Sermon for Epiphany 1 2020

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

It is the twelfth of January; how many of you have already failed in your New Years’ resolution? I’m sure I would have done by now if I made New Years’ resolutions. I’m generally a little better with whatever Lenten discipline I take on than I had been when I still made New Years’ resolutions, but only a little. Thus, the words of the prophet Isaiah are a tremendous comfort to me: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” What precisely this means may not at first be obvious, so let’s consider these two images.

A reed, you may know, is a type of tall grass that grows in wetlands and which was (and sometimes still is) used for various purposes- boats and houses among them. Until the middle ages replaced it with parchment and vellum, papyrus reeds also served as the primary material for writing surfaces. I just learned this week (to my embarrassment, because it seems like the sort of thing I should have known already) that the heavenly paradise of ancient Egyptian mythology, Aaru, was conceived of as an endless field of reeds.

So, this type of grass was extremely important to ancient people. But a bruised reed would not have been useful for any of the applications I just mentioned. Particularly if you were building a boat or thatching a roof with the stuff you’d expect it to be strong and watertight, so you’d simply dispose of the weak reeds, maybe feeding them to your livestock, but certainly not building anything with it.

And what of the dimly burning wick? You might be thinking of a candle, but that’s an anachronistic assumption. While tallow candles may have around at this point (beeswax candles wouldn’t become popular for another millennium) they were expensive, didn’t give off much light, and smelled awful. The prophet here is, instead, referring to the linen wick placed in a stone or clay oil lamp.

These little lamps had been around for thousands of years and would continue to be the most popular sort of lighting for hundreds more. They were ingenious and ubiquitous (which is why you see so many of them in museums today). You’d fill them with olive oil and they’d burn bright and clean. However, if the wick were at the end of its usefulness the opposite would be the case- it would burn dimly and it would give off smoke. There would be nothing for it but to throw it away and replace it.

So we see here two images of things which have lost their usefulness. They are, in other words, broken. And we, too, are broken. Yet the promise God gives us in Isaiah, and which Peter proclaims to the Gentile Centurion Cornelius and his family in this morning’s lesson from Acts, is that our only judge, the judge of the nations, revealed as such in his Baptism in the Jordan, judges us gently and mercifully because we have come to believe.

And this is about a more fundamental brokenness than our slipping on a New Years’ Resolution or a Lenten discipline or continuing in a bad habit or a pattern of selfish thoughts. Those moments of weakness are reminders of the Law which convicts us and of the flaw in our nature, orginial sin, which binds us and of our need not to “be better” but to be forgiven.

I’ve said plenty of times in this pulpit that this is not an antinomian (that is, lawless)approach, because I do believe that the sanctification which follows from our being justified in Christ, not only permits us to live more faithfully and obediently, but actually enjoins on us the obligation to do good works. That said, before this becomes even a possibility, we must recognize that we cannot do it on our own because we are, like the bruised read or the dim wick, fundamentally broken.

It is often said that the church is “not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners,” and I think this is even more true than the cliché is often credited as being. Most of the time we go to hospital because we think we’re sick. But when we get there we usually expect treatment that will make us better. Not any doctor or nurse I know would respond to a patient saying “I’m ill or injured” by saying “well, so is everyone else in this hospital. What of it?” No, we generally expect (with the exception of end-of-life care, which again proves the rule) that some restoration of health is the goal.

Both the prophet and Peter recognize and proclaim that God’s chosen comes to preach and establish peace and justice. Redemption is not just a “get out of hell free” card. It is that, but it is more. It is also the promise that we can ourselves be a people of peace and justice, that our justification can lead to sanctification, that even though we cannot build the City of God (bad, semi-Pelagian modern hymns notwithstanding) we can come to live in such a way and even to work for the kind of positive change that can make this old world look at least a little bit more like the Kingdom Christ himself will come and establish.

In other words, in Baptism and in the life that follows from the acceptance of God’s grace, we find that we who were the bruised reed or dim wick and were spared, have been changed into something new and useful and beloved in this life as a foretaste of the perfect life of the world to come.

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

Sermon for Christmas 2 2019

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

One of the most difficult things for many of us to do is to “take flight” when the situation calls for it. It’s not always been so. Though we are wonderfully created in the image of God—though we are indeed moral creatures unlike anything else under the sun—human beings are still in a sense “animals”, and anyone who’s studied animal behaviour will have heard of the “fight or flight” mechanism. Certainly, earlier in the history of the human race, we were, like any other animal, largely controlled by reflexes which would determine if a fight (perhaps with a mastodon or a person from another tribe) was winnable and, if not, our reflexes would set us into flight.

Over the millennia, with the development of civilization, this natural response came to be suppressed and to be cast as cowardice. “Run Away” is not a very inspiring battle cry, unless, of course, you’re Monty Python’s version of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Retreat is seen as a negative thing, an embarrassment when necessary and to be avoided at all costs for the sake of honor- or something like that.

Thus, we might find the response of the Holy Family in this morning’s Gospel to be initially less than inspiring. The machismo of our modern sensibilities might not align with Mary and Joseph’s response to the threat of Herod. Joseph didn’t organize a militia of sympathetic Bethlehemites; he didn’t sit on the porch swing, shotgun in hand, daring Herod’s soldiers to step onto his property. The Holy Family ran away.

It’s too bad that our natural response is what it is. It’s too bad that we have a hard time seeing how brave Joseph and Our Lady were to pick up the Christ Child and retreat to an unfamiliar place, and to sojourn there, without knowing who would help them or how they’d survive, but only knowing that it was God’s will that they go.

In truth, sometimes the bravest action, the action God desires for us, is flight. Despite the Monty Python joke, sometimes “run away” is the most valiant battle cry. Too often we hear on the news or even from personal acquaintances, stories of battered women, who are frightened to run away, the tyranny of whose Herod-like husbands has instilled a degree of fear which immobilizes. In those sorts of situations, the choice to flee is both courageous and unimaginably difficult.

My oldest friend whome I’ve known since kindergarten would not be here, unless his father had made a courageous decision to run away. He was among the hundreds of thousands of Indo-Chinese who, persecuted by a Communist Government, got his family on a rickety boat that they might escape imprisonment, torture, and potential death. That doesn’t sound like cowardice to me; it sounds like courage.

Examples of courageous decisions to flee could be multiplied. However, most of us, though I suspect not all, have been fortunate enough to be spared extraordinary situations like abusive families and oppressive governments. Even so, most of us find ourselves in situations where a brief retreat of our own, a brief sojourn in Egypt as it were, is necessary.

Perhaps the most common case I’ve seen among my friends and acquaintances, is the need for spiritual retreat. So many of us these days are stressed to the brink all the time. In some ways “workaholism” is the disease of the American middle class today. I’m not suggesting that one ought not do one’s job and do it well, that one ought simply to run away when things get tough, but sometimes we permit our physical, emotional and spiritual health to suffer because we cannot but be busy all the time. In these situations, perhaps the best thing is to retreat to a place of calm and of prayer. There’s certainly a balance to be maintained in this regard, and we cannot engage in avoidance or laziness, but the overworked, overstressed person today must permit himself or herself periods of quiet and calm and reflection in the midst of his or her busy life in order to maintain a good and gracious disposition at work and in the home and in all of the other places in which we live and move and have our being.

I like to take retreats at monasteries, but some people are more inclined to go out into the woods or stay at home. The important thing is that we give ourselves a little time to flee from the terrible nonstop rush of things in order to spend quality time with God on God’s terms.

And just like the Holy Family on their retreat, our retreat may present itself as the context for a certain kind of peril. Perhaps it will not be the peril of not knowing how we are to survive, but rather the danger that when we do quiet down and listen to God for a while, He might demand something new and different from us. He might make it clear that His will for us is a radically different course in life. Too often we subconsciously avoid listening to God because of this very real possibility. But like the Holy Family, and like all those who flee awful situations for the good, we must approach our own flight, our own retreat, with courage and with faith that God’s will is to the good.

And we can take heart in the fact that however treacherous the path may seem, God makes it safe for His people. God said to the prophet Jeremiah “I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble.” God will do the same for us if we only let Him, if we only trust Him to make the path smooth, if we only determine to flee to Him when He calls us.

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

Sermon for Christmas 2019

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

We have an ongoing joke in our household about my Christmas and Easter sermons always opening with some pop-culture reference to draw folks in, particularly those who are visiting and may be less accustomed to my ordinary homiletic style, which is didactic if you’re being charitable and pedantic if you’re not. Well, last week I looked back at the dozen or so Christmas sermons I’ve preached and I was shocked to realize that for the last couple of years I’ve forgone my popular perennial practice and launched right in to the theological meat, as it were, without recourse to the milk of some culturally resonant reference. So, naturally, I must reverse course this evening.

The new Star Wars film came out last week, and of course we’ve seen it and I won’t spoil it, but this reminded me of a couple of moments from previous films in the franchise. First, I thought of Master Yoda’s claim to the young Luke Skywalker in the Empire Strikes Back: “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” There are two problems with this one, though. I’ve used it in a sermon before; I’ll never forget because I tried to do it in Yoda’s voice and did not get the laugh response I had hoped for (or even a chuckle, if I recall correctly). Second, this is the exact opposite of the Christmas message. We are not luminous beings, we are crude matter, and it is for this precise reason that the Incarnation (God choosing to take on human flesh and redeem the material world) is such a miracle of God’s Grace!

So, instead, this year’s pop culture reference comes from one of the more recent films: The Force Awakens. The young protagonist, Rey, has come up hearing all these stories of science-fictional knights called Jedi and some mysterious spiritual principle called “the force” and she has just run into the dashing space pirate Han Solo who figured prominently in those old stories. When she admits to him that she thought all those stories were “just myths,” Solo (who was the skeptic in the older films) tells her “I used to wonder about that myself. Thought it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. A magical power holding together good and evil, the dark side and the light? Crazy thing is, it’s true. The Force, the Jedi — all of it. It’s all true.”

I was thinking about this because I read an article last week from a retired Anglican priest in Canada titled “It’s Our Nativity, Too.” The writer claims that the virgin birth, the angelic visitation and the guiding star couldn’t possibly have anything to do with us if it were historical fact, that the only way in which it had something to say to modern, scientific people is if it were myth: “true” in some sense as being a foundational, cultural narrative but not factually, historically true.

Setting aside the seemingly obvious claim that the Christmas story can be (in fact, is, if you ask me) both culturally constitutive and historically real, the larger problem is that this approach implicitly assumes that no “myth” is any better than any other objectively, and can only be judged by how it subjectively allows for individuals and communities to “make meaning” for themselves. In this sense the Christian scriptures and Babylonian creation stories and Greek mythology and, for that matter, the Star Wars Saga are all equivalent. I, for one, cannot go there.

This claim that the retired priest in question is making is neither new nor particularly interesting. This is, in fact, rather well-trod ground. Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung all said as much, though nota bene I just listed a religious historian a literary scholar and a psychoanalyst- not a theologian among them. I am reminded of a dear familyt friend of ours, whom I love and respect but with whom I vociferously disagree on this sort of thing. He’s an anthropologist (actually, a “folklorist”) and he’s an ordained minister in a mainline protestant denomination which I won’t identify so as to protect the innocent. Annie and I have over the years tried to develop strategies to figure out what he actually believes, because he makes it rather difficult, I think intentionally. Anyway, I finally got him to lift the veil a bit a couple of years ago, when in conversation I had dismissed a spurious story as “just a myth” and he responded by saying “you’re assuming myths can’t be true in the non-historical sense, which is what really matters.”

So, here, to quote Luther, I stand, and can do no other so help me God. I know that this is a topic on which some find me too old-fashioned or rigid, but I make no apologies. Talk of “true myths” and “communal myth-making” when it comes to the core tenets of the Christian faith is, I believe, an excuse not to do something which our Faith unequivocally calls us to do–namely, to believe the apparently unbelievable because we refuse to put a limit on God.

Does this mean we are called to be unquestioningly credulous about any claim in Scripture? By no means! If a literal six-day creation some six thousand years ago were reckoned a core doctrine, many of us would be in trouble; but this is not an interpretation which the Church has enjoined on the faithful; it’s not in the Creeds which define for us that which is theologically non-negotiable. Does it mean that doubt cannot be tolerated? By no means! There is a lot of daylight between the individual Christian struggling to believe and the one who knowingly promotes that which he knows to be contrary to the church’s teaching. It is a far piece, as they say, between (on the one hand) the genuine prayer “help thou mine unbelief” and (on the other) throwing it all in the bin.

But tonight we are called upon to affirm that which we have come to believe without hesitation or reservation: That Jesus Christ was born of a Virgin; that he was true God and true man, like us in every way but sin; that this divine condescension enabled the redemption of the world.

Why does this matter, one may well ask? Simply because the Gospel is not about the indomitability of the human spirit or our capacity to make meaning for ourselves through storytelling or even about nice things like being kind and humble and giving (as important as this moral element is). Rather, the Gospel reminds us that the human race is not indomitable; when we start thinking we are we quickly devolve into warring, genocidal, abusive creatures.

The Gospel is not merely a set of myths which has made meaning for our community. Rather, the Gospel reminds us that when we try to make our own meaning for ourselves (whether individually or collectively) we either naturally and inevitably begin to exclude others from whatever worldview we’ve assembled or else we find we cannot hold that worldview with any resolve, because it cannot be fundamentally more meaningful than any other.

The Gospel is not even about good reminders to be moral, because as hard as we try, we can never live up to the law of perfection which such a Gospel would entail; just try to be perfect sometime and see how that works out. I went to Walmart a few days before Christmas, and that was enough to remind me how greatly my will is still bound by sin.

At its heart, the Gospel is about the fact that for our fallen race to find justification, we could no longer rely on any of those things. We required help from a real, personal God whose plan all along was to take us to himself. The Gospel is about that same God seeing fit to become a particular human being at a particular point in history so as to redeem all of humanity, all of history, all of creation. I used the word “miracle” earlier to describe the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation, though this is too slight a word. A miracle is simply God choosing to break the laws of nature he had established in creation; and I have no doubt that he does do this. But what happens in Bethlehem and what happens on Calvary and the empty tomb and what happens on Pentecost fifty days later- all these things are more than miracles, more than God breaking the laws of nature. They are, rather, God’s progressive purpose to fundamentally change the order of creation. They are not sweet stories with good moral lessons; they are the collected account of the one thing God has been about and continues to be about- namely, redeeming the whole world beginning with the covenant with Abraham and finding its fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah of God.

This work of redemption he has accomplished and is accomplishing and will accomplish not “in a manner of speaking” or “from a certain point of view” but in truth, in human history, at the birth of the Christ Child in Bethlehem, in his birth in the hearts of his faithful people, and in his glorious second coming to judge the world and establish his Kingdom.

This may seem like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. Some myth. But, crazy thing is, it’s true. All of it. It’s all true. Thank God for that. Thank God that tonight the Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.

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