Sermon for Palm Sunday 2020

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

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” We behold our Lord today at the end of his rope. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem has led to bloody death; Jesus has gone from an adoring crowd lining his way with branches to the gibbet, surrounded by those who would mock and torture him.

To cry out, to express one’s sense of abandonment in the midst of profound grief and trouble, even accusing our Heavenly Father, is no sin. It is, we see in the Passion, a practice to which even the Sinless One made recourse. Jesus, you may know, is quoting the 22nd Psalm in his lament, but I don’t think we should see this as mere play-acting, as saying the right words to give a biblical reference to prove the prophetic nature of the Old Testament. That would hew dangerously close to a rather gnostic view of the crucifixion. No doubt Jesus actually feels abandoned, and he is using the words of scripture to express, in good Jewish fashion, what he is experiencing.

I think this gets to a point made by one whom many of you know is among my favorite biblical scholars, N.T. Wright, in a Time Magazine article last week. Bishop Wright reminds us that Christianity is not a faith of easy answers. We cannot take any example of profound human suffering and respond with an easy answer about God’s plan, and this includes, the bishop wrote, our current crisis with the coronavirus and all its attendant human suffering. Rather, we have the language already in our tradition to respond with perhaps the only honest words we can say about our difficulty–not with puffy platitudes about God’s will but with the biblical language of lament. These are sentiments we will hear expressed through all the Holy Week liturgies this week, and we certainly hear them today coming from none other than God Incarnate, experiencing the greatest human suffering on our behalf and responding just as the psalmist or Job or the Prophet Jeremiah in his Lamentations over the fall of Jerusalem. These are appropriate feelings to have and they are appropriate to express to God in prayer.

We should not view this as a lack of faith on our part when we, too, express such desolation and even when we accuse God. Remember last week, I said that Jesus wept over Lazarus even when he knew that he would raise him from the dead. Today Jesus cries out and accuses the Father of abandoning him, even though he knows his situation would lead to Resurrection. When somebody dies, I often tell the family of the departed one that grief is no sign of a lack of faith. It is a normal, human response to loss. We may be confident that God will get us through our current difficulties–our isolation and loneliness and anxiety and grief in the midst of the pandemic–but that doesn’t mean we are faithless if we need to express our sadness and fear and anger. God can take it; he’s big enough to manage our human responses to difficulty and even our anger at him.

Every year our bishop sends his clergy a book to read during Lent, and this year’s couldn’t have been more perfect for our current situation. The Hope of Glory is a series of reflections on the seven last words of our Lord from the Cross by John Meacham, the prominent historian and Episcopal lay leader whom many of you may have heard give eulogies at the funerals of his friends and fellow Episcopalians George and Barbara Bush when they both died in 2018.

I want to conclude my sermon with an excerpt of his reflection on Jesus’ lament “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” in which this pulitzer prize winning layman puts better the point I’m trying to make in a few words than I could in ten-thousand:

We do not know [why so many suffer]. The world is a tragic place: it will never finally, fully conform to our wishes.

Sometimes the things in front of us, including the cross, are the things we notice the least. We do not genuflect to images of an empty tomb, or of a discarded shroud. We genuflect, rather, to a representation of a place of suffering and of sweat, of blood and of death. Tragedy is ever before us. From the cross, Jesus asked the same question we ask in hours of darkness and despair: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? God has thus known grief. He has experienced the pain of his people. He has wondered why.

Then his Father’s will was done, and from darkness came light, and death was conquered. This is our story, our faith, our consolation.

And so we watch and we wait, revering the cross, caring for the widow and the orphan, and holding fast to the belief that someday, in some way, all things shall be made new. For that hope is all we have to hold on to, however tenuously, in the hours when we, too, feel forsaken by the Father, and far from his care.

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

Sermon for Lent 5 2020

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

“Jesus wept.” This verse, found in this morning’s Gospel, is famous for being the shortest in scripture, though taken in its context I believe it has much to say to us today. Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died, and yet Jesus knows how this story ends. Just in last week’s Gospel, in which Our Lord says the blind man’s condition allowed God’s power to be made manifest, so does he say of Lazarus’ condition: “This… is for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.” Jesus, who tarries two days in Jerusalem upon hearing of his Lazarus’ sickness, knew by the time he had left for Bethany that his friend has died. Upon his arrival he informs Martha that he intends to raise Lazarus from the dead. And yet, upon approaching the tomb, Jesus weeps. He knows Lazarus will live again, yet his grief is no less real.

My friends, none of us knows how God, in his Providence, has determined to use our current crisis to his own divine ends. None of us knows how long this will last, who will become ill, who will survive and who will die. God knows and will transform whatever the power of evil throws at us to mysteriously and miraculously work his own purposes out. Even so, because we have a God who is not only high and lofty, but who has chosen in Christ Jesus to take on our very nature, we also have a God who despite knowing the ultimate triumph of life nonetheless weeps with us in our grief. I said last week that having a God who suffers with us is not sufficient if that’s all we have to say about God. But thanks be to God, we also have a God who is in control, and this reality of having a Lord who is both provident and incarnate is, I believe, the only thing that can satisfy the longing of our hearts for hope in the midst of adversity. To put it plainly, I don’t know how one gets through our present reality without utter despair without Jesus; thank God we have Jesus, who is our help and our salvation.

Now let me turn to something I want to say to you as your pastor along very practical lines, which I assure you has spiritual significance as pedestrian as it may seem. Our hope remains in the work of God-in-Christ alone, not in anything we do, yet there are some things which we must be doing to express our faith and hope in the providence which we trust. And forgive the moment of levity, but this struck me due to another verse in today’s Gospel. When Jesus approaches the tomb Martha, always the practical sister, warn him, “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.” Perhaps some of us feel like we might be a bit like Lazarus, in our tomb-like rooms for at least a week now. But, friends, we’re not dead yet, so this need not be the case.

So, here’s my godly counsel, pedestrian though it may seem, and this is likely the most directive any of you have ever hear me be. Get out of bed when you normally would, even if you don’t have to right now. Shower, shave if you’re a man, brush your teeth. Dress yourself. Eat nutritious, balanced meals. Go outside (maintaining appropriate physical distance from others, of course) and walk or jog or do something to get your heart rate up. Telephone or “skype” people you’d normally see on a daily basis (and consider “zooming in” to coffee hour immediately following this liturgy). Don’t have your televisions on and tuned-in to news broadcasts all day long.

If you find yourself constantly anxious and engaging in what psychiatrists call rumination (that is, focusing on your negative thoughts) pay attention to your breathing and slow it down, focus on a prayer that you can repeat with those breaths. And consider the following, which is not just my own barmy idea, but a suggestion from a mental health professional I trust: you may need to let yourself ruminate and worry a bit (or more than a bit), but find a place and a time–a chair you don’t normally sit in and a set half-hour period in your diary, for example) and try to limit your worrying to that place and time. Then when that niggling anxiety pops up out-of-hours, as it were, say, “I’ll have to worry about that in the old armchair between 3:30 and 4:00 this afternoon.” Maybe you’ll need to attend to that worry at that time-certain and maybe you’ll have forgotten it or realized it’s resolved itself, but it’s worth a shot.

Finally, and most importantly, say your prayers. Many are tuning in to our daily morning prayer live-stream and that’s a great start, but find additional ways to do this. Say the Lord’s prayer when you wake up, right before you get out of bed and as you lie down before you fall asleep. Consider using the “Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families” found in your Book of Common Prayer starting on page 136. There you will find very brief devotions for morning, noon, evening, and night. If you’re like me, you have a calendar on your smart phone that beeps at you when you’re supposed to do something; maybe set those times of prayer in that calendar and be faithful about stopping and praying at those specified times.

And once you’ve got into that habit,(and I know this is something many of you have heard me say before) consider expanding that practice to include the more fulsome offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. Unfortunately, the current prayerbook has so many options that how to do this is not as readily apparent as it was in the 1928 and earlier Books of Common Prayer, but neither are the rubrics impenetrable if you’ve got some spare time to figure it out. I posted a primer on how to do this from the Society of St. Nicholas Ferrar on the parish’s facebook page a few days ago which you may find helpful. There are some good websites, my favorite of which is St. Bede’s Breviary, which I will link to you, and believe me when I say, nothing would make me happier than to start fielding a lot of phone calls and “Zoom” meetings to teach people personally or in small groups how to pray the Office. Take me at my word on that, please, and let me know if I can help. These services of prayer are not primarily intended as “just the thing you do on Sundays when the priest is on vacation”, neither are they intended to be something clergy and “spiritual athletes” do because the former are required and the latter are just “better than the rest of us” or something. When Cranmer produced the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, his intention, and that of the church, was that it would be an expectation of all the faithful to keep these times of prayer. So ponder that in you hearts, and let me know if I can help.

I realize this is one of the stranger sermons I’ve ever given you. These are strange times. Please remember, God is with you in the midst of this. God loves you and will, as the psalmist says, “bear you up lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Likewise, the church is with you, I am with you, and am holding you I my prayers before God every day. Please, of your charity, do the same for each other and for me. Your prayers are coveted, and I am certain they avail much.

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

Sermon for Lent 2 2020

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

Many of you know that one of my passions is the study of historical theology, particularly looking at theological trends in reference to the social, political, and intellectual contexts of various periods of the church’s life over the last 2,000 years. One of the issues which has come up time and time again, especially over the last 500 years, is the question of whether or not we can be assured of our salvation.

Nineteenth century hymn writer Fanny Crosby seemed to have worked it out. You might have heard her words before if you grew up in a different Christian tradition (it’s sadly never been in our hymnal tradition):

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

Perfect submission, perfect delight!
Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
Angels descending bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.

Ms. Crosby might have worked it out, but the man who started her own Methodist flavor of Christianity, John Wesley, could not. While he taught that humans could have some level of assurance, he – who though not having Crosby’s visions of rapture and of angels descending, had felt his heart strangely warmed in a moment of conversion – could not ultimately confirm that he was certain he had been saved. Perhaps he had backslid back into his high church Anglicanism.

Puritans (like Bunyan whom many of us are reading and like those who would emigrate to New England and have such an impact on our own American culture) had similar concerns. While you’re not likely to hear it preached down at First Presbyterian (as our reformed brothers and sisters have understandably deëmphasized the theology of John Calvin), those of the reformed tradition – Puritans and more moderate Presbyterians alike – believed that we couldn’t have assurance of salvation, but only clues (signs of election they called them) based on things like domestic tranquility and personal wealth – blessings from God which suggested to them that they were favored and thus saved. The result was the development of the Protestant work ethic (you’d work hard to evince these signs of election for your own surety and the recognition of your coreligionists) which works out well if you’re trying to establish a peaceable and productive society, but you alse get a bunch of people worried that they are sinners in the hands of an angry God.

Likewise, a case can be made that the Protestant Reformation itself began less because of Roman Catholic abuses (selling indulgences and the like, as important as that was as a tipping point) and more because good old Martin Luther was so terrified at the church’s ambivalence on the matter of salvation that he needed to create a system which provided more certainty to the believer that he or she was heaven-bound rather than damned.

Folks, I’ve got some good news for you. You don’t have to worry yourself to death; or maybe put better, the fact that you may be worried might ironically be the best evidence that you needn’t worry that you’re going to Hell. You have been been saved by Christ’s one sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction on the Cross. you have been saved in the regenerative waters of Baptism. You are being saved as you continue to receive the Grace of Christ’s Body and Blood and as good fruit is borne through your faith by the work of the Holy Spirit, even if your own participation that is simply sincerely saying “God, work through me though I am too weak to do your will.” Now this is dangerous information to give out. It’s dangerous information, because people who are afraid of Hell can sometimes behave a lot better. Geneva, when Calvin was more-or-less in charge was one of the most peaceful, prosperous, democratic places in the world.

And as much as I hate to admit it (and as I implied just a moment ago) the Puritan history of our own country’s early years had much the same effect. While our Anglican forebears on this continent were growing fat and lazy and treating humans like property in the Southern Colonies, the Puritans up in New England were creating communities of mutual responsibility and laying the foundations for a country that could get on without a king, because they were so darned law-abiding and committed to equality. And, contrary to popular fiction, they even killed fewer purported witches than our spiritual forebears did. Unfortunately, they were so good at obeying law and setting up the foundations of modern civil society because they were afraid that if they didn’t they’d go to hell quite literally. One takes the bad with the good, I guess.

The theological truth is socially dangerous, because people realize that they’re not going to burn just because they’re bad, because we’re all pretty bad by nature thanks to the fall and only good by the grace of God. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Or maybe I do, but thank God I’m not God. I’m certainly not as loving and gracious and forgiving as God. In today’s Epistle, we get a pretty broad, generous view of salvation. We are all children of Abraham, and God has reckoned us all worthy of Salvation because of the Blood of Christ. In his conversation with Nicodemus, the only litmus test Jesus gives is that we be “born again” or, to use a better translation of the Greek “born from above.” He says we must be born of water and of the Spirit, which is to say (at least as I read it) we must both be born physically and then receive the New Birth of Baptism. Most of us (myself included) receive that new birth when we’re too young to understand its nature, and we are merely passive recipients of God’s Grace. But that I think is ideal, infant baptism being normative just means that we’re being honest about the nature of the Sacrament and of Salvation, because even baptism of those of riper years, as older prayerbooks put it, is essentially a passive reception of God’s Grace, which we can only will in part to be recipients of.

So the good news is that we don’t have to worry. We’ve been saved. God’s promise is irrevocable. The difficult news, though, is that we’re not off the hook.

Okay, you’re not going to hell. So what? For about the last half millennium we’ve been obsessed with the question of justification and its mechanics. Who’s saved? Who’s not? How does it happen? What if I’m not saved?

I don’t mean to be flippant, but this is not really the question we who are not systematic theologians need to spend all our time and energy sorting out. God has saved us through the blood of His only Son. We didn’t deserve it. We’ll never earn it. We got it anyway. The precise mechanics of how it works are interesting, and I love being a part of those discussions as an academic exercise, but the God’s honest truth is that you don’t have to listen to my expositions on Greek verbs to be saved.

The really interesting stuff is what comes afterward. God loves you. You are baptized into Christ’s Body. You have been born anew, born from above, born again whether you knew it or not. You have a mission. Faith without works is dead, says St. James. That doesn’t mean your or my inadequacy in doing as many good works as we might will send us to Hell. So what?

The reality of being saved and not doing anything about it seems worse to me, somehow. It means you’ve been given something and haven’t done anything with it. And it’s so simple to take that gift and use it. You’ve just got to love your neighbor. As I’ve said before, that means a lot more than having warm feelings for them. You don’t even need John Wesley’s strangely warmed heart. There are people I deal with in life who don’t get the cockles of my heart much above absolute zero. But I love them. Or at least I try to do. And that’s what we’ve all got to do. To be loving. To return the gift of Grace which we’ve been given. As absolutely wretched as we may be, as much as we may spurn or resent God or take Him for granted, He still loves us, so we ought to do the same for our sisters and brothers.

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