Sermon for Laetare Sunday

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

One of the problems faced by theologically inclined people like me is that there is always a danger of over-theologizing leading to inaction. This is not to say that theological reflection is not in itself a worthy endeavor, but rather that sometimes other methods are, perhaps counter-intuitively, more direct routes to truth.

Take that age-old problem that we call theodicy- the problem of evil. Why do bad things happen to good people? We can spend a lifetime sitting and thinking about how to explain evil and never come to any satisfying conclusion. Indeed, some have done so, and some have even lost their faith in the process.

Or we could set out to bring some comfort to the afflicted, to help the orphan and the widow and the beggar in what small ways we can and eventually come to some satisfying conclusion, not in the form of a theological axiom which one can publish and give lectures about, but in knowing that while evil exists and is hard to explain, one has nonetheless both experienced God’s grace and has done a little, Christ being our helper, to weaken its hold over the most vulnerable.

We see these two approaches—action and reflection—in this morning’s Gospel, and at least in the instance of the man born blind, the former was apparently the proper approach. Here is a man who is in tremendous need, a blind person in those days almost invariably being condemned to a life of panhandling, no other profession being open to one so disabled. And how do the disciples respond? They see the encounter as an opportunity for theological reflection. “Master,” they ask, “who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” There is, of course, in their question a false assumption, namely that misfortune is directly linked to some specific trespass. I have mentioned before from this pulpit something called a deuteronomic view of history, which is the commonly held belief that such a simple connection exists between sin and hardship (or, for that matter, between righteousness and good fortune). We need not revisit this view in great depth again today, except to say that Jesus seems to reject it, but not in the manner we might expect.

Jesus does not take the time to respond to the disciples by presenting an alternative philosophical system; he does not (at least on this occasion) unveil a new definition of weal and woe, offering details of their nature and various causes. Rather, he quickly dismisses the suggestion that somebody’s sin caused the man’s blindness, and then says that there’s work to be done. He moves quickly from reflection to action. “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day;” he says, “the night cometh, when no man can work.”

Now, I’m not saying that good old theological reflection of the sort where one sits down surrounded by dusty books producing weighty texts about theodicy and other theological problems is bad or unnecessary. We’d be as blind as the Pharisees if men and women had not done that work, and the Church would be sorely lacking if everyone adopted an unreflective sort of faith. You see, it’s teaching—doctrine—which produces and permits conviction, and without convictions our efforts are meaningless. In this sense, theological reflection has to precede action if said action is to rise to the status of Christian charity.

What I am saying, though, is that Christian discipleship is as much a matter of the heart as it is a matter of the head, and when the latter crowds out the former our theology can be unmasked as no sort of theology we’d want to publish. Imagine if the disciples had received the kind of answer they presumably wanted from Jesus: a sustained reflection on the problem of evil complete with definitions of terms, Old Testament references, and a few clever bons mots to keep their attention. It would probably be good reading; and the theological dilletante in me wishes this were what happened but the man would have remained blind, and Christ would have been seen as being more interested in theological discourse than in showing the power of God in a tangible way.

What is even more notable here is that a faith sustained by works of charity can enlarge one’s theological perspective. The problem the Pharisees had in this morning’s reading was a dogmatism resulting from what we might consider a lack of love. If the Pharisees had loved their formerly blind brother they would have rejoiced in his being cured, and they might have been able to enlarge their view of God to encompass the work of Christ. As it happened, they cast the formerly blind man out because their small faith could not allow for that which was to them theologically problematic.

We do well, I think, to heed the warning implicit in this story. We are just as capable of falling into uncharitable dogmatism as the Pharisees and we’re just as likely as the disciples to see a suffering brother or sister as a theological conversation starter rather than seeing him as one to whom we might show mercy and loving-kindness, since God has already done so. When we choose to reach out, our own understanding of God’s love is increased. We start seeing that needy person not just as a target for our charity, but as one already gifted, whether he knows it or not, with God’s charity, as one already loved by the one who is love and in whose love we also abide. That is to say, our view of God, our theology, is made more expansive and more truthful when we walk in love, and it may be increased to an even greater degree than the best theological reflection can accomplish.

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

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

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

As Twenty-First Century Americans we tend not to think about the reality of water scarcity to the extent that many people throughout human history and hundreds of millions today in the developing world have had to do. We just turn the tap on and there it is. Only once in my life have I been very mildly affected by this reality. It was when I was in Pakistan. Despite all the warnings not only to avoid everything but bottled water, but only to drink one particular brand of bottled water, I imbibed what appeared to be the right kind of water only to realize that the bottle must have been refilled from a tap somewhere. This led to a few extremely uncomfortable days. I’m embarrassed to complain about it, though, since hundreds of thousands of children die as a result of unsafe drinking water every year.

Now this is not one of those “do something to fix the world” sermons. You’ve all heard my complaints about those kinds of sermons, and I won’t rehearse all of the reasons yet again for fear of sounding like a broken record. If you want to contribute a little, Episcopal Relief and Development does great work in the area, but be warned that doing so may or may not ever “fix” the problem, progress toward the alleviation of suffering is noble and enjoined on us but it won’t bring about the Kingdom of God, and even a lavishly generous contribution to ERD or UNICEF or any other organization isn’t going to get you a ticket to heaven.

The reason I bring up water safety and scarcity is because they are both so central to today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings, and because it provides some context for what they have to say to us about the tremendous Grace of God in Christ.

First, in Exodus, we see God’s miraculous provision of water in the desert. The children of Israel are wandering through the Desert of Sin. Now, as apposite as that name may seem, that’s just the Hebrew name of the area in the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula, and it has no etymological connection to the English word “sin.” Nonetheless, there was a lot of sinning going on. The Israelites keep grumbling, seemingly almost immediately forgetting that God just saved them from slavery in Egypt. “We want bread. We want meat. Oh we had such great produce back in Egypt. Let’s make an idol and worship that instead of the God who just delivered us.” In today’s lesson, Moses is afraid that they’ve become so irritable that they might even stone him to death! God would have been within his rights to strike them all down. Instead, he instructs Moses to strike the rock with his staff (the same staff which turned Egypt’s waters into blood and separated the waters at the Red Sea) and a great stream of good, clean drinking water flows out to quench the thirst of those who did not deserve such a gift. It was pure Grace.

In my bible study last week, I mentioned that the Church Fathers believed that the Old Testament must be read typologically–that is, seeing shadows of the fullness of the New Covenant in Israel’s story–and that while this may sadly have fallen out of fashion with modern, critical biblical scholars starting in the Nineteenth Century, its appropriateness should be obvious considering that St. Paul himself read the scriptures in precisely this way. I brought this up last week in reference to two typological readings we see in Romans: the connection between Abraham and the Church and between Adam and Christ.

Here in Exodus we see another beautiful example, which Paul explicates in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:

Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; And did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.

Here, I think, we are not to understand this merely metaphorically. Rather, we see what theologians would call a Christophany, a glimpse of the pre-incarnate second person of the Trinity in the experience of God’s chosen people which could only be identified as such retrospectively in the light of our Lord’s Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. Before they could know Christ, they were baptized in the Red Sea. They ate the bread of heaven in the form of manna. And just as blood and water proceeded from Christ’s side when pierced by the lance of the Roman soldier, so did the same spiritual drink flow as the rock was wounded by Moses’ staff. All this is to say that in response to Israel’s sinfulness, God actually responded not by punishing them, but by giving them even more than they asked for–not merely water, but living water. This isn’t to say that God never punishes to correct his children, but that, as that wonderful prayer which we get to say when we use the traditional rite of the church (and which the prayerbook revisers were sore remiss in excluding from the contemporary rite) our God is a God “whose property is always to have mercy.”

Likewise, the Samaritan woman received more than she asked for or could have even known to request. Her “water insecurity” if we can call it that, was not a matter of living in a desert but of social stigma. As is still the case in hot climates in villages with communal wells, everybody goes to fetch their water for the day in the early morning, while it’s still cool. We might imagine the woman trying to do the same, being taunted by her fellows for her less than savory lifestyle. We can assume that she was not simply five times a widow and that the man with whom she was now co-habitating was not merely a platonic roommate, which is why she evades Jesus’ question about her marital status. I think we miss the point of this story if we make it all about Jesus reaching across cultural divides (which is certainly an element of the story, but not the only one) or if we try, as some commentators have, of insisting that the woman is simply misunderstood. I think we’re supposed to understand that this woman has some serious baggage, some real sin, and while the other women of her town should have shown her some compassion, she is no saint.

Nevertheless, Christ gives her more than mere water that day; he gives her more than she knew to ask for. Indeed, this is only this one time in John’s Gospel where Jesus directly says to anyone “Yes, I am the Messiah.” He chooses a woman whose sins are public and notorious to divulge this truth to, and at that moment she becomes what some derisively refer to today but which should have no such pejorative subtext, a “true believer” and goes and tells everyone she can find, whether or not those people would be inclined to listen to one like her. This, like the water given to the children of Israel, is pure gift–not mere water but living water.

We still receive this living water today, in the Sacraments and in the Spirit which dwells in our hearts. We received it before we knew to ask for it. Even still that grace may surprise us in the midst of deserts into which we’ve been cast or through which we’ve chosen of our own accord to stumble through through ignorance or rebellion. The rock is still there, the well is still there, right before us, whenever we need a drink.

+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.

Not being a sports fan and not having access to cable television I don’t know if this is still a thing or not, but one used to see people on tv in stadia holding up signs that read “John 3:16.” Is this still a thing? Well, I’ve joked before with some of you that I wish all those people who carry around those signs would change it up once in a while and write “Matthew 25” on some of them. Of course, they’re both important bits of scripture, but there’s a danger when one plucks a single verse out of context instead of understanding it in light of the whole body of scripture and how the church has interpreted it over the course of two millennia. You see, my worry is that the folks who carry around the John 3:16 signs assume that the verse means something like “in order to go to heaven, you have to give cognitive assent to the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God who died for our sins.” Now, of course I believe that proposition to be true with all my heart; you’d be rightly concerned if a priest of the church couldn’t agree to that without qualification.

The problem is that the Greek in John 3:16, “πιστεύων είς αὐτòν”, believing in him, can mean an awful lot more than just agreeing to propositions about Jesus. It’s my professional opinion that the belief envisioned by Jesus in John’s Gospel as well as the church fathers whose creed we recite every week to affirm what we believe, is more appropriately understood to trust and to act faithfully based on that trust. Simply saying “I believe that” in the same sense in which one believes 1 and 1 is 2 is just the first step.

I hasten to add (and this should not surprise those of you who’ve heard my sermons before) that this is not to say that we earn our way into heaven by being good. It is, however, to say that the fruit of the spirit, the natural outcome of having faith in Christ, are the sorts of expectations we see in Matthew 25–feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner, and so forth–which is why I joke about supplementing (not replacing) the John 3:16 signs with Matthew 25 signs. Actually, I am in the loop enough to have read about the “He Gets Us” advertisements at this years Super Bowl, and their message might be a good example of doing something like this. (I realize there was some controversy over those because of some of the ad campaign’s funders and their politics; I can’t say I agree with the politics of every person who may have funded it either, but people applying that kind of purity test when the message was clearly about Jesus loving us and healing our divisions probably need to get over themselves.) Anyway, the point here is that salutary faith is about more than merely assenting to propositions and nothing else.

Now, all that said, I’ve got some good news for you. You don’t have to worry. You’re not going to Hell because you’re not especially good at meeting the demands faith enjoins on us. None of us is particularly good at it. But, you’ve already been saved. Now this is dangerous information to give out, because people who are afraid of Hell can sometimes behave a lot better. Geneva, when John Calvin was more-or-less in charge was one of the most peaceful, prosperous, democratic places in the world, because everyone was so concerned with showing signs of their election through good behavior, among other things.

As much as it pains me to admit it, the Puritan history of our own country has had much the same effect on our own country. While our Anglican forebears on this continent were growing fat and lazy and treating humans like property in the Southern Colonies, those stick-in-the-mud 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 (for all their faults) so darned law-abiding and committed to equality, at least by the standards of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Unfortunately, a big part of it is that they were afraid that if they didn’t they’d go to hell quite literally.

The theological truth might at first seem socially dangerous, because people realize that they’re not going to burn because they’re bad. 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 an extremely 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 in this morning’s Gospel, before he gets to the bit sport fans keep quoting, the only litmus test Jesus gives is that we be “born from above.” (Notice by the bye “born from above” may be a more literal translation “γεννηθᾔ ἀνωθεν”, but Nicodemus clearly understands Jesus to mean “born again.”) He says we must be born again or from above of water and of the Spirit. Lots of modern Christians believe this means an affective shift within the soul (somewhere along a spectrum between the heart being strangely warmed and rolling in the aisles). We sacramentally-minded Christians tend to believe this means we must be born physically and then receive the New Birth of Baptism. Most of us (myself included) receive this regeneration when we’re too young to understand the nature of that Second Birth and are merely passive recipients of God’s Grace.

So the good news is that we don’t have to worry. We’ve been saved. God’s promise is irrevocable. We’re promised that God will bring all things to their perfection, and that includes our oft-vexed efforts to believe in the fullest sense, such that we continually pray, without contradiction, “Lord, I believe. Help thou mine unbelief.”

That’s the Good News. 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 (since the dawn of the Reformation) we’ve been obsessed with one element of salvation- the question of justification. Who’s saved? Who’s not? How does it happen? What if I’m not saved? Who cares?

I don’t mean to be flippant, but it is to me less interesting than how we respond to the nascent form of salvation we’re already experiencing in hope of the Resurrection. 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 for theologians, and I love being a part of those discussions as an academic exercise, and it’s certainly going to come up during our bible study of Romans beginning today, but the God’s honest truth is that you don’t have to listen to my expositions on Greek grammer to be saved.

The interesting stuff is what comes afterward. God loves you. You are washed in the soul cleansing blood of the lamb. 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 lackluster efforts in this regard will send you straight to Hell. So what? That’s where every single one of us is, even if you’re among those who’s going to get canonized after you die and at that point you’ll be having such a good time you won’t notice.

In any event, the reality of being saved and not doing anything about it seems worse to me. 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 a strangely warmed heart. There are some people I’ve dealt with in life and ministry who don’t get my cockles much above tepid. 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. That, my friends, is what it means to believe in something greater than ourselves, to believe in Christ and be saved, and there’s no life filled with more joy and peace than a life lived in the light of that reality.

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