Sermon for Lent 5 2019

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

On one of the first dates on which I ever took Annie, I arrived to pick her up at her parents’ house and was dismayed when I found they were watching the 1964 John Huston film Night of the Iguana. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, the film, based on the Tennessee Williams play of the same name, stars Richard Burton as a disgraced Episcopal priest, the Reverend Doctor T. Lawrence Shannon. Shannon had been defrocked for “conduct unbecoming a man of the cloth” after having had sex with a parishioner and had taken a job as a cut-rate tour guide in Mexico. After the opening scene, which shows perhaps the worst sermon ever committed to film, and which I heartily recommend “youtubing”, we see Shannon leading a group of Baptist ladies from Texas to Puerto Vallarta.

One of these tourists becomes convinced that Shannon is attempting to seduce her sixteen-year-old niece and threatens to call the tour company (which we learn has already placed Shannon on probation), at which point Shannon hijacks the tour bus and drives to a hotel run by an old friend’s young widow (played by Ava Gardner) which he mistakenly believes has no telephone, and there does battle with his weakness for both sex and alcohol. At one point, he gets so roaring drunk and belligerent that the cabana boys have to truss him to a hammock. Anyway, you can imagine that as a young episcopal priest picking somebody up for a date, this is the last movie you want to find her parents watching.

Anyway, during the sermon-cum-rant opening scene, Shannon would loudly shout in self justification a claim which he would repeat at another low point later in the film. “I am the son of a clergyman and the grandson of two bishops.” He assumes, you see, that these are the sort of bona fides that should silence his accusers, which, of course, they are not.

I was reminded of this rather weak argument upon hearing the justification of one who actually understood just how unimportant such facts should be in the economy of the Kingdom of God.

Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.

Here, Saint Paul does one better than the Reverend Doctor T. Lawrence Shannon. Not only does he have the proper family background. He has followed through with the proper education, an ardor in performing the actions which he believed his religion demanded of him, and an impeccable record of righteous behavior.

But how does the Apostle regard his impressive pedigree and even more impressive commitment to the Law? What does he see when he looks at all the items on his curriculum vitae? “[I] count them but dung,” he says. Now, that’s a pretty gross word, isn’t it? The New Revised Standard Version (which we use here outside of Lent and Advent) says “I regard them as rubbish.” Other modern translations use the word “refuse” or “filth” or “garbage.” On this point the Authorized Version which we are using this season gets us closer to the meaning, but not quite.

Let me apologize in advance for this, but the following is a little bit “PG rated”, but it is in the Bible. The word Paul uses here is σκύβαλον, which is neither an agricultural nor a medical term. We encountered the agricultural term for manure (also translated as “dung” in the Authorized Version) a couple weeks ago in Jesus’ parable of the fig tree in Luke’s Gospel, in which the gardner asks leave to spread κοπρός around the tree not bearing fruit. The medical term περίττωμα would have been used by the ancient Greek equivalent of a gastroenterologist, and Paul chooses not to use that one either. There is even a Greek word equivalent to the mildly rude, childish word “poop”–κακκή–which Paul doesn’t use here, and which has survived as a more-or-less inoffensive term in various modern languages and can probably be traced back to Prot-Indo-European, meaning that a dirty word has survived linguistic evolution over five or six thousand years.

No, σκύβαλον is a much more forceful word, and I will not say its closest English equivalent in the pulpit. Suffice to say, it’s one of the words that until fairly recently the FCC would fine a broadcast television or radio station for allowing on the public airwaves. And this is the word Paul uses to describe his pre-conversion bona fides.

Why does Paul use such a strong word here? I do not believe he merely attempting to scandalize the reader (we know how Paul feels about stumbling blocks being opposed to the work of the Gospel and Christian community). I suspect that this is an anticipation of a potential objection by the Apostle’s adversaries in the ongoing controversy between the Judaizers and Gentile converts in the nascent church.

As a reminder, the former are attempting to convince the latter that they must be circumcised and follow all the ritual laws of the Old Testament, that is, that they must become Jews in order to become Christians. Having settled this debate in several churches, it now appears as if these Judaizers may have permitted the Gentile converts to forgo circumcision and the rest, but likely still see themselves as a superior faction within the local church. One wonders if this might take the form of a disingenuous appeal to unity and equality within the church (“All Christians are equal but some are more equal to others!”) or if it would take the form of what on online fora they now refer to as “concern trolling” (“I’m just worried that if these Gentile converts don’t get circumcised, they’ll feel like they’re not equal, even though we insist they are!”).

In any event, I think Paul anticipates such a response here by saying something like “well, your religious pedigree has now grown from something merely indifferent vis-à-vis the Gospel to something actively counter-productive.” No doubt this is a stumbling block Paul had to overcome himself, which is why he has to use such strong language about his own background. No doubt Paul had to struggle with his own conscious or unconscious feelings of superiority because of his history in Judaism, and thus reject any pride he felt as being contrary to trusting fully in the salvation provided by Christ Jesus alone in no uncertain terms.

Paul was a great pastor, a great spiritual shepherd (terms which the Reverend Doctor T. Lawrence Shannon also applied to himself, quite falsely, in that horrifying sermon scene I mentioned before). He was a great pastor because he recognized what was and was not edifying for the Christian soul and the Christian community, not because he was a know-it-all, but because he struggled with it mightily himself in his own conversion. Quite frankly, I’ve got no time for these modern, feel good exegetes who try to pit Jesus against Paul (you know, nice sweet Jesus vs. raving stodgy Paul), and I often wonder if any of them have read the New Testament with any charity or objectivity, but now I’m becoming the raving preacher myself.

The point here is that like Paul and like his adversaries in Phillipi, if we are to make spiritual progress in this life, personally or communally, if we are to “press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” then we may need to leave behind that which distracts us and makes us feel superior and tempts us to place our hope for salvation in anything other than the blood of Jesus. We may need to count that which we reckon our greatest gains, our greatest successes, that of which we are most proud, as loss, as worthless, as less than worthless, because there is just one thing that can save. The name of Jesus, the desire to serve him, the conviction that we cannot do it based on anything that we are or have accomplished, and the great relief that Grace is available. These are where salvation is to be found. This conforms us to the death of Christ and provides hope for the resurrection. This is where our hope must be founded.

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

Sermon for Lent 4 2019

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

Those of you who have read my newsletter article this month know that for a long time Lent has been my favorite church season, and that this is often considered a rather weird preference by my friends and colleagues. I get a spring in my step this time of year I’ve been told, which is peculiar since this is a season which reminds us over and over again about sin and death. But when you think about it, by gosh, it’s such a relief. The acknowledgment of my sin gives me relief from perfectionism and the acknowledgment of my mortality saves me from death-denial, which comes with its own indignities when we consider how the sick and dying are treated in our culture. The denial of the reality of both sin and death is, in a way, the extension of one’s ego to eternity, and we can never find salvation in that.

Coming to terms with sin can be a very joyful thing, because it saves us from perfectionism and teaches us that redemption is possible. This is, in fact, the Good News we hear in today’s Gospel. Upon the return of the prodigal son, the father’s reaction was neither judgment nor pious superciliousness, but profound hospitality:

Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

The father later explains his reaction to his other son, who happens to be jealous of his prodigal brother’s reception, by saying:

‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life.’

Even in this most penitent season, then, we may rejoice in the midst of our penitence, because we know that God the Father rejoices when we, who have so often gone astray, return to Him through fasting and prayer.

There is an interesting liturgical fact about this Sunday. At least I find it interesting. Historically this Sunday has been called Laetare Sunday, which comes from a Latin word meaning “to rejoice”. It comes from the first word of the old Latin Introit, or entry hymn, which would have been sung in Roman Catholic parishes (and in some catholic-leaning Anglican parishes) every year on this Sunday until Vatican II suppressed that bit of the Mass in the Roman Church. The hymn goes like this, in my probably inadequate translation:

Rejoice with Jerusalem: and be glad with her, all you that love her: rejoice for joy with her, all you that mourn for her: that you may drink and be satisfied with the milk of her consolations. I was glad when they said to me: We will go into the house of the Lord.

Thus, church would have begun on a very high note indeed, and in the middle of Lent! This is why I’m wearing slightly brighter vestments this week than the usual Lenten violet, and why our hymns this week seem a little less somber. It’s because penitence isn’t just about groveling and feeling rotten. In fact, that is to miss the point entirely. When we, like the prodigal son, are able to approach God with sincere penitence the outcome for us ought to be profound joy.

Redemption makes no sense without something to be redeemed from. Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross for us wouldn’t have been anything more than an historical fact had it not been that we needed and are in need of saving. That we are saved, that Christ’s sacrifice saved us from a real enemy, from sin and death, is a very happy fact.

This is good news for all of us. In fact, it is the Good News. We can only fully appreciate it though, we can only attain to the joy which God intends for us, when we recognize that we are too sinful to dig ourselves out. This realization releases us from perfectionism, which is terribly close to narcissism, and brings us to the realization that we can be sinful, and God will still love us. Only when we get over ourselves, when we realize that we cannot attain perfection on our own terms, that we need an Other, will we experience the joy of redemption.

Of course, getting to the point of experiencing this joy may not be entirely pleasant, because it requires that we be honest with ourselves. The process of recognizing our own fallen-ness, our own sinfulness, is full of tears and travail. Yet, like the prodigal son, we may return home and experience joy once again. Like the children of Israel, we may finish our desert wandering and feast on the produce of God’s Grace and Mercy. Like the psalmist, we may declare “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven: and whose sin is put away.” There has never been news any better than this.

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

Sermon for Lent 3 2019

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

Streams will not curb their pride

The just man not to entomb,

Nor lightnings go aside

To give his virtues room

These lines, written by Matthew Arnold in his poem Empedocles on Etna, get to a truth which we know all too well: bad things happen to good people. We know this so well that while we may still struggle to see God’s hand in such situations, we would nonetheless be shocked to find that the average Jew of Jesus’ day believed something quite the opposite.

This is why they come to question Jesus about those “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” Most of Jesus’ contemporaries believed in something called a deuteronomic view of history. Some of you have heard me mention this before, but for those who haven’t, such a view holds that the righteous are invariably rewarded by God and the wicked invariably punished by God, and if you’re experiencing pain or sorrow in this life it’s likely that you did something to bring it on yourself. Those who were slain by Pilate were presumably of the righteous sort. They were making proper sacrifices to the God of Israel, which from an Old Testament perspective embodied righteousness. This should have led, according to the deuteronomic view, to prosperity and security rather than death at the hands of a tyrant.

Of course, this isn’t how it works. Job had figured that out, and Jesus knew it all too well, as he, though sinless, was drawing ever closer to his passion and death. But Jesus makes an interesting move in this morning’s Gospel. He acknowledges that bad things happen to good people, but instead of trying to explain why this was the case he proceeded to call those around him to repentance, warning them “except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”

You see, even though good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people, our actions are not without consequences, in this world and the next. This is because as moral creatures, as beings made in the image of God, our own thoughts and actions affect us at the deepest level, which is to say that what we do affects our very souls. We prayed in this morning’s Collect “that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.”

While we can do good and not necessarily experience God’s beneficence any more than the next person, while we can do ill and not necessarily feel the wrath of God within our lifetime, both courses have profound effects on our souls. In an 1819 letter to his brother and sister-in-law, John Keats wrote “Call the world if you please, ‘The vale of Soul-making.’ Then you will find out the use of the world.” In other words, life and all of the choices it throws at us gives us the opportunities to harm or help the growth of our souls, to either stagnate (thanks to sin) or to grow (thanks to love) into the fullness of Christ.

Jesus doesn’t use such a modern term as “Soul-making”, but he gets at the same thing by use of a culturally significant metaphor:

A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then he said unto the dresser of his vineyard, ‘Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none. Cut it down! Why cumbereth it on the ground?’

Here, Jesus is commenting on the soul of a society, as it were. The soul of Israel, cast as a fig tree (then a popular symbol of Jerusalem) had withered. The tree of the culture had not born the good fruits of righteousness. For three years the gardener had seen no fruit. For the three years of our Lord’s earthly ministry he had been rejected by the children of Israel and was about to be crucified. For the next few centuries the Roman Empire, which executed our Lord, was to live in relative peace and prosperity, while faithful Christians would be assailed by those who wished them dead.

Yet it is not the body so much as the soul whose health is most important and whose salvation is paramount. The withered tree may be spared up while the fruitful tree is cut down by the merciless vine-dressers of this world. Even so, the good vinedresser, our Lord Jesus, cares for the spiritual fruit, which is the faith, hope, and love borne by the souls of the faithful.

And thanks be to God, that the gardener in the vineyard of the faithful is a patient gardener. Here again the words of the gardener to the vineyard owner:

‘Lord, let [the fruitless tree] alone this year also, till I shall dig about it and dung it. And iff it bear fruit, well; and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.’

Just so does our Lord Jesus plead to the Father on behalf of wayward souls. The patience and unbounded mercy of God will give us a little longer, another year, another twenty, in hopes that we too may bear the good fruits of righteousness. He is kind in giving us sustenance in the Sacraments, as the gardener fertilizes the soil around the tree- sustenance our souls require to bear the fruits of faith, hope, and love.

God is patient, but we’ve not all the time in the world. As the psalmist put it:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

We have only a limited time in which to permit God to let us grow, in which to take heed of our souls and the fruits we are capable of bearing with God’s help. May we then, “deeply aware of the shortness and uncertainty of life” but sincerely thankful for the same, be ever mindful of our need and of the power of Christ to tend our souls and help them grow if with humility and repentance we permit him.

Let us pray.

O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered: Make us, we pray, deeply aware of the shortness and uncertainty of human life; and let thy Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days; that when we shall have served thee in our generation, we may be gathered to our ancestors, having the testimony of a good conscience, in the Communion of the Catholic Church, in the confidence of a certain faith, in the comfort of a religious and holy hope, in favor with thee, our God, and in perfect charity with the world. All this we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.