Sermon for Advent Sunday 2020

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

I occasionally get myself in trouble with my liberal protestant in-laws when issues of religion come up, particularly when it is in the context of a conversation on speakerphone and I just throw something into the mix from the “peanut gallery”, as it were. This happened last week, when I overheard that my mother-in-law was busy constructing and distributing “Advent at home boxes.” When asked what such a thing is, she explained that an object symbolic each Sunday’s themes was included, “this item for ‘hope,’ that for ‘peace,’ this for ‘joy,’ and that for ‘love.’”

I could not help myself, and extemporaneously sung out to the first Advent hymn-tune I could think of (Den des Vaters Sinn Geboren, though I’m not allowed to sing in this space now, for which you may be grateful): “These are not the themes of Advent; they’re death and judgment, heav’n and hell.” I believe this was taken in the good-humored manner in which I intended it, when the only consequence my mother-in-law threatened was not giving me for Christmas a subscription to The Christian Century, which magazine she knows I’m not a fan of.

I realize that I’m a bit of a throwback in insisting on the recovery of traditional themes of Advent–death, judgment, heaven, and hell–but this is likely not surprising to those of you who know me. Before liturgical renewal in the 1960s and 70s, one could find these themes clearly enough implied in both Anglican Prayerbooks (including the 1928) and in the pre-conciliar Roman rite. Now things are a bit more jumbled, and we’ve got to deal with both “last things” and “Christmas preparation” all in four Sundays. At least on this first Sunday of the liturgical year, commonly called “Advent Sunday,” we do get these themes rather unabiguously. The prophet Isaiah entreats the Lord “Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence.” St. Paul encourages the Corinthians, praying that God would give them endurance, “that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ,” that is, on judgment day. And our Lord himself, in the 13th chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, for-tells the great difficulty of the last days, the ominous signs and the great and terrible glory of the Second-Coming, when he shall come to judge the world.

I said a few weeks ago that reasonable Christians must talk about these things, because they are biblical and theologically important and, most of all, they are in fact hopeful–much more so than what I called in that sermon the “fundamentalist post-apocalyptic horror story” of premillenial dispensationalism found on televangelist stations and the Left Behind novels. So, let’s address the question which I just implied: How is all this hopeful?

It might strike us at first as the opposite because we’ve got so uncomfortable, sadly with anything other than a friendly, cuddly, rather flat view of God. If, however, we remember that God is a God of both mercy and justice, that he upholds the lives of the oppressed which means laying low the oppressor, indeed that God’s wrath can be understood as a working-out of God’s love, then it should not surprise us that the Lord is, by his very nature, the one who levels judgment, preserves the righteous, and avenges the wicked.

We must look to the context of this morning’s readings to see just what Good News it is, not just that “God is in his heaven” but that because not all is right in the world, God will at the last make it so. In appreciating each of our lessons today, we have to recognize that God’s people, in each case, were oppressed by some force external to themselves.

The Jews of Isaiah’s day were under the thumbs of the Babylonians (or at the very least, if modern scholars are right that the last third of Isaiah was written after the return from exile, then they’ve come back to a city and a temple destroyed, crushing material deprivation, and uncertainty that geo-politics would remain in their favor for long). The Christians in Corinth were being broken apart by internal divisions around doctrinal and practical issues, but this was because of pressure from the pagan majority who wanted them to be “good citizens” which by definition meant becoming less faithful and less distinct from the prevailing culture. And in the Gospel, Jesus predicts precisely what would happen the his earliest followers and, indeed, to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem. They will face violent oppression; false messiahs will multiply; a new form of the abomination of desolation (the Prophet Daniel’s euphemism for the statue of Zeus, erected in temple in the 2nd Century B.C.) would be erected (this time, it turned out to be the Roman Army itself), and the temple would be destroyed.

Each of these realities could lead to hopelessness, and the only thing for such times is to hold on to the truth that the judge of the nations is, indeed, just. There is only one who can sort it out, and we are not him.

This is both the most hopeful and the most humane message ever given to humanity. I say it is the most humane, because the inability of both the secular world and indeed of certain strains of Christianity (whether the Pelagians of the fourth and fifth centuries or the liberal protestants who publish the Christian Century… that’s why I don’t like it, by the way), their inability to recognize this truth is among the most inhumane of worldviews possible, ironically clothed in the mantle of “humanism.” What do those worldviews say? It is within your power to make everything right- whether that takes the form of the just society or the Kingdom of God. Save yourself and save the world! If you’ve not managed it, well there must be a problem with you! Pull yourself out of crushing poverty by your own bootstraps. Listen to Kanye West who said slavery sounded like a choice to him. While you’re at it, find in a single political candidate or party the foundation of all your hope for peace and justice and equity. Surely, you’ll never be disappointed.

No, my brothers and sisters. This will never do. We must, of course, strive for justice and peace. We must also permit the Lord Jesus Christ to make us more faithful, prayerful, and moral people. But this will not save us and it will not save the world. Perhaps progress can be made in all these things in our lifetime or those of our children and grandchildren. On the other hand, perhaps we’ll see on the level of culture and society and national and international affairs, regression. Either way, the end is not ours to determine, it is God’s, and God alone will save us.

I think this is all particularly important to remember right now, by which I don’t mean Advent Sunday, but the “dumpster fire” which has been the Year of our Lord 2020. We live, my friends, in an evil time. We are not only beset by moral evil, but by natural evil in the form of a deadly pandemic. There are small things we can do to help push against it: we can wear our masks and keep our distance and wash our hands and all the rest, and we can take the vaccine once it comes out. But a million and a half people have died, a quarter million of them in our own country, and there is absolutely nothing any of us can do to make that fair or right. When placed on the scales of eternity, only God can make it balance.

So, our hope today is found in the same place the Jews did in the Sixth Century before Christ. It is found in the same place the disciples found it during that first generation, on Olivet and by Genesaret’s shore. It is found in the same place the Corinthians found it a generation later. It is found in the sure and certain hope that when the Lord returns he shall, as the Psalmist foretold, “judge the world in righteousness and minister true judgment unto the people.

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

Sermon for Pentecost 24 2020

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

This morning’s readings may strike us as a bit disconcerting, as well they should. They all deal with last things, the events which precede and surround Christ’s return on the last day. We’re a couple of weeks away from Advent, which is the season typically associated with these last things, and specifically with what have been called the “four last things”: namely death, judgment, heaven, and hell. But, since we also get to talk about Mary and Joseph and John the Baptist and all that in Advent, the lectionary has wisely given us a few extra weeks before to get a good healthy dose of teaching on these often difficult themes. (This may be the first time you have heard me speak of the lectionary positively rather than complaining about its omissions; so, I should take this opportunity to apologize for my perennial grumpiness, and acknowledge that most of the time the lectionary does, indeed, get it right.

Anyway, as I said, we might find the readings a bit disconcerting. The long section of potentially terrifying prophecy we heard in today’s Old Testament reading from Zephaniah concludes with the assertion that “in the fire of [God’s] passion, the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full and terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.” And, in the famous “parable of the talents” from Matthew, we hear the master rendering a very final judgment against the unproductive servant: “throw him into the outer darkness,” he says, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

All of this is enough to send us each into a tizzy. However, this is precisely the wrong approach. We learn in today’s epistle the necessity for approaching the anxiety about last things, and indeed all of life’s troubles, with seriousness and calm clarity rather than panic; or to use Paul’s words, with sobriety rather than drunkenness.

In this morning’s epistle, the apostle writes to the church in Thessalonica commanding such spiritual sobriety. “Therefore let us not sleep,” he wrote, “as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober.” The command was all the more appropriate for that young Christian community considering the occasion for Paul’s letter to them. The year was A.D. 52, not twenty years after Our Lord’s ascension into heaven. Paul had sent his young apprentice, Timothy, from their headquarters in Corinth to check up on the church in Thessalonica.

The news with which Timothy returned to Paul was not encouraging, to put it mildly. Now, the Christians in that little missionary outpost believed that Jesus would return within their own lifetimes, a common expectation among the first generation of Christians. When members of the church had died, they were unsure of the eternal fate of their recently departed loved-ones, and some began to lose their faith entirely. The result was fear and mourning and probably, as we might imagine, in at least a few cases, panic. They suffered from spiritual drunkenness.

It is because of this that Paul wrote the epistle from which we read this morning. He began the letter by reminding the Thessalonians of the good faith with which they received the initial proclamation of the Gospel, and, in the letter’s climax, which we heard last week, he explains the Christian view of Jesus’ return and the general resurrection of the dead. Remember what we read last week:

But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again: even so them also which sleep in Jesus, will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent them that are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the Archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we which are alive, and remain, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.

In short, those which are dead by the time of Christ’s return will precede the living to be with him, so there is no theological rationale for the kind of reaction suffered by the Thessalonians. Of course, loss (especially, the death of a loved one) can cause profound grief and even fear, which God, it seems to me, would not hold against us. Even so, the Christian message compels us to remain both faithful and hopeful in the midst of such hardships, knowing that on the last day God will raise his faithful people and make all things to right.

The theological problem addressed, Paul proceeds to the spiritual problem, namely what I termed spiritual drunkenness. Spiritual drunkenness, it seems, is the tendency to take our eyes off of the ways of God in an attempt to run away from painful reality. Its effect may be panic, an utter and irrational loss of hope like that experienced by the Thessalonians. Or its effect may be denial; as Paul said “when they shall say peace and safety: then sudden destruction cometh upon them.” Indeed, our reaction to the apparently nasty bits we read earlier from Zephaniah and Matthew might lead us to either panic or denial. So, too, might be our response to any profound troubles we experience in this life. In all events, the spiritual drunkard is like the literal drunkard, he cannot see things clearly for how they are. His vision is blurred and his reason is compromised. He cannot see God’s Providence at work in the time of trial. He sees only a world of horrific danger, and either he refuses to acknowledge it or he succumbs to sheer terror.

Indeed, in these last days—for just as St. Paul lived in the last days so do we still—there will continue to be trials, but however long they last God will, in the end, make all things new. In this same lesson from Thessalonians, the Apostle likens it to a woman in child-birth. It is a painful process, for sure, yet at the end comes a new and beautiful creation, a child. New life is always born of pain. So it is with the world to come. Its approach is beset by toil and peril, and ultimately death, for each and every one of us lest we’re fortunate enough to see Christ’s return in our own day. Yet the end for all of us, whether we live or die, is finally and unspeakably good.

In the meantime, the time in which we still live between Our Lord’s ascension and his return, we are called to stand firm in our faith and follow the counsel of Paul in his letter to the Ephesians to “be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine by the sleight of men.” This can only be achieved if we grow in our souls a spirit of sobriety. We must remain serious and steadfast and vigilant if we are to respond to the pain and travail of these days faithfully. St. Paul commands it, as does St. Peter in his first epistle general. “Be sober,” he says, “be vigilant: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”

Spiritual sobriety is being able to see things clearly as they are and in the light of God’s plan for us all. It is also a matter of seriousness and intentionality in the spiritual life. This isn’t brain-surgery, as it were. It’s as easy as saying one’s prayers and reading one’s bible and coming to church on Sunday. This isn’t just naïve churchiness; it really works. A simple, serious commitment in these basic disciplines gives us the grounding we need to grow mature in the faith and approach the spiritual life with sobriety because they instill in us both the substance and the spirit of faith. The bible and the prayerbook especially, used together over many years of practice, build in us a firm foundation on which to stand, so that “in all the cares and occupations of this life” we may not stumble about as the drunkard, but remain awake and watchful and sober. And then, when Our Lord does at last return, He may find us to be a people who persevered at the hour of temptation, in the time of trial.

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

Sermon for Pentecost 23 2020

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

A few years ago I was taking the elevator back down to the lobby in a hospital after visiting somebody, when a man with whom I was sharing the ride asked me “going up?” I thought it a strange thing to ask since he knew as well as I which direction the elevator was headed. I said “no, I’m going down to the lobby, too” and he replied “I mean are you going up in the rapture when Jesus comes back?” I chuckled uncomfortably and said “well, that’s a different question,” and then, thank God, the elevator door opened and I escaped. As I was walking away I heard a woman who was also in the elevator, and whom I assumed was my inquisitor’s wife, say in one of those whispers you can hear across a room “I think that means ‘no.’”

I imagine I’m not the first person of whom this man had asked this particular question on a descending elevator. I imagine he thought himself rather clever. I wonder if I was the first person in a clerical collar he had asked and how he would recount that story later to his co-religionists. Would he say that he had run into a preacher that didn’t believe the Word of God? Would it be further evidence of some prejudice he or his friends held about churches that weren’t really Christian? I’ve debated with myself whether I should have engaged the man and his wife in a theological conversation, whether such a conversation would have done any good for any of us or if we would have all left such a conversation feeling more smug and superior than he, she, and I already probably felt. I just don’t know.

In his First Epistle to the Thessalonians, from which we just heard, Paul writes:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.

This has become a key text in the ideology of modern Christian fundamentalism, as many of you are no doubt aware. What you may not be aware of is how this came to be the case.

In the year 1827 an American preacher named John Nelson Darby popularized a theory called premillenial dispensationalism. He was building on some of the hypotheses of the seventeenth century puritan preachers Increase and Cotton Mather and the eighteenth century Welsh historian and Baptist preacher Morgan Edwards. While the Mathers and Edwards were somewhat oblique in their description of the eschaton, or end-times as some have taken to calling it, Darby developed a remarkably specific vision of the future. Taking the passage from First Thessalonians as his central text and placing it in the context of apocalyptic events described in the books of Daniel and Revelation, Darby presented what he believed to be a timeline for the end of the world.

While the theory is complicated the short version is as follows: Jesus will return and believers will be raised bodily into heaven and disappear, the unfaithful will be subjected to seven years of tribulation, Jesus and the Church will return to reign on earth for a thousand years, there will be a final battle between good and evil, and then the final judgment will take place and everyone will go to either heaven or hell.

This remained a somewhat marginal view until the 1909 publication of the Scofield Reference Bible. As far as I know, it was the first English bible since the 1560 Geneva Bible to include commentary right alongside the Scriptures themselves, and it encouraged one to read the bible in such a way as to accept Darby’s theory. Incidentally, it was also the bible which introduced the modern strain of “Young Earth Creationism”- the idea that God created the world sometime in the last ten thousand years. It is Scofield whom we can thank for Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, the popular Left Behind series of books, the virulent antiscientism of tens of millions of US Americans, Christian Zionism and Christian Nationalism, and the most terrifying website I’ve ever seen-

The most remarkable part of this story is that a guy in the nineteenth century basically made it all up. The Mathers and Edwards notwithstanding, virtually nobody believed any of this stuff two hundred years ago. This is not to say that every Christian in the world believed exactly the same thing about the eschaton prior to Darby. There have been good and healthy debates between people who believed different things about the second coming of Christ, particularly whether things were going to get better and better or worse and worse leading up to Christ’s return and the General Resurrection. Each of these schools of thought can be argued on the basis of Scripture and traditional Church teaching. But each of these schools of thought reads the fourth chapter of First Thessalonians as referring to the General Resurrection on the Last Day which immediately precedes Christ’s judgment and his gracious act of establishing a new heaven and a new earth.

This is neither a conservative nor a liberal point of view. Anglicans believe it. Lutherans and Presbyterians and Methodists believe it. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe it. Moderate and Progressive Baptists believe it. The Amish and the Mennonites believe it.

But a heck-of-a-lot of Christians in this country have been taught premillenial dispensationalism. Seven of the Left Behind books have reached “number one” on the New York Times Best Sellers list, which gives you a good idea of how popular the theory is. I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of television and radio preachers teach the theory- a theory (and I don’t normally make such a bold claim, but in this case I believe it to be justified) which simply doesn’t hold up under any serious program of reading and interpreting the bible. But why, you might ask, does it matter?

Is this not an issue on which we should just agree to disagree? I don’t agree, for example, with the Presbyterians on how many sacraments there are or with the Roman Catholics on papal infallibility. These issues seem more important or at least more relevant, yet I don’t get really exercised about their points of view, at least in my preaching.

First, I think theological positions like that have a basis in at least some ways of faithfully interpreting Scripture and Church Tradition. One can have civil, theologically informed debates over those issues. Maybe it’s some unexamined prejudice on my part, but I just don’t see the same conversation being possible with the issue in question. It’s almost like fundamentalist eschatology uses a language which isn’t intelligible to me, like I’m speaking in English and they’re speaking Mandarin, and neither of us even has a phrase book.

The other reason is that I honestly believe that premillenial dispensationalism produces a dangerous worldview. This is not a politically correct or absolutely inclusive thing to say, and I beg your pardon, but I believe this to be both true and deadly serious. The idea that one smart or lucky enough to be a believer should be spared difficulty while the nonbelievers deserve tribulation leads one to one of two equally dangerous conclusions- either we should stop caring about the plight of those whose creed is different from our own because God ordained them to suffer or else our only responsibility in this world is to rack up converts, put notches in our belts for the souls we (not God) have saved. I’ve not read the Left Behind books, but I have read excerpts of some of the nasty bits as well as interviews with the authors, and the tortures they describe being inflicted on nonbelievers(by Jesus himself, no less) is nothing short of despicable. It reminds one of the genre of film that has come to be called “torture porn” in which one is meant to get a kick out of horrible violence being inflicted on people. It dehumanizes “the other”, making the most depraved, wicked sort of hatred not only palatable but fun. It is not hyperbolic to say that this sort of “entertainment” harms one’s soul, and when one doesn’t believe it’s entirely fictitious it can eventually make one vicious.

The most terrifying thing to me is that there are people who completely buy in to this theory in positions of power in business and government making decisions based on it. I know there are people here, considering our currently divisive political reality, who agree with me on certain matters of our country’s foreign policy and those who don’t. That’s perfectly fine. Reasonable people can disagree. It scares me witless, though, to think that there are some people with a lot of pull with regard to our policy in the Middle East who honest-to-God believe that the modern state of Israel has something to do with Jesus’ second-coming.

I’m sure there are some here who disagree with me with regard to education and energy policy. That’s fine, too. Reasonable people can disagree. It horrifies me, though, that there are people deciding what textbooks our children read who don’t believe in science and that there are lawmakers and bureaucrats who believe that the world is going to end anyway, Jesus is going to give us a thousand-year-long do-over, so our planet is more-or-less expendable.

So, what do we do? I believe it is time for reasonable Christians to start talking about eschatology again, both in private conversations and public forums. We’ve been reticent to do so and have ceded that topic to a very vocal minority. It’s time for us to say that Jesus is coming again, but not to torture heathens. He’s coming to breathe new life where death reigns. It’s time to admit that we’ve made a hash of things, but we don’t get a millenial do-over so we’d better start being more virtuous and responsible and loving here and now. It’s time to start preaching the Resurrection again, because that message is a whole lot more compelling than anything a fundamentalist post-apocalyptic horror story can come up with.

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