Sermon for 6 Epiphany 2019

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

A disclaimer. In this sermon I am going to take care to speak carefully and precisely, but not timidly, so listen carefully, please, and if you hear something that sounds outrageous, wait until the next sentence or two before you assume the conclusion. Conversely, if you hear me say something you absolutely agree with, be even more careful, because that assumption might get shattered in the sentence or two after that. As ever, I’ll post this text on the website this week.

In light of just having heard St. Luke’s account of the beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (the Lukan parallel of the Sermon on the Mount from St. Matthew’s Gospel), I want to speak briefly this morning about a somewhat controversial theological claim articulated during the latter half of the twentieth century- namely, the preferential option for the poor.

This concept, the preferential option, was first championed by the Peruvian theologian and Roman Catholic, Dominican priest Gustavo Gutiérez in his 1968 outline “Toward a Theology of Liberation.” The claim, in its simplest form, is that when Jesus said “Blessed are the poor” he was, in some sense, summarizing the moral and socio-political dimension of the entire biblical account, that there is a special place in God’s heart for the poor and marginalized, and that one of our chief moral duties as Christians is to help realize the Kingdom of God insofar as its promise is to restore “the least of these” to wholeness, both spiritually and materially.

Now, this seems uncontroversial enough, doesn’t it? Over and over, scripture demands that those of us with means are obliged to serve those without. But consider when Gutiérez’s outline was released–1968–and the year his seminal monograph, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, was published–1971–and you might realize how this would have gone over. It was the height of the Cold War, and “enemy number one” was the “growing threat” of international Communism. The intellectual movement which Gutiérez’s work sparked, and which came to be known as liberation theology was, thus, labeled Marxist.

In fairness to the critics of liberation theology writ large (and I’d actually count myself among these critics) the movement strayed into what I, for, would consider serious theological error. Many of the proponents leaned in so far to Marxist analysis that class struggle was considered the animating force of history rather than the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus and the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit. Too often praxis preceded theoria, the experience of well meaning but sometimes misguided activism took precedence over reflection on the truths given in Scripture and the Church’s tradition, that the movement produced what we might call a “false soteriology”- that is, a mistaken view of what constitutes salvation.

What do I mean? When the establishment of a particular socio-political reality by our own efforts becomes the chief end, when we call that our salvation, then our hope is founded in something at best merely adjacent to and at worst at odds with, the true salvation which is only in Christ Jesus. The same, naturally, can be said of liberation theology’s political polar opposite, the prosperity gospel, which has become popular in North American mega churches. This view seems to place salvation in the realm of the personal accumulation of wealth. Not to put too fine a point on it, but anything that places itself rather than Christ as the source and summit of salvation is, by definition, antichrist. Now, there’s a qualitative moral difference between a system whose intended end is social equality and one whose end is the sanctification of personal greed. But neither can in itself be the Gospel, and if either claims to be, then we are in real trouble. Either soteriological perspective falls victim to “trust[ing] in mere mortals” as the Lord spoke to Jeremiah in this morning’s old testament lesson, and the result, we are told, is curse rather than salvation.

But let’s take a step back and consider two questions: first, what does scripture teach with regard to the status of the poor in the heart of God and what is our concommitant obligation? And second, how does this relate to a true soteriology?

Answering the first question is easier. James tells us God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith. Our Lady, in the Magnificat, celebrates God’s choice of the lowly to be vessels of his Grace, herself chief among them. The Psalmist continually reminds us of God’s special desire for the poor. The Law of Moses, over and over again, makes special note of Israel’s responsibility for the indigent who dwell among them. Matthew 25 (which I’ve told some of you before, I wish were as popular on posters at sporting events as John 3:16) identifies the moral center of the Gospel as being based on how faithful we are in loving those with less. I’ll hold back from peppering prooftexts all over you, but suffice to say, the biblical account is clear.

I think most of us acknowledge this. I believe that people of goodwill have genuine differences of opinion on what the most effective way of aiding the poor is, and that a lot of our political disagreements about things like tax structure and social programs come from people with different views about what the best approach is to lifting the poor from their poverty, but that they nonetheless desire a more equitable situation. Perhaps I’m a Pollyanna on this point, but I feel I have to hold on to that so as not to despair. Of course, there are some who simply “despise the poor in their poverty.” I read a letter to the editor some months back written by somebody who sadly, seemed simply to dislike poor people, and I was offended that she claimed Christianity in that letter. But, I think most of us care enough about the moral demands of the Gospel to recognize our obligation to help those in need.

So, that was the easy question, believe it or not. Now to the difficult question, the one pertaining to salvation. It is worth noting that Luke’s version of the beatitudes has several differences with Matthew’s more popular version, but the difference you might have noticed this morning is the inclusion of “woes” after the “blesseds.” The blessedness of the poor and the hungry and the mournful and the persecuted is contrasted with the coming doom of the rich and the full and the joyous and those who are praised in this world. This should remind us of earlier passages in Luke’s Gospel. It should remind us of the Magnificat, which I’ve already mentioned. It should remind us of Jesus’ first sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, in which he proclaimed the year of Jubilee and was, you might remember from my sermon a few weeks ago, nearly killed for it. It may also, and this is where it gets awfully uncomfortable, remind you of Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man in Luke 18, in which the young man’s wealth made him despair of his ability to follow the Christ who said “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”

So, here is the really difficult question, not necessarily difficult because the answer is unclear but difficult because the clear answer makes us so uncomfortable. Is it easier for a poor person to get into heaven than a rich person? Yes. The answer is yes. Now, to be fair, in Luke 18, after the rich man’s desolation, Jesus himself reminds us that “what is impossible with men is possible with God,” but possible does not mean easy.

But, why? It is not because the wealthy are inherently more sinful nor that the poor are more inherently ethical. I believe that we should neither fetishize the poor nor engage in class struggle. This, too, is idolatry. It is, rather, that the more comfortable one is, the more advantages one has, the closer such idols, such false sources of hope for salvation, lie at hand.
I say all this as a sinner in need of saving from the selfsame tendency toward idolatry. I was reminded just the other day in a conversation with my wife, who occasionally reminds me that my never having experienced economic uncertainty in either childhood or adulthood shapes my own view of money. I’ve never been properly rich, by the measures we use in the developed world, but neither have I ever been poor or even “lower middle class,” whatever that means in a country where everyone claims to be middle class, and I’ll admit that not being a paycheck away from penury has meant that I’ve been able to solve or avoid or at least delay certain problems that folks without that would confound folks in more tenuous circumstances. This being the case, I know for a fact that I have–at least on occasion–sought to find my own salvation in money or security or my education or my professional attainments or my innate cleverness instead of in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only thing that can actually save me.

The one benefit, then, the most poor and distressed have in this life is an ease in recognition that the hope for salvation must be built on something greater and more eternal. God does not will penury, no more than God would will any other difficulty that has befallen our world due to sin. Nevertheless, it is in these extremities that men and women can catch a glimpse of the saving power of God in ways that our own comfort and self-reliance can obscure.

It is, then, our obligation as those with more-than-enough to get by, not only to aid the poor (and feed the hungry and welcome the stranger and visit the sick and the prisoner and do all the other things our Lord requires of us) but also to tear down the altars we have erected to false gods in our own hearts (to the gods of wealth and comfort and security and all the rest) until we can be assured that our hope is built on nothing less, nor anything more, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. In other words, we ask God to purify our hearts to be a temple made even for himself, until at last we can proclaim in the words of the great hymnodist Joachim Neander (which we sang as we began this liturgy):

All my hope on God is founded;
he doth still my trust renew.
Me through change and chance he guideth,
only good and only true.
God unknown,
he alone
calls my heart to be his own.

Human pride and earthly glory,
sword and crown betray his trust;
what with care and toil he buildeth,
tower and temple, fall to dust.
But God’s power,
hour by hour,
is my temple and my tower.

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

Sermon for Epiphany 5 2019

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

I’ve always enjoyed attending Eastern Orthodox liturgies. They’re not for the faint of heart. They’re long, and the Orthodox generally don’t believe in sitting at church, standing being their proper posture for prayer. Even so, I’ve found the mystery and beauty of the Eastern Liturgy to be captivating.

There is, however, at least one element of the Orthodox liturgical life which I’m thankful we don’t have in our Western Tradition. It’s in the ordination liturgy. As soon as the bishop has ordained the new priest he proclaims in Greek “axios”: “he is worthy”, and all the people respond “axios”. Then the bishop holds up each vestment in turn and again he and the congregation proclaim “axios”, “he is worthy” as each vestment is placed on the newly ordained.

With apologies to the Eastern Church, there seems to me to be a bit of potential dishonesty, or at least some wishful thinking, in this proclamation of “axios”, for in a sense none of us is worthy to do God’s work, whether it be as an ordained priest or as a faithful layperson. To quote those two imminent theologians Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World “We’re not worthy!” This isn’t to say we’re not bound to do what God has intended for us, what God has called us to do, but that we shall never become truly worthy of the task.

Both this morning’s Old Testament lesson and Gospel point to this fact. Indeed, they both suggest that a recognition of or own unworthiness is the necessary precursor to doing God’s work at all. Upon seeing the glory of the Lord, Isaiah laments “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” It is only after this realization, after his recognition of himself as a sinner in need of God, that Isaiah is given the wherewithal to respond to God’s call by saying “Here am I, send me.” Thanks be to God that He chose a man of unclean lips to be His prophet.

Likewise, it is only after Peter says “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” that Christ commissions him to be a fisher of men. God chose sinful Peter to be the rock upon which He built His Church. He chose sinful Paul to be His apostle to the Gentiles. He continues to choose unworthy, sinful people to be His agents of Grace and Love in a world which needs both so desperately.

It is remarkably easy to view our own unworthiness as a way out of whatever God calls us to do and be. A great number of my seminary classmates avoided entering ordained ministry for years and sometimes decades precisely because they thought themselves unworthy of the task to which God was calling them. I’m thankful that God shook me out of this temptation early on, because you can rest assured I wouldn’t be a priest if I thought being worthy of the vocation was a prerequisite. The same holds for all those who do God’s work in any respect. It’s easy to avoid doing God’s work because one think one has to be a pillar of purity and propriety before she or he can engage in the tasks incumbent on a Christian, that one has to be perfect before one can do evangelism or charitable work or hold a position of leadership in the church. Of course, this is all nonsense, because God only has unworthy people to choose from. If one had to be perfect to do anything in the church, nothing would ever get done.

All that said, once we begin to engage in whatever work God has set aside for us, we cannot wallow in our own unworthiness, our own imperfection. Rather, we pray that Christ may make us perfect even as His Father is perfect. My constant prayer is “make me worthy of the vocation to which you have called me.” I’m pretty sure it won’t happen in this life, but I believe that with God’s help I’ll make some progress in that direction.

And we can take comfort in the fact that though we can never become worthy by our own efforts, we have in another sense already been made worthy to stand before the Father. We have already been made worthy to engage in the work of the Gospel, not through anything we’ve done, not through any cleverness or quality of our own, but through Christ’s one sacrifice on the Cross. Just as God touched the mouth of Isaiah with the burning coal, so he has cleansed our own hearts by his Precious Blood.

This is the great paradox of the Christian life. We are not worthy, but we have been made worthy. Though I’m still grateful that nobody had to get up at my own ordination and proclaim “axios”, I think that God proclaims “axios” when any of His children engage in His work, for from the perspective of the Father we are worthy. He sees not our unworthiness, that predilection to sin and selfishness that none of us will be rid of in this life, but the perfect love and power of His Son which has made us worthy.

So, never let “I’m not worthy” be an excuse. Isaiah and Peter already tried it, and we know how that turned out. Rather, give thanks that though unworthy, Christ has made us worthy, and the proper response is to stop running, stop “wrestling with God”, and do whatever it is He’s calling you to do. He’ll put us all to work sooner or later, so we might as well get on with it.

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

Sermon for Epiphany 4 2019

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

Several years ago I attended a reading by a fellow named Frederick Busch from a book he had published a few years previously. It was a memoir titled A Dangerous Profession. To Busch’s mind, writing fiction with integrity was dangerous because you’d never give the reading public what it wanted. “Something that is part of the gift is also a compulsion [he wrote]: that we seek the darkness, not the light; that we serve up grindings of glass in blood sauce rather than the Fifth Avenue soufflé most readers want.” While I’d suggest that Busch had a lower estimation of the reading public than would be fair, there is probably something to his assertion. Those writers who delve into the depths of darkness and moral complexity are often less financially successful in their publishing careers than those who write sweet, heartwarming stories.

What we learn from both the Gospel and the Old Testament this week is that the prophetic vocation is much the same. When Jesus says some hard words to his audience in Nazareth, they turned on him. Jesus had essentially told the crowd that they weren’t as wonderful and special as they thought they were. They assumed that they were like the widow of Zeraphath or Naaman the Syrian, who received God’s special favor in their own days; Jesus said that, to the contrary, they were more like the unnamed widows and lepers who received no special attention.

The crowd in the Synagogue that day were looking for what last week I referredn to as a Stuart Smalley sermon from Jesus. They wanted Jesus to say something like “you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.” When instead Jesus let’s them know that their not special, they react violently:

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

The prophetic vocation of Jesus was a most dangerous profession, because he had to tell people that they weren’t special, but were ordinary sinners needing saving.

Likewise, the prophet Jeremiah approached the prophetic task with the tentativeness natural to such a dangerous profession. “Ah, Lord GOD! [he lamented] Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” The people of Judah and Jerusalem had turned to foreign Gods, had forsaken the God of Israel by worshipping idols, and Jeremiah knew from the outset that preaching against the faithlessness of his kinsman would not be popular, to say the least. A few verses after this morning’s Old Testament reading, God frankly describes both the danger and the promise inherent in Jeremiah’s task: “they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you.” Indeed this happened; Jeremiah’s life was threatened by King Zedekiah and his officials who tried to starve the prophet to death, but he was ultimately rescued and his prophecies of the fall of Jerusalem came to pass.

We learn from both Jesus and Jeremiah that God’s truth can be offensive, that the Good News of God is not all sweet-nothings and affirmation. God corrects and convicts, and if the Church is doing its job, it is carrying out the same dangerous task.

Alas, the church does not always succeed. I once saw a cartoon which showed a crowd of well-heeled parishioners leaving church, and one man says to another “he preaches a good sermon, it’s hard not to offend this crowd.” It’s a funny depiction of a sad truth. One might think an easy, affirming sermon is a good one, but ultimately it’s perilous to the listener, because it suggests one need not do anything in terms of growth, that one doesn’t need a course-correction from time-to-time, and this can turn the church stagnant.

An excellent exposition of this truth and its opposition is found in the following lines from T.S. Eliot’s The Rock, which a parishioner here actually showed me some time ago as it was clippped out and placed in her prayerbook:

Why should men love the Church, why should they love her laws?
She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget.
She is tender when they would be hard and hard where they like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin and of other unpleasant facts.
They Constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming up systems so perfect that no one will have to be good.

This, of course, speaks of the Church at her best, when She strives not just to make us feel better about ourselves, but to truly become better.
This is not to say that church cannot make us feel better, but if that’s all it does, then Marx was right and it’s simply an “opiate of the masses.” I’ve heard people say that they leave church feeling better than when they arrived, and this is as it should be. We should also, however, leave church with a sense of conviction and with a willingness to live into the demands of the Gospel.

The church, at its best, pushes us to grow in love. If we’ve become stagnant, if we’ve become what Paul calls a “noisy gong or clanging cymbal”, then we must really pay attention to the kind of life to which the Gospel calls us, instead of living in denial, convincing ourselves that we’re just great and special and don’t need to be pushed to something more. The Church, at its best, encourages us to become more loving as Paul described love in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, to become more patient and kind, to rejoice in the truth. She pushes us to set aside envy and boasting and arrogance and rudeness. She convicts us when we do insist on our own way, when we’re irritable or resentful or rejoice in wrongdoing.

It can be uncomfortable when the Church succeeds in Her prophetic task; our natural tendency might be to react, if not violently as the crowd did that day in Nazareth, then at least by becoming indignant. Let us be open, then, to Christ as he pushes us in uncomfortable ways. Let us not be deluded or petulant, seeing no room for growth, no way to become more loving. Let us, rather, respond with gladness to the opportunity we are given in Christ to become a new creation. It is not easy to become more loving, and it’s even less easy to admit that we need to, but take heart that it is not any of us doing the difficult work of self-transformation, but Christ Jesus himself, if only we permit him to do that work in us.

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