Anglican Church of the Epiphany
                      Anglican                     Church                       of the                     Epiphany

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Church of the Epiphany

104 Epiphany Court

 Amherst, VA  24521

 

Church

Phone: (434)-946-2524

 

Rector

Rev. Canon Charles H. Nalls

Phone (202)-262-5519 

 

Morning Prayer every Monday  thru Saturday at 8 am

 

Sunday Morning Prayer at

10 am

 

Services are Sunday at 11:00 am 

 

Bible study Sunday at

12:45 pm and

Wednesday at 10:30 am.                 

 

 

 

 

       SERMON FOR THE SEVENTH SUNDAY IN TRINITY-2021

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death or of obedience to righteousness? But God is thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.”

-Romans 6:16-17

 

As our study of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters progresses, a number of questions have arisen about angels and “the other guys.” This fall I would like to take on the topic in greater depth in our Wednesday study and reading Peter Kreeft’s excellent book entitled Angels and Demons: What Do We Really Know About Them. Even those who cannot make the weekday study should take up this book and read it. I wonder how many have taken the opportunity to do so, particularly since it well-fits today’s Epistle.

Indeed, as we look at the questions posed by this Sunday’s Scripture lessons, I think it is fair to wonder how many take up their prayer books or their breviaries, devotionals, or even Bibles to follow the lessons of the Christian year. The state of Christianity lately gives us an answer, and that answer is “rebellion”.

In classic Christian theology, the devil’s statement of self-condemnation is called his “conserving,” the Latin for “I will not serve.” It was this refusal to serve the Living God that separated Lucifer, “the bearer of light,” from all light and from life itself. This refusal to serve, this rebellion, transformed him from an angel of light into an angel of death, since only God is the source of life and light. Apart from God, all that the devil can be or bear to anyone is the opposite of life and light.

The devil, of course, is not a god, not even with a small “g.” He is just a creature of the One True God, albeit in clear rebellion against Him. Satan is not a “god of death,” ruling over an independent realm of his own like the pagan Greek Hades. He is, as the prophets called him, Beelzebub, the “lord of the flies.”

His realm can be compared, as our Lord Jesus Christ did when he called it “Gehenna,” to the Jerusalem garbage dump. The not very subtle message of this name is that the devil rules over Hell, the dumping ground for those who have repeated with him “I will not serve,” in the same manner that flies have their way with garbage.

Our Lord and the Prophets were always careful not to make too much of Satan, whose name means “the adversary” or “the one who speaks against.” Even this name, overblown by foolish people these days who find something “heroic” in a hopeless rebellion against God, is a name of defeat. This is true whether in Hebrew, or in the Greek translation diabolos, or in the English word “devil.” which is derived from the Greek.

Beloved in Christ, to speak against God is a waste of time, since the Living Word of God, become incarnate as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is God himself and no creature. The Word of God will always prevail over the words of every creature, including the lying words of the Adversary. The Cross, the resurrection, and the giving of the Gospel have proved this beyond a shadow of doubt forever. Thus, Satan has lied, but no truth. He can deny God, he can refuse to serve God, he can rebel against God, but he cannot be God.

To be the Adversary of those whom God has called to live with him and offered his love is also simply a waste of time and energy. God the Holy Ghost, who is called in Greek “the Paraclete” and in English “the Comforter,” meaning “one who stands by another and gives him strength,” stands indeed with those chosen for life by God the Father. The Holy Ghost stands against every opponent and adversary.

The devil? Beloved in Christ, the devil can claim for himself only the emptiness of opposition. He cannot succeed against the Holy Ghost. Again, the devil’s name reveals his entire life as just a reaction against God’s infinite advocacy of those he loves and not something that has power or reality in and of itself.

I want to be very clear with you. Satan is quite real. Even as a fallen angel he is quite powerful in comparison to an ordinary human being. But he is not, he is NOT, more powerful than God. He is not more powerful than a human being who has communion with God, who has the Word of God, who has the Comforter to strengthen him.

The devil’s weapons, such as sin, evil, darkness, and death are not real things at all, but only the absence of real things. They are the absence or the rejection of grace, obedience, light, and life. If we do not join the devil in rejecting these gifts of God, the absence of them cannot harm us. This is why constant obedience to the Word, and constantly strengthening ourselves through the Sacrament and in the knowledge of the Christ-life is so important. Clinging to the gifts of God can be more difficult than it sounds. The cross of Jesus Christ must remind us of that.

As for the emptiness of the devil, emptiness does have power. A vacuum is an emptiness, an absence of air. It is the vacuum created by a vacuum cleaner that sucks up all the dirt, along with anything else that isn’t attached to something stronger than the vacuum. If you and I are not attached to God, the emptiness of the devil can easily suck us up, and we can find ourselves in Satan’s kingdom of the flies and garbage.

Satan entered the Garden of Eden. He did it not so much to conquer Adam and Eve, as to disconnect them from the strength of God by getting them to say, “I will not serve. I will not obey.” Once they had said it, once they had surrendered to him without a fight, they made themselves and all their children capable of being ruled by emptiness, and that emptiness is what we call “original sin.”

Adam and Eve made themselves and their children, including us, the slaves of emptiness. We begin our lives with this weakness, unattached to the goodness of God. And every time we say “I will not serve,” even in the least matter of the Commandments and the Gospel, we make ourselves more and more like the dirt that rightfully belongs to the emptiness and on the trash heap.

It was to reattach us to God the Father by grace and life and light that Jesus Christ came into the world. He needed nothing from the world since he is God the Son; but we needed him. We needed him to fill our emptiness with good. We needed him to replace our disobedience with obedience. We needed him so that we can belong in heaven and not with the garbage.

Beloved, Jesus Christ did this for us. He did this by dying on the Cross in our place in obedience to his Father so that now his obedience is our own. He gave us the “good news” of the Gospel, where Satan could only give us the bad news of sin and death. He washed away our dirt with His own Blood and with the sacrament of water. He filled our emptiness with an eternal communion in his Body and Blood.

Why do we study our faith? Why do we work at our faith? Simply to remember. We must remember all this in order to understand what St. Paul told us this morning. We are the servants, literally “the slaves,” of whatever we serve. Whatever master we choose, now that our will have been freed by Jesus Christ, who had to choose us first, we can only receive whatever that master is able to give us.

If we choose Satan as our master, sin, death, and the garbage dump are all that we can expect to receive. If we choose Jesus Christ as our Master, then the Word of God, the light of God, the Spirit of God, and the life of God are what we will receive from him. It is just that simple.

But every time we say “I will not serve,” which is what the devil wants us to say, we choose the garbage dump and the Lord of the flies over Jesus Christ. The emptiness that once ruled us, before Christ called us, inclines us to return to emptiness. A vacuum does have its pul. rIt is only the grace of God, the living power of God’s love, that holds us back when we stand firm in Christ or calls us back by repentance when we have foolishly returned to our slavery to sin.

This infinite and all-powerful grace is the reason why St. Paul can say, “God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but [now] ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine that was delivered you.” God’s grace is so great that it will not permit a heart that truly belongs to God, a heart that rejoices in his goodness and that is truly broken with sorrow because of sin, to be lost. Satan will not prevail against it or drag it back into the emptiness.

But that “form of doctrine” that Christ has delivered to us, that form of doctrine we are to study and learn and to pray into, is very important. In Greek, it is the “form” of a coin that is stamped out according to a pattern. In our lives, it is the imprint of Christ’s own life and his Gospel on our lives. A coin does not select its shape or value. These come from the coin maker.

The same is true of us if we belong to Christ. He has shown us our value on the cross, and he has shown us what we are to look like and to be like by his own example of living. He has given us a book, the Bible, to teach us the pattern of life in his kingdom.

So we can be something, you and I. We can be the image of Christ and the companions of God if Jesus Christ is truly our Lord and Master. Or we can be nothing and the slaves of the Lord of the flies. The difference is in saying, “I will serve the Living God” or “I will not serve.” We must say one or the other, and we say it every day by the choice of the master we serve and follow. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Charles H. Nalls 2021 

 

 

         

 

 

 

       SERMON FOR THE SIXTH SUNDAY IN TRINITY-2021

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

O God, who hast prepared for those who love thee such good things as pass man's understanding; Pour into our hearts such love toward thee, that we, loving thee above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

-Collect for Trinity VI

 

On Independence Day, we recounted some of the teachings of our “founding preachers” from the first years of our republic. In the course of the week, I found myself returning again and again to these homilies by preachers known and unknown, who thundered from their pulpits spiritual guidance that would drive the Revolution. These included topics from the sublime such as the dignity of man as a creation of God, to the practices such as a sermon on the defense of individual firearm ownership. By the way, the British seem to have had a very different view of that topic than the colonial preacher.

As I read a selection of these homilies a common thread was evident, an awareness that seems to elude so many modernists in our society. This idea is the keen sense of our dependence upon God, reliance upon His providence, and the need for prayer-earnest, honest prayer. This morning’s collection gives us a wonderful starting point on this vital aspect of our lives as Christians.

Let’s be blunt. There has been a sense of loss of prayer as earnest conversation with God. As my friend the late Fr. Lou Tarsitano frequently would point out, many people treat prayer as if it were a religious version of the game show Let's Make a Deal. You know the program. Except here, the one who prays takes the role of the contestant, and God is assigned the part of the likable but tricky host.

These prayers unfold in a fairly predictable pattern. The person praying begins to bargain. They bargain with God for a series of prizes they want, but there is always the danger of going one deal too far, only to give up all that has been won for a booby prize like a lifetime supply of thumbtacks. That’s why the idea of prayer as a “game” finally breaks down.

In a game, neither the contestant nor the host actually knows what any particular person really needs to live, including himself. God, on the other hand, is all-powerful and completely self-sufficient. He does not need anything from anyone, and so he can’t be bargained with. He can do anything that he wills, and no one can force him to do something else.

Here is something to keep in mind. Our God is omniscient, all-knowing. Since he is all-knowing, God actually does know what every one of His creatures needs to live, including the men and the women that he has created in his own image and likeness. Our Lord has walked among us. He has felt what we have felt, experienced what you and I experience from hunger to grief at the loss of a loved one. He not only knows what we need, but he is perfectly able and perfectly willing to give us exactly that.

Someone might ask, then, “So why bother to pray? If prayer does not change God, what’s the purpose?” I hear these questions not infrequently. What such questions fail to take into consideration is that praying to God changes us. As we tell God our troubles, our dreams, our hopes, and our fears, his grace directs us to understand (or at least accepting) his will. Beloved in Christ, so very often we then will discover that what we are getting already is exactly what we need, what is most expedient for us.

Sometimes, too, when we pray, God’s grace in answering us redirects our lives. We are guided to the time, to the place, or to the entire way of life that will make us ready to receive all the good things that our Father in heaven has willed for us from before the creation of the world. Prayer really is not about “getting things”, Prayer is about talking to the God who made us and who loves us.

Our faith (which itself comes from God’s grace) draws us nearer to Him. We are drawn into a deeper and deeper trust in his complete and utter goodness. We call God “our Father,” as our Lord Jesus Christ taught us to do as the Eternal Father’s adopted children. We open our hearts with the help of God the Holy Ghost, and the purer our hearts become through our fellowship with the Holy Ghost, the more we speak in a single, united voice to our Father in heaven.

Yes, there are challenges the challenges of sin in us and in the world around us. Our fallenness and the fallenness of the world around us make it difficult to be so open, so pure, and so trusting. For us, prayer can become a tedious struggle and a job of hard work, even though prayer is pure joy. It is, as one writer put it, the greatest pleasure of all for the unfallen angels and the redeemed saints who gather around our crucified, resurrected, and ascended Lord in light.

Here is a key fact. The more we pray, the more we crucify the vanities of this world for the sake of speaking love to our Father in heaven. The pore we give up vanity for truth, the closer we come to our own resurrection. We draw closer to our own ascension into glory, the glory of the Lord God Almighty.

St. Paul asks us in this morning’s Epistle, “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3). He wants us to know, we need to know, that a new life in Jesus Christ cannot be merely “tacked on” to the fallen life of this world.

A “new life” is a “different life” altogether so that we must die to the old life before we can begin the new in the power of God’s grace. Just as Jesus Christ departed this life for the life of the resurrection by dying on the cross for us, we die for Jesus Christ by bearing the cross. It is that cross that will lift us out of this world’s sin, the world’s fallenness to join Jesus Christ in the resurrection. So, we pray with Jesus Christ to the Father “Thy will be done,” trusting in the absolute goodness and perfection of that will.

Beloved in Christ, we pray to glorify the Father. You and I pray to embrace the grace that we need to live for the sake of the Father’s glory and our own salvation. We glorify God by confessing our sins, admitting that his will is greater and better than our own and that we do evil when we oppose his will. We ask the Father to give us the life that he has chosen for us, and the grace to live it well, submitting to the truth that his choosing will always be better than our own.

Of course, we can always tell the Father who we think we are and what we think we need. He will always listen to us in love. It is our ongoing conversation with Him that builds us up into the perfect life that He has willed to give to each of us eternally. However, we must never think that God’s listening to every word of our prayers can be turned into some sort of comparative test of the strength of our will against his will.

God has described the true case of our prayers through the Prophet Isaiah: For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones (Isaiah 57:15). We are reminded of this every time we say Morning Prayer.

There is no way to reach that high and holy place where God is, except by contrition and humility. When we have confessed our sins, when we have humbled ourselves before God, in our prayers, and in our living, God lifts us up to himself. He revives our hearts so that even if we are sometimes afraid and perplexed in this world. In him we have the sure confidence that we can never die because he has made us to love us, to preserve us, and to keep us forever.

Now here is something even more exciting. We do not even need to know what or how to pray. God has already made the beginning of prayer for us. As he told Isaiah, “I create the fruit of the lips; Peace, peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near, saith the LORD; and I will heal him” (Isaiah 57:19). Our Father, through his Living Word our Lord Jesus Christ and through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, has taught us how to pray. He has given us the sure knowledge that when we pray he will give us peace and heal us at the last.

Beloved, when we hold our Bibles in our hands, we are holding a gift of prayer. When we hold our Prayer Books in our hands, we are holding a gift of prayer. When we hold our Breviaries, Rosaries, or prayer ropes in our hands, we are holding a gift of prayer. We are holding the words of prayer that God has given us over almost four thousand years, since the day that he first called the Patriarch Abraham into the intimacy of prayer and eternal life.

All we need to do is to open these books and to begin, and we are at once praying with the Incarnate Son of God and with two hundred generations of saints.

Our beginning with these ancient words of prayer will train our hearts, our minds, and our souls to pray in words of their own, adding glory upon glory in praise of Almighty God. The more that we pray, the more we will see that God has prepared for us such good things as pass any mortal man=s understanding. The more that we pray, the more God’s grace will open our hearts to be flooded with his love so that we will love him above all things and trust in him alone. The more that we pray, love, and trust, the more God will prove by the excellence of his promises and by the perfection of their keeping that nothing we can desire is as great as what he has done for us and is doing in his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

In 1783, Reverend George Duffield preached that prayer should come from a heart aglow with gratitude and in the knowledge that all things come of God. His prayer was that we be able to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

All we can add is our “Amen,” the Hebrew word that means “Let this be so.” Let it be so that God’s will is our prayers, that God’s will is their answer, and we will pray aright, and we will be blessed indeed. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY-2021

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

 

I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”

-Romans 8:18

 

On Friday, June 26th, in the year of our Lord 2015, creation groaned. A man-made court issued a pronouncement on that which is not man-made but is ordained of God. That Friday, God’s creation groaned as man-made a proclamation on marriage that is directly contrary to the law of God. Against the law of the Constitution, too, perhaps, but more importantly for us as orthodox, traditional Christians it defied the law of God. Creation groaned under its weight.

The ground under our feet now has shifted fundamentally. “Discerning the meaning of the present moment requires sobriety, precisely because its radicalism requires of us as Christians a realistic sense of how weak our position is in post-Christian America.”

“It is now clear that extremism in the pursuit of the Sexual Revolution’s goals is no vice.” True, the Court gave a nod and a wink at the First Amendment in an attempt to calm those who might find themselves just a wee bit worried about religious liberty. But when a court is willing to invent rights out of nothing, it is impossible to have faith that the First Amendment will offer any but the most minimal protection to religious dissenters from the secular agenda. As Mr. Justice Alito warned, the decision “will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy,” and will be used to oppress the faithful “by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.”

I hate to be prescient and rarely am. However, six years ago I preached that the next goal of sexual activists of all sorts would be a long-term campaign to remove tax-exempt status from religious institutions and faith communities who will not submit. This legislation has been introduced in Washington and in several states.

In that same homily, I warned that the more immediate goal will be the shunning, then the vilification, and, finally, the persecution of dissenters within civil society. It did not need particular acuity or second sight to see this. We now call it “cancel culture”. It is happening with increasing viciousness in a number of venues ranging from wedding-cake bakers to photographers who refuse to be a party to homosexual “marriages”, to parents who have issues with shared bathrooms and facilities to students themselves who understand the simple truth that man and woman He made us.

As orthodox Christians, beloved in Christ, we must understand that this situation is going to get much more difficult for us.

As commentator Rod Dreher put it aptly, “We are going to have to learn how to live as exiles in our own country. We are going to have to learn how to live with at least a mild form of persecution.” So we are going to be called to suffer for our faith. We are going to have to change the way we practice our faith and teach it to our children. To do this we are going to have to build resilient communities in the face of suffering.

We may look for easy answers, but there aren’t any. Suffering is complex, but you know it is a part of love, real love—particularly of loving others as Christ loves us. “The truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering the more you suffer because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt.” (Thomas Merton)

So we come to the question of suffering which is treated straight on in the Epistle for the Fourth Sunday in Trinity. Romans 8 is in a sense a unique passage in that it brings before us one of the most interesting and mysterious questions of human life: our fellowship in suffering from the world in which we live a world that seemingly has taken leave of its senses-and the common redemption which awaits all creation. This is the direction in which we must live, and work and teach.

Saint Paul's main thought in this passage is that suffering is the pathway to glory. Let me say that again. Suffering is the pathway to glory. Since in that suffering, it is not man alone, but all creation is involved, so all creation awaits and expects redemption. This only shall be revealed fully in men and women only when they enter upon the glories of eternity. That is a big theme. That is a real comfort for us in times of suffering.

Saint Paul begins by comparing the sufferings of the earth with the glories of heaven. Beloved in Christ, our sufferings are not light. We know this in many ways. From the viewpoint of our broader Christian experience, the dreariest thing we can do is read or listen to the news. In truth, it has become a season of groaning, and the present one like others past seems to be full of turbulence and distress.

St. Paul speaks of all creation groaning and travailing in pain. But here is the hope: so overwhelming is the glory to which they lead, that St. Paul deliberately reaches the conclusion that no real comparison is possible.

We find the same thought expressed elsewhere in the words, “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”(II Cor.)

How can he say this? Well, my beloved, anyone who has only superficially studied Saint Paul's life could fall into the error of believing that he had an easy go, a free ride, that he was unacquainted with sorrow and trial. However, few people ever suffered more than he; but so clear is his conception of the glory to which these sufferings lead, that he speaks of them as “light,” as "but for a moment," as "not to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed."

So, then what are we to do, you and I? As a third-order Benedictine, I have often said that a monastic type of life will be our future. This was echoed by Mr. Dreher and others in what he identified as “the Benedict Option” or others before him calls “main street monasticism”.

In his 1982 book After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre likened the current age to the fall of ancient Rome. He pointed to Benedict of Nursia, a pious young Christian who left the chaos of Rome to go to the woods to pray as an example for us. We who want to live by the traditional virtues, MacIntyre said, have to pioneer new ways of doing so in the community. We await, he said “a new and doubtless very different St. Benedict,” while we await a new and different creation.

Throughout the early Middle Ages, St. Benedict’s communities formed monasteries and kept the light of faith burning through the surrounding cultural darkness. Eventually, the Benedictine monks helped re-found civilization.

I believe that we traditional Christians are called to be those new and very different St. Benedicts. So, how do we take the Benedict Option, and build resilient communities within our condition of internal exile, and under increasingly hostile conditions and suffering?

We can begin with fervent, regular prayer in a community, of the sort that goes on right here at Church of the Epiphany every weekday morning at eight o’clock. We must study as the Benedictines and genuinely work at learning our faith in a deep and profound way. WE work on this on our two adult studies each and every week. We must teach as have the Benedictines in their renowned abbey schools. In fact, we have made the first small steps to establishing such a school here in Amherst in cooperation with St. Andrew’s academy. I ask your prayers for that effort intentionally this morning and in the days ahead.

We must work tirelessly as do the Benedictines and be hospitable to the stranger and sojourners so that we can bring them inside the community to teach. I am not certain if there are other ways, but we had better figure this out together, and soon, as the hour has grown very late.

“The actions of our Supreme Court on that Friday six years ago are signs of the times for those with eyes to see. This isn’t the view of wild-eyed prophets wearing animal skins and shouting in the desert” or preaching repentance while chained to the top of a column in the village square. No. “This is the view of four Supreme Court justices, in effect declaring from the bench the decline and fall of the traditional American social, political, and legal order” and the concomitant impending suffering of the traditional Christian order. Witness the events of these last six years.

St. Paul would remind us though that these pains and sufferings, which wring a groan not just from the faithful, but from all of nature, are but the travail pains which lead to birth into a better world. If we allow it, these sufferings will carry us up, up into a higher state than we now know. This is the hope which St. Paul sets before us. This is the hope of all creation-to be delivered from the bondage of our present state, and to be born into a new world wherein dwelleth righteousness.

Now? Now we have sorrow in the experience of the birth pains which precede that deliverance. But, beloved in Christ, morning is coming. Morning is coming and all nature will share with us in the glories of this deliverance. Amen.

-With profound thanks to Mr. Rod Dreher, Eastern Orthodox Christian, whose Time article I have “borrowed” throughout this sermon.

 

               

 

 

 

                  SERMON FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY IN TRINITY-2021

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

and hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him. For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart and knoweth all things. Beloved, if our heart condemns us not, then have we confidence toward God.

 St. John 3:19-21

 

We talk a lot these days about the heart. Apart from our physical health, there is a wealth of material out there dealing with matters of the heart and, far too much media dealing with the affairs of the heart. There are books about the hungry heart, being wild at heart, calming the anxious heart.

We are confronted by the heart in faith holy Scripture contains at least 895 references to the heart. There is the first and great commandment-And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

We know that the heart of the Church is that place where the dedicated and devout spend their lives. This is that special place where faith is as breathing itself for those willing to make the sacrifice to live there in thorough devotion to Christ Jesus. And, for us, there is the heart of the liturgy the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament-which we talked about in the instructed liturgy just last week.

Second Corinthians speaks of the place of Christians who dwell in the heart of Word and Sacrament, AYe are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. Let's listen to part of that passage again: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God

Beloved in Christ, Scripture expresses the depths of the living God in various ways. There are certain passages that summon us they call us to apply our mind, our intellect, to them. As we penetrate them layer by layer, God's mystery and His power come before our minds. But there are other sayings whose real meaning lies beyond the limits of basic thought. The real depth that speaks to us in these passages comes from another source entirely.

This morning we have heard one of the most beautiful sayings in the Bible, in the twentieth verse of the third chapter of the first letter of St. John:  our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.

The saying seems inscrutable how does our own heart condemn us? The depth and meaning of the verse does not come from the intellectual sphere. It speaks of the condemnation of the heart. This means more than that a mind that says to us, you have done wrong, or our conscience which reproaches us and says, you have done wrong. No, the heart condemns us, and that is more than a simple reproach.

 

The condemnation of our minds is tough enough. This kind of condemnation comes with the painful insights of reason—insights we can grasp and turn over and over again. From the condemnation of conscience comes the bitter conviction of guilt—a powerful feeling that looms over us spiritually. Both of these lay a burden on us.

Yet from the condemnation of the heart there comes something more: something that affects us in a very different way; something that hurts us quite differently, something that gives rise to quite a different kind of sorrow. As the late Fr. Romano Guardini wrote in The Living God, the condemnation of the heart comes from far away. The distance from which it comes is beyond measure it comes from the very roots of our lives.

Beloved, there is a kind of wrong to which a name might be given, but from this wrong, there emerges something that is impossible to put into words. Life itself condemns us. Life, God’s own creation and possession, reproaches us with having wronged life itself.

There may be sorrow for the failures of our youth in this accusation. There may be the painful sense of having lost something that can never be made up. We may experience the grief of the love that has not been fulfilled or the deeply oppressive sorrow that life with its yearning for infinity passes so unspeakably quickly. These can be overcome quickly in hope, the hope of Jesus Christ.

Ah, but the sin that the heart condemns is deep-seated. It implies that we have not merely done wrong in some ethical sense, but that we have sinned in a way that has a depth and a grief far greater than any other.

Our reason may jump in and say, What I did was right after all, for this or that reason. What I did had to be. Our conscience may defend itself and say, anyway, my intentions were good. “It couldn’t be avoided, and I had good intentions.” (Remember what the paving blocks of the road to hell are made of.) How many times have we all done that?

Such excuses do nothing for us here. The condemnation of the heart comes from a source beyond the reach of this kind of defense. But, I have still left the basic thing unsaid.

In the condemnation of the heart, it is God Himself who condemns. Wrong has been done to Him. Wrong has been done to the gentle and holy life that He has awakened in the heart, to the holy trust that binds Him to His child. How can our self-defense reach these depths? What possible help is there? John says, Aif our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart.

The answer comes from the same depths as the condemnation itself. The answer is not: you have done right. Your intentions were good. Cheer up. No, the answer is: God is greater than your heart.

Our hearts are great. That is the first thing, and it is amazing that that should be said at all. But God is greater. The heart that has been lost is great. But God is still greater. The heaviness of the heart to which wrong has been done is so great that it sinks. God is the sea of greatness where everything heavy is made light.

What about the wrong that has been done to life it is great. God is the Creator, and God is life and grace. He is great-He is greater than everything. The holiness to which wrong has been done partakes of the dignity of God. His trust has been infringed. That is terrible. But He Himself, His magnanimity, His creative love, is greater than all this wrong.

St. John does not say, cheer up, it isn't so had after all. He does not say, lighten up. Hey, let’s solve this over a beer. Don't take life so seriously. God says, give these things their full weight. Then I will come to you. I am God.

When He comes, we become clear to ourselves. Self-importance will be dissolved, and everything will be fulfilled.

St. John's saying is ineffably profound. Its depth is not an intellectual depth. It comes from another source. It is immeasurable and therefore forever new.

Let us think on these lines again: AIl our heart condemns us. God is greater than our heart-- and then what do we expect to follow: And will console it or and will assuage our suffering? No, what follows are the words Aand knoweth all things.

This knowledge has the brightness of the sun and sets everything in the full truth of its existence. This knowledge has the depth of the sea in which everything sinks. It has the infinite embrace of the love in which everything is redeemed.

Each one of these sentences is deep. The thought behind them goes on and on and never comes to an end. But the deepest thing of all is the relationship among the three clauses in the Epistle passage. That is something in which the mystery of God itself speaks in its original tongue.

We can say insofar as we might want to say anything at all and not rather simply to listen in the quietest place of the heart---that there is an answer to every real and every live question particularly the questions concerning the condemnation of the heart, which is that God is God. That is the final answer, faith=s most authentic answer.

All the less-than-ultimate answers say: this is so because that was so. This is happening because it is the outcome of that. This must be so because it is necessary for this or that purpose. Such answers are good in themselves for their purposes, but each of them raises a new question.

There is only one answer that, provided it is really given, answers every question because it puts an end to all questioning. The answer: that He is who He is.

The sheer greatness of God's being and life offers the final refuge to our troubled souls. God is greater than our hearts. At times we feel overcome by the ineffable greatness of God, but actually, God's greatness comforts and steadies us.

God ... knows everything. We are assured that He fathoms the depths of human consciousness, and comprehends all of those things that make us who we are. We are assured that God can disentangle good from evil in character, can understand the intentions of our hearts as well as our outward deeds. God knows everything with the knowledge of love, and we must say of God's mind what we say of God's will: that he never comprehends or judges manas he never acts toward man in any way except in love. This is not merely an abstract, theological conviction; it is a child's personal experience of the Father's love for with Him. Every day truly is Father's day.

Here is an early Father's day gift to us the gift of a way to a healthy heart. As St. John says, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment. And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.

The commandment places love after belief, for love issues from belief. Belief in God is belief in a living God whose most essential nature is love. To love is to partake of the reality of the living God and brings confidence to our souls because we are united with Him.

We at times may not be able to define our belief logically in terms of thought or be able to argue against doubt particularly when our hearts are hurting, but if our faith issues in works of love, it is real; and in our hearts, we know it. When we love we know who we are and that we are of the truth of God. Our hearts are reassured and do not condemn us. We have confidence before God. Confidence that centers in God, not in ourselves; it is objective, not subjective: God is.

This morning let’s examine our hearts. Better still, let us be open to the Holy Spirit and love God above all with our whole hearts. May we know Him ever more and more and may His law and His love be written on our hearts today and forever. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR PENTECOST (WHITSUNDAY)-2021

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

WHEN the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.”

-Acts 2:1-2

 

Today is the birthday of the Christian Church. We usually celebrate birthdays, so it is very important for us to be celebrating today, this Feast of the Pentecost. It was the Tower of Babel turned upside-down, and what fell out was a glorious manifestation of the grace of God. It was also a tough day for future lay readers: all those forbidding names -- Parthians, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Cappadocians, Phrygians, Pamphyilians -- that whole crowd. In Luke’s geography, they represented “every nation under heaven.” Devout Jews of the Diaspora were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the 50th day after the consecration of the harvest and the Passover. Although bound by a common religious past, their languages and dialects were as diverse as those heard at Ellis Island in the early 1900s.

For the Jewish people at the time of Jesus, Pentecost was one of the three major pilgrimage festivals of Israel. This is why there were so many ‘devout men’ present in Jerusalem at that particular time, all those Parthians, Medes and Elamites, and so on. And the feast also had historical significance for the Jewish people. It reminded them of the time when Moses came down from the mountain of Sinai and brought with him the laws for the Hebrew people. These laws helped them live in basic peace and harmony with each other. There was, obviously a great deal for the Jewish people to celebrate at that time of the year.

But, even against this backdrop, nothing St. Luke tells us concerning the behavior of Jesus’ followers after his Ascension prepares us for the astonishing character of Pentecost itself.

When the apostles rejoin other believers in Jerusalem, they establish an orderly and apparently secluded community life centered on prayer. St. Peter efficiently takes the necessary steps to replace Judas, thereby mending the circle and establishing the correctness of his own leadership. Things seem to be proceeding in a nice, orderly, methodical fashion, right up through the opening verse of Acts 2.

Then, suddenly pandemonium breaks out! Sound overwhelms the room. The whole place was smoking, and the disciples began to look like so many oversized trick birthday candles, crowned with tongues of fire that even the mighty wind could not blow out. We are not told what they said in their Galilean, ex-fishermen, ex-tax collector brogues. We are told, however, of the greatest of all miracles: everyone in the house understood each other. Then something utterly wondrous happened. God happened.

Tongues of fire reach out to seize people. If the speech that comes forth from believers is intelligible, it is simultaneously incredible.

The walls cannot contain either the people or the Spirit that moves them. The multitude came together, and was confounded, and were all amazed and marveled. With an instantaneous shift, the believers are thrust into public view, and the image of order is shattered forever.

They became heroes, fearless in their preaching and traveling and working among people all over the Mediterranean lands. St. Paul tells us in his first letter to the Corinthians that people under the influence of the Holy Spirit could say boldly that “Jesus is Lord” to anyone. They could tell out the good news. And, that sounds pretty ok to us, except that at that time, if you said that anyone was Lord other than the Roman Emperor, you were liable to be killed. Only the Emperor was Lord – yet here were these people proclaiming that Jesus is Lord.

St. Paul goes on to say that people who believe that Jesus is Lord, have all kinds of gifts given to them by the Holy Spirit. They are all different but taken together, the gifts of these people make a huge difference to the community and those who live among them. These communities weren’t interested in status and titles, they were only interested in being Baptised and entering into the Body of Christ, and that made them all equal, Jews and Greeks, slaves and freemen and women. It is a totally amazing message.

That was then. How about now?

Well, we belong to the same family as they did. We are baptized, have individual gifts, believe that Jesus is Lord.

So unruly is the Spirit’s entrance that I think we feel the need to tame it. We want either to individualize or to institutionalize the coming of the Holy Spirit. By “individualize” I mean that we want to make the Holy Spirit’s coming to some sort of private act, a gift bestowed on certain individuals as a result of their own merit. The Spirit grants them astonishing gifts such as the ability to speak in tongues or see visions. In the most extreme form, those who individualize the Spirit see that gift-turned-achievement as normative for all believers. They seem happy to talk about the day of Pentecost almost indefinitely.

On the other hand, those who “institutionalize” the Holy Spirit often find this story disturbing and would prefer to skip it altogether. Since the Spirit moves through the church, the church’s own procedures quickly become the chief locus for the Spirit’s activity, and the Spirit is viewed as only a part of the institution itself.

Both approaches seek to move Pentecost off the streets of Jerusalem and back indoors where things are safe and secure. Out in the open, people will ask questions, they will mock and demand an explanation. Surely everyone will be happier if we can only pack the Spirit s roar and fire and outrageous speech neatly in a box, bringing them out at our convenience and for our own purposes.

The story of Acts demonstrates the absurdity of such a plan, for the Holy Spirit proves an unruly character. The Spirit brings about the pregnancy of a frightened girl. Mary’s praise is proclaimed not through the worthy priest Zechariah, but through his pregnant wife, Elizabeth. When Mary and Joseph take the infant Jesus to the Temple, it is the aged Simeon rather than the local authorities whom the Spirit enables to recognize Jesus as Israel’s glory and the world’s light.

All these events take place long before Pentecost. Perhaps the church’s inauguration will encourage the Spirit to work within the sanctions of ecclesiastical predictability. But no. St. Peter begins the process of catechizing the centurion Cornelius’s household, only to find that the Spirit has already made a decision and will include these gentiles whether the church likes it or not.

Enjoying some success in Phrygia and Galatia, St. Paul unfolds the maps for Bithynia (apparently having decided for himself what course the mission should take), but the Spirit promptly stops him.

Luke portrays the work of the Spirit in ways that frustrate our hankering for “systematic theology.: If the Johannine Jesus tells the curious and confused Nicodemus that the Spirit blows where it chooses, it is Luke who unfolds that truth as he tells story after startling story of the work of the Holy Spirit.

This last week, we have talked about the “end times” in Morning Prayer with readings from the Revelation of St. John. The coming of the Holy Spirit proclaims nothing less than the beginning of the eschaton, its invasion of the world, and its bid for the world’s people. That outpouring manifests itself in individuals who are empowered to speak the Gospel so that it can be heard. Those individuals do not become the Spirit’s handlers, for the third person of the Trinity doesn’t do parlor tricks. It is the Spirit of God, that brings about the speech of evangelists, preachers, and apologists.

By the same token, the outpouring brings about a church, as we see when those who hear St. Peter’s sermon come together in worship, and Sacrament and service. Even when the Spirit later consents to come upon people through the hands of St. Peter and others, it remains the Spirit of God rather than the Spirit of the world.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost are dramatic, they are a taste, a promise of things to come. We want the Spirit to be like airplane coffee, weak but reliable, and administered in small quantities. Or maybe we want the Spirit to be a can of diet soda, bubbly and ubiquitous, and capable of easy ownership.

At the first Christian Pentecost, God's People were gathered together in the community. He breathed his Spirit and changed those followers of Jesus. They were new creatures, for God’s very Spirit dwelling within them. With their words proclaiming God's mighty acts, Jesus' followers breathed out God's Spirit on others.

This is the mystery of Pentecost:  The Holy Spirit illuminates the human spirit and, by revealing Christ Crucified and Risen, indicates the way to become more like him, that is, to be "the image and instrument of the love which flows from Christ"

As the place where we are to have God’s Spirit dwells, we are to be instruments in the world. What we think and say and do is to spread God's life-giving breath to others. How do we measure up to this privilege and responsibility? Are we changed? Are we showing forth Christ in the world?

Beloved, through the sacrament of Baptism, original sin was washed away, and we became temples of the Holy Spirit, children of God, and living members of the Church. Through the sacrament of Confirmation, baptismal grace came to completion. It is through this sacrament that we are bound more perfectly to the Church and endowed with a special strength of the Holy Spirit to fulfill those promises made at Baptism.

Through these sacraments, the Holy Spirit enlightens us with ten special gifts. The three gifts that we receive at our Baptism are faith, hope, and charity. The seven gifts we received at our Confirmation are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.

We need to remember that through these sacraments we have received an amazing treasure. It is through our daily spiritual life that these gifts allow us to persevere on our journey to eternity and allow us to be effective and courageous witnesses of the Gospel. Let us use these gifts and show forth Christ in the world. Let us live out the incredible privilege and awesome responsibility of those who have received them in lives that are truly transformed.

Today, this Feast of the Pentecost, let us join in the plea of the Church gathered:  "Veni, Sancte Spiritus! - Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love!" so that our homes, our community, our nation, and the world may be truly transformed. Amen.

               SERMON FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY IN TRINITY-2021

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

and hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him. For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart and knoweth all things. Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God.@

BI St. John 3:19-21

 

We talk a lot these days about the heart. Apart from our physical health, there is a wealth of material out there dealing with matters of the heart and, far too much media dealing with the affairs of the heart. There are books about the hungry heart, being wild at heart, calming the anxious heart.

We are confronted by the heart in faith Holy Scripture contains at least 895 references to the heart. There is the first and great commandment-And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

We know that the heart of the Church is that place where the dedicated and devout spend their lives. This is that special place where faith is as breathing itself for those willing to make the sacrifice to live there in thorough devotion to Christ Jesus. And, for us, there is the heart of the liturgy the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament-which we talked about in the instructed liturgy just last week.

Second Corinthians speaks of the place of Christians who dwell in the heart of Word and Sacrament, AYe is our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. Let's listen to part of that passage again: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God

Beloved in Christ, Scripture expresses the depths of the living God in various ways. There are certain passages that summon us they call us to apply our mind, our intellect, to them. As we penetrate them layer by layer, God's mystery and His power come before our minds. But there are other sayings whose real meaning lies beyond the limits of basic thought. The real depth that speaks to us in these passages comes from another source entirely.

This morning we have heard one of the most beautiful sayings in the Bible, in the twentieth verse of the third chapter of the first letter of St. John: AIf our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.

The saying seems inscrutable how does our own heart condemn us? The depth and meaning of the verse does not come from the intellectual sphere. It speaks of the condemnation of the heart. This means more than that a mind that says to us, you have done wrong, or our conscience which reproaches us and says, you have done wrong. No, the heart condemns us, and that is more than a simple reproach.

 

The condemnation of our minds is tough enough. This kind of condemnation comes with the painful insights of reason—insights we can grasp and turn over and over again. From the condemnation of conscience comes the bitter conviction of guilt—a powerful feeling that looms over us spiritually. Both of these lay a burden on us.

Yet from the condemnation of the heart there comes something more: something that affects us in a very different way; something that hurts us quite differently, something that gives rise to quite a different kind of sorrow. As the late Fr. Romano Guardini wrote in The Living God, the condemnation of the heart comes from far away. The distance from which it comes is beyond measure it comes from the very roots of our lives.

Beloved, there is a kind of wrong to which a name might be given, but from this wrong, there emerges something that is impossible to put into words. Life itself condemns us. Life, God’s own creation and possession reproach us with having wronged life itself.

There may be sorrow for the failures of our youth in this accusation. There may be the painful sense of having lost something that can never be made up. We may experience the grief of the love that has not been fulfilled or the deeply oppressive sorrow that life with its yearning for infinity passes so unspeakably quickly. These can be overcome quickly in hope, the hope of Jesus Christ.

Ah, but the sin that the heart condemns is deep-seated. It implies that we have not merely done wrong in some ethical sense, but that we have sinned in a way that has a depth and a grief far greater than any other.

Our reason may jump in and say, AWhat I did was right after all, for this or that reason. What I did had to be. Our conscience may defend itself and say, anyway, my intentions were good. “It couldn’t be avoided, and I had good intentions.” (Remember what the paving blocks of the road to hell are made of.) How many times have we all done that?

Such excuses do nothing for us here. The condemnation of the heart comes from a source beyond the reach of this kind of defense. But, I have still left the basic thing unsaid.

In the condemnation of the heart, it is God Himself who condemns. Wrong has been done to Him. Wrong has been done to the gentle and holy life that He has awakened in the heart, to the holy trust that binds Him to His child. How can our self-defense reach these depths? What possible help is there? John says, Aif our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart.

The answer comes from the same depths as the condemnation itself. The answer is not: you have done right. Your intentions were good. Cheer up. No, the answer is: AGod is greater than your heart.

Our hearts are great. That is the first thing, and it is amazing that that should be said at all. But God is greater. The heart that has been lost is great. But God is still greater. The heaviness of the heart to which wrong has been done is so great that it sinks. God is the sea of greatness where everything heavy is made light.

What about the wrong that has been done to live it is great. God is the Creator, and God is life and grace. He is great-He is greater than everything. The holiness to which wrong has been done partakes of the dignity of God. His trust has been infringed. That is terrible. But He Himself, His magnanimity, His creative love, is greater than all this wrong.

St. John does not say, cheer up, it isn't so had after all. He does not say, lighten up. Hey, let’s solve this over a beer. Don't take life so seriously. God says, give these things their full weight. Then I will come to you. I am God.

When He comes, we become clear to ourselves. Self-importance will be dissolved, and everything will be fulfilled.

St. John's saying is ineffably profound. Its depth is not an intellectual depth. It comes from another source. It is immeasurable and therefore forever new.

Let us think on these lines again: AIf our heart condemns us. God is greater than our heart-- and then what do we expect to follow: and will console it or and will assuage our suffering? No, what follows are the words and knoweth all things.

This knowledge has the brightness of the sun and sets everything in the full truth of its existence. This knowledge has the depth of the sea in which everything sinks. It has the infinite embrace of the love in which everything is redeemed.

Each one of these sentences is deep. The thought behind them goes on and on and never comes to no end. But the deepest thing of all is the relationship among the three clauses in the Epistle passage. That is something in which the mystery of God itself speaks in its original tongue.

We can say insofar as we might want to say anything at all and not rather simply to listen in the quietest place of the heart--that there is an answer to every real and every live question particularly the questions concerning the condemnation of the heart, which is that God is God. That is the final answer, faith=s most authentic answer.

All the less-than-ultimate answers say: this is so because that was so. This is happening because it is the outcome of that. This must be so because it is necessary for this or that purpose. Such answers are good in themselves for their purposes, but each of them raises a new question.

There is only one answer that, provided it is really given, answers every question because it puts an end to all questioning. The answer: that He is who He is.

The sheer greatness of God's being and life offers the final refuge to our troubled souls. God is greater than our hearts. At times we feel overcome by the ineffable greatness of God, but actually, God's greatness comforts and steadies us.

God ... knows everything. We are assured that He fathoms the depths of human consciousness, and comprehends all of those things that make us who we are. We are assured that God can disentangle good from evil in character, can understand the intentions of our hearts as well as our outward deeds. God knows everything with the knowledge of love, and we must say of God's mind what we say of God's will: that he never comprehends or judges manas he never acts toward man in any way except in love. This is not merely an abstract, theological conviction; it is a child's personal experience of the Father's love for Him. Every day truly is Father's day.

Here is an early Father's day gift to us the gift of a way to a healthy heart. As St. John says, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment. And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.

The commandment places love after belief, for love issues from belief. Belief in God is belief in a living God whose most essential nature is love. To love is to partake of the reality of the living God and brings confidence to our souls because we are united with Him.

We at times may not be able to define our belief logically in terms of thought or be able to argue against doubt particularly when our hearts are hurting, but if our faith issues in works of love, it is real; and in our hearts, we know it. When we love we know who we are and that we are of the truth of God. Our hearts are reassured and do not condemn us. We have confidence before God. Confidence that centers in God, not in ourselves; it is objective, not subjective: God is.

This morning let’s examine our hearts. Better still, let us be open to the Holy Spirit and love God above all with our whole hearts. May we know Him ever more and more and may His law and His love be written on our hearts today and forever. Amen.

 

               

 

                     SERMON FOR THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN EASTER-2021

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

 

                          “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away...”

-St. John 16:

 

If there is one word in the English language that I can honestly say I hate, it's the word "good-bye." Whenever I just think of saying good-bye to someone my soul aches, my heart beats fast and I physically need to shake myself out of the feeling. Yet, life itself is filled with good-byes. Most of us hate goodbyes–friends moving away because of work, a family going to another city to live, or even those seemingly final goodbyes when a loved one departs from us.

This morning we back up to the events before Easter. In the Upper Room in the night before his crucifixion, Jesus is telling the disciples that He is going away. No parables, nothing couched in a story–Jesus is telling them right out. “It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you...” Of course, the disciples were sad–probably desperately so.

Did they understand that Jesus was trying to speak to them about the coming of the Holy Spirit at the time? I doubt it. Even if they did, would it help them in their sorrow? I have to doubt this too–when they are told that they will lose a familiar bodily presence–their teacher and leader--it probably wasn’t much comfort to be told they are going to have a spiritual presence.

Here is the problem–if the Incarnation of Christ Jesus took place so that we might know God through hearing Him, seeing Him, touching Him, and this comes to an end–where are we now?

Each one of us must have thought upon occasion, in my own case sometimes a little peevishly, “how much easier it would have been if we had known Christ in the flesh, had lived with him and listened to him, had felt his hand laid upon very us in healing; if it had all been visible, and tangible, and obvious?” Now, just like the disciples, if we let ourselves dwell on it, we seem to move in a world of shadows, where we cannot see, cannot hear, cannot feel or touch, we must just believe.

You know, though, Jesus Christ, the living Christ, doesn’t think much of that notion. Jesus says, “It is to your advantage that I go away.” Well, how can that be? What possible advantage is there?

 

For one thing, when he was here upon earth, Christ in the main exerted a local influence that he could exert; but now, the whole world over, the living Christ keeps reaching innumerable souls. More definitely, the Spirit of truth, says Christ, will glorify me, “will take the things that are mine and declare them to you, pressing them home upon you, enabling you to grasp and appropriate them, leading you into all the truth.”

As Luke Timothy Johnson explains in his wonderful book Living Jesus, we also have been left visible evidence of the Incarnate Christ–evidence that more than satisfies our senses. These are three ways in which we can encounter Christ–we meet Him as we hear today in the coming of the Holy Spirit, we meet Him in the study of the scriptures, and we meet Him in the sacramental worship of the Church.

This morning, beloved in Christ, let us look at these three ways of encountering Christ and recognize how they overlap each other.

First, there is the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Paraclete. Now the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. He is in the world. He has always been in the world but not as the Spirit of the incarnate Christ.

We hear in the Gospel of St. John that this could not be until the life and earthly work of the incarnate Christ was completed, including the crucifixion and resurrection. It was then that He received the crown of glory and ascended with great triumph to his throne in heaven.

I tried this morning to think of a way to explain the effect of the Spirit without sounding like a theology book or sounding really silly. Let’s try this. Here then is a bright kid from an average home in let’s say right here in Amherst. He wins a scholarship to UVA and on to MIT. Yes, his old high school is proud of him, they talk about him, and some try to emulate his success; but his name is not on everyone’s lips until he finds a cure for cancer, finds a major research center, and then his influence is worldwide.

It is a weak illustration, but you see the point? Jesus began in obscurity but there came a time when his name, Jesus as Lord, had spread across the Roman Empire. Why? Because the Cross and Resurrection had crowned his work and provided a Gospel for all of us. The Resurrection was God’s acceptance of what he had done, and by it the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit was loosed into the world in a dynamic way as never before.

People caught the Holy Spirit, or, rather the Holy Spirit caught them. Ordinary people; race, sex, and status were no barriers. It was the Spirit of Christ they caught, quite unlike the spirit of the world. It was caught and still is caught

through contact with individuals in whom is the Holy Spirit dwells. It is more commonly caught through the fellowship of the Church.

Beloved, all who are open to the Spirit become open to Christ, open to the incarnate Christ–He is a real person to them although unheard, unseen, and untouched in any bodily or physical way. Time and place play no part in this as they did during the incarnate life of Christ on earth. No wonder Jesus said to his disciples, “It is good for you that I am leaving you.” The incarnate Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit becomes the universal Christ available to us all.

The second thing is Holy Scripture. I have in mind mainly, though not exclusively, the New Testament, but remember the New Testament cannot be fully understood except against the background of the Old Testament. Christianity came into the world as a regenerating Spirit which people caught but it could have no lasting future were it not firmly rooted in the real events from which it arose--the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Christianity cannot bypass, cut loose, or neglect constant attention to its history. This history had to be told. It had to be told by those who had lived close to it and were therefore witnesses. It had to be written down, and it was not much more than thirty years after the crucifixion and resurrection when it was recorded.

The first account came from the pen of St. Mark. Not long after came the testimony of St. Matthew and St. Luke and towards the end of the first century from St John. These accounts are not biographies in the normal sense; that they are called gospels’ marks out their peculiarity as writings. They are proclamations. They preach Christ by recounting what he did and said.

If then we are to know the incarnate Christ now, it is to these gospels we must turn, we have no alternative. And here is a simple but extraordinary fact about them. When they are read by those who profess and call themselves Christians, whether as individuals or in the Christian community, where the Spirit dwells, they take on a vibrant life-don’t they? We saw this in each and every Bible study here at Epiphany.

The incarnate Christ becomes a real presence to the hearer or the reader. What is more, when these scriptures are opened up in preaching they take on the character or function of the Word of God.

What we encounter is not bare history, much less dead history. It is Who we encounter-a dynamic Person, the living Jesus. Christianity lives because of the Holy Spirit, and it also lives because of the scriptures.

The third thing I’d like to share with you this morning concerns the sacramental worship of the Church. Here, I am chiefly thinking about the Holy Eucharist. When in the Upper Room–where we find Our Lord in this morning’s Gospel, He makes plain to his disciples that he was about to leave them, he is saying, “I came from the Father and have come into the world. Now I am leaving the world again, and going to the Father”.

Jesus left them with more than words. He bequeathed something they could see, touch, and taste. He took bread, broke it, and gave it to them. He poured out wine and passed it into their hands to drink. He said, ‘This is my body, this is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.’ As in the Incarnation, he took a physical body to reveal his divine presence, so he took the material substances of bread and wine as the means, or vehicles, of his real presence and of His coming again.

Is it any wonder therefore that the Holy Communion is called Holy, and the elements used for it counted to be sacred? The incarnate Christ was the sacrament in Judaea and Galilee, and the consecrated bread and wine are the sacrament of his presence now.

You see, Sacraments are visible. They can be seen. For most of us what is seen makes a greater impression than what is heard. Hence the greater power of the picture, television, or the internet as compared with sound.

So, in our Christian life, the medium is not only words but an altar set out and vessels for the offerings of bread and wine. They can be seen and handled and tasted.

Not everyone is able to read the Scriptures, not everyone is able to take in what is said in a sermon be it never so straightforward, it passes them by. But something seen that is different, it impinges.

It is something to do with the feet, hands, and mouth that brings the spiritual within the range of a greater range of people than is the case with what is only spoken and hear. I said only because words are spoken with the sacrament.

Jesus spoke when he instituted the Holy Communion. It was not, it never is, a silent sacrament. What is more the scriptures are quoted or read as part of the occasion. There we are invited to hear, to see to touch to taste of Christ that He may dwell in us and we in him. The same can be said of the other Sacraments–certainly of Holy Baptism.

The sacraments are a function of the Incarnation. It was God’s purpose to make himself known to us through the man Jesus, a physical presence. When therefore he left the world to return to the Father, we have the sacraments which have a physical, material form the appointed to us. They are God’s way, God who is Spirit, of making himself known to us who are physical bodies.

Certainly, from Christ’s words in the Upper Room the night before his crucifixion the coming of the Holy Spirit seems to be the way in which the incarnation of Christ has its ministry extended beyond his life on earth. It is the Holy Spirit who is operative in the Holy Communion in the bread and the wine and in the hearts of the communicants making Christ’s presence real.

So, let the whole Church hold both word and sacrament without the diminution of either. They preserve each other. Without the ministry of the word, the presence of God could seem to be brought about by magic. Without the ministry of the sacrament, it could seem to be too vague to grasp.

It is that the living Jesus is with us–tangible, visible, hearable. The Holy Spirit is here at work in Word and Sacrament–just as Christ promised. He is here to reprove and to convict, He is here to comfort and to teach. In the words of the Gospel, He is the Spirit of truth, come, to guide us into all truth: to show us things to come.

He is with us until the very end of time–He is here. Amen.

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY IN EASTER-2021

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

“JESUS said, I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.”

St. John 10:11

 

Because Jesus uses this image of the good shepherd in today’s Gospel, this Sunday is sometimes called “Good Shepherd Sunday”. For at least sixteen centuries, the Church has read this Gospel lesson on this particular day, and it is, of course, obviously appropriate for our consideration of the implications of the Resurrection: we see Jesus as the Divine Shepherd, Son of David, Shepherd-King of the New Israel, who leads his flock through death to life.

It is an image with immediate appeal to imagination and sentiment, but it is also an immensely rich image, with profound lessons for our own spiritual lives.

What kind of image do you associate with “the Lord is my shepherd”? Does your mind’s eye more readily identify with the identity of “sheep” or “shepherd?” What are the responsibilities of sheep and of shepherds? What is expected of us?

 

Have you ever been troubled by the biblical injunction that calls for separating the sheep from the goats? The problem with the analogy is that we know from many other texts (such as this week’s) that Christians should strive to be counted among the sheep.

We know that there will be a separation, a separation of sheep from goats. Goats, with their wily ways (there is yet to be invented a fence which can successfully contain a goat), are the lost, the unredeemed. But being identified as a sheep is hardly complimentary. The meek and mild nature of a “sheep-like” person is rarely admired.

Let’s face it. Sheep are notoriously stupid. Hold up a stick in front of the lead sheep in a procession of the animals and it will nimbly leap up and over the slight barrier. So far, so good. Unfortunately for the reputation of “sheep-sense,” the remaining sheep will also obediently leap up to clear the stick - even if the obstacle is removed after that first beast jumped it. All the other sheep leap to avoid something that is not there. The strength of their flock mentality forces them into the air.

Yet perhaps for that very reason it is good that Christians are identified as “sheep.” Unlike the goats, sheep seem to need each other. The flock, their “community,” is their identity. Not only do sheep need each other, but as their imitative behavior indicates, they need a leader, a shepherd they can depend on. Goats don’t need anybody watching out for them; they are independent to the point of being “headstrong” (ever been butted by a goat?).

The shepherd is the mainstay in the sheep’s lives. Without his attention and care, they would quickly find themselves in trouble. There is a lovely story about an old shepherd. “Don’t count the sheep,” he said, “or else they won’t thrive. “ He meant by this that counting the sheep turned each live, unique animal into an abstraction, a symbol of a sheep, each one like the next one. In this way, one would begin to lose sight of them as individual sheep. One would fail to notice whether they looked healthy, acted normal, and in general, were becoming their best sheep selves.

Shepherding requires a completely different association with sheep. The shepherd is alert, responsive, attentive to details in the lives of each individual sheep, watching out for their well-being, and working long hours to ensure that they thrive.

Jesus’ most distinctive way of teaching was through parables - or as John liked to refer to them, “through figures of speech” (10:6). Jesus also used the parable to skewer his adversaries, often with such subtlety that they failed to recognize their own caricature as it was drawn before them. Another favorite illustrative technique used by Jesus and recorded most prominently in John’s gospel is the “I am” format used to introduce one after another new image of Jesus’ role and mission. Jesus claims “I am” before such images as “the salt,” “the gate,” “the light,” “the leaven,” “the bread,” “the resurrection,” and in this week’s text “the good shepherd.”

The Lord as “shepherd” is probably familiar to every Sunday school child who has recited the twenty-third psalm. There is profound theology in the words of the little girl who began to recite the 23rd Psalm “The Lord is my shepherd, that’s all I want.”

Let’s get that psalm out in your prayer book or Bible. Look at it (read it) again Psalm 23

1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

But the psalm, while it begins by naming the Lord as shepherd, continues from the perspective of the sheep - the believer. Here in John’s Gospel Jesus now elaborates on this image from the perspective of the shepherd.

All these sheep, shepherds, gates, gatekeepers, thieves, and bandits must be explained in sequence. Jesus’ first image is of the guarded sheepfold. In the Middle-Eastern culture of Jesus’ day, the practice was for individual shepherds and their separate flocks to congregate in a common shelter for the night. The gathered flocks were penned together and their safety guarded by a hired gatekeeper. None except the shepherds, who were recognized as contributors to this common flock, would be allowed by the gatekeeper to pass into the fold. The next day each shepherd would enter the guarded enclosure and call to his sheep.

Shepherds named their individual sheep and whistled and called them by name as we might today call a dog. The sheep would respond to the voice of their own shepherd, come to him, and follow him out of the pen into their own grazing lands. Those who were unknown to the gatekeeper and whose voices were unrecognized by the sheep were accounted “thieves and bandits,” sneaking over the walls of the sheepfold to steal from the flock.

Jesus first identifies himself as the gate itself. By inference, the sheep who pass in and out of the gate are safe, for they are attended by their own shepherd. The gate keeps out the “thieves and bandits” - in this context quite obviously the Pharisees who had just driven from the synagogue a man whom Jesus had healed. The thieves Jesus describes have no concern for the individual sheep. Their only concern is to perpetuate themselves, even if it means destroying others.

The hireling, the time-server-perhaps our own selves in our moments of worldly calculation-would persuade us otherwise. The hireling would persuade us that the world is governed by blind fortune, or by chance and that the principle of our life must be expediency. Ah, but, “When the wolf cometh, he fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep”. That hireling has about him a very plausible air of commonsense and practicality; he seems to know how to deal with this world, and get out of it what he can. He seems a fine, worldly sort of fellow, who knows his way around: just the sort of guide a silly sheep might think he needs in a very complicated and confusing world. Yet, sadly; the wolf does come, and “the hireling fleeth”. Nor should we blame him, really. His principle is expediency, and he simply follows the principle for which the silly sheep admired him. There is nothing surprising about it, except, perhaps, our own capacity for such folly.

In verse 11 Jesus now proclaims that he is also “the good shepherd.” As the shepherd, Jesus knows each and every one of his sheep by name. The daily care and safekeeping of the sheep are his responsibility. Furthermore, this responsibility extends even to the point of death.

Unlike the “hired hand” (read Pharisee) who has no personal investment in the safety and well-being of the sheep, the shepherd is motivated by his very identity as their shepherd to do everything he can to protect them.

We celebrate today the shepherd and not the hireling; we celebrate the good, not the expedient. We celebrate the providence which shepherds our life with watchful care, despite our sheepish foolishness; which shepherds our life with watchful care, even “through the valley of the shadow”, even when “the wolf cometh”.

It is profoundly appropriate that we celebrate this in Eastertide, for it is in the miracle of Easter that we see expediency decisively overthrown, and God’s good providence decisively manifest. God brings good from our evil; God brings life from death.

That is what we celebrate each time we celebrate this holy sacrament. For here, Christ dies: his body broken, and his blood outpoured. “The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep”. But here Christ lives and gives himself to be our own new life. and thus, this sacrament is a sign and pledge of that good shepherding which brings us to the fold of God’s eternal Kingdom.

“The Lord is my shepherd Surely, his loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Amen.

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE FIRST SUNDAY AFTER EASTER-2021

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.”

-St. John 20:20

 

I have a very straightforward message to share with you today. It is as simple as the verse I just read to you. It is directed to the question of what you and I will do when we walk out of this parish church this morning. It goes to how we will lead the rest of our lives.

Throughout this Easter week, our readings have had the theme of joy. This particularly was the case at Matins yesterday where we shared Psalm 145. This expresses the joy of the disciples on the first Easter. This is the joy of all disciples on every Easter. Easter joy is a personal joy centered in the Person of the Risen Lord. His disciples are joyful because the Risen Jesus Christ, the center of hope, is alive forevermore.

By His death, He has destroyed death, and by His rising to life again, He hath restored to us everlasting life. However, beloved in Christ, even that is not our first and chief Easter joy.

The first and chief Easter joy is that Our Lord is the Living Lord. Jesus Christ is alive forevermore. He is alive to be with His disciples wherever they are and whatever their circumstances. He is with them always even as He promised unto the end of the world.

You see, life and immortality without Christ Jesus would be empty, as empty as the lonely life through which the first disciples lived from Good Friday afternoon until Easter. They were desolate because they thought they had lost Him. After getting past their fearful incredulity, they were glad when they saw Him. They went on being glad even after they saw Him ascend into Heaven because they knew that He would always live with them. They knew that they would never be separated from Him again.

This was all they thought about. They had neither the inclination nor the time to think about anything else. Their Easter gift was the gift of their Lord restored to them, and that meant everything to them. They were contented because they had Him. He was their life. All life for them was bound up in Him. He had risen. That was enough. Everything was all right again.

The disciples have not left a word to indicate that they were thinking about the gift of everlasting life as being a gift to themselves. Their joy was selfless. They turned that joy outward, toward others.

These were real disciples, authentic disciples in a world that increasingly worries over “authenticity”. The Lord had changed the life of each one of these men and women. They knew Him intimately. They loved and adored Him, each for a reason all his and her own. They believed it and lived accordingly. Let me emphasize: they believed, and they lived accordingly.

Saint Mary Magdalene had a reason for undying gratitude. So had Saint Peter. So had the other disciples. The life with Him before the Crucifixion had given them new selves and a new world. Then came the dismay and the darkness. But then, beloved in Christ, then came the joy and the light. He was the joy and the light. He had come back. They were exceedingly glad when they saw Him. This is the whole story of the first Easter.

There is an image of newness if you will. After Easter, the disciples literally walked in the newness of life. They were manifestly new persons because they had left their former lives on one side of the Cross. They took up new lives on the other side of the Cross. The former things had passed away, and all things had become new. Their former sins dropped away. Our Lord never mentioned them. Their former weaknesses were not remembered, and they were wholly transformed by the power of the Resurrection.

Our Lord trusted them. He trusted them with responsibilities and duties in His Kingdom. And the disciples? After their initial shock, they never doubted nor hesitated. They believed in their forgiveness, and they accepted their transformation. Let’s repeat that. They believed in their forgiveness, and they accepted their transformation.

What was the result? They were frankly happy, and they were wonderfully and truly peaceful. These were people who belonged to Our Lord, and they knew it. There was no smugness or self-congratulation in this transformed state. Simply, the power of His Resurrection made spiritual giants of them all.

So they went from strength to strength through the Great Forty Days of Eastertide. So they were prepared for Ascensiontide. When the day of Pentecost came, they were ready for it.

Beloved in Christ, Christ Jesus expects the very same of us-you and me. Our Lord expects us to do what they did. Have no doubt, you and I can do it. We are His disciples. We have our share in the power of His Resurrection.

We should have no fear of being presumptuous in this because we trust Him, not ourselves. We trust in the power of His resurrection to make us new creatures. “Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The first step toward joy, the joy of the disciples, is faith. Faith is the beacon that guides the soul along the path of penitence. The true penitent trusts boldly and believes firmly in the promises of God. He or she writes the record of their sins and delivers that record to be nailed, like a bit of parchment, to the Cross: There it hangs. Upon it the Precious Blood drops and saturates it; renders it illegible; blots out the handwriting and leaves the parchment a shrunken particle of pulp.

The sun dries it, and the wind scatters it. And it is gone, gone beyond recovery, gone beyond recall. This is the faith that leaves the old life before the Cross and presses on to the new life which is beyond the Cross, and, having found it, never looks back.

There is too much that is important ahead of us. There no time for the world that we have left behind. The new world is all that matters. This was what the disciples did on that first Easter, and it is what we must do this Eastertide.

Lent was the time to walk in penitence over the old life. Easter is the time to walk in the newness of life. We must be as diligent in the Easter faith as we were in the Lent repentance. We must set ourselves to the business of learning to walk in the newness of life. We must walk without looking back. We must leave our former fears on the far side of the Cross.

In the prayer of St. Francis Xavier for Easter, we learn there is no longer cause or place for uncertainty or anxiety. Sad thoughts are over. Whatever there may be of temporal burdens, life for us possesses a deep undertone of joy, for joy is the sure reward of faith.

So, let us live Easter lives-lives filled with joy-the joy that comes from faith in the living Jesus and in and through His glorious Resurrection. It is meet and right so to do. Amen.

 

 

 

SERMON FOR EASTER DAY-2021

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

And he sayeth unto them: ‘Be not affrighted: You seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.’”

-St. Mark 16:6

 

 

On this glorious Easter morning, we stand face to face...with emptiness. The Cross-is empty. Its precious burden is taken down and laid to rest. The tomb is empty–the stone is rolled back and He who had been laid there has risen. The graves of the saints are empty–they have gone out, risen, and are seen among us. Hell itself stands empty this day–Christ has battered down its gates. It is an emptiness in which lies our salvation.

Our Lord Jesus Christ poured Himself out to the point of profound emptiness–sacrificial emptiness–something that we actually felt from Maundy Thursday to Good Friday. Through the long hours of the Vigil of Easter, we are confronted by the cry of the Psalmist, the same cry of our Lord, “I am all poured out.” In the dark of Good Friday night, we meditated on the meaning of the presence of Christ, a reminder of His promise that He is always with us–even in the Good Fridays of our own lives.

As St. Paul said in his Epistle to the Philippians, Our Lord, “...being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation (he emptied himself), and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” (Phil. 2:6-8)

When Christ was crucified, the world itself seemed to empty, the sun hid its light, the rocks were rent, the earth shook in grief. Again the words of the Psalmist, “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.” (Ps. 22:14)

One of the soldiers pierced His side with a lance, and at once there was a flow of blood and water. (John 19:5:6). Our Lord’s precious blood poured forth after he gave up His spirit in one last earthly emptying to show that His love is stronger than death.

Blood and water came forth; blood the price of redemption; water the symbol of regeneration and baptism. St. John who witnessed the scene wrote about it later, “This is He who came by water and blood: Jesus Christ. He came not by water alone, but by water and blood.” (I John 56:6).

 

Earlier, on Thursday night, Our Lord poured Himself into the Holy Eucharist–in His Body and Blood. He poured himself out in humility as a servant as He washed the feet of the disciples. Friday...Friday He poured Himself out on the Cross for us.

It is a special charism of the Western Church to feel this outpouring, to reach a point of emptiness–we have looked these three days past at what the world might be like without Christ. While we know of His promise that He is with us always, we also know of emptiness, the nothing, the naught that is palpable evil. It is brought sharply into focus in Easter Triduum.

For those who did not keep a good Lent, there is sadness and a continuing emptiness. For if we do not witness this kenosis, this pouring out or, more importantly, if we ourselves are not poured out, we cannot really taste the incredible fullness of this day. If we have not poured out our sins, our pride and affections, and love of the things of this world, there is no room to be filled with the living Christ. If we have not emptied ourselves of our tears, how can we rejoice?

At the bottom of the glass, when there seems nothing left when all appears empty. We begin to see the fullness, the fullness brought to us in the Passion and death of our Lord, the fullness and the completion that awaits in the Resurrected life, our life in and with Christ.

We begin to see the fullness in Baptism in which we die with Christ, in which we die to the world to be given the indescribable fullness of the life everlasting. We are stripped, washed, and made regenerate.

We see this fullness in the Eucharist. Here is Christ in His Real Presence–He is with us visible the gift of His most precious body and blood. He invites us to be filled–filled with His grace and heavenly benediction. As Gregory of Nyssa observed, being united to the Lord our human nature is lifted up to share in Christ’s divinity. Or perhaps as we hear in the order of the Mass, We can dwell in Him and He in us–Christ can fill us completely.

St. John Baptist, looked forward and glimpsed it “.., saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me. Of his fullness have all we received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” (John 1:15-17)

This day, this Easter morning we stand with the faithful women looking on the empty tomb there in front of us. They are at first terrified–they have faced the emptiness of losing their friend, their teacher, their pardoner, their absolver. Now, the body is gone, and the loss is profound. However, the day is come, and the angel has given them the news, He is not here, he is risen.

That message of the fullness that has been given to the world is beginning to come to us in the breaking of a truly new day. “For it pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell; And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth or things in heaven.” (Col. 1:19-20)

St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians expresses what was wrought in Christ, when the Father “raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, Which is his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.” (Ephesians 1:20-23)

You and I are called upon this morning to live in this fullness of the risen Lord–the living Jesus. This is something that happened not once two thousand years ago but continues to happen. We are people of the resurrection. “If you have risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. . .You are dead and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ our life shall appear, then shall you also appear with him in glory" (Col.3:1-4).

We began that resurrection life already in the sacrament of Baptism, we have it always in our grasp in the Eucharist. Now, how do we live it? Are we filled by the risen Lord?

It is hard for us at first. Even St. Mary Magdalene did not so much as recognize him when he was standing right in front of her until he spoke her name, “Mary.” Then all she could manage was to try to embrace his feet (John 20:llff.). Just a touch.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize either Jesus risen, as he walked along with them and explained to them all of the things that happened in Jerusalem those previous days. Cleophas and the other disciple did not recognize him until they invited him into their home and he sat down with them at the table, and took bread, and broke it, and gave it to them. Then, they recognized him, says St. Luke, in the “breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). And they were filled–filled by the living Jesus, filled in that bread broken for them, filled with awe that Christ has returned from the dead, filled with the realization that the words of the prophets had been full-filled. In 40 short days, these and the other disciples will be filled with the Holy Spirit and, in turn, fill others with the good news of the living Jesus.

We have every reason to rejoice from the bottom of our hearts on this glorious Easter morning and to approach our Redeemer with joyous Alleluias. Christ died for us, he has emptied Himself in love and ultimate sacrifice, and He has given us an example in Passion and death that we should follow in His footsteps. As Christ has risen on this day of the Resurrection, so shall we arise and enter upon our new life.

For to know this love of Christ, the love represented by the Cross and Resurrection, this love which passes our own understanding, is to be ye might be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:19) For in Him dwelleth all of the fullness of the Godhead bodily. We are complete in Him. (Colossians 2:9-10)

Be filled this Easter Day, be filled with Jesus Christ.

He is risen! Amen, Alleluia!

 

 

 

 

                      SERMON FOR MAUNDY THURSDAY-2021

                (Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.

 

-St. John 13:15

 

During the course of this Lent, we have heard many messages as we walked along the road leading to the Cross. We have heard our Lord’s call to penance and to intensify our struggle against sin, death, and the devil -- all of the things that keep us from loving God and one other. This is the struggle to which we were committed at Baptism. Our armor is God’s forgiveness and the power of His Spirit to amend our lives. This is our hope even as we walk our own ways of the Cross, sustained on that path by prayer, and by Word and by Sacrament.

Now, this night, we are called particularly to pay heed to the message of servant-hood-of ultimate servant-hood and sacrifice. For this is the night in which Christ was betrayed-this is the beginning of the end and the end of the beginning. It all starts with a betrayal.

As we hear in Psalm 41, “Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me.” Let’s hear that again, “My own familiar trusted friend is the one who will betray me.” King David prophesied it, and Jesus echoed him all along, saying that it would be one of his friends who would betray him into the hands of the people who wanted him dead -- one of His twelve followers who had heard all His sermons, had seen all His miracles and was at the table this very night -- one of His disciples.

Judas Iscariot had received a payoff of thirty pieces of silver from the highest temple officials in exchange for a fairly simple and mundane piece of information. The priests and scribes were afraid they would bring on the wrath of the crowd if they moved against Jesus in public, for it was a time in which the crowd might still be outraged by the murder of an innocent. There might be an uprising. So they needed to know where Jesus was likely to go where they could arrest Him away from the spotlight.

Judas knew that when He was in Jerusalem, Jesus liked to pray in a garden on the Mount of Olives. Indeed, on Thursday evening after the Passover meal, Jesus went, as predicted, to the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas took an arrest party there and identified Jesus by kissing him on the cheek. “Mine own familiar friend in whom I trustedY.mine own familiar friend.”

Maundy Thursday is a night of ironies and reversals. A friend will betray a friend. The One who is betrayed gives that betrayer a piece of bread dipped in gravy - this shows that the betrayer is the honored guest at supper. This “honored guest” will then see to Christ’s arrest.

Christ washes the feet of his disciples. He washes the dirt and dust from the feet of those who would variously betray, deny, and just plain run away from Him. In doing so, Christ sets an example for us, to love one another, to be servants to each other as Jesus Himself became our servant. This loving service is signified in the washing of feet, following that example the Lord gave us on the night before his death. But, do we follow that example?

Well, let’s go back to irony and reversal. Christ washed the feet of the disciples and, particularly His honored guest-He washed the feet of Judas. Later that night, Judas will identify his friend who has served him to the authorities with the universal signal of affection -- a kiss. What a signal picture of irony!

But there is more, the happy Passover celebration turns to chaos as Jesus is taken prisoner to jail and His friends, His disciples run away. The disciple who professed the most love and loyalty sells Jesus out. The inner circle of three disciples all fall asleep when Our Lord needs their support most. St. Peter, the rock, will deny Christ not once, not twice, but three times.

Tomorrow-tomorrow, when Christ is scourged, spat upon, mocked, and killed, all but one of these men are nowhere to be found. They will be in hiding. These are the people who walked with Christ, heard His teaching from His lips, witnessed the miracles, and were even themselves given the authority to teach and to heal!

It is in the midst of this utter mess of treachery and weakness that Jesus gives us the most powerful and objective evidence of his continuing presence among us and his abiding love for us. He says, “This is my body. This is my blood ... Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” And this is the final irony of Maundy Thursday.

What of us? Where do we find ourselves this night? Let’s put it in terms of the disciples.

Like Iscariot, do we betray Him-do we betray Him in many ways, great and small--in our sins and our selfishness? Or, like St. Peter, do we deny him-do we claim to know Him only when it suits us when it is safe and there is no risk to our social standing or to our livelihood?

Like the disciples, do we fall asleep when we should be standing by Christ’s side alert and about the work He has given to us? Or worse....do we run away from Him when the going gets tough?

Perhaps we are in hiding staying out of the world, keeping our faith behind closed doors. Who knows what might happen if our boss, or our neighbor, or our children’s teachers, or someone we have to “get along” with found out we are Christians. Perhaps it is better to hide all that from those we allow to have authority over our lives lest something bad happens to us.

The final irony is that we can do all of that and still He is with us to wash away our betrayals, our denials, our sins. He is there to cleanse us, to purge us, to anneal us. Christ is here as the suffering servant in His Passion and Death to save us. He is here despite our “manifold sins and wickedness” to love us.

What we are witnessing is the beginning of the biggest reversal ever-it is the reversal of the fall-the restoration of mankind to the Father through ultimate acts of servant-hood. It is the reversal of decay and death in the creation and the beginning of its renewal. It is all done by a servant who would wash the feet of those who would betray or deny Him, it is to be done by a servant who would serve those who will kill Him. It is ironic, it is reversed, and it surely will save us. Amen.

 

 

 

SERMON FOR PALM SUNDAY-2021

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Virginia)

 

What shall I do with Jesus which is called Christ?”

 

-Matthew 27:22

 

What shall we do with Jesus? That’s the question for Palm Sunday. What shall we do with Jesus which is called Christ? Pilate’s question everyone's question, regardless of their belief or lack of it.

It is a question that provokes thought, and, as we come to the beginning of this Holy Week, I find that I am thinking about the characters in the drama of our Lord’s Passion; two people, in particular, two men who are in the foreground of the Passion narrative: Pontius Pilate and St. Simon of Cyrene.

There have been a number of studies and articles written about Pilate-in fact, a quick search on Google will turn up no fewer than 577,000 articles about this Roman official. These pieces examine the position of Pilate, his actions and reactions to the crowd, his ultimate decisions. There are even a few pieces on how unfairly God treated him: there’s a catch-this Roman magistrate who gave the Lord of the universe over to crucifixion getting a bad rap.

Well, that’s certainly a puzzler. Pilate is briefly mentioned by Philo, a Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria (c. 25 B.C. — A.D. 45). Flavius Josephus (c. A.D. 37 — 100), the Jewish historian who witnessed the Roman invasion of Palestine, also took note of him, as did Tacitus, a Roman historian (c. A.D. 55 — 120). Tacitus simply said that “Christus, from whom [the Christians] derived their name, was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius Caesar.” (Annals 15.44)

Both Philo and Josephus paint a very stark portrait of the Roman ruler. Pilate is characterized as oppressive, greedy, stubborn, and cruel. Philo specifically catalogs “his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity.” (Gaium 302)

We know that he was appointed procurator of Judea in A.D. 26, and held office for ten years. Judea was a tough little province with lots of political violence and the procuratorship-the governorship--was not an easy job. Pilate was probably the kind of man who would seek that kind of appointment-probably as a stepping stone. He has some fourteen quotes in Scripture, memorable sayings, “Art thou the King of the Jews?” “I find no fault in this man.” “What shall I do then with Jesus, which is called Christ?”

St. John Chrysostom spoke almost approvingly of Pilate, referring to his desire to let Christ go. Perhaps there was something a bit self-serving in the tone, but Pilate could find no wrongdoing and attempted to shame the crowd into a release. “To save Christ out of humanity...” is what Chrysostom said. That’s pretty remarkable. To save him out of humanity-to save him from us. To save him from the ones he came to save.

Maybe that’s why we don’t like Pilate. Here he was, the Roman official who could have rescued Christ from His saving work. He couldn’t manage it and gave Him over to His own to kill Him. Pilate didn’t save Christ and didn’t save us from ourselves. That’s pretty convicting, isn’t it?

Beloved in Christ, this Palm Sunday we are called to look at this little sideshow before this obscure Roman official serving in a miserable little backwater of the empire called Jerusalem-we are called to ponder Pilate.

In the events of Passion Week, Pilate soon will become a part of a daily remembrance in the Christian Church. Think about that. Every time we say the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed we remember Pilate-he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Every time we think on Pilate, we are called to look at ourselves, and it’s going to be a pretty tough look. It is difficult because we are faced each and every day with Pilate’s Question, “What shall I do then with Jesus, which is called Christ?”

In His initial questioning, Jesus admitted to being the King of the Jews, but He refused to answer the accusations of the chief priests and elders. His silence caused Pilate to marvel greatly. In fact, Pilate sought to release Jesus, but the crowd asked for Barabbas instead. This prompts Pilate to ask that question: “What then shall I do with Jesus which is called Christ?”

The psalmist poses it this way, “Who is this King of glory?” It is the same question, really. Most people would prefer to ignore it, many try to let others make the choice (as did Pilate), and some even try to turn it back on Christ in a situational way, asking, “What would Jesus do?” We know what Jesus would do, He has told us and lived it out for us-he will love, sacrifice, forgive, die, rise, and save. But what shall we do with Him and with all of that? We cannot run away from the question because we shall all one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ and His words and life will be the standard by which we will be judged. So each one of us should constantly be asking ourselves, “What Then Shall I Do With Jesus?”

Pontius Pilate was confronted with alternatives when he asked what he should do with Jesus. So are we. We can be content to admire Christ and offer him an occasional nod, or even a festival from time to time complete with palms. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” We love to sing those words from Psalm 24, “Lift up your head, O ye gates; and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors.” That is a safe choice which permits us for the rest of the time to fill our lives with other things-entertainment, sports, business, the usual stuff. But, beloved, do we really want the last part of that psalm verse “the King of glory shall come in?” The King of glory comes in, and all of that other stuff goes out!
We can ignore Jesus, or try to ignore him, and, at the same time forget that indifference is a crueler slur than any outright opposition. As Dante said, “
The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality. There is nothing harder than the softness of indifference.”

We can just reject Jesus, as did Pilate and the Scribes and Pharisees. We can crucify him. That is still the favorite course. Many people, even some so-called “church people”, who pay him lip service, would condemn him were he to reappear in the flesh and speak as he did in Palestine.

Whatever we do, though, he reappears--just when we think He’s not around; and then we have to ask that question again, “What shall I do with Jesus?” To help answer it, we need to consider another question first. “What has Jesus offered us?”

Well, He has provided hope an authentic chance-a chance for an abundant life, filled with true peace. He offered us a chance to find salvation. He has offered us a chance to enjoy cleansing from sin through faith His blood. These are pretty fair chances-surely more than the crowd was willing to give Christ. Certainly better than our friend Pilate gave Him.

Jesus also has provided the conditions for the chance. We must believe in Him. We must repent of our sins. We must confess our faith. We must be baptized. These are pretty fair conditions-farer than the conditions given by men to Christ.

Jesus also has offered alternatives: reject Him, and we will die in our sins to face the terrible consequences. Believe in Him, and we receive everlasting life. These are pretty fair offers-out in the open, clear, and not clouded by night and machination-like the speedy trial Jesus received.

So, now that we know what’s on offer, and that we have a fair chance. Let’s get back to the original question: what will we do with Jesus?

Well, some have tried, like Pilate tried to pass the choice on to others-in his case the crowd. Watch the moves of the consummate bureaucrat. Pilate spars for time, waffling as to his own course. In his fear of his boss Tiberius, he could neither condone treason nor punish the innocent. In his hatred for the temple leaders he had no wish to do their desire, but he had still to consult his own interests.

He hoped that the crowd might plead for the release of Jesus. That would let him off the hook. He could appear to befriend Pilate, the beneficent Pilate, the appeasing hand of Roman government Pilate. Thus, his question. Yet, every question Pilate asked has become an unwitting tribute to Jesus, and Pilate just reflects Jesus’ radiance. According to Luke, Pilate twice declared that he could find “no-fault” (Luke 23:4, 14) in Jesus; according to John, the protestation was made three times (John 18:38; 19:4, 6). Then he tries to pass the buck, to hand it off to the priests or the crowd to decide.

Are we guilty of doing something similar today? Are we trying to let others decide for us what we will do or believe about Jesus? Or are we working on our faith, learning, and growing in Christ. Are we praying? Are we praying as He did for us even in the last moments on the Cross?

We hear from the Acts of the Apostles, that some people in Athens simply mocked. A lot of folks take this route. Rather than make the effort to decide what they should do, they simply laugh-they laugh Him away and go about the business of the world. Unlike Pilate, who really didn’t get the opportunity, some would just ignore him.

Then there are the sophisticates, people like Felix we meet in the Acts of the Apostles-he asked St. Paul for an explanation of this Jesus fellow he had heard about. When he got it, he tried to wait for a more convenient time. Too busy now-let me get you down in the iPhone for later…later. This is another pretty common reaction. Felix hoped through delay, he wouldn’t have to make the choice.

We can’t pencil in a date for later, because we cannot escape the fact that we will one day be judged by Him. He told us right upfront. What can we do? What should we do?

Well, first thing, let’s not join the crowd howling for Barabbas. We can do this by accepting His gracious offer of salvation by obeying Him-we can image the supreme obedience we heard of in today’s epistle. We can become His disciples, committed to doing what He commanded, our knees bowed to him. We can grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. We can walk in Him, even when it means walking the way of the Cross, we can walk well-established in the faith. We can develop the mind of Christ, the attitude of sacrifice and service.

This is where our second figure comes in-St. Simon, up in the big city from the populous Jewish colony at Cyrene. How little Simon could have guessed when he left Cyrene, what would befall him in Jerusalem!

They say that timing is everything, and St. Simon didn’t get to Jerusalem for the trial-he arrived after the condemnation. But he too was hit square on with the question, “What shall I do with Jesus?”

In their meeting, Jesus was already sinking under the weight of the crossbeam: he was weak from the scourging. The Roman soldiers grabbed hold of St. Simon for the task of bearing the Cross. We do not know if Simon’s face had shown pity or if he resented the burden. One moment he was a spectator, the next moment he is moving in that awful procession arm over arm, face to face with the condemned Jesus.

He saw two thieves-presumably robbers, men of violence. Who was the third? He did not look like a man of violence. St. Simon was carrying that man’s cross, a fate reserved for rebels against the empire and for the lowest criminals.

What did Jesus say to Simon as they trudged toward Calvary? Jesus spoke to the weeping women (Luke 23:27-31): it is hard to imagine that he was silent to Simon. Perhaps St. Simon then and there became a follower of Christ. Perhaps the word which Jesus spoke and the blessing he gave were so God-laden that Simon became a new man. I’d like to think that Simon sought out Jesus’ disciples and that he was with them in the joy of the Resurrection. We do not know.

I think we can be forgiven for imagining that when Simon reached his home in Cyrene, he called his boys and wife, and began to tell them: “Hear…hear what happened to me in Jerusalem!” Unlike us St. Simon of Cyrene didn’t have the option of indifference-he was dragged to Christ’s side and afflicted with His burden. He still had a chance to answer the questions, “What shall I do with that weight, what shall I do with the Cross, what shall I do with Jesus?” We know how he answered the questions-we know that St. Simon’s sons Alexander and Rufus became Christians. We know what they did with Christ.

Really, it is not given to any of us merely to look on: we are born under obligation. God incarnate in his Son carries a heavy crossbeam to Calvary. There really are only two courses open to us: to help crucify him, or to help carry his Cross.

Beloved in Christ, we have entered Holy Week. It is Holy week and the stakes are very, very high. We will see just how high they are on Good Friday. Let’s not think we can answer the question by simply ignoring Jesus. He hasn’t and won’t go away. He died, rose again, and has promised that He is with us always. Simply ignoring the living Lord of Lords just doesn’t answer the question.

Let’s also not think that we are doing anything WITH Him simply not doing anything actively against Him. That’s again like Pilate-and it won’t stand up to the events we are to face this week. As Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew, “He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad.” We are either with Him or we are not. We either carry the Cross, or we will not win heaven.

Jesus has given us every reason to accept and obey Him as our Savior and Lord. Let us forget Felix and pass over Pilate. Let’s not put Christ off, hand Him off to someone else, or wash our hands. That puts us in the mob on Good Friday. Let’s be with Him-like Simon of Cyrene-let us be with Him all of the way up the hill. Let us be with those faithful-- Mary, Mary Magdalene, and St. John, through trial and passion and death and Resurrection. Let us stand in His light no matter what the cost. Let that be what we will do with Christ. Amen.

 

 

SERMON FOR PASSION SUNDAY-2021

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)


 

Jesus answered, I have not a devil, but I honor My Father, and ye do dishonor Me. And I seek not Mine own glory: there is One that seeketh and judgeth.”

-St. John 8:49-50

 

Passiontide has begun. What does that mean? Isn’t Lent just Lent? Beloved in Christ, in Passiontide, we are to intensify our meditation upon the events leading up to Our Lord’s Passion and Death. We are to make a special effort to call to mind how the sins of mankind, our sins, caused the Second Person of the Trinity to suffer unspeakable horrors.

Just as Septuagesima Sunday ushered in a period of preparation for the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, Passion Sunday ushers in a final week of preparation for Palm Sunday and Holy Week. We should be earnest about intensifying our Lenten practices, especially in Penance and taking on a burden, an extra Cross.

People often ask, “But, father, how about some concrete advice? Something we can really use, you know practical?” One of the concrete things we can do this Passiontide is to offer a word or two of forgiveness to someone who has hurt us, and even tougher, to seek such forgiveness from others we may have hurt. There are dangers. A person who we offer forgiveness to might reject our offer and remain steadfast in a spirit of self-righteous resentment. A person from whom we seek forgiveness may refuse to give it to us.

Nevertheless, we must make the effort, understanding once again that nothing is ever wasted with God. No prayer is ever wasted. No effort to offer forgiveness or to seek it is ever made in vain. This discipline of forgiveness is the crux of the Passiontide message-a message of humility and setting aside of self.

I was meditating on this aspect of Passiontide early Thursday as I was waiting for some workmen. I re-read this morning’s Gospel lesson. I had finished preparing a sermon for today, but something pulled me back to the passage for this Passion Sunday. It is a “passionate passage” filled with a heated argument between the Pharisees and our Lord—an exchange that led them to attempt to stone Him to death on the spot.

I was reminded of a hymn, number 63, written by Ventantius Fortunatus, who also wrote the hymn Pange Lingua. Hymn 63 begins, “The royal banners forward go; The Cross shines forth in the mystic glow.” This is one of those old-fashioned hymns—one of the ones that stick in the mind for days each time we sing it. It commemorates the going forth of the great Captain of our salvation to that conflict by which the world was redeemed. It is a song of praise that celebrates the wondrous things He has done for us.

After all, my beloved, if a man keeps [His] saying, “he shall never see death.” But are we hearing the words of the message? If a man keeps Christ’s word, “he shall never see death.

Today, Passion Sunday, we receive a gift and a double-barrelled lesson-the gift of the Cross, and the twin lesson of humility and obedience. They are intertwined, complex, and, at once a terrible burden and ultimate liberation.

In the Gospel we read Christ’s proclamation: “I honor My Father; I seek not My own glory.” He honored His Father by doing His Father’s will, being obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross. In obedience and humility, He accomplish­ed His Father’s purpose of redeeming the human race; for “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

But, let’s stop a moment and look at the argument that precedes our text. It culmin­ates in the bitter attack, “Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?” Look at our Lord’s calm and dignified answer, and think about it in light of His passion.

“I honor My Father.” This was the purpose of Christ’s life. How was it carried out? By loyal and loving obedience which didn’t shrink either from suffering or from death. The work of the Cross is a perfect accomplishment of the work which His Father gave Him to do. As Christ said, “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me and to accomplish His work.” Again, when His life was drawing to a close, in the great High Priestly prayer uttered just before He entered the Garden of Geth­semane, He said, “I have glorified Thee on earth: I have accomplished the work which Thou gavest Me to do.” And finally, having reviewed His life from the watchtower of the Cross, He said, “It is finished”-it is accomplished. His life was finished; the work of His Father was perfectly accomplished, and our redemption of man was secured.

“And ye do dishonor Me.” The contrast between Christ and the Pharisees is strikingly brought out. He honors His Father, and they dishonor Him Who is one with the Father. They dishonor Him by saying, “Thou hast a devil,” by attributing the miracles which He accomplished by the finger of God, the Holy Ghost, to Satanic agency; and this was the sin against the Holy Ghost.

And what about us? …What about us? How many, many ways do we dishonor Jesus Christ? In these last weeks of Lent, this is a fitting meditation. It is easy to point away from ourselves and out at the world, particularly the secular parts of it. How easy it is to look outside of our own failings and go on about how “those folks out there” dishonor our Lord. It is easy to declaim that others are “Samaritans,” and that their work is the work of the Devil. We even have those in the body of Christ who make such claims with respect to other bodies of believers. They think it might spare them from having to glance in the mirror, I suppose.

But, this isn’t an easy business. You and I don’t have the ability to see into other’s hearts; and, you know, self-examination is not so easy. It requires humility and the setting aside of pride. In the words of the Epistle, it requires us to purge our “conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” In the pointed words of the prophet Isaiah (1:16-17) right from the start, “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.”

This is the penitential spirit-this is the heart of Lent. It is the plea of the Psalmist:

“Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightiest be justified when thou speakest and be clear when thou judgest.” (51:2-4) We are being called as Christians to set aside pride, put on true repentance, and be humble.

Now, listen to the words of Christ Jesus, “I seek not Mine own glory: there is One that seeketh and judgeth.” He sought the glory of His Father, but not His own glory. He left the care of that to His Father-“There is One that seeketh and judgeth.” “If I honor (glorify) myself, my honor is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth Me.”

This Lent-in our lives as Christians-who are we honoring? “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD.” (Isaiah 1:11). Because “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart.” Beloved in Christ, this penance, this is the humility of the Cross.

Our lessons of obedience and humility are found in the events of Passiontide. They are summed up in that wonderful passage in Philippians which forms the Epistle for next Sunday: “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not a prize to be seized on to be equal with God: but emptied Himself by taking upon Him the form of a slave, and by becoming in the like­ness of men: and being found in fashion as a man He humbled Himself and became obedient as far as death, even the death of the Cross.”

Picture yourself in one of those scenes to be found in history. A great patriot goes forth to battle, to lead a forlorn hope, and to die for his country’s freedom. It is epic film imagery. Mel Gibson seems to have built a career on this-Braveheart, The Patriot, and the history channel has some great stories of heroes (at least when they are not doing another DaVinci Code-Real Jesus special!) Thank heaven there are those willing to venture all against incredible odds for right and truth because evil does triumph when good men do nothing.

Yet, this Passion-this is something more. It is the Son of God going forth to die, not to redeem a country, but the entire human race. In Gethsemane we see Him facing the issue “with strong crying and tears,” going forth alone to the fight. “I have trodden the wine­press alone: and of the peoples, there was none with me.”

On Calvary Good Friday we will see its con­clusion. What dishonor! The scourging, the mocking, the spitting upon, the crucifixion.

Yet what victory! “It is finished.” “I have glorified Thee on earth: I have accom­plished the work which Thou gavest Me to do.” And then in Heaven, the song of the redeemed: “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory, and honor, and power,” and the chorus of every creature, “Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb forever and ever.”

Do we want to hear about the meaning of life? Isn’t this a revelation of the purpose of life, the purpose for which we were created to glorify God, to honor Him? Isn’t this what we pray for first in the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be Thy Name.”?

If we make this the object of our lives, the world may oppose us. No, let me rephrase that, the world will oppose us! As St. Peter tells us, “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you.” (I Peter 4:12)
But our Father which is in Heaven will glorify us, and our Master, the Captain of our salvation, will invite us when the fight is over to reign with Him.

How many people start with precisely the opposite view of life, making its chief end the seeking of their own glory? How few succeed in their effort, for, you know, even the world despises the man who glorifies himself. You may have wealth and temporal power, but you will be reviled, and honor is a matter of the next sound bite.

What is our view of life? Is it to honor our Father, and seek not our own glory, or, on the other hand, is it to seek our own glory, and to dishonor our Father in Heaven? We hold up a banner here in the Church of the Epiphany: we profess and call ourselves Christians. There are burdens, responsibilities, and consequences that come with that claim. “For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begins at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God?” (I Peter 4:17)

What this means is that we are first in line to take up the Cross. Passiontide teaches us how to do this, to follow in Christ’s path, to God’s honor. This is the only way to win the lasting honors of eternity, the enduring glories of Heaven. Though our “sins are as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)

“The royal banners forward go; The Cross shines forth in a mystic glow.” This Passion­tide we are again privileged to follow that Cross, to behold how He Who sought not His own glory, redeemed man, and won eternal glory-to behold in order that we may learn to love Him more, and

better to follow His example of honoring God, even at the cost of humilia­tion and suffering to self. Amen. The Rev. Canon Charles H. Nalls, SSM

                       

 

 

                       SERMON FOR THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT-2004

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?@

-St. John 6:9

 

Today is Rose Sunday or Refreshment SundayBthe midpoint in Lent. It is also known as AMothering Sunday@Ba time when the servants and apprentices in England would visit their mums with a present, particularly a cake. So the theme of gifts and presents particularly food-- ties in nicely with the Gospel today. As will be the case in the Parish hall just after today=s Mass, the multitudes shall be fed in relaxation of our Lenten discipline.

The origin of the day lies in a medieval custom. On this particular Sunday, one undertook a pilgrimage in one=s diocese. The custom was to visit the mother church of the diocese and make a special offering.

So it is that the Gospel lesson is particularly appropriate on this day of refreshment and celebration and remembrance of special sacrifice. It is a lesson that contains a number of themes but two I would particularly like to speak to today: the nature of the Holy Sacrament and our place in the Sacramental life our life in the body of Christ.

You see, at its core, the miracle of the feeding of the five-thousand recounted by St. John is a story of the Eucharist. Like that evening on Maundy Thursday, the Passover was nigh. Our Lord had been performing miracles and now sat separate and apart with the disciples, but it is not a private moment. A great multitude of all sorts of people has tipped up to hear him teach and they were hungry not just for the miraculous but for the mundane for regular food.

Yet in an image of that last Passover, Our Lord turns a meal into a miracle. He gives thanks and breaks the bread, and from a few loaves and fish, he fills the five-thousand. He not only fills them, but the meal our Lord provides is superabundant. The food baskets are overflowing with the great crowd satisfied.

What has happened? Ordinary bread and ordinary fish have become extraordinary they are multiplied by the power and Grace of God. And this at a simple meal!

 

How much more so in the heavenly meal that Christ will inaugurate and command us to continue in the bread and wine. The ordinary becomes extraordinary in the Real Presence. Those who partake those of us in the crowds, without distinction or preferences are filled with spiritual food. Filled to overflowing, filled with the body and blood of Christ.

There is a term from a book I have been re-leading sacramental realism. It is an aspect of Sacraments that they are so real, so full of their being that they seem to us to overflow. The oils of anointing take on healing, transforming character. The water of baptism brings a reality so full that it, together with the Holy Spirit, brings one into the first stage of a real-life in Christ. C.S. Lewis writes of it in The Great Divorce as the kind of reality that is so perfect that it is painful if you are not in it.

All of this is foreshadowed in the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The scant brought into fullness, to superabundance. The people filled up temporarily with earthly foodBa a pre-curser of a people who will be filled up eternally with the bread of heaven.

But let us look at the nature of the miracle. Did Christ simply materialize food in front of the hungry crowd? No. Certainly, the Son of God could have but he did not. He relied on a few ordinary loaves and fish.

For his part, Lewis called the feeding of the five thousand with the bread and the fishes a miracle of the old creation. Jesus used natural objects -- bread and fish -- to feed a mixed crowd of believers and unbelievers in a supernatural use of the things of the natural world. The feeding of the five thousand was intended for anybody who happened to be there. Yet, it points to the invisible realm of life, the invisible realities which are present in every believer.

Christ relied on the special offering of one person, the is one person whose vision and faith go unsung by John. As the disciples are worried about Jesus' inquiry -- where are we to buy bread for these people? One small solution steps forward. A little boy offers as an answer to the food question a new possibility -- the five barley loaves and two fish. With childlike trust, the lad makes that special offering he offers all that he has to Jesus and the disciples. St. Andrew has enough presence of mind (and perhaps a small flicker of hope) to bring these childish gifts to Jesus. But his hard-nosed adult rationality gets in the way, for even as Andrew offers the loaves and fish with one hand, he pulls them back with a defeatist, AWhat are they among so many? dismissal.

Jesus likes the child's solution. He uses the little boy's gift to feed the people. While the text does not say that the child had faith in Jesus' ability to create a miracle, this child's heartfelt gift does indicate that his vision and hope were not limited by the accepted norms of the day not limited to the rational. The boy saw possibility in those five loaves and two fish and he showed faith by offering all to Christ.

The child taught the disciples a lesson: They should have been looking for ways to succeed, not looking for excuses to fail. In the words of one late actor (John Belushi), ANothing is impossible for the person who will not listen to reason.

Of course, the child himself did not have the power to multiply the loaves and fish. But his gift his offering--opened a way for Jesus and the disciples to achieve their goal. What if St. Andrew had turned away the boy with the small food offering dismissing his gift as worthless and impossible? What if the boy himself had not had faith, and gone home with his gifts? Where would Jesus have obtained the raw material for this feeding miracle if it were not for the sacrifice of the boy and if both he and the disciples had not opened up to this unlikely, source of the material for a miracle?

This brings us to the Lenten message--how we are to live the Sacramental life? How are we to honor the sacrifice of Christ? How are we to participate in the miracles that Christ works every day?

The boy with the loaves and fish is an example. We offer what is real and not what is empty. We offer our treasure, our talent, no--our lives to ChristBto be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice. We don=t give empty promises about what we will do or feigned assertions that we will amend our lives someday.

Like the pilgrims on this day so many years ago, we may make those special offerings, extraordinary acts of sacrifice. These can be temporal gifts to a church in need, but maybe the ultimate offering of one's life in the service of Christ. That can mean anything from building mission churches, dedicating time to the regular teaching of the faith to others, taking Holy Orders, and, perhaps, suffering martyrdom proper. You know, Christians are being called to that last one at a brisk pace throughout the world each and every day.

Mostly, thanks are to God, we are simply called to make the ordinary offerings the things that seem as mundane as bread and fish and we do it constantly. We give what is real unabashedly and in honest, earnest faith with the faith of a child that precious and pure faith that Christ taught us opens the kingdom of heaven to us.

It is the message of the parable of the talents in St. Matthews Gospel as we hear the Master say, well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. It is the message of St. Luke, AHe that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much... We hear it echoed in the words of Mother Theresa who urged the nuns in her charge to, ABe faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies. Surely all of the constant small offerings to relieve the poor, made in faith by those sisters were multiplied a thousand-fold like the loaves and fishes.

What about us here in Epiphany parish? Minutes of prayer in the little bits of time in the day so ordinary, so mundane multiple a hundredfold touching all around us. Our small acts of Christian kindness or hospitality ripple out from us to touch all of those who hear someone say, AA stranger was decent to me today.

The sacrifice of time to reading a Bible story to a child can multiply into all the days of that child=s life. Our regular and frequent participation in the life of the Church in Word and Sacrament multiplies into blessings in this life and in the life of the world to come.

These are the things that also prepare us for those times when we may be called to a large act of sacrifice of sacred service to Christ. Like the marathon runner, we have trained to the task and will be ready to run that larger race when asked.

Simply put, large things cannot be accomplished without first doing small things. Notice Jesus' words, if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.  Acts of service, such as giving water to a child, speak to the humility of heart, and willingness that truly honors God. It is the person who is willing to take food to the homeless, to undertake the simple but vital tasks of the church ushering, preparing the altar--or even to just listen to a hurting friend these are the people whom God uses in a profound way.

Perhaps those activities seem insignificant compared to building a mission church or carrying the faith to far-off countries. However, they are the backbone of a healthy parish family where the love of God is displayed in authentic ways. They are the centerpiece of lives lived in Christian service. Lest you think your small offerings are lost, Brother Lawrence admonishes, AWe ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.

So, this Lent let us renew our commitment to the small things to the bringing of loaves and fishes of our lives to set before the Master. Let us rededicate ourselves to doing the small acts of corporal mercy in the course of the day. Let us hold fast to the faith as children of God as we await the miracle of all miracles when the stone shall be rolled away. Amen.

                         

 

 

 

 

                      Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent-2021

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.@ BST. Matthew 4:10

 

 

In the popular lore of leadership, there is an axiom perhaps you have heard it. Lead from the front. Actually, the origin of this saying is that a true leader never asks his people to do what he would not do. On this our First Sunday in Lent, we find our Lord doing just that in a very dramatic way. We are confronted by Our Lord being tested by Satan himself just as He knows we are tested.

Still wet from his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus was Aled up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungered. (Matt. 4:1-2) . With these words, St. Matthew addresses those of us who gather for this first Sunday in Lent the people who daily face temptation.

Let’s look more closely at this familiar passage. After coming through the water of the Jordan (Matthew 3:13-17), Jesus is led into the wilderness by God, just as Israel was led into the wilderness by God after coming through the water of Red Sea (Exodus 13:21) and the water of the Jordan (Joshua 3:14-17). Jesus, the announced Son of God who assumes Israel's vocation, to some degree repeats Israel's wilderness experience.

The Spirit had descended and the voice of the Father in from heaven proclaimed him the Son of God (Matthew 3:17). There is a leader! With this endorsement ringing in his ears, the leader is, in turn, is led by the Spirit to a difficult place to face a difficult foe. It is not what one might expect after such an endorsement, or what one might want.

Jesus is the Son of God, the promised Davidic king a leader of leaders. As such, he to some extent repeats David's experience. After David was anointed by the Spirit (1 Samuel 16:13), he faced a difficult foe, Goliath (1 Samuel 17). Likewise, after Jesus was anointed by the Spirit (Matthew 3:16), he faces a difficult foe, the devil, which means “slanderer.” The devil uses deception to achieve his ends, slandering God and his word.

We see once again that Jesus, as the Son of God, fulfills God's design for both Israel and the Israelite king (Exodus 4:22, 2 Samuel 7:14, Psalm 2:7). Jesus, the freshly anointed king, would now be expected to lead Israel to victory. The oppressing power at the time was Rome, so Rome would be the expected enemy. The Spirit of God leads the king into battle, yes, but not with Rome. The real enemy, it turns out, is not Rome but the devil, and the devil has taken up residence in Israel. Its leaders are of “their father the devil” (John 8:44). The enemy isn't without; it was within. The problem isn't “out there”; the problem is “in here.” The internal battle is not one they want him to fight.

Is it the battle we want him to fight? Do we want our king to fix the problem “out there,” or do we acknowledge that the problem is “in here,” in our own hearts? Thinking of the problem as “out there,” with others, is the safe way. If we acknowledge that our real enemy is the devil and that we have given him a foothold into our lives, we give up the security of victimhood.

Jesus came not to fight with the enemies we would perhaps like him to vanquish, but with our real foe. Let us be thankful he did not conform to our expectations but instead chose to fight the battle that would liberate us from our true oppressor.

Because Jesus faced the real oppressor, “we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:14). He walked through the fiery halls of temptation. He heard the hiss of the serpent, the same hiss that we hear every day.

 

St. Matthew describes Jesus in wilderness tests (4:3-11) in a multilayered story. At the deepest level lies the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent's proposal that they become like God (Gen. 3:5). Next are the accounts of Israel's 40 years of wandering and being tested in the wilderness (Deut. 8:2). There are echoes of Moses who was with the Lord for 40 days and nights during which time he neither ate nor drank but was taken to a high mountain and shown all the land as far as the eye could see (Deut. 34:1-8). Certainly, St. Matthew tells the story of Jesus's desert struggles to highlight his relationship to our forebears in Eden, the history of Israel, and the prophecy that God would raise among the people one like Moses (Deut. 18:18).

The impact of the story, however, lies not in its echoes of earlier biblical records most readers don't need commentaries to resonate with what is going on in the life of Jesus. St. Matthew also is not merely preserving the story to satisfy the historical curiosity of those who might wonder what happened to Jesus immediately after his baptism. Rather, the account directly spoke and speaks to a church whose own faithfulness is forged again and again in the desert.

Let's notice something straightway: Jesus is not tempted because he has departed from God's will. Jesus is in the desert because he was led by the spirit. Take a poll among the churches: it is usually obedient and not the disobedient who are struggling, being opposed and tested. The disobedient seem to have a knack for locating the cushions and the soft places to land in this world at least.

 

Second, a temptation indicates the strength, not weakness. One is tempted only to do that which lies within one's capacity. The devil doesn't tempt to a level that the tempter cannot be caught up. If the sin is too great, then we just walk away and the tempter loses. But, the greater one's capacities, the greater one's temptations. The fierceness of Jesus' desert struggle is testimony to his power.

Third, temptation does not usually involve an obvious or undisguised evil it is right out there in front. We first convince ourselves that an endeavor is reasonable and promises good results before we put our mind and hand to it. The scene before us is not a cartoon of Jesus debating some horned creature with horns who smells of sulfur. Jesus is wrestling with the will of God for the ministry now before him and is presented with three avenues. All three have immense possibilities for temporal good recall the lure to Adam and Eve.

Here is an echo of the first Temptation, that of the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man. You will be like God. Could any goal be loftier? There is no hint of sin or shame. So Jesus has before him three excellent offers:

The first temptation (Mt 4:3-4) is Satan's appeal to the lust of the flesh. Having fasted for forty days, Jesus was naturally hungry. First, challenging Jesus' identity, the Devil asks Jesus, “If you are the Son of God .....This same phrase will appear after Jesus' ministry when those who scorn and mock Christ on the cross sarcastically refer to him as the Son of God. With a taunt, Satan appeals to His fleshly hunger: A command that these stones become bread.@ Jesus responds with Scripture quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man shall not live by bread alone...” There is more to life than just fulfilling physical desires; man is dependent upon the Word of God to truly live!

But the devil is persistent and hisses the second temptation (Mt 4:5-7) and appeals to the pride of life. Again challenging Jesus' identity, Satan sets Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple, tells Him to Athrow Yourself down@, the devil is quoting scriptures himself, using Psalm 91:11,12. Again, Jesus responds with Scripture (Deu 6:16), you shall not tempt the LORD your God.@ While the passage Satan quoted is true, it would be an abuse of it to purposely test God.

In the third temptation (Mt 4:8-10), Satan appeals to the lust of the eyes. He takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows Him the kingdoms of the world. He offers to give Jesus all the kingdoms if He will worship Satan. A third time, Jesus responds with Scripture (Deu 6:13) AYou shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve. Though offered a shortcut to receiving power over the nations, Jesus does not take the easy path - he takes the path of the Cross.

But look at those temptations. Wow....turn stones into bread. In a world of unbelievable hunger, why not? Leap from the pinnacle of the temple. In a world callous to sermon and lesson, why not a coercive shock into belief? Enter the political arena. In a world of slavery, war, oppression, and disregard for life and rights, why not?

But, unlike our first parents, Jesus does not accept the offer. And here you see the beginning of reconciliation to the Father the fully human Christ does not take the proffered fruit no matter how delicious it seems. Instead, at each turn he responds with words that impart an instruction for the Godly life, and Lent life is more than the worldly, even food; do not tempt or challenge God; be a servant.

St. Matthew presents temptation not as a private morality game but as a contest about the very shape and nature of ministry. Jesus will soon preach good news to the poor and release to captives, relieve the bruised, cleanse lepers, and heal the blind and crippled. Of course, he will be opposed immediately. Forces that traffic in human misery and reap huge profits from the poverty of others will try any means to turn him from such a ministry. The world hardly has changed. Every church engaged in the ministry of Jesus knows painfully well that there is another team on the field and it is often surprising and disappointing to learn who their members are. Of course, churches that do not extend themselves in addressing human needs seldom if ever face opposition.

Our Lord survives the test in the desert and moves into ministry in Galilee. And how so? Not simply by quoting Scripture (Deut. 6:13; 6:16; 8:3), although the Scriptures were for him an enormous source of strength. The sword of the spirit is the Word of God (Eph. 6:17). Neither was Jesus' victory in the desert achieved by denouncing the tempting offers. On the contrary, in the course of his ministry he did feed the poor, he did perform wonders among the people.

Rather, Jesus' response to every test was to refuse to try to be like God or to be God. As St. Paul put it, he Adid not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant (Phil. 2:6-7). He did not use the power of the spirit to claim an exemption or to avoid the painful difficulties of the path of service. He did not use God to claim something for himself. And it was this serving, suffering, dying Jesus whom God vindicated by raising him from the dead. Anyone or any institution too fond of power, place, and claims would do well to walk in his steps.

Jesus'  temptations did not end in the desert. Again and again, he was tested. Avoid the cross, said his close and well-meaning friend Simon. It was like Job's friends those well-meaning fellows who attempted to analyze the situation for their friend and help him out of it. And, of course, there was that last night in another garden not Eden but Gethsemane.

With us as individuals and with the church, the story is the same; testing never ceases. It is ever-present temptations of the flesh, the eyes, and pride. And we have the same adversary--Jesus was tempted by the devil, and so are we. We have similar temptations. The lust of the flesh - e.g., immorality, especially when young. The lust of the eyes - e.g., materialism, especially when middle-aged. The pride of life - e.g., pride and arrogance, especially when we are on in years. These we must overcome if we wish to have the love of the Father - 1 Jn 2:15-16

We have been given the same tools to overcome. Jesus appealed to the Word of God, and so can we. Jesus had faith in the plan of God (victory through suffering), we need a similar shield of faith. Jesus undoubtedly prayed for He taught us to use prayer in overcoming temptation.

This is why we frequently pray: Our Father in heaven, let your name be hallowed. You will be done. Give us bread for today. Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from the evil one.

And in all things, look to Christ, as St. Paul exhorts us, A look unto Jesus, the author, and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Here is the way beyond temptation, beyond the sorrow of the Cross and the grave. We look beyond these things, to the face of Christ and we shall be delivered. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY IN EPIPHANY-2021

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

Be not wise in your own conceits. Recompense to no man evil for evil.”

-Romans 16-17

Today, our Epistle is the third panel of triptych-three word icons by St. Paul to guide us in transformation. You will remember that the First Sunday after Epiphany, our Gospel lesson was the story of Jesus, the child, showing forth the wisdom of God in the midst of the Temple in Jerusalem.

You will recall that the corresponding Epistle lesson (from Romans 12) urged upon us the manifestation of that wisdom in our own life in the Church-that first lesson in transformation: “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” We are to show forth the divine wisdom, manifest in Christ, in our own lives. This will be the new basis of our life, not only as individuals but as members of one another in the body of Christ.

On the Second Sunday After the Epiphany last week, the Gospel recounted the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. These are signs-powerful signs. The heavens opened, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descending and the voice from heaven proclaiming, “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” In the corresponding Epistle Lesson last week, again from Romans 12, St. Paul speaks of a renewed life for individual and community, a new life in brotherly love—transformation, transformation as surely as the water changed to wine.

In this morning’s Gospel, we have even more signs as we hear the story of Jesus’ very first miracle at the wedding feast in Cana, in Galilee. We spoke of this miracle and miracles generally last week, but it certainly is worth a closer look.

The beginning of signs,” as St. John says. Jesus’ miracles are always signs, symbolic acts, and in this case, even the occasion is a sign: the wedding feast is a sign of the mystical union between Christ and the Church. Jesus changes water into wine, a sign of the transforming power of God’s grace especially shown in the Eucharist. Once again, the Epistle Lesson yet again from Romans 12, spells out the implications: “Be not wise in your own conceits”; “avenge not yourselves, but rather give place to wrath”; “Be not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.”

These lessons, beloved, are a cumulative argument, variations on a theme: the theme of manifestation and transformation. The wisdom of God, the mystery hidden from the foundation of the world is now manifest in Christ. The wisdom is ours to behold, to believe, and to understand, and to make our own, by “the renewing of our mind.” By faith beholding the glory, we are changed, “changed into the same image” changed by adoration.

Here and now the glory of God in Christ is manifest in word and sacrament, in wisdom and gracious power. It is by beholding, by the steady focusing of intellect and will, by the habit of adoration, that we are changed. That is the meaning of Epiphany, and that must be the basis of spiritual life in us.

The epistle this morning deals with maintaining the path of Christ-likeness and transformation even under difficult circumstances. It speaks of carrying out Christian duty under provocation and even injury. This is foundational to our lives in this parish and as Anglican Catholics.

Over the years, far too many of us have brought with us some bad habits-habits of anger and vengefulness fostered perhaps what we think we may have lost. Lay it down St. Paul tells us. Some of us may bring with us the conceits and desire for payback fostered in a world that, at least in some quarters, seems to grow more mean-spirited and vengeful by the day. This appears especially true in the wake of a bitter political year. Even for those who have “won” in the late contest, there may be a temptation to pile on. Lay it down says, St. Paul.

Retaliation and revenge are positively forbidden. “If it is possible, as much as within you, live peaceably with all men.” This is a key principle for our guidance. Now note here, we’re not told that we must live at peace with all men. History has proven that impossible. We're told only that we are to do so far as that which lies in us. This means that we are to see there is no cause of quarrel in ourselves that we are not the ones seeking evil and vengeance.

St. Paul recognizes that even this may not always be possible. For example, my beloved in Christ, we cannot be at peace with those who are hostile to Christian faith and morals. That’s not possible. Whether they are unbelievers or, worse still, Christians whose words and deeds cause scandal, we cannot sit idly by. We are called to address such things.

However, we must never make personal provocation and excuse for our own anger. This is based on the seventh beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” The children of God must not make peace by a truce with evil, but by overcoming evil with good, particularly by winning sinners to Christ.

In the next two verses, St. Paul gives two rules for our conduct when we are injured-really injured. First, he tells us what we are not to do. “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.” Under no circumstances are we to take vengeance and exact retribution. Think about that example of our Lord himself or His first martyr St. Stephen. They die praying for those who have wronged them.

In the very next verse, St. Paul tells us what we are to do, if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.” Christ Jesus tells us sermon on the Mount, “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you."

The epistle concludes with the general principle, “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” All of the other rules depend on this. St. Paul reminds us to the great struggle is going on around us between the forces of good and evil, and that we cannot stand apart from that struggle. We cannot be neutral. We must either stand on the side of goodness and by it stand concretely against the evil around us and in our own nature. Otherwise, we shall find ourselves swept along by evil, and that evil will overwhelm the good that is within us.

It is been said of anger, not that it is the greatest sin, but it is a sin that causes the greatest amount of unhappiness in the world. If we would just follow St. Paul’s teaching in the epistle today, will help us to lessen this unhappiness or even anger in ourselves and live peaceably in the community.

This three-panel painting, this triptych, is intensely practical. In fact, this lesson today is a three-part practical counsel. Let’s look at it just a little closer.

First, there is the beginning phase of strife with other people. As Christians, we can’t let vengeance have a beginning. Beloved, you know really and truly that once you begin “to recompense evil for evil”, you just don’t know where you will stop. Since strife most usually begins in misunderstanding, we are “not to be wise in our own conceits,” lest the mistake should prove to be ours.

Should we somehow actually be in the right, we must make it clear that we are in the right only, “by providing things honest in the sight of all men.” Otherwise, it will be our fault that we have been misunderstood.

In any event, we are to do our best to live peaceably with all men, as much as lieth in us. We cannot answer for others, nor prevent a quarrel, but we can make it very difficult for one to start if we are truly following the lesson in today’s reading.

What about those times when we find ourselves in the midst of strife?

We are “to give place unto wrath,” which may mean that we are to give our anger time to cool, or that we rather yield to the anger of others than be set on revenge. Take a walk, be constant in prayer as we heard last week. Put our wrath in its place and give place to the wrath of God. The Christian is to stand aside and give God room to act.

The third point in dealing with strife is at the end-the end of strife. This is a particular lesson for this week.

As Christians, we are to labor for this ending and bide our time. Someday the opposed will have need of us. He will be hungry or thirsty, and we can “heap coals of fire on his head” by treating him better than he expects. As Americans, citizens of a Christian nation, we have shown this time and again. Germany and Japan after the Second World War are shining examples of St. Paul’s epistle at work.

So, let the lightning of our anger be short; the summer lightning of gentleness. To “overcome evil with good” is the true victory, for this way we conquer not our enemy, but his enmity.

“By revenge,” says Bacon, “we are even with our enemy; by mercy we are superior.” By mercy, we may not only win others to ourselves but, better still, win them to Christ. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY-2021

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

Mine hour has not yet come”

-St. John 2:4

 

The story of Jesus' first miracle at Cana-the changing of water into wine at a marriage feast. It may seem a bit out of place in this season, but it is part and parcel of the Epiphany. It involves making known the essential divinity of Jesus Christ which contains as well the making known of the will and purpose of God for us and for humanity. In fact, perhaps, no epiphany story better concentrates and encapsulates both the essential divinity of Christ and the divine will and purpose for our humanity so gently and so joyously.

 It is such a pastoral, rustic, and ordinary scene. The setting is a country wedding, “in Cana of Galilee.” It is a simple wedding, but in the midst of the ordinariness of this ordinary scene, extraordinary things occur. They are things for us to ponder and to wonder at. There are things here to adore.

 There is the discovery of the limitations of our humanity, pointed out ever so poignantly and yet so directly by the Blessed Virgin Mary. “They have no wine”, she says. The earthly drink has run out in a time of celebration. So, there is a divine provision for our joy, water turned to wine. And this is not just ordinary wine but the best wine, “the good wine [has been kept] until now”.

 It is, we are told, the “beginning of signs” which Jesus did. “This beginning of signs” is the first of a series of events that has extraordinary. “This beginning”\ contains the essential meaning of all the signs of Jesus. In a way, the miracle narratives only make sense through this story.

 Beloved in Christ, the miracles of Jesus are ultimately signs – things that are done – which teach and manifest purpose. They show the power of God in Jesus. They demonstrate the power of the Creator who is the Redeemer without whom our humanity would remain in its wounded and broken state. Without our Redeemer, we remain in sorrow and sin: blind and deaf, dumb and lame, lacking the means of lasting joys within ourselves; in short, dead and dying.

 What are the miracles of Christ really all about? They are about two things. There is the power of the Creator from within His created order. “What manner of man is this”, say the storm-tossed sailors, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Then there is the power of the Redeemer present in the compassion of Christ who seeks the healing and the restoration of our humanity, both soul and body.

Why? For what end or purpose? The gospels show Jesus giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, cleansing the lepers-and, by extension, to all who suffer from the contagion of disease. He gives movement to the paralyzed and the lame and the halt. He even gives life to the dead and buried.

All these signs have a signal purpose. They speak to us about the hope of transformation and healing. They tell us of the hope of being made whole in the fullness of our humanity. In a way, the healing miracles of the Gospel are all about death and resurrection, the death and resurrection of Christ in us. But again, why? For what end or purpose?  

Simply for praise. Simply for the act of worship and adoration. Simply for joy, holy joy.

 My beloved, the teaching church does not exist first and foremost as some sort of world-improvement society. All of the things which St. Paul reminds us about and exhorts us to be in today’s epistle are testimonies and witnesses to the meaning of our life in Christ. Our work and our actions and our very lives are to be the signs of the love of Christ alive in us. We reach out to others out of that love, seeking his face in the poor and the lonely, the sick, and the dying of the world. In short, we provide for others in need out of the love of Christ. Our works must be signs of our faith. That is always the challenge.

God seeks the very best for us and that very best has to do with our joy and blessedness, joy and blessedness that can only come from him to us. Even more, it is a joy and blessedness that must be Christ in us, sacramentally and practically, by way of what we hear and see. It is a joy and blessedness that can come by way of what we do out of what we are given to hear and see in the Word proclaimed and the Sacraments celebrated, in lives of holiness and service, in lives of sacrifice and commitment. 

Know this: the healing miracles are about far more than the healing of our physical selves. That is wonderful enough. They are about far more than our mental sense of well-being. They are much more radically about our life with God. The end and purpose of our humanity are found in God. We have an end with God.

Something of what that means appears in the imagery of a wedding feast. After all, the kingdom of heaven is often described in terms of a marriage feast-a feast to which we all have been invited. While there are things that, quite rightly, are required of us as guests and participants in the wedding, marriage is fundamental to God’s doing. This is true when we speak of the union of man and woman in holy matrimony, that “honorable estate, instituted of God signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church: which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence and first miracle that he wrought in Cana of Galilee”, as the marriage service in The 1928 Book of Common Prayer so wonderfully puts it. It is also true when we speak spiritually and metaphorically of the union of God and man in Jesus Christ, a union which preserves in the fullest possible way the distinctiveness of the divine and the human. Such is the challenge for our church and age.

 There are, as an old medieval hymn puts it, joys which belong to our fellowship in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, come what may. There are even joys that come from persecution or sorrow, frustration, or failure. How can that be? Because of the radical meaning of this Gospel story.

There is this extraordinary thing which Jesus says to Mary, “mine hour has not yet come.” What does he mean? He means that the very things which God seeks for us, our good and our joy as found in him, are bought with a price, the price of his sacrifice, his death, and resurrection, the hour of his crucifixion and triumph.

Somehow “this beginning of signs” points to what is present in all of the healing miracles of Christ. They all belong to his passion. In a way, they all participate and share in his passion by which our humanity finds healing and salvation. The end – the goal or purpose - is joy and blessedness. But only through “his hour”, the hour which gathers all the things of time into the eternal purposes of God.

This is a response to the question, “What is the chief end of man?” It is, “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Our liturgy, especially in this Gospel story, suggests something of what that means. We live in Christ through his Word and Sacrament. But we can only partake of Christ through his body broken and his blood out-poured, through the things “of his hour.” Such is his love for us, the love that is agony and joy. For “love,” as poet and divine, George Herbert, puts it, “is that liquor sweet and most divine, /which my God feels as bloud; but I as wine”. The wine of divinity graces us with the joys of heaven and signals the salvation of our humanity; all because “mine hour has not yet come.”

Finally, remember that God works slowly and in His time. God can afford to wait. Sometimes, I think we are like children putting a seed in the ground, then going out the very next day to see if it is growing, and through our impatience interfering with the growth we desire. The hour is not yet come. So, we have to learn to work and wait, to be content doing our part for the kingdom, perhaps without the striking miracle.

Beloved, as we approach this year in our spiritual lives, particularly as there may be darkness and alarms around us, have the courage, and have faith. For the one who said, “Mine hour is not yet come,” did in the fullness of His time, supply the need, provide the miracle, and change the water into wine. Amen.

 

                 

 

                  Sermon for the Second Sunday in Christmas-2021

 

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Richmond, Virginia)

 

...he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets...”–St. Matthew ii.23

 

 

A few years ago, a series of slogans appeared on billboards seen across the United States–the “God speaks” campaign–a campaign to draw people’s attention to our Father. Maybe you saw some of those billboards, or perhaps a t-shirt or bumper sticker. The website, now sadly gone, offered visitors a closer look at how the Bible verses and messages tied together. It also featured short devotionals and lengthier blog posts that further explore message topics.

I guess advertising sells shoes, toasters, toothpaste, sodas, and all manner of things. But, God? Advertising sells God? Well, it certainly seems counterintuitive. Once upon a time, there were Blue Laws forbidding doing anything on Sundays–some of us are old enough to remember them. The stores by law were closed–absolutely no commercial trade went on. You couldn’t even buy a gallon of milk. God was the only focus of the day.

Now Sundays are days of competition. Even in this time of COVID have you seen how full stores are on Sunday mornings? Of course not! You’re here at Epiphany! But the rumor is that the Lowes and the Walmart in Madison Heights are packed.

Since Sundays are no longer exclusively days for worship, advertising hammers the message home in a way no other medium can. For several years, God billboards could be seen throughout the country.

The God campaign started back in 1998 when an anonymous person walked into the Smith Agency in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and said, "I want to market God." He had the goal of showing God as a living God ... not a historical figure, but a God who loves and cares about people. As word about the Florida campaign spread, the idea caught on. Soon the Outdoor Advertising Agency of America made a commitment to put billboards across America as the OAAA’s national service campaign in 1999. As a result, 10,000 GodSpeaks billboards were posted in 200 cities across America—no small feat for a project that started as a citywide campaign with a handful of billboards and a limited budget. The campaign garnered local, regional, and national media attention from no less august outlets than “Good Morning America,” and the “Today” show.

The aim of all this is to remind us that God is always on-line in pithy sayings like,

"That "Love Thy Neighbor" Thing, I Meant It." –signed God

Just what part of thou shalt not don't you understand?" –God

"Keep Using My Name in Vain And I'll Make Rush Hour Longer"- God

My personal favorite remains:

I know what you’re going through–I have a Son–God.”

The Epistle lesson this morning speaks to us in this way. It is a most suitable passage on the eve of Epiphany with its description–a declaration, really--of the saving missionary work of the Messiah. The passage is indelibly associated in our minds with our Lord’s application of it to himself, at the beginning of His ministry, when he read it in the synagogue in Nazareth.

 

The passage is notable for its personal tone–it is a bit like those God speaks advertisements. We know several other things. First, the speaker is an evangelist, consecrated, and endowed of the Lord to declare the coming of divine favor and a day of judgment. He is sent to a distressed and downhearted people of God, like so many today. The words set forth the work of the spiritual community in Israel and, ultimately, that of the Christian church, its ministers, and members.

The prophet Isaiah says to us that our business is all about “anointing”, about “preaching”, being “sent,” about “bringing,” and “proclaiming,” and we hear about “comforting,” and about “planting”–a word that we perhaps have not been as attentive to as we should.

In a way, this is advertising. It is the prophet getting people to listen to the message, and this is the mandate for the church: to do all of the above in the power of the Spirit.

You know, God is not averse to getting some good publicity. In fact, although he revealed himself through the law and the prophets, Bethlehem remains the quintessential campaign: God comes to live among us. Jesus is the incarnate Word–the proclamation in our own flesh of the timeless message of love and salvation.

The Gospel speaks of the fulfillment of prophecy–the beginning of this work proclaimed by the prophet and announced by our Lord in the Temple. But, our Gospel comes at a curious time in the calendar–still in Christmas and before the Epiphany. After all, only after the visit of the magi–that second great announcement of the presence of Christ in the world the Epiphany--and the flight of the Holy family into Egypt until finally Herod died.

But, there is the mention of the fulfillment of the prophecies–those signs of God’s work to come. There is this curious discussion of Nazareth when the name of the village Nazareth doesn’t occur in the Old Testament. It is curious. There is a similarity in sound and possibly meaning between the Aramaic word for Nazareth and the Hebrew word translated branch. Isaiah 11.1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

St. Cyril of Alexandria noted that “But if ‘the Nazarene’ is interpreted to mean ‘holy’ or, according to some, as ‘flower’, this is the designation found in many instances. For Daniel calls him ‘holy’ or of the ‘holy ones’ Likewise we find in Isaiah: ‘A branch from the stock of Jesse and its flower.’ Even the Lord says of himself in the Song of Songs, ‘I am the bloom of the plain, the lily of the valleys.’”

And there is the bloom–as we hear in that old favorite hymn, the mystical rose blooms and opens and springs forth to carry out those works we hear from Isaiah.

Beloved, our Incarnate Lord Jesus Christ, has come into the world, the good news of man’s salvation has been proclaimed to us, and now we are confronted with the question, “What kind of advertisement for God and the good news of the Gospel are we?”

You remember that at the Ascension, Jesus said to the Apostles and to us: “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). We don’t really have a choice. We who claim the name of Jesus are advertisements, living billboards–by our lives and works... The question is: are we good ones, effective ones? Do our lives express the nature of God? Do their lives ring true?

The prophet Isaiah provides the default billboard by which to measure the message: We are called to proclaim the good news, to comfort others, to give as we have been given--and more. We can be pretty creative when it comes to proclaiming the good news. Think of the many ways over these last two millennia.

The ancient symbol of the ichthus–the fish--quietly, covertly advertised who were Christians. Stained-glass windows and marble carvings in medieval cathedrals were picture stories for the illiterate masses. The printing press and the King James Bible were revolutionary innovations of biblical communication. And now, web sites and the Internet carry the message.

But, beloved in Christ, there has never been a substitute for us. We are God’s living billboards erected in a world of dissonance to shout the good news, to make a culture which is accustomed to processing an average of 1,500 individual messages a day, to hear, to catch God's transforming message of love.

We’re here to bring good news to the people, and it is good news! Sometimes it is the only good news among the vapid and empty news or the bad news everybody seems to get every day.

You and I, we are commanded to bear tidings from and of God. The Gospel is never advice, or explanation of current events; it is tidings of what God has done with consequent liberation of men’s spirits.

I am reminded at Epiphany of the arch I once saw on an old Saxon church; I think it was in Lincolnshire, England. It is a hand reaching up in supplication. Above the hand is the word “God”; at one side are the words “I will”, and at the other the words “I can”.

When we as his people devote ourselves to the work God lays upon us, we may be confident of their ability through Him to accomplish it. But as people of God, it is not just a matter of bringing the good news; it’s a matter of being the good news. Today we have heard Saint Luke's story of the shepherds, hastening to Bethlehem, “to see this thing which is come to pass,” “And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child,…” The world remains astonished by this strange story the shepherds had to tell; but we, we who have worshipped at the manger, treasure these things and have a job to do. It is our turn to make known these glad tidings with our lips and in our lives. If we have but one New Year’s resolution, let it be so. We can, and, by His grace, we will. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Charles H. Nalls, SSM

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon for Saint John’s Day-2020

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

“…hat which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ…

-I St. John 1:3

We’ve just had a wonderful Christmas, with hymns and candles and prayers and lights. Today we celebrate the feast of St. John, apostle, and evangelist. The Gospel narratives speak of John as one of the three who was present at the transfiguration of Jesus on the Holy Mountain; he was with Jesus in his agony in the garden; he was there with Jesus and his mother standing at the foot of the cross; he was there with Jesus as a witness of his resurrection and “he saw and believed.” According to tradition the same John who took part in these events wrote the Gospel and letters we find in the bible in his name and he died in Ephesus at a ripe old age. When he got older he used to be carried out of his house to preach to the crowds and his sermons often consisted of the single phrase: “Brothers and Sisters, love one another.”

Today. the celebration of Saint John comes sandwiched between two somewhat more sobering events in the life of the church. First, it comes immediately after the Feast of St. Stephen, which commemorates the martyrdom of one of the first deacons in the church. We will have an opportunity to think about St. Stephen in a little more detail this time next year as Christmas Day falls on a Saturday.

It immediately precedes the day known as Holy Innocents which commemorates all the innocent children under the age of two killed by Herod in his attempt to stop a new King of the Jews arising who might challenge his dynasty. Both the martyrdom of Stephen and the slaughter of the holy innocents remind us that the church did not simply grow from the crib without being fiercely resisted by the vested interests in the world, both religious and secular. As the Gospel of John said to us on Christmas Day the light has come into the world in the Word of God made flesh and whilst the darkness cannot overcome that light it is also true that the world did not know or accept the light and it is absolutely true that those who prefer to keep their deeds hidden in darkness would like nothing better than to snuff out the glimmerings of light at every opportunity.

So we have three consecutive days during the Christmas season, December 26th, 27th, and 28th during which we could easily preach on the theme of martyrdom. But there is another theme from the life work and witness of St. John the Evangelist I would share with you today. I should like to speak with you this morning about fellowship and communion.

We have been speaking these last few weeks, particularly in our Bible study, of the nature of the reality of our faith. We frequently hear the claim that the Bible is just a collection of fables or falsehoods. When you hear such things, I would like you to remember St. John’s witness. He and the other Apostles heard, saw, and touched Jesus. In fact, we know that St. John, the beloved disciple, leaned his head upon our Lord at the Last Supper. In hearing, seeing, and touching Jesus, they touched God, God in the flesh. Now, says St. John, those of us who were with Him, who heard Him, saw Him, and touched Him-we proclaim Him to you, so you can be with us, so you can have fellowship, communion, with us Apostles, so you can be part of the Church that Jesus established.

What does this mean? What does it mean to have fellowship, communion, with the apostles? What does it mean to be a true Christian, to be a true member of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church?

St. John teaches us two important things about this. First, we must not think of ourselves as holy people, good people, perfect people, people without sin. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But then, we also are to dedicate our lives as Christians turning away from sin and living a new life. “My little children,” John writes, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.”

 

St. John goes on to emphasize in all his writings how important it is that we make every effort to be holy: to not sin, and to keep the commandments of Jesus. Again and again, he drives home this point. For instance, “He that saith, ‘I know Him,’ and keepeth, not His commandments, is a liar and the truth is not in him” (I John 2:4) “He that saith he is in the light and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now.” (I John 2:9)

On the one hand, “If ye know that He is righteous, ye know that everyone who doeth righteousness is born of Him.” (I John 2:29b). On the other, “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law, for sin is the transgression of the law.” (I John 3:4) Again, “Whosoever abideth in Him sinneth not; whosoever sinneth hath not seen Him, neither known Him.” (I John 3:6) In sum, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin...” (I John 3:9)

Beloved in Christ, it comes down to a commandment of love. As St. John says, “By this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither is he that loveth not his brother. For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning: that we should love one another.” (I John 3:10-11)

 

John’s writings are replete with passages like these. We should mark well his use of the word “practice”, which speaks of ongoing, habitual, and intentional sins. You know what the commandments of God are. They are condensed in the Summary of the Law, the Shema. All of the Commandments are summed up in one word: “love”-love God, and love your neighbor.

So it is that St. John calls us to fellowship through the holiness of living. We should be constantly repentant as we feel and experience our own sinfulness. At the same time, St. John assures of the forgiveness and salvation found only in Jesus. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9) “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” We have defense counsel, and his case on our behalf is that that our penalty has been paid. What a Christmas present of unconditional love that is!

As we follow Jesus, there is one thing alone that is our authority, our guide, our light: the words of Holy Scripture that contain all things necessary to our salvation. We have heard about “the things that must soon take place…. for the time is near.” Our Advent lessons have given us a different view of the time-a view that sees this life as short, where Christ’s coming is always “soon.” It does not matter if it is another two thousand years or a mere two minutes from now. We are always to be prepared.

All this is lived out in different ways for each of us. After Jesus had prophesied St. Peter’s martyrdom, Peter asked the question recorded in today’s Gospel: “What about him? What about John?” Jesus replied, “How does that concern you? You, follow Me!”

St. John and St. Peter had different kinds of endings to their lives. St. Peter was condemned and crucified, a martyr for the faith. The great English mystic Dame Julian of Norwich says in one of her writings: “God lays upon everyone he longs to bring into his bliss something that is no blame in his sight, but for which they are blamed and despised in this world. Scorned, mocked, and cast out. He does this to offset the harm they should otherwise have from the pomp and vainglory of this earthly life, and to make their road to him easier, and to bring them higher in his joy without end.” Being in the position of the condemned cures us of a lot of our pretenses.

St. John suffered in a different way, being exiled to an island called Patmos. Saints Peter and John had different particular callings in life, but the same overarching calling to be disciples of Jesus, to follow Him. That is also our calling. Whether you are an engineer, a chef, a secretary, or a soldier, in every place you go, the words of Jesus go with you, “Follow Me.”

Those words are not burdensome. You follow the One who at Christmas took on your flesh and bone, your human nature, and who proceeded to live perfectly in your flesh, to suffer every temptation you suffer in your flesh. You are fellow heirs with the Christ who endured every pain and humiliation you endure, finally to die your death, and to rise again in your human nature, now glorified, and to bring that human nature into the presence of God the Father. He is the One you now follow, the One who is coming again for you, he is the One with Whom you are in communion.

In this Christmastide, we celebrate God become incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. God the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father and they are one. Eventually, Jesus gave that gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples/apostles and the whole church, to you and to me in fellowship and communion.

Toward the end of his earthly life, Jesus prays that the apostles will be one as he and the Father are one and that they will be in that holy union as well. What John gives us is an image of holy unity, established by the Trinity and lived into by the church. As the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father, they are in us and we are in them. We are also in union with each other. This unity should allow us to not only reflect the face of God to those around us but allow us to see the face of God in others. And, as St. John tells us again and again, love is at the heart of this unity.

St. John is not just remembered today as one of the Disciples of Christ, he is also remembered as an evangelist, as someone unafraid of telling people about the grace and love that he had received through Christ, and helping them to find their own way to faith.

His message in our New Testament reading today is one that each and every person on the earth should have the opportunity to hear. They should hear it through fellowship and through the love of every man, woman, and child who has faith in Christ.

Each one of us has the ability to speak the words that are deep in our hearts, about the love and the faith that we have for Christ. It may not be easy, but it is also something that we will be given the strength to do when the moment is upon us. That is the heart of fellowship. That is the heart of love for one another.

Beloved in Christ, if we are to take St. John’s words into our own hearts, then we need to remember what he said in his letter. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our bands have handled, of the Word of life; …that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.”

In a few days’ time, we begin a new year. Let us enter it with St. John’s words ringing in our ears. The next time we are asked why we have faith, let’s not be afraid to dig deep into our own hearts and souls and share with them a glimpse of the love and joy that we have received through our faith in our risen Saviour Jesus Christ. Let us share that same fellowship the Apostles share with us.

May God pour out on us His Holy Spirit, that we may always heed St. John’s Words as a light in a dark place. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR CHRISTMAS DAY-2020

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

He came unto his own.” -John i.11.

 

 

Beloved assembled in the name of Jesus Christ this glorious morning! behold the mystery of Christmas! Now you weren’t really expecting Santa Claus and his team of dancing reindeer just yet, were you? But perhaps, just perhaps, you might have expected, reasonably enough, the story of Mary and Joseph and the wee child, “cradled in a stall was he with sleepy cows and asses.” And yet, the great and resounding Gospel which you just heard is the gospel that lies at the heart of the mystery of Christmas.

Christmas proclaims a great and double wonder. There is the mystery of God,  divinum mysterium, and there is the mystery of ourselves, the mystery of our humanity, the humanity with whom God dwells. Such is the counterpoint of glory, the double mystery, the mystery of God, and the mystery of ourselves. They meet in the great wonder of Christmas.

The wonder of God with us is the wonder of the Incarnation, the wonder of God made man. It is the wonder of “the Word made flesh”. It is the wonder which we celebrate in the most extraordinary and exalted language imaginable. This is the language of Creed and carol, the language of prayer and praise. It is the language that shapes the Christian imagination, the language which enfolds us in the bliss of Bethlehem on Christmas night.

We ask the question, “Who is this who has come unto his own?” It is “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God” as we have just proclaimed in the Gospel of St. John. God’s great little one is God with us, God made man, the God who has willed to enter into the midst of our world and day, the God who wills to be with his own.

This changes everything. It must change everything. There is this extraordinary claim in the being of God with us. The claim is that we belong to God and not God to us.

You see, the great wonder and mystery of Christmas is about our joy at the realization that we belong to God. “Love came down at Christmas.” That love is about more, though not less, than all of the sentimentality and confusions of the season. It is about the deep love of God for our humanity in spite of and, perhaps, even because of, all of ours chaotic and dismal disarray. It reveals a higher vision for our humanity than what we could ever conceive on our own. God’s great reaching down to us in the lowliness of the Nativity of Christ confers an astounding dignity and grace upon our humanity. “He came unto his own”.

In the Christmas story, He audible in the Word proclaimed, He is visible in the Sacraments celebrated, He is altogether present to us and with us in the liturgy, in even in the decorations of the Church. In these signs and symbols, we are made aware of this new reality, the new reality of our vocation. We are his own who are called to be his own.

Even when we become aware of this wonder we cannot ignore the accompanying phrase of the great Christmas Gospel. “He came unto his own.” Wondrously so. But what comes next? “[H]is own received him not.”. It should and must give us pause to reflect on the deeper meaning of the wonder of God with us.

He comes unto his own who reject him. We are his own and we reject him? Yes. The story of our betrayals cannot be ignored or hidden from view. There are the betrayals of our hearts in our selfishness and our petty small-mindedness, in our lusts and our greed, in our arrogance and our complacency, in our misery and our whining self-pity. We see it in the sad parade of uncharitableness. Love comes down at Christmas and encounters all the forms of our unloveliness.

This is all part and parcel of the Christian message even in the face of a world which is increasingly hostile and intolerant of Christianity. It is apparent often in paradoxical ways. For instance, we celebrate and encourage acts of charity in our post-Christian world. Aha! Not, though, if those acts of charity are identified and named as Christian! The voice of Christians is denied.

The confusion of so many churches about what belongs to the Church to proclaim makes, no doubt, for an utter lack of credibility about the Church. But, this doesn’t wholly account for the animosity and hostility against Christianity. No, there is a deeper resistance and greater repudiation of the authority of God as well as the hubris that presumes to take all things captive to its own whims and fancies, whether it means the re-imaging of God or the re-defining of the family and marriage.

What contemporary culture hates most of all is the idea of any limit to its own authority. It has forgotten its spiritual origins, “thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it was given thee from above.” The folly lies, really, in the attempt to own God, to take him captive to “the devices and desires” of our own hearts.

All the commercialism of the season, too, plays a part. It is part of the same kind of folly, the folly of our trying to “make” Christmas, the folly of our trying to make God our own, to take the mystery of Christmas captive to the desires of our hearts and the confusions of our souls.

Yet, somehow, all this is part of the “great and mighty wonder” of Christmas. The cross, after all, cannot be hidden from view in the sweet wonder of the crèche. We see that Cross and are called to contemplate something of the greater miracle and wonder of Christmas in his coming unto his own who reject him.

Why? So that his love might move us all the more to embrace his love, the love that redeems and sanctifies, the love that perfects and restores us to loveliness in spite of ourselves and even in the face of the worst of ourselves, both individually and collectively. Somehow the betrayals of our hearts are made part of the story of redemptive love. This is the “great and mighty wonder” of the Christmas miracle.

Christmas is the December miracle. All our carols and songs, all our services and liturgies, seek to capture something of the great wonder and mystery of Christmas. Language is stretched to the breaking point so that the mystery of God with us might breakthrough into our hearts and minds.

A fifteenth-century monk in the ancient German city of Trier, walking in the woods on Christmas Eve, it is said, found a rose that was blooming which he took back to the monastery and placed in a vase before a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Later the German Kapellmeister, organist and composer, Michael Praetorius would arrange the folk song that arose from that story, Es ist ein’ Ros entstprungen. This became the tune associated with the early 8th century words of St. Germanus’ carol “A great and mighty wonder.” These words capture something of the great and mighty wonder of Christmas, the December miracle.

The Word became incarnate,

And yet remains on high,

And cherubim sing anthems

To shepherds from the sky.

Such words challenge and convict us about the divinum mysterium, the divine mystery of the love of God who has come unto his own bestowing his grace and dignity upon our wounded and broken humanity, the grace, and dignity which alone perfects and sanctifies, the grace and dignity which alone brings joy and salvation to the world everywhere. It enters into the world that God embraces in the mystery of Bethlehem this night when “he came unto his own.”

Beloved in Christ, to receive him is to acknowledge that we are his own, that something of God is born in us. How? By receiving the Word proclaimed and the Sacraments celebrated. By leading lives committed to Christ anew in service and sacrifice, all because “He came unto his own.” In this way let us greet the Savior born this happy morning. Let us receive Him and give him glory. Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing, we are you own. Amen!

 

 

 

SERMON FOR CHRISTMAS EVE-2020

(To be given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

-St. Luke 2:7

 

Time to take a deep breath. During the run-up to Christmas, we have been pushed to sacrifice…to sacrifice time and effort to make the holidays work to get it all done—to get the cards out and to get the presents in. These days you see folks making incredible sacrifices to be able to have a larger house, to get their children into the right college, and to have the kind of lifestyle they want. Give, give, give to get.

This night is not about asking for more sacrifice and laying down the law, but how a life is laid down for us and how the heart of God is laid open for us in a manger. It is less about the sacrifice of our bodies, but all about the sacrifice of God that makes us a body of believers-the body of Christ. It is about proclaiming that the one who hung the stars in their places now lies in a manger. The one who created the roaring waters now cries tears. The one who leads his people out of Egypt and in the march toward the promised land must now learn to walk. This our very God has sacrificed being above and beyond us and now is with us.

This is why we love Saint Luke’s account of the nativity. Christmas would be empty without the little baby cradled in the straw of the manger. This catches hold of the human heart. Anyone, especially a parent, who has watched children, especially little girls, peeping into our Christmas cribs to catch a glimpse of “baby Jesus” will understand it. In fact, anyone with even a spark of humanity left in them must at least be touched by the Christ child in the manger.

We can, of course, call it an appeal to sentiment, and, frankly, I will say to you that it is…let it be so. For this is the very point I want to drive home to you tonight, this holy night. In the Incarnation, God comes right down, down, down to the level of sentiment so as to touch the very humblest of us, even people with very little in the way of advanced reasoning powers, even little children.

Over the last few years, my attention has been caught by something that has happened whilst waiting in shopping lines. (Remember them?) Should a mother arrive with a baby in her arms, most folks generally go out of their way to peep at the baby. Even some pretty tough-looking blokes at the Lowe’s with a basket of hardware will make funny faces at a baby and smile when they think no one is looking. I have seen the hard-case girl with the tattoos checking my purchases stop for a quick look and even a bit of cooing.

At times like these I ask myself, could God possibly have become more accessible, more evocative to response than appearing on the world’s scene as a helpless infant? Incarnation really does mean God stooping down to where we are.

Perhaps you think I am being too sentimental. It’s true, I want to retain the sentimentality of Christmas, I hold on to the sentimentality of Christmas even in watching old movies like Miracle on 34th Street or the Bells of St. Mary’s. Why? Beloved in Christ, it is because I want to retain the reality of the Incarnation, the totality of God's coming down to our level. I am not surprised that more people attend churches at Christmas than at Easter; though Easter is the greater Christian festival, Christmas is easier to grasp. So let us be profoundly thankful to St. Luke for this gift of the Nativity story with all that warms our hearts and reaches our humanity.

But let’s consider two other chief characteristics of St Luke’s gospel, things that make this story even more exciting, more tangible, and more anchored in reality. First, it is a dated account. The Incarnation began in the days of Caesar Augustus at the time he called for a census, the first under the Syrian governorship of Quirinius. You know, there are a lot of people who obsess about the precise dating of these enrolments. They can be pretty tiresome. But, I don’t think anyone can gainsay this: St. Luke intended us to understand that the story of Jesus’ birth is historical even if the precise dating may not be.

Like any good writer (and St. Luke was that) he structured his account artistically, but the nativity of Jesus is not a fairy story. There is no “once-upon-a-time” about it. The Incarnation happened. Christianity is a historical religion, not a myth. And you know, this night, we ought to be excited about that! We ought to be thinking of the shepherds, and magi and old Simeon in the Temple—all of the witnesses who saw the Word made Flesh.

And now let’s look at another characteristic. St. Luke takes great care to stress the humble circumstances of the nativity of Jesus. Mary’s baby was cradled in a manger where the animals were stabled and fed, a makeshift business, and all because there was no room in at Bethlehem's inn. That inn may have been a lower ground room jostling with travelers displaced on account of the Imperial census, and there simply was no space for the couple, Joseph and Mary, to bed down.

Would the jostling crowd appreciate a woman about to deliver a child? And would she herself want it? The innkeeper was probably at his wit’s end with the crowd. Both Joseph and Mary accepted that relatively private corner of the stable with its manger with gratitude, thankful for small mercies.

Did Joseph act as a midwife at the birth of Jesus? You can't get much grittier, more real than that at birth. Then Mary wrapped her baby round in what we traditionally call “swaddling clothes”' which she must have brought with her from Nazareth to Bethlehem, some eighty miles.

What a merciful step, this humility. He appeared as a child full of love, full of tenderness, full of joy. The child looks at everyone; and at the sight of the child, all fear vanishes. Everyone can look on a child without fear, the high and the low, the learned and the unlearned, rich and poor. This humility tells us how near has God come! A child is born to us and now we can go to the throne of His mercy with confidence. At the crib, all fear vanishes.

What a wonderful triumph we celebrate! God with us, in the weakness of an infant, over all obstacles in the world. If I am weak, then am I strong-God with us in the form of a child?

The Son of God preaches to us in His infancy from the crib. Unless you become as little children you cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. The child is not worldly and sensual. The child is unselfish, humble, and pure of heart. So, when we come to the crib, let us bring our Savior a childlike, repentant heart, and pray to Him that we may be as little children; that we, as children, may walk in the purity of our hearts, that we may be humble before God and men.

Perhaps you will worry that in this sermon I have been telling you how I personally read these Nativity stories. You may charge me with a naïve or even a sentimental reading of them. So be it.

Beloved in Christ, I believe in the Incarnation. I am committed to it in faith. There is much I do not pretend to understand and know that I cannot until I see Him face-to-face. At the end of the day, though, belief-faith is what matters, not understanding nor even intellectual assent. We only live as Christians by personal trust in the living Christ who became “incarnate for us men and for our salvation”.

The Incarnate Christ, the living Jesus will console you, make you happy, give you peace. Blessed are we, as St. Bernard says, when we come to the stable, heeding the call from the crib, the cry that announces as Gospel the tears of the divine Infant. It is enough-it is enough for us all

We learn from the poor child Jesus, the humble Christ, the message of Christmas. It is a delusion that possessions can make us happy; that money can give us liberty, that wealth can redeem us. Tonight, let’s tear away our hearts from earthly things. Let us use the goods of this world as steps to bring us nearer heaven, in works of charity. Let us make our hearts into a crib, so that we may have a dwelling that we can offer to the divine Saviour, so that He may return to our hearts, He, who is in the most perfect manner our Emmanuel, our God with us, and in us.

In this way, if we humble ourselves before the Incarnate Christ, our Savior will have his claim on us. Then will the angels sing in our hearts, as they did on the plains of Bethlehem, that message of joy and peace to men of goodwill upon the earth.  Amen and Amen.

 

 

SERMON FOR THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN ADVENT-2020

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

There standeth One among you, Whom ye know not.”

-St. John 1:26

 

We have come full circle this morning to our theme for the first Sunday in Advent. It is a wonderful scene in the description of St. John’s preaching at Bethabara! Scribes and Pharisees, who had spent their lives in studying theology, in reading about the Messiah, flocked to St. John the Baptist with the question, “Who art thou?” He answered, “I am not the Christ.”

When they asked, “Art thou Elias?” He replied, I am not. “Art thou that Prophet?” “No.” To the further question, “Who art thou then?” St., John replied, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Finally, when they demanded of him, “Why then baptizest thou?” he answered, “I baptize with water; but there standeth One among you, Whom ye know not.”

Let’s think on these words on this Fourth Sunday in Advent, “There standeth One among you, Whom ye know not.” Our Lord standing among the multitude unknown! Here they are-the best and brightest-Scribes, Pharisees, men learned in law, all searching for Him everywhere, but in vain. They sought Him in the Jewish Scriptures which clearly pointed to Him, but they did not recognize Him when He came.

They sought Him on the banks of the Jordan in the person of St. John the Baptist; yet He was there in their midst unknown. They knew about Him intellectually, they could have quoted all the prophecies which referred to Him, but they did not know Him. He stood amongst them unknown.

Is this not often precisely the case in our own times? There are so many are seeking the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of Christ, as though it were something external. In fact, don’t we often ask our Lord for grace, as though He were far off from us. We cry out with the Psalmist, "Bow thy heavens, O Lord, and come down: touch the mountains, and they shall smoke." (Ps. cxliv. 5.)

But, beloved in Christ, He has come down; He has touched the mountains, the high places of this world, and set them on fire by His touch—with the fire of love. There is standing among us One Whom we ought to know better than anyone else in this world, One Whom we ought to love better than anything else in life, and yet so often we do not recognize Him, no matter how hard we look.

This brings us to the Fourth Last Thing for Advent. There are consequences for not knowing Jesus Christ Him-or, worse, for knowing Him and rejecting Him. We hear in St. Luke’s account of St. John the Baptist that there is a time coming when, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (3:4-6) At that time, “the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire…and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.” The chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.

So it is that we are called to think about that time, when, as the prophet Isaiah said, “the Lord GOD will come with strong hand.” We need to think about the consequence of not knowing Christ or, worse, of rejecting Christ-hell. There, I mentioned it, and the modern mind says, “The hell with hell!” It is front and center on the atheist banners that these benighted folks are trying to hoist at Christmas. Let’s face it: of all Christianity's teachings, hell is certainly the least popular. Non-Christians ignore it, weak Christians excuse it, and anti-Christians attack it.

Some, like the late atheist Christopher Hitchens and philosopher Bertrand Russell in his famous essay “Why I Am Not a Christian”, argue that because Jesus clearly taught the existence of hell, he was not a good moral teacher. Russell’s essay, by the way, makes fine devotional reading for a Christian. Professor Peter Kreeft tells of his college roommate who was about to lose his faith until he read it; he said to me, “If those are the arguments against Christianity, I'd better be a Christian.”

Why do we believe there's a hell? Not because we’re vindictive. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Judgment is the province of God. Why, then? Simply because we’ve been told, by Jesus Christ himself, that hell is.

Now, there’s a popular fallacy that Jesus spoke only comforting words and that the fear of hell began with Saint Paul. The truth is just the opposite: Jesus uttered many “hell fire and damnation” sermons, while nearly all the passages that offer any hope to the “all paths lead to God” crowd-those who believe all will be saved in the end-are from St. Paul. Indeed, not even everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter his kingdom-they will have to face the consequences of judgment for being Christians only with lips and not lives.

I have to tell you that fear of hell is not a base motive. As the famed English author George MacDonald once said, “As long as there are wild beasts about, it is better to be afraid than secure.” God’s graciousness accepts even the “low” motive of fear of hell for salvation if that's the best we can muster. His arms are open to all prodigals. He is not high-minded, like some of His detractors.

Hell makes sense, really, in light of heaven and free will. If there is a heaven, there can be a “not-heaven”. If there is free will, we can act on it and abuse it. Those who deny hell must also deny either heaven (as does Western secularism) or free will (as does Eastern pantheism).

You see, Hell and heaven make life serious. The all-inclusive notion of a heaven without hell removes the bite from life’s drama. C. S. Lewis once said that he never met a single person who had a lively faith in heaven without a similar belief in hell. The height of the mountain is measured by the depth of the valley, the greatness of salvation by the awfulness of the thing we’re saved from.

Most Americans, according to surveys, believe in hell. The debate is not if Hell exists, but what is it, where is it and how long does it last?

What is hell? We’ve talked about this before: The popular images of demons-little cartoon demons-gleefully poking pitchforks into unrepentant posteriors misses the point of the biblical image of fire and hell.

Fire destroys. Gehenna, the word Jesus used for hell, was the valley outside Jerusalem that the Jews used for the perpetual burning of garbage because it had been desecrated by heathen tribes who used it for human sacrifice. Hell is not eternal life with torture but something far worse: eternally being consumed, eternal dying. What goes to hell, said C. S. Lewis, is “not a man, but remains”.

The images for hell in Scripture are horrible, but they have symbolism. The thing symbolized is not less horrible than the symbols, but more. Spiritual fire is worse than material fire; spiritual death is worse than physical death. The pain of loss—the loss of God, the failure to know Jesus or, imaging, to reject Him who is the source of all joy—is infinitely more horrible than any torture could ever be. All who know God and his joy understand that.

Saints, real saints, do not need to be threatened with fire, only with loss. “All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it-or else that it was within your grasp and you have lost it forever.” (C. S. Lewis)

Jesus does not tell us much detail about hell. He tells us that it exists, that it’s horrible, that any man can go there. Jesus says the way to hell is broad and many find it and that the way to heaven is narrow and few find it. He means it. You don’t get to heaven simply by being born, by being nice, putting a “coexist” or rainbow bumper sticker on your car and by then oozing into some sort of psychological “eternal growth experience.”

Few” here does not mean that less than half of mankind will be saved or any particular number. God speaks as our Father, not our statistician which art in heaven. Even one child lost is too many, and the rest saved are too few. The good shepherd who left his ninety-nine sheep safe at home to rescue his one lost sheep found even 99 percent salvation too “few”.

The most important question about hell, as about heaven, is the practical one: How do we stay out of it? What roads lead there? They are interior, of course. In fact, heaven and hell may be the very same objective place—namely God's love, experienced oppositely by opposite souls. The fires of hell may be made of the very love of God, experienced as torture by those who hate him: the very light of God's truth, hated and fled from in vain by those who love darkness. Imagine a man in hell endlessly chasing his own shadow, as the light of God shines endlessly behind him. If he would only turn and face the light, he would be saved. But he refuses to-forever.

Just as we can attain heaven by implicit as well as explicit faith, so hell too can be reached without explicit rebellion or rejection of Christ. This is the terrible—and terribly needed—truth taught by C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce and Charles Williams in Descent into Hell. We can drift, slouch, even snooze comfortably into hell. All God's messengers, the prophets, say so. We desperately need to hear this truth about hell again, particularly as we approach the Incarnation, that time when we are called to renew our knowledge of Him who comes to save us. We need to hear this truth out of honesty, because it is there. And also out of compassion.

For when the abyss looms ahead, the least compassionate thing to tell the traveler is “peace, peace, when there is no peace”. Out of love for god and man, let us tell the truth about hell as we proclaim the truth of the living Jesus!

It’s certain: that we'll be mocked as naïve or ignorant, or even as vindictive or manipulative or funda­mentalist. So be it. As we hear in the Epistle, “Be careful for nothing.” Sometimes it seems that we're more afraid of sharing our Lord's holy un-respectability than of hell itself.

In the classic "Dante’s Inferno" Hell is described in graphic detail and with great imagination. Much of the book is based on conjecture not Scripture as to what Hell might be like. But there is one thing in the book that is in full agreement with the Scriptures. There is a sign at the entrance to Hell which says: “Abandon hope all you who enter here.” This much is certainly true. There is no hope in hell-destiny, a destiny apart from Christ, is fixed eternally.

I can’t imagine a tragedy greater than that. To miss the opportunity for something good is bad. To miss the greatest opportunity of all – the chance to go to heaven is terrible, but to miss it forever, and know that you have missed it forever, seems almost unbearable. Would we wish it on anyone?

We may suffer for our witness to the Incarnate Christ. We may be ridiculed or mocked for warning another of the danger of the pit—at least the world of unbelievers may do so. Let them do their worst. It's a small price to pay for the salvation of a single infinitely precious soul. You know, that is the business we're supposed to be in. And the hour is late, the Lord is at hand. Amen.

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT-2020

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

-St. Matthew 11:11

 

Here we are at last on Rose Sunday, the Third Sunday in Advent which used to be called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is the Latin word that means “rejoice,” but with the ending that makes it a command. So we are really being commanded to rejoice.

So why should we rejoice? Certainly, Advent is a time for rejoicings because it is a season that revives our expectation of the most joyful event in history: the birth of Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Most High God, but the Virgin Mary. As both the Prophet Zephaniah and St. Paul proclaim, the Lord is in our midst, He is near to us, and with Him the kingdom of Heaven is near.

Today, even the liturgical color of our Advent candle is meant to call to mind Heaven. We could engage in some rose-colored thinking about Heaven. After all, there are so many popular notions about Heaven—you know, the angels, harps, fluffy clouds, chubby cherubs floating about. The sentimentality of it even struck a curmudgeon like a writer Ambrose Bierce who defined Heaven as, “A place where the wicked ceases from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound your own.”

Certainly each time I think of Heaven, I always come back to one of a favorite quote, “If I ever reach heaven I expect to find three wonders there: first, to meet some I had not thought to see there; second, to miss some I had expected to see there; and third, the greatest wonder of all, to find myself there”

There is much to think about when we think about Heaven. How many times do we ever hear convincing homilies about heaven? Rather than being an affirmation of the realities of eternity, most homilies tend to be vague, and particularly funeral homilies usually end up in a humanistic celebration of the person who has died. In our modern-day culture, we are continually bombarded by secularism, and that is more and more so as there seems to be an ever-increasing attack on Christianity by segments of our society.

Fr. Romano Guardini, writing in his book Eternal Life, What you need to know about Death, Judgment and Life Everlasting, calls the deprecation of the eternal, of the heavenly, by modern society an evil. As Christians, we need to be continually reminded of the most basic fundamentals of our Faith, especially the reality of heaven and of the eternal.

Our Gospel lesson at first blush doesn’t seem to have much to do with Heaven. It is an interchange between two emissaries from St. John Baptist who ask Christ, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” Essentially, they are posing the question as to whether Christ is the Messiah of Hebrew prophecy.

Look at the response, Jesus answered and said unto them, “Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hears, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” Christ is telling them about his authority. There is talk of Our Lord=s upcoming earthly ministry, present reality, and the miracles that He will perform. But with these miracles, Christ gives them and us a glimpse of Heaven where all things are made new.

You see, my beloved in Christ, Heaven is far beyond what we now experience. We do not have adequate words or images to describe it. Our culture unfortunately has developed stereotyped ways of talking about heaven. Some of them are “cute”, “Good old Joe is now up in that big golf course in the sky.”

Maybe a little better are images of heaven as a reunion and “going home” sermons. You’ve heard this before, you know “She is finally back with her husband (mother, son, sister) whom she loved so much.” I suppose this at least expresses something about the “communion of saints.” Nevertheless, it leaves out what makes the communion possible: seeing God himself. I don’t know about you, but the thought of heaven as a giant “sharing” session sounds to me more like the other place.

An image of heaven that I personally love is from the Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis. Narnia is a kind of heaven and it is ruled by a magnificent lion called Aslan, Aslan represents Jesus. After the children have spent some time in Narnia, Aslan tells them they must return to their own world. The children become very sad and bury themselves in Aslan's mane. Aslan reassures them that one day they will be able to return to Narnia. The children say, “it is not Narnia. It is you, Aslan.”

It is about Christ, it is about our Lord. For you see, my beloved in Christ, God is the fullness of being. Things here can only dimly reflect him. When we stand before him any other joy, or pleasure, or beauty, or goodness will seem as pale. This joy which excels everything else is called the “Beatific Vision,” which is seeing God face to face. (I Jn 3:2, I Cor 13:12, Rev. 22:4). In the words of the Psalmist (Psalm 22),

26: The meek shall eat and be satisfied: they shall praise the LORD that seek him: your heart shall live forever.
been saved-and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the
heavenly places in Christ Jesus,@ (Eph 2:4-6 RSV)

That’s the work that has been done for us—heaven awaits.

So, we have two visions, one for the people of Christ in the here and now and one for the future, and both are visions of heaven of life with and in God. But we are called to know him now, to experience His grace and his love right now, to be part of His people right now. And in the life to come, we shall see Him, not as through a glass darkly, but in those heavenly places.

Should this not fill us with humility, gratitude, and a desire for greater service? Shouldn’t we love Christ? Shouldn’t we desire Him? Isn’t it a call that we ought to be even more dedicated in our service to Christ?

Let us ask this Rose Sunday whether we have cause to rejoice. Put aside all of the worries of the secular world for just a moment. No politics, no pestilence, no popular press. The immediate and eternal question is in play. Is the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven among us? We have been saved-and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,@ (Eph 2:4-6 RSV)

That’s the work that has been done for us—heaven awaits.

So, we have two visions, one for the people of Christ in the here and now and one for the future, and both are visions of heaven of life with and in God. But we are called to know him now, to experience His grace and his love right now, to be part of His people right now. And in the life to come, we shall see Him, not as through a glass darkly, but in those heavenly places.

Should this not fill us with humility, gratitude, and a desire for greater service? Shouldn’t we love Christ? Shouldn’t we desire Him? Isn’t it a call that we ought to be even more dedicated in our service to Christ?

Let us ask this Rose Sunday whether we have cause to rejoice. Put aside all of the worries of the secular world for just a moment. No politics, no pestilence, no popular press. The immediate and eternal question is in play. Is the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven among us? We have got just a few days of Advent to think about this, to reflect on this. Do we truly believe the word Emmanuel, God-with-us? If we believe it, then we must show it.

Heaven will fulfill those deep longings of your hearts. It is the pearl of great price. It is Jesus himself. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE FOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY-2020

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faith, mildness, and chastity. Against such, there is no law.” 

-Galatians 5:22

Beloved in Christ, this morning we hear the words of St. St. Paul in his epistle to the Galatians-a stern rebuke to an erring church, I am reminded of the fact that the western Church of which we are a branch, the Body of Christ in which we are members, is not particularly healthy. When I say this, I say it in anguish. You and I are fully aware of what is happening in so very many churches and in our society, and much of it is not very good. 

When St. Paul writes to a community like the Galatians, even in stern rebuke, he wants to instruct them and to build them up-or re-build them in the case of the Galatians. He wants them to become a true community of believers in order that they might live a normal Christian life. Unfortunately, many people in our contemporary society haven’t got a clue as to what is a normal Christian life. 

As we move through Trinitytide and see the basest depravity wafting into our homes on commercial platforms like Netflix, I think that it is vital for all of us to understand, “What is the normal Christian life?” 

Basically, there are five marks of normal Christian life; first, to know Jesus personally and experientially and to give your whole life to Him; second, as we hear in the epistle to live in conscious awareness of the power of the Holy Spirit; third, to live in communion and to live in community; fourth, to show forth our Christian life and the fruits of service particularly in filling of the Great Commission in the evangelization of the world; and, fifth, that communities of believers be related to each other in perfect unity.

Let’s look at the first mark-to know Jesus personally and experientially and to give your life to Him as Lord. This is a necessary truth to hear even as mature Christians. To know Jesus is at the very root and the very foundation of our Christian lives. Jesus died and rose again and ascended to the Father. And then what? Oh, but we hear that He doesn’t communicate with us anymore. What nonsense! To enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is to recognize Him as Lord; to go to Him; to know Him as a person; and perhaps, just perhaps, to listen to Him. 

Hear also these words from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is the Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9)  To confess that Jesus is the Lord is the very foundation of our Christian life, our normal Christian life.

Beloved in Christ, a lot of people don’t understand this. A lot of people don’t have a clue as to who is the Lord.

Back in the first century, before the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed, the very simplest creed in the Christian Church was “Jesus is Lord.” Before Baptism, a person was asked “Why are you here?” The reply, “Because Jesus is Lord.” “ Be baptized.” Later on, we expanded it, “I believe in God the Father. I believe in God the Son. I believe in God the Holy Spirit.” But the simplest creedal statement at the very beginning era was, “Jesus is the Lord.” To acknowledge this and to give ourselves wholly and completely to Him as Lord is the foundation of normal Christian living. Anything else is not normal for the Christian life.

Beloved in Christ, you and I belong to a community of believers-a Church. We aren’t here because we have subscribed to a set of dry dogmas. Why are we here? What was caused you to come here to Epiphany this morning? There was a lot of energy that you had to muster to get out of bed, dress, jump in the car, and come over here. Why?

You’re here because Jesus called you, and you heard and you responded. If you’re not here for that reason, then, you might just as well go home. You see, we’re here because the Lord has called us together, and we have answered His call. 

You see, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is not something that is taken for granted and we say, “Well, yes, I did that a long time ago when I was Baptized or when I was Confirmed.” No. This relationship takes an entire lifetime. It is a process of growing in the Lord. We understand that as the Lord speaks to us, as we respond to Him, there is a purity of heart that you and I must work to develop.

In the epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul lists all kinds of really horrible things that we could get into. Pray to God always that none of us fall into any of that poisonous stuff. We defend against it when we are a people that constantly acknowledges that Jesus is the Lord. That marks us out because “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except in the Holy Spirit” (ICor.12:3).

The second characteristic of normal Christian life is to live in conscious awareness of the power of the Holy Spirit. When we were baptized into the Body of Christ, we were given His life. The Spirit of Christ was poured out into us. It was given to us in order to create in us the heart of Jesus. We have to have the heart of Jesus and the very first thing that the Holy Spirit would teach us in normal Christian life is that we can call God Abba, that is, Father.

Earlier, in chapter four of Galatians, St. Paul writes: 

The proof that you are sons is the fact that God has sent forth into our hearts the Spirit of His Son which cries out, “Abba, Father.” You are no longer a slave, but a son, and the fact that you are a son makes you an heir by God’s design (Gal. 4:6-7). 

This is the way Jesus taught us to pray. When you pray, pray thus: “Abba, Father!” Nobody ever approached God up until the time of Jesus and called Him Abba. In fact, you didn’t even use the name of God out of respect, but Jesus said, “Look, He’s your Father. You can call Him Abba, Father.”

In St. Mark’s Gospel when Jesus was suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, He used the word “Abba”. He kept saying, Abba (O Father), you have the power to do all things. Take this cup away from me. But let it be as you would have it, not as I (Mark 14:36). 

This is normal! It is normal Christian life that you and I have a relationship with our Heavenly Father whereby we can call Him Abba, Father. If we live in conscious awareness of the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we understand that we live according to those gifts of the Holy Spirit that we have received. The gifts are given to the Church, not just to the ordained clergy. They are given to all of us for the up-building of the Body of Christ and that is normal. 

The trouble with a lot of what is happening in the Church today is this: people are trying to build the Body of Christ, not with the gifts of the Spirit, but with human power. We see this, especially in political seasons. No wonder it’s failing and unraveling in so many places. If you begin to focus on the spirit of this age and say, “This is what the Church is’,” you’ve got it wrong.

The Church is the Body of Christ animated by the Holy Spirit and empowered by the Holy Spirit; that we might build up the Body of Christ. There are a lot of charisms and gifts that St. Paul talks about in First Corinthians 12:  God has set up in the Church first apostles, second prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, assistants, administrators (those are the people who spend and give away the money), and those who speak in tongues (I Cor. 12:28). 

Are all apostles or prophets or teachers? No. But each person within the Church is given the gifts that are necessary for the building up of the Church. You see, Jesus established the Church, this isn’t a man-made organization. Jesus has promised that His Church will survive and prevail. He will see to it that it thrives if we all begin to live a normal Christian life knowing that we are empowered by the Holy Spirit.

This is a great book, this Bible of mine. And yet, what is it? It’s a lot of ink on pieces of paper unless we understand that this Word has to be alive in its people. This isn’t just a rule book: this is the operator’s manual. When we breathe the life of the Spirit into the Word of God, that’s what we call Tradition. That’s the living out of what is in here. That’s the Tradition of the Church, that is normal. We would see that within the Word of God is everything we need to live in this world and for our salvation. That’s normal. 

How many times have I heard clergy-yes clergy-say, “Gee, I wish I had more time to study the Scriptures. I don’t have much time to do it at all.” They aren’t living a normal Christian life. They are more interested in developing programs. You know, programs are nice, and we have to have some programs here and there; but a lot of people and a lot of churches hide behind their programs. They’ve got a program for this, that, and the other thing.

Jesus didn’t have any programs. I mean, did He have a multi-session healing program with workbooks and PowerPoint and those ten lepers got in on it? Did He have a teaching program? Did He have a dying and rising from the dead program? No! And yet so many churches are loaded with programs, but does anybody know Jesus there? That’s the question, isn’t it? Because that’s not normal Christian life. 

To know Jesus, to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, and to live in a communal situation. It doesn’t mean that we sell all, give everything to the poor, and all of us sit around singing folk songs. It means that we have within a community a network of committed relationships.

The rugged individualist living out his Christian life is an oxymoron. You can’t live out a normal Christian life all by yourself unless you are called with a very special charism to be a hermit, and even for them, there is Communion. You and I are called to committed relationships. Remember from our lessons several weeks ago what the father said to the older son in the story of the Prodigal? “Everything that I have is yours.” You know that our attachment is not to the things of this world, but our bond is with Christ our Lord. 

Unless we show our normal Christian lives and the fruits of service to God’s people, we aren’t living a normal life. You see, when Jesus came into the world, He came in order to redeem mankind. He did that on the cross and He was raised up to the right hand of the Father. And now He is Lord. Now, in 2020, we are supposed to be the Body of Christ of which He is the head. We’re the members and we are supposed to be the ones to carry the message of salvation to those that need it. All of us. Not just ordained clergy.

If you think about it, look at all of the people that don’t even know who Jesus is. I’m not even talking about all of the baptized pagans that seem to be wandering about, but just all of the people that have never heard of Jesus. Well, if it’s only up to clergy to get to these folks, we’d better ordain about a million and a half people next week! No, this is what the Body of Christ is supposed to do. All of us. It’s all our work. We’ve been equipped by the Holy Spirit to do this. That’s normal. 

This fifth item is something that would show us that none of us are living a normal Christian life: that these communities be related to each other in perfect unity.  That all may be one as Thou Father art in Me and I in Thee. That they also may be [one] in us (Jn 17:21).  That was Jesus’ prayer the night before He died. To Abba. To the Father. That unity is still not there. That isn’t normal. Jesus has something better in store for us than all of the factions and divisions that we see in the Body of Christ.

The normal Christian life isn’t easy. This isn’t a little holiness club we have joined. We have come here because we acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. We have been given the power of the Holy Spirit. We have been given the power to develop within us the heart of Jesus. We’ve been called to live a community life, a community of committed relationships with one another where we would respond to one another’s needs. We know that the Body of Christ in a normal situation is here for the salvation of mankind and it is the work of all of us to evangelize the world. We also know that it is the plan of Jesus that all be one. All of these are characteristics of a normal Christian life. 

What are we going to do with this? We have the information. What do we do with it? I’m not sure. All I know is that with violence, and sickness and general craziness our lives aren’t normal now. How are we going to get in touch with God’s plan?  How?

All wisdom is not summed up in one person, except God, of course. It’s in rather short supply among us human beings. What we have to do is pray about this, understand it the best we can, and do what we can to live out this normal Christian life. 

Saint St. Paul lists the fruits of the Holy Spirit. “By their fruits, you will know them,” said Jesus. St. Paul ticks off a list of fruits of the Holy Spirit that you can see. If you see them in a community, there is Jesus. If somebody is all beat up and hurt, you can say, “We got a little community. It’s not a whole lot. But, you know, I think you will find Jesus here. Come and join us.” You can do that. What are the fruits of the Spirit? 

. . . Love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faith, mildness, and chastity. 

The fruits of the Spirit. If you see them in a community, you say, “Yes, there’s the Lord.” That’s normal, That’s where I want to be”. Then, we can arise, for our faith will have made us whole.  Amen.
 

With thanks to St. Dunstan’s Church and acknowledgment to Fr. Sisterman some of whose words of twenty years ago are included in this sermon.

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY-2020

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.”             St. Luke 19:11

 

This morning we hear a parable about “twos”-two men, two prayers, and two outcomes-two very different outcomes. As our Lord told this parable: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. Look at me--I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ The tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, went home justified before God.”

The Pharisee in the story reminds me of a house guest that Ralph Waldo Emerson once described: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.” Or as an anonymous author once said it, “When someone sings his own praises, the tune is always too high.”

At the time, though, the Pharisee would have been considered the good guy–he wore the white hat. He was a religious leader, a super-religious man who was extremely careful about obeying the Torah. He also followed the Mishnah, which explained how to obey the Torah. The Pharisees literally lived by the book. If you had been a good Jew listening to Jesus, when he mentioned the Pharisee, you would have cheered, “Yeah! Hurrah for the good guy!”

The tax collector was at the other end of the spectrum. He would have been perceived by the community as the worst of the worst of Jewish citizenry. Tax collectors, in the Scriptures, were Jews who worked for the ruling Roman authorities. They were considered both extortionists and traitors - extortionists because they were notoriously noted for collecting more taxes than was owned and pocketing the difference. They were traitors because they served the occupying power of Rome. Again, Jesus was speaking of one specific tax collector and not the whole bunch. Two men-two very different men.

And what of the two prayers? We might paraphrase Charles Dickens-one was the best of prayers, the other the worst of prayers, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of grace, it was the epoch of law, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had accomplished nothing, we had accomplished everything, we were going direct to Heaven, we deserved to go direct to Hell--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that the story could have been told of us today.

What is it about these two prayers that still speaks so directly to our hearts today – 2000 years after Jesus first spoke the parable? With apologies to Dickens, let’s take a closer look at the two prayers of the two men.

The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself, himself as the audience. He addressed God, but really holding an internal conversation, a conversation that is building himself up by putting others down. - “O Lord, it’s hard to be humble when I see how rotten others are compared to me. Thank you, Lord I’m not like those people, you know, people who steal, who do bad things and who cheat on their wives or even like this guy over there who works for Revenue Rome. Yes, Lord, I am one of the very, very few who does more than even the Law requires – you know, I give a tenth of all I get to the temple while everyone else just gives a tenth of their income. I also go without food and water, I fast from sunrise to sunset twice a week and not just once a year like most other folks. Yes God, thank you that I am not like these other people.”

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Look at the differences in the attitudes, the spirit of the two prayers. They are instructive.

The Pharisee considered himself morally and religiously superior than others. He despised those whose spiritual caliber he perceived to be less than his own; he praised himself and condemned his neighbor. He exulted in his own religious practices and trusted in his own good deeds to make him acceptable to God.

It is as if he believed that God owed Him something for his goodness. He failed to see his sin and therefore, his own need for God. At the end of the day, he measured himself to others rather than to God who is absolute in holiness; he built his self-worth on the moral failings of others.

This Pharisee, zealous for the faith and well-versed in the Scriptures, had somehow overlooked passages like Isaiah 26:13 “…but by thee only will we make mention of thy name.” and Isaiah 64:6: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind, our sins sweep us away.” What about Proverbs 3:34 as recorded in James 4:6: “God opposes the proud….” Or perhaps even the simple words of the Psalmist who declares, “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who hath made heaven and earth.” (Ps. 124:8)

In the poisonous sin of pride, he missed even the direction of prayer. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen once said that: “Pride is the king of vices. . . it is the first of the pallbearers of the soul. . . other vices destroy only their opposite virtues, as wantonness destroys chastity; greed destroys temperance; anger destroys gentleness, but pride destroys all virtues.” (C. S. Lewis) “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and of course, as long as you are looking down, you can’t see something that’s above you.” It certainly destroys prayer and keeps us from God.

Do we pray like that all too often? Listen carefully to your own prayers – especially the “thanks” part of prayers. How many times do we thank God for things that we have done and not for what He has done? How often are we thanking God for who we are rather than for who He is? It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it has a name – idolatry. When we start making this mistake, we’re worshipping ourselves rather than God. We put our own efforts above God’s. We become idolaters – just like the Pharisee.

But, look at the tax collector. What a difference! He recognized the holiness of God; and he knew the great gulf that lay between himself and God – “[he] stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven.” He was willing to recognize the sin in his life; he didn’t hide it or deny it. He recognized his need for God’s grace and begged for it – “[he] beat his breast and said, ’God, have mercy on me, a sinner”

St. Ignatius of Antioch in writing on this parable shortly before his martyrdom said, “The righteous man is his own accuser;” and again, “Declare thou first thine iniquities, that thou mayest be justified;” and again, “When ye shall have done all things that are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants;…for that which is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” For says [the Scripture], “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Epistle to the Magnesians.

Those great ones, Abraham and Job, called themselves “dust and ashes” before God. In fact, David said, “Who am I before Thee, O Lord, that Thou hast glorified me hitherto?’ And Moses, “the meekest of all men,” saith to God, “I am of a feeble voice and of a slow tongue.”

Do you bring this spirit to prayer? What is the attitude of your heart when you speak with God?

For there are two different outcomes for these two men praying in two different ways. The tax collector went home from the temple “justified before God” – forgiven. He had new standing before God. He had received the blessing King David spoke of in Psalm 32: “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him…” (Psalm 32:1-2). The Pharisee went home not having been justified before God. He went home with nothing.

It is within our grasp, this spirit of prayer. We know that “God gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). In the words of St. James, “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up” (James 4:10). God told the prophet, Isaiah, “I live in that high and holy place with those whose spirits are contrite and humble. I refresh the humble and give new courage to those with repentant hearts” (Isaiah 57:15).

Pray with a spirit of humility recognizing that we are sinners saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8). Pray knowing that even the privilege to come before God is a gift (Ephesians 3:12). Pray knowing that God will turn away a prayer saturated with pride, selfishness, and the defamation of others. God will welcome a contrite prayer, a prayer which is honest about our spiritual state, our need for God’s grace.
“The sacrifice you want is a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:17)
Pray knowing that it is to an absolutely holy God we speak (Isaiah 6:3). Pray knowing that God will hear a plea for mercy, help, and forgiveness no matter who you are or what you have done (1 John 1:9,10). Pray the prayer of the tax collector for he went home justified before God. Amen

 

                    Sermon for the Tenth Sunday in Trinitytide-2020

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

AND when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.

-St. Luke xix.41

 

I have been thinking about our latest group of young people who graduated high school this spring. They graduated in difficult and new circumstances. Now, they are going off to university or to the military. We too face the fall and the start of a new school year for our children and grandchildren. These are fresh starts in times of uncertainty and unique challenges. So it is this morning, I’d like to speak about new beginnings.

Our Gospel text this morning includes the dramatic account of our Lord’s cleansing of the temple. The passage, which is recounted in all four Gospels, tells of Christ driving out the sellers of doves and moneychangers from the temple. In the Gospel of John, the imagery is vivid–violent–Christ fashions a scourge–a whip of small cords–and uses it to flog those who defiled His Father’s house out the door while tipping over their tables. It is a scene of controlled rage as the house of God is purified.

Well, we might ask just how this relates to the theme of fresh starts and new beginnings. Well, in a very real sense, the account of the cleansing of the temple is a story of a new beginning. It is a story of purification. It tells of washing iniquity out of the house of the Lord. It speaks of a cleansing that then allows the restoration of teaching in God’s house. Of course, Jesus does just that–he begins to teach daily in the temple.

 

I think that there is a kind of baptismal quality to the incident–a washing–not by water but certainly by the Holy Spirit. More vividly, the scourging of the sellers and violence of the act looks forward to the passion and death of Christ that will once and for all purge the temple and begin our restoration to the Father. These very powerful images mark a new beginning for those wishing to see the word of God and the teaching of the Gospels restored in this place and in accomplished in the world.

But, beloved in Christ, this is nothing new. Salvation history-our history-is filled with God’s new beginnings for us as individuals and people of God. We entered into the world created in the image and likeness of God. Despite the transgressions of our first parents, the Father granted mankind a fresh start with the tools to survive in a fallen world.

Then there were repeated fresh starts and new beginnings. The world was cleansed by water following the transgressions of the descendants of Adam and there was a new start with the covenant to Noah. Then we hear of the patriarch Abraham had his new beginnings in a child granted to the aged Sarah and in a covenant of to raise up a people, a place, and a faith. Isaac and Jacob inherit that beginning, but it suffers and is renewed again in young Joseph. Moses marks another beginning with a fresh start for the Hebrews and a law given for their profit.

Despite these gifts, man’s excitement over these fresh starts quickly fades. Instead of manna given from the hand of God in the wilderness, the Israelites clamor for the mundane food of slavery. Instead of a faithful God, the creator of the universe, the Israelites return to false and foreign gods and the comforts of the day. At each turn, though, God pushes the reset button and grants a new beginning after a new beginning.

You know, if you think about it, the whole history of the prophetic books of Scripture tells of these repeated attempts to tell of a fresh start and the consequences for those who don’t take advantage of it. Hear the words of the prophet Isaiah who had to remind the people even of the power of God:

Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure

Yet, at every turn, a disobedient people rejected the Lord and frustrated his powerful love for those who began their existence with His breath.

So, the Father gave us that ultimate new start–Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son. Here is a true beginning–the beginning of fallen man’s reconciliation with the Father, the beginning of new life in Baptism, the beginning of life in God, and His in us through Holy Communion. How about that for a fresh start?

The disciples see these fresh starts again and again in Christ’s earthly ministry. The blind now see–theirs is a new beginning insight and light. The lame walk, the unclean are cleanses, the deaf begin to hear. Listen to the blind man healed at Siloam when questioned by the authorities on the transformation he had experienced:

Why herein is a marvelous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes. Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man is a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth. Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind. If this man were not of God, he could do nothing. They answered and said unto him, Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us? And they cast him out.

Even sinners have a new beginning at Christ’s own table: “And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples.” And the reaction of the public? As we hear in the Gospels of Saint Mark and Saint Luke:…when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? They don’t see that this marks the beginning of a new life for the sinners, a life cleansed from sin.

For the knowledgeable man of the world, the scholar Nicodemus, there is a fresh start. Nicodemus came looking for his new beginning having heard of Jesus’ miracles: Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. He’s got the key to cleansing and rebirth the new beginning. And, he seems not to get it. We don’t hear of him again until he is a witness to the crucifixion, that terrible moment in which mankind’s fresh start is purchased with the blood of the Lamb.

Even the dead have a chance to begin again. Jesus cried to his friend, “Lazarus come forth.” Lazarus came forth and sat down to eat. The reaction of the world? The authorities wanted to put him to death.

Following Christ’s saving death and resurrection, the disciples have their new beginning. With all they had seen and done, even the Ascension left them befuddled. But, they are fully brought into the newness of life in Christ through the Pentecost. Men like Saul of Tarsus, a persecutor of his own neighbors, is granted that new chance.

Beloved, we, as faithful Christians, have that very same chance. Psalm 111 gives us a reference point. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth forever.”

If wisdom begins with a fear of the Lord, then what about eternal life? Our Lord tells the disciples in the Gospel of Luke: “These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” It is the beginning of life in the resurrection. It is the beginning of the mission and the necessity of telling forth the good news–beginning at Jerusalem.

You know, these beginnings aren’t easy. Imagine a life of darkness suddenly illuminated by day. The blind man needs to reorient his entire way of sensing–of dealing with his world. What about the life of the healed sinners–the community knows you as one thing–perhaps a cheat or a prostitute–but you have been transformed.

You, beloved in Christ, each of you is challenged to teach people about that chance for a fresh start. You are called to tell of the healing power of Christ to a cynical and skeptical group of friends and even family. Think of Lazarus raised from death itself. How will he use that new life and how will he deal with the curious or un-believing?

These are the problems of fresh starts, of new beginnings. But we are guaranteed them, by baptism, in repentance and through faith in Christ and His sacraments. We are healed and washed clean from our sins. It is compounded when we are called corporately, at times, to these new beginnings as a people of God. When the money changers invade the temple, we are called to sweep them out. If heresy besets us, we must reject it and begin anew. If evil stands in our path, we are to sweep it aside.

This doesn’t square with the wisdom of the world. It doesn’t make us comfortable when we must leave perhaps comfortable surroundings, challenge our own comfort zones, and deal with the questions of those around us.

Certainly, this was the situation of those first Christians. This was the challenge of the reformers of the church, the evangelicals of the 1700s, and the Anglican-Catholic slum priests and Tractarians of the 1800s. It is our challenge now. We are called to join those who have and do face the difficulties of a real Christian life.

Saint Paul spoke of the challenge in his first letter to the Corinthians. “We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honorable, but we are despised, even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place; And labor, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it”

It is in many ways this is the story of a wedding. The disapproving family worries over the choice of the new husband or wife. Parents fret over the change of the status quo and wonder what will become of the family with the departure of the son or daughter into a new life.

Well, aren’t we there in a sense? We are called to the bridegroom Jesus Christ. Those who don’t know Him very well, or at all, worry over our choice–maybe disapprove of it. And, like that old saying about the wedding we have something new and something old.

We are called to that “something new”–a new life in Him and with Him. We can do nothing else. We do go forward with something old–the faith once-delivered. It is the foundation upon which we build our faith and our lives as we begin again. It is the foundation of the world as we hear in the beginning of St. John’s Gospel:

In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth

That is our beginning and our end, our Alpha and Omega–the Word made flesh who dwelt among us. Let us go forward from this beginning, always living new beginnings each day through the love, forgiveness, and mercy that can come only through a life in and with Jesus Christ. Amen.

             

 

 

 

                  SERMON FOR THE FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY-2020

 

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)


 

Be ye all of one mind.” 

-I St. Peter 3:8

 

 

This morning’s Gospel reading from St. Luke recounts the story of the miraculous draught of fish, which Jesus brings about on the lake of Gennesaret.  It is easy to miss the point of this story, as we tend to concentrate on its miraculous element, rather than its teaching.  Remember that Jesus Himself resisted the temptation of performing miracles when he was led “by the Spirit into the wilderness.” (Matthew 4:1)  Also, Jesus frequently instructed his disciples and those whom he cured that they should tell no one of his miraculous deeds.  (e.g., Mark 5:43; Matthew 8:4) Our Lord doesn’t want people to believe in him for the wrong reason, as if he were merely some kind of magician with miraculous powers. 

Jesus is concerned that men believe in him for what and who He is and what he teaches.  He knows that if our faith depends only on the continuous performance of miracles, that faith is without substance. It will cease simultaneously with the miracles themselves.  However, in this case, Jesus Himself initiates the performance of the miracle by telling Simon Peter to let down his net once more.  Because He initiates the miracle, we can be fairly certain that Jesus wishes to teach us something.  In fact, he does wish to teach us about the “blessing” we are to “inherit,” to use the words of St. Peter from this morning’s Epistle. 

There are three things he wishes to teach us through this miraculous draught of fish.  First, God’s blessing does not depend on our effort.  He is not in any way restricted to what we can imagine or fulfil.  Simon Peter has toiled the entire night and has caught nothing. 

If we followed the limits of our human reason and possibility, we would not send the boats out again.  Our efforts have not produced anything until now, why should the next trip have any better result?  But as the story teaches us, God is not limited. He is not restricted to what we can conceive or imagine.  His kingdom exceeds our powers and achievements as much as heaven is higher than the earth. 

The second point that the story makes is that the gift of God appears where there is faith.  As Simon Peter says, “we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing; nevertheless, at thy word, I will let down the net.” 

Faith is the sign that we have moved beyond what is conceivable and possible for human reason. Faith shows that we have moved towards a love which never fails, never ceases to show mercy, never refuses to forgive.  In faith, our human possibilities are left behind so that we may grasp the possibility of an infinite Majesty, untarnished by all weakness and smallness of spirit. 

Of course, beloved in Christ, this possibility is only incompletely realized in this life, and so our blessing is held in faith, hope, and charity.  But that divine blessing which was evident to Simon Peter on the lake of Gennesaret is already a reality in our lives: through our prayers, through our baptism, in our marriages, indeed at this very Eucharist here today, wherein faith we receive the very body and blood of Jesus Christ.  Christ’s flesh and blood are not present here at this Eucharistic banquet for common sense, but only for faith.  That is why we are exhorted to feed on Christ’s body “in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving”

The third point of the story is that the blessing we shall inherit bursts our nets and causes our ships to sink.  This blessing will be more than we imagined, more than we hoped for, more than we could ever use.  It represents an inexhaustible richness, against which the riches and wealth of this world can be no more than the grass which withers. 

The story tells us that to receive this richness without sinking under the incomprehensible fullness of the divine love, our nature will have to be transformed. 

So it is that God promises that we will be the inheritors of the divine “blessing.”  The gift that God will bestow will not be something external, under which our nature sinks, but will belong to us as a birthright.  What an amazing transformation!  A gift which we cannot conceive of according to our own human possibilities will, through the divine love, become our right by nature. 

This new nature itself is part of the gift because it will ensure that we receive the gift as inheritors, as sons and daughters of God, who receive the gift by right of redeemed nature.  As Jesus so aptly expresses it, no one puts new wine in old skins, lest they burst.  (Matthew 9.17).  God’s blessing for us will include the new skin for the new wine, so that his gift will not overwhelm us (as it did Peter), but will belong to us as our birthright. 

In the story, St. Peter is overcome by the size of the catch, and says to Jesus: “Depart from me, for l am a sinful man, O Lord.”  But, of course, Jesus has no intention whatsoever of departing from him.  St. Peter does not yet know, as we know, that Jesus will give him strength and endurance, not only to receive his gift but also to do his work.  This sinful nature will, through the grace of God, become the rock on which Jesus will build his church. 

So the Lord says to both St. Peter and to us “Fear not.”  For he shall, as he has promised, send us “another Comforter... even the Spirit of truth” (John 14.16-17).  It shall be part of God’s saving mercy that he shall make us strong enough to receive the abundance of his blessing, so that we may indeed be his sons and daughters.  

So, on this Sunday, at this Eucharist, let us pray that God may grant us that faith for which his blessing appears.  Let us recollect that it is not what we do that matters, but what he does in us, not what we are by nature that matters, but what he will make us by his grace.  Further, let us recall that in this story of the draught of fish, we have the assurance that despite the disappointments of the night, he shall respond with riches we cannot as yet imagine.  Let us therefore again launch our boats and let down our nets in faith! Amen. 

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