Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

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

More than occasionally I meet somebody who doesn’t know too much about the Episcopal Church, and almost inevitably I’m asked about rules. The questions are largely what one might expect. Evangelical types tend to ask if we’re permitted to drink, dance, and gamble. Roman Catholics tend to ask questions like can our priests can marry.

I, for one, am grateful that, despite the fact that we do have moral obligations, the Gospel is not about rules but about Grace. The larger culture, as evidenced by those sorts of questions I just mentioned, seems to associate religion with rules, but that’s not the primary message, the primary message being that we are all sinners and we’re all saved. Even so, I think we must take into consideration Paul’s words to the Corinthians in today’s epistle before we go too far with this freedom we have in the Gospel.

Paul was writing, as he often did, in response to a disturbance in the local church, and in the passage we heard a moment ago, he was writing specifically about a controversy regarding food sacrificed to idols. What Paul ultimately says is that there’s no inherent harm in eating such food, since there’s not really any god behind the idol. The problem arises when others, who are less knowledgeable in the faith see it, and it becomes a crisis of conscience for them.

But, since most of us won’t be offered food sacrificed to an idol anytime soon, how does this effect us? I think the lesson is larger than the particulars Paul faced.

Some years ago a friend of mine told a story about going into a movie theater to watch what was a rather edgy film, and another cinema-goer (a stranger) horrified enough to see somebody in a clerical collar watching this particular movie (I don’t recall what it was) that she acosted him about being there. It seemed not to occur to my friend’s interlocutor that she was there to watch precisely the same film he was. Now, yesterday, Annie and I went to see a movie which turned out to be rather explicit; I was grateful that I wasn’t wearing my collar, lest I have a similar experience to my friend, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

Now, we are all representatives of Christ’s Church, as we are all members of the Body. It is not the sole responsibility of the clergy to serve as examples, so replace the priest in the story I just told with yourself. You see, our actions are seen by others, and they can cause others to question their own consciences. This can be a very good thing, as we should all strive to determine what that inner voice tells us is right and wrong. But it can also be confusing. Even when we know we’re not doing anything wrong, it can cause others to stumble, and St. Paul says, “Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”

Now, don’t take all of this to mean that we must always be walking on eggshells, as it were, fearing that somebody might be offended by our actions. Don’t take all of this to mean that anything we do which might possibly cause offense must be done covertly. “If you’re doing something you need to hide, you shouldn’t be doing it at all” is probably a good rule of thumb.

The point is that we need to be sensitive to others’ sense of propriety, even if we don’t agree with it. We need to “take care” as Paul put it. We ought not to rub our freedom in others’ faces. We ought not to go out of our way to scandalize our brothers and sisters whose consciences might be weak.

A little bit of charity in this regard may well be reciprocated, but even if it isn’t, it is nonetheless our obligation to be a wholesome example and to respect those whose sense of wholesomeness is more rigid than our own. The key in this regard is charity, and that should be our driving principle no matter what the particular circumstance.

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

Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

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

In both the Epistle and the Gospel appointed for this morning we encounter a rather upsetting theme. St. Paul instructs the Christians in Corinth “from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none.” Then in the Gospel we heard that John and James left their father Zebedee in the boat (in the middle of a work day!) to follow Jesus. Are we then to understand that family obligations get in the way of following God’s call, and they are to be abandoned?

Well, it should be no surprise, that it’s rather more complicated than that. Let’s begin with the Epistle. The three short verses we heard were lifted from a whole chapter devoted to the discussion of marriage. Looking at the context, St. Paul’s admonition takes on some nuance.

Paul was ambivalent about marriage. He recognized the need for the institution and affirmed it’s life-long, indissoluble nature. Even so, Paul strongly recommends that those who can manage it should never marry and instead opt for a life of single celibacy. This is because he believed that singleness was a happier estate and freed one to focus on spiritual matters. He saw that marriage could lead to a great deal of stress and anxiety which could ultimately distract the believer from his or her own spiritual life and commitment to the church.

As a side note, I think we tend to reject Paul’s advice here a little too quickly. While there is certainly a generational shift happening now, it is still popular in many parts of our society to see singleness at a certain age as an aberration. Too often is the single man or woman seen as being odd or assumed to be hiding something, because marriage (some subconsciously believe or even explicitly say) “is just something normal people do.” What if we assumed, instead, that God might be calling that person to a life of single celibacy because He meant for them to lead that kind of life. Assuming that somebody who’s single must be lonely, is pitiable, and should really get out there and find somebody doesn’t recognize that God can call His children to different estates than we, due to some cultural influence, perceive as “normal”.

Anyway, Paul’s view of marriage is complicated, and his command to “let those who have wives live as though they had none” should be seen in the context of his broader view. His primary concern is the anxiety created by marriage, and it seems to me that in his command to act as though one had no spouse, he does does not mean abandonment of the spouse but abandonment of anxiety. He means that we ought not let the difficulty of being married distract us from giving our best for God. Indeed, a marriage defined by peace in the home can be of great benefit to one’s spiritual life. It’s when the relationship is defined by the stress and anxiety it creates that there is a problem.

But then what about the Gospel? Here we see the brothers John and James literally leaving their old man to follow Jesus. One wonders how Zebedee felt about this turn of events. In this instance, I think the truth is harder than the one we’re given in the epistle, but it’s no less true. These young men and so many of us must at some point cut ties and move on in order to follow our Lord’s call.

Perhaps this is less shocking today as we live in a more migratory society than we ever have, but it’s still a challenge for many. There is sometimes thrust upon our children inappropriate expectations of how their lives will develop which have more to do with parents’ desires for stability than God’s call to an individual. It is hard for me to talk about this, because it’s not my experience. I think my parents would have been disappointed if I chose to stay close to home when there was another course I felt obliged to take. But for so many, there is a desire (I’d go so far as to say a “God-given” desire) to take on some new adventure, to let one’s life follow a sense of call, a vocation, wherever it takes that person, which meets with less than rousing support at home.

But what if when the boys left the boat, their father Zebedee didn’t feel betrayed or abandoned? Perhaps he looked on their departure with pride and hope. They had found their Lord, and though it would take them far away from the fish in Galilee, far away from their home, I bet Zebedee knew in his heart that they had bigger fish to fry, as it were, and that they’d find and found a new home, the Church, which would have room for billions of children in the years to come.

I think that this is an important thing for all of us to realize. We cannot stand in the way of God’s call (if it truly is God’s call) to any other, no matter how dear they are to us. We cannot burden another with an obligation to ourselves which they never chose for themselves. This is not to say that children have no obligations to parents; they most certainly do. It is, however, to say that we are all obliged to wait upon God’s call, to follow His Will and to allow it to be followed, even if that becomes uncomfortable. We can do this when we are able to truly believe that God will see us through the pain of loss and that He can and will do more marvelous things in our lives and in the lives of those whom we love than we could imagine, if we only let Him.

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

Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

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

After years and years of preaching on this text I feel I’ve become a broken record–regularly trying to explain why Jesus was Baptized since he obviously did not require remission of sins. I recently discovered a new way of understanding what is happening in this reading. I say “new” but its really only new to me, and dates back to at least the Fourth Century. St. Ambrose of Milan, one of the most important theologians of his era, said, essentially, that in his Baptism, Christ is not cleansed and purified (being perfect and sinless and God himself he didn’t need that) but rather that he cleanses and purifies water, imbuing it with the power to cleanse and purify us.

I love this reading, because it gets to a truth about the Sacraments– namely, that they use ordinary things which have been transformed into the means of extraordinary grace by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This, I think, is something unique and wonderful about the Christian faith. It’s not all about some mental or spiritual transcendence whereby we leave the world and live on some different plane of existence. Rather, God is made known in ordinary, tangible stuff.

The mystery of the Trinity is made manifest when Jesus, a man, stepped into regular old water and revealing to John the Baptist and the assembled crowd, through the descent of the Holy Spirit as a dove and the voice of God the Father, that Jesus was part of the Godhead. Our relationship with the Trinity is effected with regular old water which, by the Grace of God, becomes something extraordinary. The Mystery of Salvation, of Christ’s death and resurrection, is made known to us not through mental gymnastics, but through ordinary water and ordinary bread and ordinary wine which by the Grace of God becomes something extraordinary.

We learn from this morning’s lesson from Acts that the presence of the Holy Spirit is effected not by some sort of transcendental meditation, but through the laying on of physical apostolic hands onto a flesh and blood person, just as today, the Grace of the Holy Spirit is made real when the successors of those first apostles (our bishops) lay their hands, ordinary old hands, onto an ordinary head to confirm or ordain someone. (One of the effects of having an ecumenical lectionary, as I’ve mentioned before, is that sometimes we get lessons that don’t necessarily comport with what we believe the thematic “through-line” of a particular day is; I don’t think this reading from Acts is about Baptism, but rather about Confirmation, though it does relate to this larger point about sacramental theology.)

Anyway, Baptism is about more than just the remission of sins, though for us sinners that’s part of the story. Baptism is also about the ability of God to create a relationship with flesh-and-blood people in the material world, the washing away of the stain of original sin being the first step. It’s about Christ being known not primarily by spiritual athletes who stay in their studies or their cells and just think a lot (as edifying and gratifying as that practice can be from time to time). Nor is it about having some grand “spiritual” experience (again, not a bad thing, but not the point). Rather, the power and glory of God is made present in the midst of remarkably ordinary things: water, bread, wine, flesh, and blood. The Grace of God is made present in the gathering of flesh-and-blood people, who’ve been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and maintain holy relationships with God and each other.

We as Anglican Christians are said to have a particularly Incarnational view of the faith, which is to say that the reality of God becoming human in Christ Jesus makes all the difference for how we view the world. The world is no longer just a place for “stumbling blocks”, but has become the very locus of God’s saving work. Christ’s Incarnation, His Baptism at the Jordan, His whole life of woe, and his physical, bodily Resurrection all point to the fact that the way to holiness is not by some kind of world-denying levitation, but by being Christians in the material world, among ordinary stuff, acknowledging reality, and watching God make his presence known around us in the midst of that which is commonplace, whether it be ordinary water, ordinary bread and wine, or ordinary people. It is ordinary things that serve as the vessels God uses to make His Grace known and felt. God does this for us all the time, but how much more wonderful it is when we recognize it: in plain old water, in tasteless bread, and cheap wine, in that person sitting next to you, in the midst of ordinary stuff. It takes a great God to forgo thunderbolts and a booming voice and the like to make Himself known in the ordinary; it takes a God who values us, who values our experience, who wants to be in a relationship with us all the time.

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