame the Church. This has become a very popular way of avoiding the call to persevere.

The proper response, I think, is to keep praying and reading scripture and receiving the Sacrament. The proper response is to keep at it. You’ll make it to that oasis in the desert eventually. You’ll experience Grace and consolation eventually. Don’t let discouragement get hold and decide to just pack it in. Keep at it, and in the end the struggle will seem a distant memory compared to the abiding peace we can experience in Christ Jesus, in this world and the next.

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