Sermons

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

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

It occurred to me earlier this week, while thinking about this Gospel reading, how where we find ourselves in biblical stories can change over the course of time. When I was younger–having adventures in less than completely safe parts of the world and making vocational decisions that seemed strange to friends and family, like going into the priesthood–I identified more with Jesus in today’s reading, doing the thing his heavenly Father wanted him to do regardless of popularity. (As an aside, when asked “where do you see yourself in this bible story?” the answer “as Jesus” is probably not the best one, though I’m sure I’ve been forgiven for my adolescent grandiosity.)

These days, though, I can identify more with Jesus’ family who is worried about him. It’s probably natural that one becomes both more protective and more conformist as one ages. As you know, I don’t have children to worry about, but that doesn’t stop me from being concerned about decisions other people I care about make. The most ridiculous example of this for me recently–and this is embarrassing to admit, but that’s kind of the point–is how I’ve been thinking about a YouTube presenter Annie and I like to watch leaving his position at a well established network to start his own business recording music and designing board games. This is not somebody I know that I’m worrying about, and so it’s surpassing silly that I should be concerned that he is making an imprudent professional move. Imagine what I’d be like if I had actual human children making decisions about their lives!

I wonder how many of us have been through a situation similar to Jesus’ in the morning’s Gospel, whether we were the young man making inexplicable decisions or the family member worried about him. Our Lord was, let’s be honest, causing scandal, and his family was afraid he’d gone mad. When Jesus’ family finally approaches, Jesus’ response is not especially polite:

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” 

One wonders how Jesus’ family—the mother and father who raised him and the kinsmen with whom he grew up—felt about this. One suspects they might have felt horribly betrayed!

This is certainly a shocking story, though I think it has something to tell us, and it may be something which some of us are unwilling to hear. I know it makes me uncomfortable, particularly since, as I said, I worry about decisions made by people I’ve never met.

We’ve all heard stories of family expectations seriously impeding a young man or woman’s development into the kind of person they feel God wants them to be. Moving off to college? That’s madness! Choosing to live somewhere besides the family property? Madness! I should hasten to add, that there is plenty of difference between genuine concern and natural protectiveness on the one hand and the makings of codependency on the other, and recognizing that God has given agency and the capacity to make decisions (even bad ones) to those we care about is a good thing to keep in mind.

Anyway, I don’t mean to suggest that we have no responsibility to honor the expectations and hopes of our elders. I do, however, mean to suggest that parents and other family and friends need to respect the potential vocations of their loved ones. When I say “vocation”, I don’t mean profession, but rather calling. Perhaps God is truly calling a son or daughter into a life which takes them far away. Perhaps God is calling a loved one to an endeavor we might think is irregular at best or foolish at worst. The trick is to help that person discern God’s call and support him or her when he or she has made a prayerful decision.

The risk in not doing so is to be either purposefully at odds with God’s will or uncomfortably convicted by Jesus’ assessment of his mother and brothers when it’s too late to say “I don’t understand, but I support you.”

We know that in Jesus’ case, even if his family were caught off guard by his comments in today’s Gospel, reconciliation was effected. Our Lady was present at the cross, keeping her vigil, surely knowing that as horrible as it all seemed her son was following the Will of his Heavenly Father. None of us is as gracious as the Blessed Virgin, though, so we must be all the more reticent when we may be dissuading somebody from following God’s will for them. When we’re conscious of this pitfall and prayerful in our response, we not only avoid a great deal of grief. We are able, at last, to see just how unexpectedly God can work through loved ones and circumstances we never would have imagined.

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

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

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

A novel which meant a great deal to me as a young man, and whose ideas continue to influence me, is Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers. It follows the lives and conflicts of clergy–both parish priests and diocesan prelates–in a fictional English cathedral city. While there is no single protagonist or antagonist, the most compelling conflict is between an Anglo-Catholic Rector and intellectual, Francis Arabin, and the new bishop’s oleaginous low church chaplain, Obadiah Slope, who rails against things like candles on altars and choral music and so forth. In addition to arguments about churchmanship, Arabin and Slope are also romantically interested in the same woman. So, for me anyway, Arabin is the great hero of the book and Slope the villain.

It is uncomfortable, then, for me to admit that I can identify with Chaplain Slope in one of his evangelical obsessions–namely his Sabbatarianism. Slope condemns the fact that the trains ran, that people played sports, engaged in commerce, and otherwise did anything other than worship and study the bible on Sundays. Amusingly, particularly since this is a hundred-and-fifty-year-old book, Slope constantly engages in what a twenty-first century person might call “virtue signaling” particularly in his pedantic use of language–he insists on using the term “Sabbath Day School” instead of the perfectly appropriate term “Sunday School” to remind everyone of how good he is at following the fourth commandment.

I’d certainly not go as far as Slope. Blue laws are probably inappropriate in a nonsectarian country like ours. What’s more, I can’t see anything wrong with enjoying leisure activities on the Lord’s Day so long as one has also said one’s prayers. (This issue, by the way, has a long history; King James I promulgated an anti-puritan document titled The Declaration of Sports, in which things like archery and dancing and setting up May poles were expressly permitted on Sundays (though you couldn’t engage in bear-baiting or, for some reason, bowling.)

All that said, I have been known to lament the degree to which obligations have crept into our days of rest, and the moralism which often accompanies this, productivity being more valued in our culture than the reasonable allowance for rest and recreation and prayerful contemplation which I think the Lord intended for us in commanding Sabbath observance. I could launch into a litany of complaints here. The lack of any legal provision for opening and closing hours to protect workers against greedy employers–one clear intention of the fourth commandment which even secularizing Europe maintains, much to the occasional irritation of the American tourist accustomed to Wal-Mart style convenience–is a rather inhumane aspect of our society in my opinion. Youth sport encroaching on Sunday mornings has been a perennial complaint, and I’ve been known to whinge about it myself. One could go one, but like everybody who has principles I am a hypocrite in this regard. (You may have heard me say before, that my theory is that the only people who aren’t at least occasionally guilty of hypocrisy are those who don’t have any principles to begin with, which is, needless to say, far worse.) My most recent hypocrisy w/r/t the Sabbath–obviously, I work on Sundays, and so I take Fridays off, which is nice because Annie never works Fridays. The last week for me was busy and stressful and I ended up doing quite a bit of work on Friday. Generally when this happens without their being an honest-to-God emergency, I’m able to take Saturday off instead. Well, this could have happened if I’d been more careful about prioritizing obligations earlier in the week, which I had not done. So yesterday morning, when Annie was on her way to work she asked me “what are you going to do today?” I responded “I’m going to work very hard on this Sabbath day on writing a sermon about how we shouldn’t work on the Sabbath.” I believe this is the definition of irony.

Now, we are reminded in today’s Gospel that legalism about this is unhelpful. The pharisees, you may remember, were famous in Jesus’ time for making the rules of the Old Testament stricter than they actually were in the Bible, often missing the point of why God might have commanded these things in the first place. A thoughtful rabbi could come down on either side of whether or not the disciples should be casually plucking grain on the Sabbath, as they did in the first half of the Gospel, though Jesus gives an elegant argument in their defense. The healing in the second half of the reading, though, should have struck any serious scholar of the Old Testament as an entirely licit exception to the general rule of Sabbath-keeping. Here the Pharisees have left off any reasonable argument, for Chaplain Slope’s Sabbatarian virtue-signaling.

The rubric Jesus gives us bypasses the legalism and pedantry of the Pharisees and Trollope’s villain and (I must confess) the sometimes cranky opinions of John Drymon, priest and hypocrite. He gets to the heart of the matter in one simple concept, making explicit that which the Law of Moses, given by God, surely had at its heart implicitly: the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

We might then ask, “why did God establish the Sabbath for us?” What are its benefits? I think the reason is two-fold.

The first is perhaps the most obvious. God did not create us simply so that we could toil miserably. He wants us to enjoy him and all he’s given us in this life–not just to work until we die and only then to find any rest. This is not, I would contend, merely so that we might “recharge our batteries” so that we can be more effective in our work six days out of the week, as some may have it. This is certainly a fringe benefit, but it’s not the point. That men and women should find their labor onerous, we learn in Genesis, is an effect of the fall not God’s original intent, and an observance of the Sabbath in which we rest, recreate, and enjoy fellowship with God in prayer and study, is our brief, imperfect, though substantively real weekly return to prelapsarian Eden, which is not primarily a utilitarian compromise, but a graciously given foretaste of the perfect rest to come.

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, Sabbath is a reminder that we are not saving the world. God is saving it and will save it, and though all our works done faithfully are accepted and valued by God, our weekly rest does not mean that the Kingdom will come 14% faster.

I have for some time had conversations with a relative (whom I won’t identify) about her inability to cut back on work, much less move toward the goal of retirement. This relative at least theoretically holds a more reformed theology than I, and should be more suspicious than I am of “works righteousness” or what our Articles of Religion call “works of supererogation” (that is, the idea that by being better than strictly morally required we are depositing our own Grace into some sort of treasury of merit to cover the sins of others). When pressed, I think she’d affirm that we must rely on Christ’s Grace rather than our own efforts for salvation. But in practice she has a hard time not acting as if the Kingdom depended on her efforts. Even greater than the irony of my Sabbath-day sermon writing on Sabbatarianism is the irony that the reformed recognition of our reliance on God alone should give birth to the Protestant Work Ethic, whose effect is to so obviously encourage the sort of drudgery and scrupulosity and anxiety which the Reformation began to try to free us from.

The contention that God will work his purposes out one way or another may sound fatalistic, but in the end it should be a great relief. Our efforts are not pointless; everything we do faithfully is a gift from God and may be a means by which he’s working his purposes out, but it’s not all on us, thank God. Sabbath rest gives us a reminder of this, and it helps us practice the most important thing–namely, enjoying God’s grace in this life, preparing us for the same in eternity.

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

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

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

“No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends.” Jesus says this to the apostles on the night before he was given over to suffering and death. He had washed their feet and shared supper with them, and finally, in the midst of his last discourse with them, he surprises them yet again with this wonderful affirmation of their relationship. But what did it mean for the disciples, and what does it mean to us?

In all honesty, this used to make me a bit uncomfortable. I’ve got plenty of friends. I don’t need another friend, I thought. I need a master, a Lord.

The problem here, though, was not that Jesus was turning a profound relationship into something frivolous. It was, rather, that I was minimizing the profundity of friendship. True friendship isn’t trivial. Christian friendship is a very weighty thing. It goes beyond “being buddies”. It is, at its heart, a serious commitment like all Christian relationships. Let’s look at a couple of those relationships as a means of understanding how Christian friendship is similar in intent and effect.

In prebaptismal and premarital counseling I always try to make it a point to say that the relationships which are realized in these sacraments are essentially reflections. They are reflections of God’s perfect love for all humanity and of the perfect love held within the Godhead through the mystery of the Holy Trinity. So, a marriage and its concurrent obligations as made explicit in the nuptial vows is a reflection of God’s love for us and of the love which defines God’s internal relationship. To paraphrase St. Augustine, the Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and the Holy Spirit is the love they share. The Sacrament of marriage is, ideally, a mirror off of which the light if God’s love is broadcast to the world, or perhaps a window, into which we can peer and see God’s love.

Likewise, Baptism is not only about the objective regeneration and adoption of the child, whereby he or she is forgiven and made a child of God. It is also (at least in the case of infant Baptism, which is normative) a means by which parents and godparents commit themselves to a relationship with the child which reflects God’s love. A parent’s chief responsibility is to establish a relationship with the child in which God’s perfect love can be seen. It goes beyond the tangible support a parent gives his or her child – meeting basic needs – to include the intangible: spiritual and emotional support, a moral example, a home full of prayer and Christian education (which is, after all, primarily the responsibility of the family, not of the institutional church, which can only do so much to support them in it).

So, how is this like friendship? Well, it’s not if friendship is merely sharing common interests and indulging in leisure together. These are important aspects of a friendship, but they are not the defining qualities of a Christian friendship. Rather, it is openness and love and a willingness to sacrifice one’s own well-being for another. That’s how Jesus defines friendship in this morning’s Gospel anyway:

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you… This I command you, to love one another… Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

Jesus embodies Christian friendship- he reveals his Father’s will, he deeply loves those whom he calls friends, and he quite literally lays down his life for them.

Our responsibility, then, is to do the same. We do the same for Christ, our friend, and we do the same for our brothers and sisters whom God has given us to be our friends. We open our hearts and our intentions to God, neither do we hide them from our friends. We love God by serving him, and we love our friends by doing the same. We are ready to sacrifice ourselves – our petty desires, our comfort, even our lives if it comes to that – for God and for those whom he has given us to love.

Are our friendships reflections of God’s love? For that matter are our relationships with spouses and children a reflection of God’s love? Are we open in those relationships? Do we behave lovingly? Are we prepared to sacrifice ourselves for those other people? These are questions we must prayerfully and dutifully ask ourselves all the time. And so, I leave you this week not with answers but with questions, which can be rather disappointing, but at least in this case potentially more profitable. May God give you the will to ask them and the grace, strength, and courage to commit yourselves again to those relationships, knowing that the hardest but most important thing we can do is to be mirrors for the light of God’s love.

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