Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

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

There is a depiction of Jesus, painted by a Canadian artist about forty years ago, which was originally called Jesus Christ, Liberator, but which most people these days refer to as “Laughing Jesus.” I suspect most of you will have seen this painting at one time or another, and it captures an image of a sort of Christ we’d like to think of: jovial and friendly. Now, I don’t think the bible ever tells us about Jesus laughing; the Gnostic Gospel of Judas does, but this should not inform our view of the Christ. Even so, while our Lord is shown in scripture to be a rather serious fellow, he was a human being, so I’m sure at some point he laughed. That’s not really the point I’m trying to make here. The point is, and the “Laughing Jesus” painting’s popularity serves as evidence of this, that we tend these days to think of and depict Jesus in ways which highlight his meekness and kindliness. We rarely get as off-base as “Buddy Christ” from the movie Dogma, but sometimes we get a bit close.

When we compare this serene, kindly Jesus of our imagination with today’s Gospel reading, then, we might experience some cognitive dissonance. Perhaps some of us might compare our own vision and experience of our Lord with today’s Gospel and find ourselves either confused or troubled. This is not the nice Jesus who goes round doing good deeds and having a good laugh with his “bros.”. The Jesus we see in today’s Gospel reading, the Jesus who fashions a whip of cords, who overturns the tables of the money-changers, seems angry and scary. This is not the Jesus we’re comfortable with.

This story has made some people uncomfortable enough to try to explain it away. Stanley Hauerwas, a noted pacifist scholar and professor at Duke Divinity School, has suggested that Jesus did not have a violent, visceral reaction at all in the temple that day. Rather, Hauerwas claims, that He was merely performing a careful, well-planned show in which he actually caused no harm to any person or property. This show was to make a point but there were no real consequences as such. Like many modern scholars who engage in trying to get a clearer picture of the historical Jesus, Hauerwas’ Jesus ends up looking eerily like Hauerwas.

But this is not fair to the story as we know it from scripture and it presents a very flat view of Jesus indeed. We have a desire, it seems to me, to fashion a God who affirms everything about us. We want a Jesus who only calls to us “softly and tenderly” when we’ve gone astray, not a Jesus who overturns tables; not a Jesus who uses both his staff and his rod, as the psalmist puts it, to comfort and correct us. We want to construct a God who is eminently palatable and comfortable and who doesn’t really want to change anything about us. But to envision God in this way is to build an idol. It is to ignore the words from today’s Old Testament lesson: “You shall not make for yourself an idol,” it says, “whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Yet we do fashion idols “in the form of [something] that is on the earth beneath.” We fashion idols out of ourselves, thus putting ourselves in the place of God.

The problem of the money changers, and of many of us, myself included, is not a lack of religion. Rather, the problem is the propagation of irreligion, bad religion. The money changers knew enough about their Jewish religion to pervert it. They knew that sacrifices were to be made in the temple, and they chose to capitalize on it. Just so, when we cast Jesus in our own image, we know enough about Christianity to pervert it, to turn it to our own ends. Whatever I do or say becomes God’s will and I can point to a distorted image of Jesus to justify it. We don’t even recognize that the Jesus we see looks strangely like ourselves.

So, this sermon has become a bit depressing, even for a Lenten sermon, for which I apologize. There is hope here, though. It is appropriate that we are hearing this hard Gospel reading during this Holy Season. Lent provides us a special opportunity to invite Jesus into the temples of our own hearts and lives so that he can turn over a few tables in each of us. Lent calls us to be open to a sort of spiritual renovation—a transformation in fact—which is not of our doing but is something Jesus works in us. That’s part of what all the prayer and fasting and penitence of these glorious forty days is about. They are not ends in themselves, much less are they schemes for self-improvement. Rather, they are meant as a preparation, so that Christ may fashion each of us into temples worthy of his abiding presence, and when He comes to dwell in us we may not perceive him as a little version of ourselves—with all the assumptions and bigotries and narcissistic tendencies that we have—but as the image of the true God.

Naturally, the process can be painful, as I said in last week’s sermon. There was upset and confusion and turmoil that morning in the temple, and so will there be upset and confusion and turmoil in our own hearts when Christ comes in to do his transforming work. Christ said, “take up your cross and follow me.” Being conformed to Our Lord instead of conforming our vision of the Lord to ourselves means sacrifice, which is hard. Even so, we know that the end of such suffering is a renewed relationship with the Father, and ultimately unending life in His presence.

All of this should give us hope that in the often painful exigencies of life God is at work making Himself known. This is Good News for all of us. Despite our confusion and pain, God is working His purpose out in ways which we cannot now imagine. Our response to this blessed truth should be openness and endurance. We must be open to God’s will even when we find it uncomfortable or perplexing. We must be open to Christ working in us, when He turns over the tables in our own lives, strong in the assurance that in conforming us (and the whole world) to Himself, He will put all things to rights for His faithful people.

And, in the midst of such pain and confusion, we must heed the Apostle Paul’s mandate to “run the race with endurance”. We must endure in prayer and fasting and devotion, for these practices give us sustenance in our times of pain and confusion. And just as the angels ministered to Our Lord in the wilderness, so will God’s Word give us strength in the desert seasons of our lives. Just as God gave His people manna in the desert, so will the Body and Blood of Our Lord give us sustenance when we are wandering. And at the last, when surrounded by the light of Resurrection, we may look back on our own lives, and indeed on the whole sweep of history, and see that God was not absent even once, but was hard at work transforming this old, fallen world into His Kingdom.

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

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

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

One of my professors in seminary used to say that if the apostles were really listening to Jesus when he said “take up your cross, and follow me,” there would have been an extra twelve crucifixions on Calvary on that first Good Friday. No doubt he was engaging in a bit of intentional hyperbole. If all the apostles had died at the same time as Jesus, they would not have then been able to be witnesses to the Resurrection and the early church’s efforts to spread the Good News would have been stymied. What’s more, all but two of the apostles–Judas the betrayer and John whom we believe to have died of old age in Ephesus sometime during the reign of Trajan–were, indeed, martyred for the faith. The point is well-taken, though. We are all awfully quick to claim that Jesus was speaking literally when we like what he has to say and metaphorically when we don’t, and we might assume the apostles were capable of the same rationalization.

To Peter’s credit, though he tried to deny Jesus’ hard words in this morning’s Gospel, at least he realized that he wasn’t speaking in mere metaphors about matters of life and death. That is why he rebuked Jesus; he did not want to see his Lord and master and friend die. Perhaps he was still convinced that Jesus was to be the kind of Messiah who fit the mold generally assumed among faithful first-century Jews–a warrior king who would push the Romans out, unseat the puppet regime of Herod and his family and reestablish the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem. Or maybe Peter’s reaction had less to do with his assumptions about Messianic expectation and Ancient Near Eastern geo-politics and more to do with his unwillingness to lose a friend.

In any even, while wildly missing the mark, we can probably appreciate Peter’s reaction, and we might find Jesus’ rebuke of Peter a bit disproportionate to his error. “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Remember, though, Jesus’ previous experience with Satan. During his forty day sojourn in the wilderness, Satan tempted Jesus with both power and escape from death. Here, Peter is doing the same thing: don’t let yourself get killed; become our earthly king instead. Whatever Peter’s intentions were, the sinless one was still a human; the second Adam could have theoretically fallen prey to temptation, and here Jesus nips that possibility in the bud, as it were, just as he had done in the wilderness.

Now, lest we say “poor St. Peter got it wrong so much, and we know better” I think his reaction reflects our own unwillingness to take Jesus’ words and the reality of God’s plan for us more than we might like. One of the handfull of dead horses I continue to flog from this pulpit is that we live in a death denying culture. I will spare you on this occasion from another recitation of all the ways in which we run away from death and pretend it’s not real. Peter seemed to suffer from this modern sort of death denial, even in an age in which death and decay were far more “in your face” than in our contemporary, rather sterile Western World. Peter rebuked Jesus for sharing the hard, but by this point rather obvious fact that he was going to die, and so are we all, and if we’re following Jesus it may even be sooner than we’d like. Hear again Jesus’ words from today’s Gospel, and remember that at this point in the story Jesus was no longer speaking just to the twelve but had gathered everyone following him to hear these words:

Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever shall lose his life for my safe and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. We sometimes refer to a pinched nerve or an unpleasant neighbor or some other minor inconvenience as “our cross to bear”. That’s not what Jesus is saying. Our cross is the sacrifice of our lives to Christ and His Gospel. It means, quite literally, the courage and conviction to die in the service of the Gospel.

Now, the reality is that in the United States of America in the year of Our Lord 2021, few of us if any will be called upon to die for our convictions. For most of us, the Cross will be a less literal, but nonetheless difficult death: a death to self-interest; a rejection of the modern idols of safety and security and success. If we’re not willing to experience that little death, we’ll certainly not be willing to literally die for the Gospel. But I want to suggest something far more radical and far more disquieting.

It is far too easy to equivocate while in the pulpit, far too easy to focus on comfort rather than challenge, but this, I firmly believe, is central to the Gospel. We must be literally willing to die for Christ and the Gospel if we are to follow Jesus’ mandate. This is not as a sign of despair but as a sign of hope. That few of us will have to make that ultimate sacrifice is beside the point. Do we have the courage to follow our Lord to Calvary? If things were different, if we still lived in an Empire hellbent on hunting Christians down and feeding them to lions, would we stand up for Jesus in that final hour?

We must at some point ask this question of ourselves, not because it is likely (it’s not anymore), but because it will help us understand where our priorities lie and how we might be called to reorder them. That is a scary and uncomfortable proposition, but, believe me, it will put our lives in the proper perspective; this, my friends, is the hard work of this Holy Season. Be assured, though, that that work leads to life eternal.

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

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

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

One of the many things I miss during this season of pandemic protocol is how infrequent have become my unexpected conversations with non-parishioners who pop into the office for one reason or another–often, though not always, seeking some financial help. Having to keep the doors locked and folks enter by appointment has really cut down on a lot of these serendipitous meetings. I know some of my colleagues don’t like this part of the job, and have set their secretaries as kinds of gatekeepers to keep this from happening. I think that’s a real shame. I’ve said to some of you before that even if I can’t give somebody money for whatever reason, I can still have a conversation and a prayer with all sorts and conditions of people, and I’ve always been grateful that my office is the first one one comes to when entering, the building so it doesn’t feel like there is “gatekeeping” going on.

Anyway, I did have an encounter last week with somebody who caught me in the few steps between the office and the rectory. He didn’t ask for money, and he didn’t come to me with a particular prayer request, though he was grateful when I told him that I wanted to pray for him. Rather he had a theological question. It became clear early in the conversation that the fellow was not “neurotypical” to use the psychiatric term, and the conversation veered into things he had gathered from watching television shows like Ghosthunters and Ancient Aliens, so it wasn’t going to be a matter of my providing a real cerebral theological disquisition. Even so, the fellow’s primary question, perhaps providentially, made me think about something which we encountered both in this week’s Old Testament lesson and the Old Testament Lesson from evening prayer last Wednesday. His question was “why couldn’t Moses look at God without dying?” His confusion had to do with Moses’ presumed age and maturity; if anybody could look God in the eyes, my interlocutor figured, couldn’t have Moses? It was, for the strangeness of much of the conversation, a pretty good question!

An unmediated experience of the divine by one who has not been perfected this side of heaven (which, you’ve heard me say before, is to my mind an impossibility) would, no doubt, destroy a person. Moses, the greatest of all who had been born between Adam and John Baptist, got the closest, but even he–you may remember–needed to have his eyes shielded lest he be consumed by the divine majesty.

What’s more, even a mediated experience of the Lord can be dangerous, it seems, for those unprepared. As Moses reports in this morning’s lesson, the children of Israel feared for their lives even being in proximity to the mountain on which the Lord gave them the Law: “Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, or see this great fire anymore, lest I die.” God’s response to this cry is not to get all warm and fuzzy and say, “ah, don’t be worried, I won’t hurt you.” Rather, he says, “They have rightly said all that they have spoken.”

At evensong on Wednesday, the Old Testament lesson, from the sixteenth chapter of Genesis, provided a similar reaction. Hagar has fled from Sarah, her harsh mistress whose plot to acquire an heir had led to understandable enmity and jealousy. In her desert sojourn with the infant Ishmael, an angel appears to Hagar to provide both solace and instruction. After this encounter, we read “So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, ‘Thou art a God of seeing,’ for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’” Of course, it was not God himself whom she saw, but God’s messenger, but even that is enough to prove an uncomfortable brush with divine glory.

You see, holiness is not something to be taken lightly. There is, even in Holy Things, an element of danger. Consider St. Paul’s warning about consuming the Holy Eucharist without discerning Christ’s Body and Blood is an eating to one’s own damnation in 1 Corinthians 11. I think many of my colleagues find my opposition to communion of the unbaptized quaint at best and inhospitable at worst, but it’s because I take Blessed Paul’s warning seriously (and for that matter, because I take church law seriously). Holy Things are not trifles, but are set apart for care, reverence, and appropriate use.

As Christians, though, we do have a transformed relationship with God’s terrible holiness. That new relationship is defined in the prologue of John’s Gospel:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father…No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.

That which once had to be hidden has been revealed, but we mustn’t take this lightly. We mustn’t approach the throne of glory as if it is our due, as if God ought to wait upon us and not the other way round.

While we may behold God the only Son, full of Grace and Truth, it is still a dangerous prospect, not least because in the light of that glory our imperfections are laid bare and our need for repentance and amendment of life may lead to not a little discomfort. Yet this is the only way to salvation, and so we must balance both our godly trepidation and the boldness given us by Grace that we may by approaching the altar of God be made a new creation.

I may be alone in longing for the old pre-lenten season, in which we were given three Sundays to prepare for the hard work of performing this balancing act. In the old calendar today would have been the first of those Sundays, Septuagesima, and while it is no longer our current practice, I for one will begin that process of preparing to once again approach the throne of grace for the assurance of pardon and the hard work which follows it on Ash Wednesday and the forty days which follow. I’d encourage you to consider the same. What is it in my life, in my heart, in my mind, in my intentions which stands in the way of approaching the throne of God and beholding the Redeemer as he is? What dark corner of my conscience do I need the Holy Spirit’s help in searching that the truth may be known to myself as it already is to God? How might I best embark, two-and-half weeks from now, on a holy Lent which will permit God to do his work in my soul and through my life for the sake of his glory? Let us embark on this work with honesty and courage, knowing that the Lord will turn its discomfort into new life for us and for the world.

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