Sermon for Pentecost 10 2019

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

Conflict is a normal part of relationships, particularly close relationships, and we all have different ways of dealing with it. Sometimes those ways are healthy, and sometimes they aren’t. There are those that love a good fight and will launch into any which arises. If you’ve spent much time on social media you will have recognized this sort of person, but you probably know some of them (or are one of them) in real life, too. Then there are those who avoid conflict at all costs. This might seem to us the wise path, but often it means that issues of the greatest import are neglected because too few had the courage to stand up and fight for what is right. What might have been avoided if, say, Neville Chamberlain hadn’t appeased Hitler? That, of course, is an extreme example, but there are so many times when conscience may lead us into conflict, and for those of us without the natural temerity of a natural debater, acting conscientiously could be a most difficult thing.

Sometimes our problem is in misunderstanding the requirements of the Gospel. We’ve watered down Jesus’ teaching, and believe its principle command is something like “be nice”. Now, don’t get me wrong: I like to be nice and for people to be nice to me. Peevishness and petulance are not a good way of showing the love of Christ. Even so, running from conflict when the stakes are high, when the truths of the Gospel and the wellbeing of God’s people are on the line, in an effort to “be nice” is terribly harmful for the cause in which we as Christians are engaged.

Jesus says to his disciples in this morning’s Gospel, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” That’s Luke’s version, and Matthew’s is even stronger “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

What follows is even more shocking. I’m sure it was upsetting to hear Jesus validate discord in families. But put yourself back in the first century, and imagine that you were raised in a good Jewish family, or even a Greek family which had been faithful in serving the pagan gods of Rome. Then imagine that you hear the Good News of God in Christ, that you are convicted of the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection, that you wish to serve the one true and living God as His Son had revealed Him. This would not have been a popular choice. It would most certainly have led to discord, and perhaps you would have been disowned by those you loved most of all. Would it then have been better that you never received the Gospel of life? Would it then have been better to shun that glorious news for the sake of peace at home? Would God have preferred it if you had taken the path which avoided conflict? By no means!

We still have these choices today, and sometimes they can even have consequences as dramatic as the choices those early disciples had to make. Many of us forget that there is now a whole generation of people being raised by basically irreligious parents. If you don’t believe me, come with me to the church I worked at in Brooklyn sometime, and you’ll meet plenty of young Christians whose family relationships have been strained ever since they turned from the righteous path of secular humanism to become Christians. And that is not to mention all those countless people today in places like China who have been shunned because of their commitment to Christ and his Church.

And then there are those choices we make for the sake of conscience that aren’t exactly the same, but carry with them the same issues. Plenty of people became outcasts in their families or their communities when they acted on a conviction that securing civil rights for blacks was a Christian imperative. Plenty of people have suffered domestic strife because they felt God calling them to be a missionary or to take up a vocation demanding poverty or celibacy despite it being unpopular with others.

Last week I preached about conviction, and today I have to add to those thoughts by suggesting that Jesus requires of us the development of a virtue which compliments it. That virtue is courage. Our convictions, as I said last week, compel us to act, but we must grow in courage to make it happen. When we learn that, as that wonderful hymn put it “the peace of God is no peace, but strife closed in the sod”, then courage will be required if we are to confront the conflict into which our Christian commitments bring us. What all those people listed in today’s Epistle had in common was the courage to act on faith. Rahab and Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah and David and Samuel and the prophets and the whole people of Israel in their flight from Egypt— all of them had the courage to risk their lives and their livelihoods and all they held dear because they were convicted by God and His promise.

With so great a cloud of witnesses, how can we not do the same? Let us, then, face strife with courage, not running away, not deciding to “just be nice”, but standing up for that which really matters. We may think ourselves too timid, but the God of Hosts is with us, and by Him are we encouraged. Let us stand up for Jesus, not fearing loss, for our only gain is his banner, the wondrous, life-giving Cross.

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

Sermon for Pentecost 9 2019

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

What is faith? I think if one were to ask most people they’d give a rather simple answer, something like “believing stuff you can’t know for sure.” This isn’t a terribly popular thing in our rational, scientific age. But faith means a great deal more than the simplistic definition.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews uses a couple of words which transform our understanding of faith: assurance and conviction. Faith is not just about believing stuff; faith is about receiving an assurance that our greatest hopes will come to pass. Faith is not some tepid assent to facts that we choose to believe because we might as well; faith is about engendering conviction– a certainty about God’s promise which changes how we live.

This is all very abstract, so let us take Abraham as our example. Abraham was not a captive to wishful thinking. His initial state was fear. God begins his conversations with Abraham in today’s Old Testament lesson, by bidding him “do not be afraid”, yet Abraham remains fearful. He desires what every man of his era desired: a legacy in the form of descendants, and he is justifiably afraid that it will never happen. Observation and reason have taught him that his hope was empty. No man of his age, with a wife apparently incapable of conceiving, could have hope for children.

Yet, God gives Abraham an assurance that the promise will be kept, and he immediately believes. Assurance only means something if the one giving it is in a relationship with the one receiving it. Abraham’s relationship with God was strong, and so the assurance was received. Despite all evidence pointing to the impossibility of God keeping the promise, Abraham’s relationship with God was strong enough to elicit trust.

Now Abraham’s response was not just any kind of trust. It was what we might call “conviction.” Ordinary trust doesn’t require anything of the beneficiary save confidence in the trustee. Conviction, on the other hand, requires action. Conviction changes one’s whole outlook and approach. Immediately after this morning’s reading, Abraham makes sacrifice to God. Throughout the next several chapters he will obey God’s commands even when he doesn’t understand the point, most significantly in the binding of Isaac after Sarah does give birth. Ultimately, it is through this kind of conviction, the principle component of faith, by which God himself is proved faithful.

This is good news for us, but it is also a great challenge. It is good news because it means that we can be assured of things unseen if we maintain our relationship with God. We can come to a place of profound confidence simply by maintaining that bond, as did Abraham and all the great heroes of our faith. It is, however, a challenge, because it means that something is required of us, namely conviction. The Christian life isn’t just about believing certain propositions despite the lack of evidence, as important as believing those propositions is. It is also about letting those truths change us. It is about bearing the good fruits of virtue: temperance and justice and mercy and love. Just as Abraham’s faith proved God faithful, so will our faith if we live with conviction. Just like Abraham, and just like all the saints, we can not only believe but know, know more sincerely and more powerfully than we can know the truths of reason and science, that God has prepared for us “a better country… a heavenly one.” When we live in the great joy of that knowledge, our lives will be changed, will be transformed into sacrifices just as pleasing to God as was Abraham’s.

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

Sermon for Pentecost 8 2019

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

At coffee hour this morning I’ll be making a presentation on our recent trip to Europe, focusing particularly on the animating principle of our travels, which was religious in nature. This is not to say every element of our trip was spiritually edifying, so I’d like to speak briefly now about an element which was quite the opposite but was, nonetheless instructive.

As you may know, London is a famously expensive city. One of us had read somewhere on the internet (so it had to be true, right!?) that a relatively inexpensive way to get a relatively elegant meal in London was to visit the food hall of one of the city’s impressive department stores. So, naturally, we went to Harrod’s, and we found the online claims of affordability greatly overstated. As it happened, we were able to get perfectly adequate meat pies at the Nag’s Head Pub down the street, which was the putative setting of a four-hundred-year-old ecclesiastical urban legend I can tell you about after church.

Anyway, we did spend some time wandering around Harrod’s before realizing this was not the place for us. Yet I confessed to Annie as we were leaving, that it awakened in me (in my fallen nature which has, thank God, been redeemed in Baptism) something that I’m not proud of. Looking at the $5,000 suits and $1,500 fountain pens and $1,200 coffee table books, that wickedest part of me started thinking how much I’d love to be able to own these sorts of things and, more generally, to have the sort of lifestyle which would make possessing such luxuries “no big deal.”

“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher. Granted, I don’t hate my toil, as apparently the writer of Ecclesiastes hated his; in fact, most of the time I rather enjoy my work. Even so, the Preacher makes a point which we could all stand to hear- viz., a life whose chief goal is the accumulation of wealth is a life wasted. It’s vanity, a puff of wind, nothingness. Yet, that evening in Harrod’s department store, I found that vanity somewhat appealing.

Likewise, in this morning’s Gospel Jesus tells a parable of a man who had done well for himself and secured enough wealth to live comfortably indefinitely. Just as the man sits back to enjoy the fruit of his labors he has a bit of bad luck. Not to put to fine a point on it, he kicks the bucket then and there. All work and no play doesn’t just make Jack a dull boy. In this instance, it made Jack a rather dumb boy.

How do we define ourselves? How does society define each of us? Well, what’s the first question we ask upon meeting a stranger? Usually it’s “what do you do?” and the implicit predicate to that question is “for money.” It’s not a bad question to ask, necessarily, but it’s symptomatic of what our culture values above all else, namely work and compensation. It’s how we define ourselves because it’s what we spend the vast majority of our time doing.

In preparation for this sermon, I looked at several studies of working hours and happiness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people in countries where the average citizen worked fewer hours there was greater overall satisfaction with life. Also unsurprisingly, Americans tended to work more and be less happy on average than citizens of nearly every other developed country. This is, of course, a complex issue and how to address it from a policy perspective is well beyond me. It is, however, an example of how endless striving to the end of wealth accumulation is not the key to happiness. I hope this is not a surprise to anybody, yet, as my experience suggests, even those of us who know it can forget it when surrounded by the lure of mammon.

So how do we address this as individuals and as a community? At the end of this morning’s Gospel, Jesus says “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” But what does it mean to be rich toward God?

I don’t think that it just means giving of our wealth to charity and to the church, though that is certainly part of it. I think it’s also about spending our time in pursuits which are godly. It’s about not being so caught up in work that we fail to support our families with our loving presence. It’s taking time out of our day to pray. It might even be recognizing when that lucrative career is getting in the way of our other obligations so much that we’ve got to make a change, and maybe make a little less money.

I don’t mean to be grim or trite, but I can’t imagine many people on their deathbed thinking back and saying “thank God I spent all that extra time in the office and made a bundle.” When we get to that point, we’re more likely to be grateful for the relationships we nurtured and the difference, however small, we might have made in the lives of our fellow pilgrims. In other words, we’ll never regret the time we spent being rich toward God, because while everything else is vanity, a puff of wind, a passing thing, it is our love and generosity which will endure into the ages of ages.

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