Anglican Church Of Epiphany Amherst VA.
                      Anglican                    Church  Of                     Epiphany                     Amherst                         VA.

Contact Us  carolcsfa@reagan.com

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  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 FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EASTER-2022

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

 

Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you.”

-St. John 16:23

 

Today is not only the Fifth Sunday after Easter, but it is also Rogation Sunday. The name “rogation” means simply “asking” or “prayer of petition”. This traditionally is the time of year when we ask God our Father for the needs of the upcoming planting and harvesting season. It calls us back to a time when most of society was very much rural. The village priest would lead a procession from the Church and go out to bless the fields and plantings.

In our modern life, the term may have lost much of its meaning. Those of us who have not grown up in farming communities perhaps don’t understand the vagaries of growing vast amounts of food as the farmers would who are so dependent upon the weather and other things to make a harvest that will feed not only ourselves but most of the world. However, I think that as many here at Epiphany are avid gardeners, we may have an idea of the various kinds of afflictions that can happen to our plants in the course of a summer.

Whether we have a green thumb or not, it is a good time on Rogation Sunday to consider prayer: what prayer is, what prayer it is not, and how we can better pray. It is or should be, of our very nature as Christian people to be people of prayer. Prayer is, first, an attitude. It is not going on and on with a bunch of words. It is an attitude. It is an attitude of faith. It is an attitude of hope.

Do you remember the parable of the mustard seed? (Matthew 13:31–32) Jesus said that if you have the faith the size of a tiny mustard seed, you could move mountains. As St. John Chrysostom pointed out about this parable, Jesus used the example of this herb, “Which indeed is the least, of all seeds, but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.” “Even so then shall it be with respect to the gospel too, the disciples were weakest of all, and least of all; but nevertheless, because of the great power that was in them, especially the power of prayer made in absolute faith, the Gospel unfolded in every part of the world.”

Faith means that, like the disciples, you and I know for certain, as Jesus has taught us, that our heavenly Father loves us. He loves us to the point that unlike a natural father wants his children to come to him for whatever they need. Our heavenly Father wants us to ask Him for anything we need.

There is no prayer request too big to ask the Father. Your heavenly Father is waiting for you to ask because He is waiting to do what you need Him to do. 2 Chronicles 16:9 says the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward Him.

Where we see a problem, He sees potential for a miracle. Where we see an obstacle, He sees an opportunity to show Himself strong. Where we see an impossibility, God sees a chance to show that what is impossible with man is possible with Him. There is nothing that we cannot ask because there is nothing He cannot do. (Jeremiah 32:17)(Luke 1:37)(Ephesians 3:20) That is the kind of faith that we are to have. This is the hope that we have.

The hope is not to hope against reality, but a hope that is founded in truth. We can believe what Jesus said and know that it is true. “Whatever you ask the Father, he will give it to you in my name.”

Now, if prayer is first an attitude, it is, secondly, something even much more. We usually consider prayer in four different categories. First, is the prayer of adoration. Second, is the prayer of thanksgiving. Third, prayer to seek forgiveness for our sins. Fourth, is the prayer of petition.

When we think of prayer, what is the first thing we think of? We think of prayer only as a prayer of petition. We pray and pray and pray because we have to ask God for the things that we need. That is all right.

In fact, God proves His faithfulness day in and day out-our daily bread. God sets His supply out each and every day for us and we far too often fail to recognize it. However, we so often fail to see just what God has done for us. The best example of this comes out of the Old Testament during the early days of Israel’s freedom from slavery.

God sent bread from heaven down to the people of Israel called Manna. Manna was God’s way of supplying the needs of His people and God sent the Manna each day with more than enough to care for every person. God even sent extra for Friday so that the people would not have to gather on the Sabbath. However, if someone tried to gather more than they needed for the day it would spoil, with the exception of Friday because of the Sabbath. So, it is right to ask, to petition for what we need and not for what we want. This is what Rogation Sunday is about, prayers for our needs.

However, the most selfless kind of prayer that we can offer to God is the prayer of adoration. Prayer of adoration really means to be aware of being in the presence of our God at every moment of our lives.

Sometimes there is, in that prayer of adoration, a charism, a gift that is given to us, and that gift is the gift of contemplation. Contemplative prayer is to be able to glimpse, maybe only for a fleeting time, the reality and the wonder and the mystery of God. This is the prayer that allows us to enter the divine, to touch heaven. Beloved in Christ, contemplative prayer is the kind of prayer that you and I should aspire to.

However, we also must pray the prayers of thanksgiving. We must always pray to say thank you to our God for all of the gifts and benefits that he has given us. We must be grateful people for all that God has given us.

Finally, we also seek forgiveness for our sins. We ask God in prayer to forgive us and to forgive. Remember all of those wonderful traits that we so love about the forgiveness of God; the letting go of what He could hold against us, not keeping our sins where they still haunt us, and disregarding and not remembering our failures. These also become the standard for your forgiveness towards others. This means that you need to let go of the things others have done to you, no longer hold it against them and forget about it.

This seems extremely difficult in principle and impossible in practice. However, forgiveness is doing what seems difficult in principle and impossible in practice through prayer for the Holy Spirit to give you a forgiving heart.

Why is it so vital for us to pray for the ability to forgive others? God understands something we do not; imagine that! The reality is this, you will never experience the true freedom found only in God’s forgiveness until you forgive those who have hurt you. As C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive, we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it.” C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity p104-105)

We also need to realize that prayer is not merely the words that you and I say. Prayer is a conversation, and if it is a conversation, it means very simply that it is a two-way street. We talk to God and God talks to us as well. By his inspiration, he can move our hearts and lives. He can change us. He can give us his word if we listen. It is very hard for us sometimes to listen to God, to just be in his presence, keep quiet, and listen. He will speak to us. He will talk to us.

We ask for so very many things, don’t we? When we ask for so many things-and God expects us to-it seems as though, not always our prayers answered. It is a common saying that God always answers our prayers, but sometimes the answer is “no”. We could ask our Father for everything that we need and the Father who is so loving and so provident will always respond to that prayer but maybe not in the way that we think it should be answered.

After all, when we ask for things we have a tendency to limit God and limit his providence. We want him to do the things that we ask for, but God, who sees a bigger picture, will give us something even greater than we can ask for. He will give us that which is most expedient for us.

You and I are asked to beseech our God for everything that we need. “Give us this day our daily bread”, we pray so frequently. Yet even before, we have said that we have acknowledged God, who is in heaven, that his name is hallowed, that his kingdom come, and that his will be done. All of these are segments of that prayer of petition that Jesus has so beautifully taught us: the Our Father.

Yet, there is one place where all of the strands of prayer come together. When we come together for the Sacrament, for the Holy Eucharist, we come together in prayer. In this Eucharist, we see all of the aspects of prayer.

We repeatedly offer prayers of adoration such as the Gloria. We adore our All-holy God. We say thank you to our God for all that we have and all that we are; most of all for having given to us his only begotten Son as our Redeemer. We seek the forgiveness of our sins in this Eucharistic prayer as well. We acknowledge that we are sinners and we ask our God to forgive us.

Finally, we ask him that we may continue to be sustained by his providence. Listen carefully to the words of the Eucharistic Prayers this morning. Understand that our Father not only hears us but responds so lovingly to his children.

So it is this morning we lift up all of our prayers, we ask in Jesus’ name. That has to say, with the sacrificial obedience of Jesus, we offer it to God, and we submit it to God’s will. Such prayer, says Jesus, is always answered: “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you...ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full”.

What we ask in Jesus’ name, we ask in perfect submission to God’s will; and in God’s will - not in our own restless desires and whims and fantasies, but in God’s will - we have our answer and our peace. Amen. +

     

 

 

 

     SERMON FOR THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN EASTER-2022

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

 

“Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth:”

-St. John 16:13

 

In the Upper Room 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 was not much comfort to be told they are going to have a spiritual presence they do not yet understand.

Here is the problem for the disciples-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. As we hear in the Gospel of St. John “And he that seeth me seeth him that sent me.” (12:45) If only we could see Jesus as the disciples did, then we would be seeing the Father too! Now, 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, must just believe.

Nevertheless, you know, Jesus Christ, the living Christ, does not think much of that notion. He says bluntly, it is to your advantage that I go away. Well, what advantage is there? Do you believe that? – Jesus says that having the Spirit with us is better than having Himself in the flesh!

I think we have come to have a low view of the Spirit. Don’t we often talk and act as if the Trinity is actually a duo. We have the big “F” Father, the big “S” Son, and the little “s” spirit. He is somewhat like an add-on, an afterthought.

We talk to our children and our grandchildren about Jesus being in our hearts, but Scripture teaches us that the Holy Spirit indwells us. He is the Spirit of Jesus, and we often use the terms Jesus and the Spirit interchangeably in our relation to God, but because we often say Jesus when we mean the Spirit, we regulate the Spirit to the sidelines.

When we are inviting people to become Christian, we usually ask them to believe in Jesus Christ, but most often, the Bible calls us to Believe in Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit. You might think it is all just semantics, and it might be, but it points to an avoidance of the Holy Spirit, especially among us Anglican folks.

Why do we avoid the Spirit? Well, there is fear. We cannot control the Spirit, and He may just lead us into strange places. How about embarrassment. You know talk of the Spirit is often time associated with the Holy Rollers or TV preachers. How about lack of (human) image: We can easily picture Jesus – he is a real Jewish man of flesh and blood, we have artists’ renditions of Him, and actors who play him. It is the same with the Father – we can picture a benevolent father, people have painted their idea of the Father, and actors have played him, but the Spirit is harder to portray. How do you paint the wind? Jesus says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” John 3:8

The fundamental idea of Spirit in Hebrew and Greek is ruach-breath, air, wind, storm – the intensity depending on the context. It may be a gentle breath (John 20:22), a gale-force wind (Ex 15:8), or a cooling breeze (Gen 3:8). Most essentially Spirit is transcendent and divine, not mere flesh; it is the energy of life itself and is present in nature and in history. Most wonderfully, the Spirit is God’s face turned toward us and God’s presence abiding with us, the agency by which God reaches out and draws near, the power that creates and heals.”

Our favorite image of the Spirit is the dove-the gentle dove. You remember that when Jesus was baptized, the Spirit descended on Him like a dove. (I think that that is more of a description of how the Spirit came down, not a picture of what the Spirit looked like).

The ancient Celtic Christians had a different image of the Spirit. ”In the Celtic tradition, the Holy Spirit is represented as a bird, but not the peaceful and serene dove landing on Jesus at his baptism. For their symbol of the Holy Spirit, the Celtic church people chose the Wild Goose, (An Geadh-Glas).

Why did the Wild Goose speak to those ancient Celtic Christians? To begin with, wild geese are not controllable. You cannot restrain a wild goose and bend it to your will. They are raucous and loud. Unlike the sweet and calming cooing of a dove, a goose’s honk is strong, challenging, strident, unnerving – and just a bit scary.

In much the same way the Spirit of God can be, demanding and unsettling. Think about the story of Pentecost and the impression the disciples made on the crowd. People thought they were drunk and disorderly!

It is one thing for a gentle dove to descend peacefully on Jesus – it is something altogether different when the Spirit descends like a wild, noisy goose! You may think of other reasons why we avoid the Spirit. However, we should not avoid Him. The Spirit is God just as Jesus is and the Father is.

The Spirit is elusive but profound and worthy of adoration. If Father points to ultimate reality and Son supplies the clue to the divine mystery, Spirit epitomizes the nearness of the power and presence of God. St John of the Cross aptly calls the Spirit a living flame of love and celebrates the nimble, responsive, powerful, personal gift of God.

 

Look at the effect of the Holy Spirit. The whole world over, the living Jesus Christ keeps reaching innumerable souls. 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.”

This is powerful stuff-the 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 Christ Incarnate. We hear in the Gospel of St. John that this could not be until the life and 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 this effect of the Spirit without either speaking like a theology treatise or ending up sounding silly. Nothing really does the power of this gift, the presence of the Holy Spirit among us justice.

At the end of Lent, the Cross and Resurrection had crowned Jesus’ 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, 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 the Holy Spirit dwells. It is more commonly caught through the fellowship of the Church-the Body of Christ.

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 Christ through the Spirit becomes the universal Christ available to us all. Beloved in Christ, this is a community of the faithful that needs to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit, to be better guided by the Third Person of the Trinity in prayer, in work, and in all that we do.

In this sense, I invite you all to allow the Holy Spirit to reach you in Sacred Scripture. 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. Moreover, it had to be written down, and it was, not much more than thirty years after the crucifixion and resurrection. These accounts, these Gospels, are proclamations, not a biography. They preach Christ by recounting what he did and said. 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?

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, but a dynamic Person. Christianity lives because of the Holy Spirit, and it lives because of the scriptures.

Also, there is the sacramental worship of the Church: and here I have chiefly in mind Holy Communion. In that Upper Room, Our Lord makes plain to his disciples that he was about to leave them, but, He 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.

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 pictures, television, or the internet as compared with sound. Therefore, 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. 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. However, something is seen that is different breaks in on our lives.

In addition, something to do with the feet, hands, and mouth brings the spiritual within the range of a greater range of people than is the case with what is only spoken and heard. Remember, words are spoken with the Sacrament. Jesus spoke when he instituted the Holy Communion. It was not, it never is, a silent sacrament. What are more the scriptures are quoted or read as part of the occasion. There we are invited to hear, see touch to taste Christ that He may dwell in us and us in him.

Beloved in Christ, the Holy Spirit is at work here in Epiphany. 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 THIRD SUNDAY IN EASTER-2022

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

 

DEARLY beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul…”

–I St. Peter 2:11

 

What language we have in the Epistle this morning-it could hardly be classed as a hearts, flowers, and candy set of instructions. There is no hallmark moment in this call to obedience and upright behavior.

I suppose it reminds me of the stories my father told of my twice-great grandmother, Louisa Pope Winston–the last member of our family to come to this country. She and her mother came here, as...well...pilgrims from England, on a ship rife with smallpox in 1858. She and her mother and the raft of siblings she was shepherding survived, and nursed the others on the ship–on that pilgrimage to a new country. Sometimes on that ship young Louisa, she saw her fellow passengers to the end of their pilgrimage in this earthly life–reading to them from a small Bible as they reached the end of their journey.

Well, Louisa–who is probably profoundly embarrassed by this sermon–came her, went west to Wisconsin, worked a farm out on Sun Prarie, raised several children, and was an ardent worker for temperance. She came here to Virginia with her husband to run a mill, went up to Alexandria, and finally went to live with my grandmother where her pilgrimage in this life ended in her 97th year.

This was one of so many good and godly women, mothers, of that era. She led a hard, but very graced life–a life viewed very much as a pilgrimage, and she took the instructions for leading that life–the instructions in this little book, and St. Peter’s contribution to it, very much to heart.

When you look at this short epistle passage these are very much the kind of instructions a loving parent–particularly a mother–would give a child who is setting out on life’s voyage.

 

What do we hear in the words of St. Peter? In the verses preceding this morning’s text, we hear of our place as God’s children, we are as Christians “a chosen generation”, “a royal priesthood”, “a royal generation”, “a holy nation”, and God’s “own special people.” What a high calling! What a special place in this world and the next! Especially, what a status: chosen, royal, holy, and special.

What is the proper path for such esteemed children as they go out into the world? As we draw close to graduation season and we celebrate Mother’s Day today, it is fitting to talk about advice to the kids or grandchildren as they go out into the world. What do we tell them?

St Peter makes a heartfelt plea concerning our conduct before those in the world in light of our status. As we consider this “plea to pilgrims,” remember that St. Peter is speaking by inspiration; i.e., it is actually GOD who is making this plea as a loving Father. As we heard in the Gospel, in a little while, he will no longer be visible–the Apostles will well and truly be on their own pilgrimage. So, the lessons this morning call us to take a good look at how we conduct ourselves on that same journey.

Before we examine the plea of St. Peter itself, notice some things that form the foundation of the passage. First, we are “beloved”–beloved of whom? Well, by St. Peter, of course, and by Saints Paul, James, John, & Jude, all of whom used this same term of endearment. It is why I use it toward you, my beloved in Christ.

However, the real crux of this is that we are beloved of God and Jesus! (Ro 1:7; Co 3:12). It is out of such human and divine love that this plea in the passage is made. “DEARLY beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul…”

The plea is not just about heading out to set up an apartment after graduation or even building a new life and a new home in a new state or country. It is about life itself, for we are “sojourners and pilgrims” We have not yet reached our heavenly home. Failure to heed the plea will mean we will never reach it! In view of that real possibility, we find this plea made even in a form of “begging”!

In a way, the plea is that of a mother made to so many who have put on a uniform and marched off. St. Peter, on behalf of our Lord, is reminding us at the gate as we laugh and joke about what we are about–it isn’t a day at school that we are going off to. We are engaged in warfare. We are going off to war against the terrible evil we have seen played out against the unborn. But there is an even more insidious struggle going on. We are going off to a war in which “fleshly lusts” wage war against the “soul.” The outcome of this “war” will determine whether we will reach our heavenly home.

We get another parental warning from St. Pater–one that we’ve all heard. You are being watched—others can see what you are up to! Some of these folks will often gossip and speak evil of you (even as they did of Christ).

By heeding the plea in St. Peter’s letter, it is possible to cause those very ones who speak evil of you to glorify God in “the day of visitation”. This might be the Day of Judgment, but the words can refer to the “day” when God’s grace is shown through a presentation of the gospel truth, the truth of the sacrament, the truth of an incarnate Christ to them.

St. Bede noted that by living a holy life, a sacramental life, a gospel life, even the pagan observer can be turned toward the truth. In either case, we have an opportunity to bring glory to God by the way we heed this plea as we are being observed by others around us.

In view of these four reasons, then, God through St. Peter begs us to “abstain from fleshly lusts.” The word “abstain” means “to hold one's self constantly back.” Restrain yourselves—exercise self-restraint. Free will brings this responsibility with it.

From what are we to abstain? “Fleshly lusts,” involve more than just "sexual" sins (such as fornication). Galatians 5:19-21 They also include sins of the “emotions” (hatred, outbursts of wrath, jealousies, envy, etc.).

Why must we “hold ourselves constantly back” from these things? According to St. Peter, they “wage war against the soul.” According to St. Paul, they can keep us out of the kingdom of God! So if we want to succeed in our spiritual “pilgrimage” and reach our heavenly destination, we must heed this “plea to pilgrims”!

How about some practical advice? How can we abstain from fleshly lusts? In his epistles, St. Paul explains how. Keep your mind on the things of the Spirit, and not on the things of the flesh. Grow in Christ, and don’t provide opportunities for the fulfillment of fleshly lusts–if you are constant in attention to your faith, to prayer, and to the things attendant upon the Christian life–there is little room for these things to creep in.

There is also a very proactive side to this. Should such opportunities arise, flee them (remember Joseph and Potiphar’s wife?), and pursue that which is good. By following St. Paul’s advice, we can win the “war” between the flesh and soul, and successfully complete our pilgrimage!

However, abstaining from fleshly lusts is not the only thing expected of God’s pilgrims. The plea also begs us to have “honorable conduct”. This is certainly the desire of every parent and so with God. The word “honorable” (“honest”, KJV) in Greek is “Kalos”. It means that which is good, beautiful, harmonious, and lovely. So our conduct is to be something beautiful and refreshing to behold.

We can have conduct that is “honorable”. If on the one hand, we abstain from “fleshly lusts,” and on the other hand, we do “good works” (“good” is the same word in Greek as “honorable”).

What “good works” can we do that is beautiful to behold? We can see to the needs of those who are poor, fatherless, widowed, sick, and otherwise afflicted. We can demonstrate love and hospitality to brethren, friends, neighbors, and even strangers. We can even react kindly to those who despise us, speak evil of us, mistreat us, or, God forbid, wish to kill and maim us.

The effect of such conduct is that it will likely prompt others to glorify God! As Jesus taught us in Mt 5:16, even those who at the present may speak against us as evildoers! However, by heeding this “plea to pilgrims” as found in this morning’s Epistle lesson, it is possible to accomplish several things at the same time”

We can be saved. We can glorify God. We might even help save those who presently speak evil of us! As the “people of God” who have “obtained mercy” (1 Pe 2:10), can we do any less? We can conduct ourselves, then, in ways that are honorable and a thing of beauty for others to behold! In so doing, you will ensure the successful completion of your spiritual pilgrimage!

What it gets down to is motherly advice, from Christ’s own mother. Words from the Gospel that encapsulate the Epistle lesson, words that generation upon generation of Christian mothers have since imparted to their children. They are the simple words of obedience from Mary at the wedding feast of Cana–“Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.” Not a plea, but a Gospel direction that will see us on our pilgrimage. Amen.

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE FIRST SUNDAY AFTER EASTER-2022

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

 

“Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?”

-I St. John 5:5

 

Authenticity”. I have been turning word that over in my mind this week. We seem culturally obsessed with finding things that are authentic–not necessarily real but authentic.

I am not sure what the word means in the popular mind–there are lawsuits over whether antiques sold on E-Bay are “authentic”. I guess that means genuine and not “fake” or “fraudulent”. I suppose that a $35 Renoir might just be a suspect. We hear about people who have undergone “authentic” transformation, and even what it means to run an “authentic” business. Most of this stuff is either self-help jargon or management-speak meant to sell more books, dvds and seminars.

There are people out there who are obsessed with the opposite, particularly with respect to Holy Scripture. These folks believe that Jesus might have existed as an historical figure, but that he certainly did not perform miracles or rise from the dead. They claim that the Gospel accounts are “inauthentic.” Unhappily for them, the more people research, and particularly as scholars of Judaism continue to research the history of early Christianity, they are uncovering evidence that appears to show the Gospels of the New Testament are more reliable–let’s say authentic–than the naysayers would like them to be.

So this morning in Eastertide, using the Epistle as a guide let us look at authentic Christianity and what it means to be an authentic–not a fake or make believe–Christian. This First Epistle of St. John offers us “Three Tests of Authentic Christianity”.

At the outset, we should understand that the Epistles of St. John are perfumed with love. The word continually occurs, and the Holy Spirit enters into every sentence. If St. John speaks of God, his name must be love; are the brethren mentioned, he loves them; and even of the world itself. After all, St. John wrote his gospel in order that one might “obtain” eternal life. (Jn 20:30-31). His epistle was written so that we might “know” we have eternal life. (1 Jn 5:13). These gifts are out of love for all men.

So it is out of this sense of love that St. John calls us to be authentic Christians. Throughout his first epistle, St. John mentions the kind of things that provide evidence that one is truly a child of God, possessing fellowship with the Father and the Son.

First, there is the test of belief, in particular, belief in Christ Jesus. This breaks down into belief in Jesus as the Christ, (5:1a); as the Son of God (5:5b) and as one who has come in the flesh. (4:2).

Let’s turn this over a bit. Doing righteousness and love of one’s fellow men are evidence of son-ship to God. However, it is belief in Jesus as the Christ that is declared to render a man a child of God.

It is true that some people can enter into certain kinds of relation with God in other ways than by belief in Christ. The philosopher can be convinced by thought that ours is a theistic universe; the artist can know God as beauty; the moralist can know God to be moral. However, only God’s selfrevelation in Jesus Christ laid hold on by faith can bring us in our total beingwith our minds and emotions and willinto the authentic Christian life. This is the intimate experience of God’s life and love that Christianity describes with the figure of Father and child.

Only faith that Jesus is the Christ, and the truth revealed to such faith, can convince men that this world is really a home, that people are meant to live in it together as a family, and that the noblest pattern of family life is the pattern of God’s purpose for human society.

On the other hand, to deny Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, makes fellowship with the Father and the Son impossible.

So faith in Jesus is necessary to experience eternal life and it is necessary for us to “overcome the world.” (4-5) We can overcome the world only through the One who lives in us. Victory is won by faith, and he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God overcomes.

Beloved in Christ, this profound conception exposes the shallowness of other ways in which men try to deal with their perennial foes. Flight from the world, misreading life to persuade oneself that evil is nonexistent, anesthetizing oneself with literature or art, distracting oneself with pleasure or cynical bargains struck with the worldthese turn out to be futile.

Or stoical courage, mere optimism that the good in life will arithmetically outbalance evil, trust in luck, faith in progress, confidence in oneself and one’s own powersthese also do not avail. To those who attempt in these ways to deal with the world, Christianity offers the invitation of faith in Jesus as the Son of God. However, such faith is faith in the total Christian revelation and all that religiously and ethically is bound up with it. Above all, it means appropriating and living in the very life of God himself, which alone delivers man from evil, time, and mortality.

Ah, but is “belief in Jesus” the only test of authentic Christianity? Not according to Jesus. (John 8:30-31). There is also the test of love.

Jesus had made brotherly love a mark of discipleship and a commandment to prove we are His friends. St. John stressed brotherly love as evidence of abiding in the light, of being a child of God, as evidence of having passed from death to life, and as evidence of knowing God and being born of God. Now, in discussing brotherly love St. John describes it as a necessary corollary to loving God.

Let us look at what that means. When man believes that Jesus is the Christ he enters into the distinctive Christian fellowship, and love of one’s brother prevails. Everyone who loves the parent loves the child. As in a human family, he who loves the parent also loves the other children who come from Him. So, every Christian who is a child of God through faith loves his fellow Christians because he loves his heavenly Father.

This is a beautiful ideal for the church. As children’s quarrels, jealousy, vanity, disfigure family life and wound parents’ hearts, so they injure the unity of the church and wound Christ’s heart. Within groups in a congregation, between congregations, and even between denominations, as lovelessness is a denial of the faith and an offense to God, so love is proof of faith and a cause of joy to God.

Surely this ideal should not be confined to the Christian church alone. Is it not also the ideal for all humanity?

As love of God becomes real when it is expressed in love for man, so the converse also can be said to be true: that love of man becomes most real and fruitful when it is rooted in love of God: By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.

This leads to the third test of authentic Christianity, that of obedience. St. John had emphasized this test earlier in the Epistle as essential to having fellowship with the Father, as essential to knowing Jesus, as essential to loving God. St. John has told us that obedience is as essential to abiding in Jesus, to being a child of God, and to having our prayers answered. Now he stresses that it is essential to both enable us to love both the children of God and God Himself.

To St. John, however, this “test” is not a burden. The commandments of God are not “burdensome”. Though he himself had served the Lord for many years (possibly 50 or more), he had not found the commandments “grievous”.

The Christian has been born of God, and whatever is born of God overcomes the world. The believer is endowed with God’s power to obey God’s commands-- Christian experience corroborates this truth. The true saint is one who by nature finds it harder to disobey than to obey God; he or she so lives in the nature of God that to fulfill God’s commandments is as natural as it was previously to deny them.

Christianity affirms that the deepest truth about human nature is that man is made for obedience to God’s commandments, and that his peace and happiness lie in surrendering his being to God alone. Jesus’ metaphorsthe wearing of the yoke, the bearing of the cross, the driving of the plowtell us that man does not become his best until a demand is placed upon him which he accepts.

The analogy of family life also illumines this truth about human nature. An eminent psychiatrist once said that children need rules and discipline for emotional health as much as they need bread and butter for physical health. So the children of God need the discipline of commandments for spiritual and moral health. The word “discipleship,” practically as well as grammatically, implies discipline.

The paradox that God’s commandments are not burdensome also shows the nature of our freedom. While the possibility of freedom lies in the fact of our free will, true freedom results when a person out of freedom of choice submits him or herself to God. Any lesser object to which submission is madethe state, mammon, pleasuredoes not really free man.

God’s commandments are not burdensome in that they alone among all other claims comprehend man’s deepest need and serve his largest good. The love of God is manifest in this, it has been said, that he chose to limit his divine freedom and imperil his divine purpose by according to man freedom to obey or disobey his divine will. His love as his will thus needs the obedience of our wills. As our hearts are restless until they find rest in God, so God’s heart is restless until we permit him to possess us; and as in his service is our perfect freedom, so in our service is his freedom made perfect.

In these three areas, then, we find the proof of authentic Christianity: Belief in Jesus as the Son of God who came in the flesh; Love for the brethren; obedience in keeping the commandments of God.

It is interesting that today many people do not have any problem with the first two (belief and love); but they will often balk when told they need to be obedient to the commands of Jesus Christ (“Oh, you are just being legalistic!”). But if we really love God and His children, if we really believe in Jesus as the Son of God who came in the flesh and died for our sins, then the commandments of the Lord will not be grievous.

Jesus says, “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” (John 14:15). As we go forth this First Sunday in Easter, as we go into the world in the joy of the Resurrected Christ, let constantly ask-Are we passing the tests? Are we passing the tests of authentic Christianity? If we find that our grade is less than passing, it is time to reflect, to pray and to redouble our efforts at faith, love and obedience. The burden is easy, the yoke light, and the reward indescribably perfect. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

                   

 

 

                SERMON FOR EASTER SUNDAY - 2022

           (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

 

Many of you probably do not know the name, Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin. In his day, he was just about as powerful a man as there was on earth. A Russian Communist leader, he took part in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, was editor of the Soviet newspaper Pravda (which, ironically, means truth), and was a full member of the Politburo. There is a story told about a journey he took from Moscow to Kyiv in 1930 to address a huge assembly of on the subject of atheism. Addressing the crowd, he aimed his heavy artillery at Christianity hurling insult, arguments, and proof against it.

An hour later, he was finished. He looked out at what seemed to be the smoldering ashes of men's faith. "Are there any questions?" Bukharin demanded. Deafening silence filled the auditorium but then one man approached the platform and mounted the lectern standing near the communist leader. He surveyed the crowd first to the left then to the right. Finally, he shouted the ancient greeting known well in the Russian Orthodox Church: "CHRIST IS RISEN!" En masse the crowd arose as one man and the response came crashing like the sound of thunder: "HE IS RISEN INDEED!"

I say to you this morning: CHRIST IS RISEN! I am convinced! I have faith that Christ was dead and he was buried. That I believe. This too I accept as true: He rose from the dead and will come again in glory.

This is Easter. To stand here on this day in this parish and proclaim the good news that Christ is Risen I cannot begin to tell you how this defines all that I am.

However, you may say to me, how do you know that the resurrection is real? How do you know that it is valid? I believe in the resurrection because somebody told me about it. I believe in the resurrection because of the evidence for it. I believe in the resurrection because I have experienced it.

My friends, as we contemplate the wonderful reality of the Lord's resurrection, it is good for us that this day we have the reading from St. Mark’s Gospel, his description of the resurrection of the Lord. There is so much, so much evidence in this brief narrative that it can almost escape us.

The facts are rather simple. The women came to the tomb very early in the morning on the first day of the week to anoint the body of Jesus. The sun had already risen. They wondered about that big round stone in front of the tomb. They found it already rolled back. When they looked in there was a young man clothed in white seated at the right side, the position of honor. The young man announced to them, “You’re seeking Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He is not here. He is risen.” They were to go from that place to tell the disciples - and Peter - what had happened. They failed in their mission miserably. “They went out quickly,” Mark says, “and fled from the sepulcher, for they trembled and were amazed. Neither said they anything to anyone for they were afraid.”

Why did Mark write this? These are some of the same people who stood near the cross of Jesus and viewed everything from a distance. From a distance!

At that point, the level of their faith was such that they really did not want to get involved-like so many even today. They could have reported what they saw, but that was all. They did not come to believe what was happening: that the Son of God was suffering and dying on a cross before their eyes. They were not yet ready to accept that. They saw it all from a distance, says St. Mark, because they were not involved.

Did you notice that it was Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who took the body of Jesus and placed it in the tomb? The disciples and the women were not there in the narrative. Why? What happened to them? Again, Mark tells us, they were not involved at this point. Again, their faith was not yet such that they would become involved.

Even on the first Sunday morning as they came to the tomb to do what they were called upon to do, to anoint the body, as they began to be involved, it was all upside down for them. It was all so unexpected. That huge stone was rolled away. Then they were given the good news, "You seek Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He is not here. He has been raised." They heard the news. They finally got all of the facts.

 

What was it that Mark was trying to teach those people in His Gospel? The clue is what the young man said to the women at the beginning, “You seek Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified.” It was necessary for them first to accept and embrace the crucifixion to be true disciples of the Lord, to understand that he has been raised. They could be spectators no longer. They had to be participants in the very suffering and dying of the Lord. "If a man wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross, and begin to follow in my footsteps" (Matt. 16:24). The cross and the resurrection are intertwined and they must be understood in that way. In the gospel, Mary sees Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus speaks to her saying “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" However, she does not recognize him.

Jesus is risen. Death could not hold him.

How about you? Is Jesus speaking to you, but you don’t hear him? Is he asking to be recognized by you as the Jesus who is alive - the Jesus who is risen --- but your heart is slow to believe?

Imagine you are at the tomb, the stone is rolled away, and the linen is there, but no Jesus. You see two angels where his body had been. What do you feel?

You turn around and a man with a loving voice asks you: “Whom are you looking for?” How do you feel? What does your heart want to answer?

Take a moment now to listen to your heart: “Whom are you looking for?”

We know that the women and the disciples found him and that their faith did blossom. The followers of Christ really began to believe. The disciples encountered the risen Lord Jesus, as he had told them, in Galilee. He would go before them into Galilee; there they would see him and there he brought that scattered community of disciples together once again and commissioned them to go forth into the whole world and preach the good news that sin and death will no longer hold this world in bondage. They believed fully. They did as he commanded.

St. Mark, as he wrote his Gospel, understood that the Church was undergoing persecution–just, as it is in so many places even on this glorious day. The Church was being battered from one end to the other, it was and is necessary for St. Mark to teach the people that the Cross and Resurrection are inextricably linked. That is the way he did it: describing the women at Calvary who were standing at a distance, the women who did not yet understand and were afraid on the first Easter Sunday.

However, it was all right. Even the disciples–especially the disciples--were afraid. Unlike the women, they hid themselves for fear of the Jews. They had all scattered. Peter had denied that he even knew Jesus. What consolation that would be to a Church undergoing persecution in that first century.

What consolation it should be as well to us in our time. We know all of the facts about Jesus’ passion and death and resurrection. Some of us may want to view them as the women did - at a distance. Yet they are not a dynamic part of our lives. They do not touch us to the foundations of our souls. We are not a people of deep faith, as those first-century Christians were not. What Mark wants to give to us this morning, is to say, “It’s all right. Jesus can deal with you.”

The risen Lord can touch us and kindle the embers of our faith into a bright, dazzling flame. He did it for the disciples who abandoned him and were afraid. He can do it for each and every one of us as well. You and I are called upon to recognize the risen Lord.

This is something that happened not two thousand years ago but continues to happen. We are people of the resurrection.

"If you are 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 have begun that resurrection life already in the sacrament of Baptism. Now, how do we live it? How do we recognize the risen Lord? Look at the Scriptures. Mary Magdalene did not recognize him when he was standing right in front of her until he spoke her name, “Mary.” Then she tried to embrace his feet (John 20:llff.).

The disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize 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 (who I like to think was Mary--Mrs. Cleophas) 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. They recognized him, says St. Luke, in the “breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35).

That anti-Christian persecutor, Saul, did not recognize the risen Lord either--until he was knocked off his high horse. "Who are you. Lord?" "I am Jesus, Whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9:5). It was the presence of the risen Lord appearing to Saul that transformed, converted him, that made him St. Paul.

Down through the ages, it has been the same. How do we recognize the risen Lord? St. Augustine, sitting in a Milanese garden, heard a child’s singsong voice saying, “Take and read, take and read, take and read.” He picked up Scripture–he picked up St. Paul’s letter to the Romans and read about how he needed to be converted and abandon his former life. Augustine became a great saint of the Church.

How do we experience the resurrection and recognize the risen Lord in our midst? In the child’s voice, in the breaking of the bread, in a whispered prayer.

Understand that you and I encounter the risen Lord, Messiah, in many ways every day. He is with us in our midst. Recognize him in this Eucharist, in the breaking of the bread. Recognize him in his word in the Sacred Scripture as he speaks to us. Recognize him in one another because here he dwells in the midst of his Church. This is what we celebrate on this glorious Easter Day.

The Lord is indeed risen as he has said. You seek Jesus who is crucified. He is risen. Today, Easter Sunday is so much more than a commemoration of a past event. It is a celebration of an event that is happening in our midst now. Look around you and see. The Lord is truly risen. He is risen indeed. He is with us all the days until the end of the world! Amen.

 

 

                       

 

 

                           Sermon for the Easter Vigil-2022

(Given at Good Shepherd, Evington, Virginia)

 

In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.-St. Matthew 28:1

 

 

Easter Even is a time for serious meditation, a time for earnest resolutions, a holy calm, a short breathing spell between the agonizing sorrows of Good Friday and the tumultuous joy of Easter Day. Saint Joseph of Arimathea had tenderly laid the Body of Jesus in his own new tomb, and, having rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, had departed. But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained sitting by the tomb, watching. What were their thoughts?

Perhaps that evening, with the chill of the desert night upon them, they were thinking about the past. A vision of marvelous loveliness, a Man of unspeakable goodness had crossed their lives. They had been privileged to come in contact with His life and work. What a life of beauty! What a work of mercy, particularly for Mary Magdalene!

How high their hopes had climbed, as splendid possibilities for sinning and lost humanity had seemed to unfold from His teaching. How bright the future had seemed with this incredible teacher. How their hearts had burned within them at His words!

And now it is all over. Their Sun had set in the tomb. One long day of incredible horror had just ended. They had followed Him from place to place. They were witnesses to the sudden change of popular feeling, and had heard the angry shouts, “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!” They had beheld the way of the Cross, Calvary, the burial, and now they sat by the tomb, and thought quietly of what they had experienced, trying to understand, perhaps recalling his warnings that this would happen.

And then, perhaps they looked forward. What was there to live for now? Jesus was dead, and surely the world has lost all for them. But hadn’t He said that He would rise again. What did that resurrection He had spoken of mean? Would it be to come back to the old life, just the way He had been, or what would happen?

And, what was to be done in the present? They could do so little for their dead friend, their teacher, their master. They could prepare spices, and go as early as the law allowed them when the Sabbath was passed. They could bring their offerings to the tomb. There is not much left to them. Perhaps there is only keeping the watch left.

For centuries the curious have always wanted to look into the dark depths of death, but the tomb has been sealed with secrecy. It has always stood as the “dead end” of all our efforts to peer beyond this life into the life to come. The tomb has always mocked us, as it mocked the two women that evening.

And isn’t this typical Easter Eve? We have followed step by step through Lent what the women saw, and now it is all over. Some, like Joseph of Arimathea, having laid Jesus in the tomb, have departed, perhaps to necessary work. And we are privileged, like the Maries, to sit by the tomb, to watch, and to think.

Beloved in Christ, shall we think tonight of the past? What has this Lent been to us? We began with so many holy desires, so many good resolutions. How have we kept it? How much spiritual ground have we gained? It has been, hasn’t it, a Lent with walking with Jesus? And He has called us to “go up higher”, to go up higher than He found us at the beginning of Lent. Have we tried to obey that call-what steps forward have we taken?

We began this Lent, too, didn’t we, with a purpose and definite battle to fight against some besetting sin? What has been the history of the campaign? How much have we conquered ourselves?

Perhaps, like the women at the tomb, we can then to look forward-Easter morning will soon be here. The Resurrection morning will dawn like thunder with its joys, its incredible spiritual joys, but the world will try to mix with them till the spiritual joy of the risen life has been nearly forgotten in the worldly amusements which claimed us. Tonight on this Vigil, how we should realize this, and guard against it by keeping up at least some rule of devotion. If we give up Lenten fasting and penitence, let us never give up our constant prayers, and meditations, and communion. And then the old sin will come back again to tempt (as it always has). Watch against the first inclination to yield.

Perhaps the enormity of the onrushing Resurrection just exhausts our capacity to imagine and pushes our reasoning ability to the breaking point. But we don't have to explain the Resurrection. Rather it explains us. It establishes who we are and why we are gathered together here this night watching. Beloved, because Easter happened, because the resurrection happened, the Church happened.

The angel tells the watching two women to lay aside their thoughts and to look inside the tomb, saying to them: “do not be afraid, I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”

Easter rolls the stone door of the tomb away for us so that we might penetrate the mystery of death. It makes of the tomb a pathway - a pathway to the heart of the eternal and shows us that the holy heart of God is love and life. God rolls the door of the tomb away not to let Jesus out - but to let us in - to allow us to see that Christ's promises are true.

This indeed is what Jesus promised to us before he died, a promise that seemed to Mary and Mary Magdalene looking backward to be totally incredible, a matter, at best, of metaphor, and hyperbole, but which we now know to be a matter of fact and substance. The stone was rolled away from the tomb, not to let Jesus out, but to let us in, to show us that death is not the end - but rather a new beginning and a new future.

We have a future that proclaims the victory of life over death, and which allows us to turn our backs on the grave and face our future with faith and hope, confident that all of God's promises will indeed bear fruit

Matthew tells us that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, having heard the angelic assurance, “He is risen”, turned their backs on the grave and ran “with great joy” to tell the disciples of the miraculous. Joy is the keyword here. Christ was buried, but he wouldn't stay dead. The tomb could not hold him - and because of him - the tomb cannot hold us either.

So, use well this Easter Even for solemn resolutions to be faithful, and then seal them tomorrow with the glorified Body of the Risen Lord, which is His Easter Gift to your soul. Amen. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR MAUNDY THURSDAY-2022

 

 

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

 

And as they led him away, they laid hold upon one Simon, a Cyrenian, coming out of the country, and on him, they laid the cross, that he might bear it after Jesus.”

-St. Luke 23:26

 

Once again it is time, as the old hymn has it, to hear and reflect upon “the old, old story—the story of Jesus’ glory.” Once again it is time to let the details—ever familiar and yet ever new—touch us, convict us, exalt us. Once again it is time to do the Passion—not just to hear readings, not even just to take our part in a drama—but to enter into the depths of the greatest cosmic mystery ever. We are to be present for and with our Lord Jesus Christ, to be there at the Passover, at the transition of the human race, and of each and every one of us from death to life. We are to walk the way of the Cross, from suffering to glory, from sin to redemption.

One of the things that is most noticeable about the Passion of Christ is the role of crowds and mobs. If an individual is often capable of great works and heroic deeds, I’ll warrant you that a crowd is not. It is susceptible to being led—sometimes in a good and constructive way, but more often evil and destructive.

There’s something about being in a mob that brings out the worst in many people—perhaps you and me. We saw it in the misbehavior at the Supreme Court just this week. We seem to lose or suspend our judgment, and we become less responsible. If the crowd becomes criminal or disorderly there is less chance that one particular individual will be arrested or otherwise get in trouble. We’re likely to shout something or chant something when we’re in a crowd. The anonymity of it lets us pull out the stops.

How many crowds and mobs became involved in Our Lord’s Passion! There was the crowd of soldiers and officials who arrested him in the Garden. There was a crowd of hangers-on at the High Priest’s house. Then we are treated to the cries of the mob ringing the Praetorium as Pontius Pilate, the greatest moral coward in all of human history, debated whether to grant clemency to a terrorist or to the Son of God.

What about the Roman soldiers, just doing guy stuff, just having good clean fun with Jesus, a reed, and a crown of thorns? Finally, are the real die-hard enemies of Christ, hanging out by his cross, waiting to see him die. From their hearts and lips poured that hatred and venom and blood lust that always bubbles to the surface when cold hatred is fanned into a mob’s white-hot rage. Yes, beloved in Christ, there are crowds out this night.

But you know there are individuals who stand out from the crowd vividly in the Passion, the Divine Love Story—the chronicle of God’s love for you and for me. (That’s what the “passion” of Christ really means.) Some of them represent the forces “that rebel against God” as our Baptismal Covenant has it, the would-be obstacles to the saving love of God in Christ. There was Judas who betrayed him. There was Pontius Pilate, sort of a self-contained exit pollster, committed to working out every requirement of his own self-interest except history’s ultimate judgment on his character. There were the bit players, the man with the vinegar-soaked sponge, for example. There is the rare individual who could see the real significance of things when nobody else could—like the centurion who saw correctly in the condemned Christ the only Son of the Most Highest. And often it is by thinking about people such as these, and on their proximity to the Christ, that we can gain a greater understanding of the meaning of the Passion.

Even the uninvolved become caught up, whether they want to or not. The soldiers compelled a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.” St. Simon of Cyrene is one of these individuals who often escapes our notice. Like so many people in the gospels, we know very little about him. They don’t have their own biography. The little we can piece together from the gospels, far from clearing up the confusion, adds to it.

This night of crowds, and Passover and Passion think on St. Simon. His name strongly suggests that he came from Cyrene in North Africa, but whether or not he had migrated to Jerusalem, or was a pilgrim who come there only for the feast, is uncertain. The fact that he was “coming in from the country” suggests the possibility of a residence somewhere rather than pilgrim’s lodgings, as does his paternity of Alexander and Rufus, about whom we know nothing, and whom scholars have accounted for as people with whom St. Mark’s original readers would have been acquainted.

In any event, Simon was not himself a native of the Holy Land, and we have no reason whatever to believe that he had had any previous contact with Our Lord.

And yet, what an important role this almost anonymous individual has in the greatest drama in the history of the world. I suspect that he had no knowledge of what was going on that fateful Good Friday until he happened upon the gruesome procession. He had probably come into the city on business.

I imagine he had a long list of things to accomplish. Perhaps he was distracted. Perhaps he was trying to find a way around the rabble accompanying the death march. However sorry he might have felt for Jesus, if, in fact, he had ever known him or come into contact with him, I suspect the farthest thing from his mind was getting involved in this whole hideous mess.

How human! How like you and me! You just don’t want to get involved in this sort of thing! Feel sorry if you must, and then escape. But don’t get involved! You never know what will happen if you get involved with this Jesus fellow, especially with His Cross.

We see in Simon's carrying the cross a picture of the work of the church throughout all generations; she is the cross-bearer after Jesus. Notice, Christian, that Jesus does not suffer so as to prevent your suffering. He bears a cross, not that you may escape it, but that you may endure it. Christ exempts you from sin, but not from sorrow.

My beloved, remember that and expect to suffer at some point. But, take comfort in the thought, that in our case, as in St. Simon's, it is not our cross but Christ's cross that we carry. When you are persecuted for your religion, when your faith is the occasion of cruel jokes, then remember it is not your cross, it is Christ's cross. What a privilege it is to carry the cross of our Lord Jesus!

You carry the cross after Him. You have blessed company; your path is marked with the footprints of your Lord. The mark of His blood-red shoulder is upon that heavy burden. It is His cross, and He goes before you as a shepherd goes before his sheep. So, pick it up, beloved. Take up your cross daily, and follow Him.

Do not forget, also, that you bear this cross in partnership. Some people believe that St. Simon only carried one end of the cross and not the whole of it. That is very possible. Christ may have carried the heavier part, against the transverse beam, and Simon may have borne the lighter end. Certainly, that is the case with us; even when we carry the cross, we only carry the light end of the cross Christ bore the heavier end.

And remember, though Simon had to bear the cross for only a short while, it gave him lasting honor. Even so, the cross we carry is only for a little while at most, and then we shall receive the crown, the glory. Surely we should love the cross and, instead of shrinking from it, count it very dear, for it works out for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.

However he came by it, St. Simon of Cyrene took up the cross of Jesus and followed him. We have no doubt that he followed him all the way to Calvary. And the title of saint bestowed upon him by the Church assures us that Simon followed Our Lord to heavenly glory. That was his route, and that is ours this Holy Week, this Great Week, and throughout our lives. Let our motto be, “To Heaven via Calvary!” That’s the journey. May we take it, and find it the way of life and peace. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Charles H. Nalls, SSM

 

 

 

 

 

                      SERMON FOR PALM SUNDAY-2022

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

 

And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees and strowed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

-St. Matthew 21:8-9

 

I love a parade! What a scene this morning! What parade! What a triumph! Our Lord has entered the gates of Jerusalem and the crowd has gone wild. They are carrying on, cutting down palm branches and throwing them in his path. The crowds are shouting praises to the Son of David, who has come into the city riding on a lowly donkey.

Just like our parade this morning, all is good on this day. All is sunshine and joy for the people of Jerusalem. They literally are having a street festival celebrating the arrival of the carpenter=s Son from Galilee. It echoes the psalmist Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise.”

The greetings of the crowd, Hosanna and blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, words from Psalm 188, is an acclamation of the one who comes as the Messiah. Hosanna, which means save us, turns the greeting into a prayer for salvation to the Highest One to God. These shouted greetings imply a prayer to Jesus uttered at the highest level and with the utmost devotion.

The picture is echoed in the words of the Collect at the blessing of the Palms:

For, as at this time, the multitude by the inspiration of thy heavenly light went forth to meet their Redeemer, and strawed branches of palm and olive in his way, thereby in the branches of palm foreshadowing his triumph over the prince of death and by the boughs of olive proclaiming that the anointing of the Spirit has come. For the multitude rejoiced to know that even then was it prefigured: that our Redeemer, having compassion on the misery of mankind, was making ready to fight against the prince of death for the life of the whole world and by his death to conquer....

Is this the case? Really? In four short days, this seeming triumphal parade will turn into an execution march. The march will go from the Garden of Gethsemane to a farcical trial, to Pilate, to the pillar of the scourge where most died under the lash, to Pilate, and then up the last long, painful leg up to Calvary.

The hosannas and shouts of adulation will turn to jeers and mocking. The palm branches thrown in the way on this day will be turned to a dead reed with which Christ is beaten and to a thorn crown plaited about the head of the Son of Man. Blood and sweat and pain mark the journey, and the only ones seemingly in the procession are two condemned thieves, and Simon of Cyrene, a reluctant marcher pressed into service by the Romans to help a battered Christ carry the cross on which He will shortly be crucified.

Yet, there is more in the procession to Calvary than first meets the eye. There is Simon of Cyrene, to be sure, but there are the people who themselves risked torture and death to be with Christ. We are going to hear most of the names this week as we read all four Gospel accounts of the Passion.

There is the woman who wipes his Christ's battered face, St. Veronica, as tradition holds. Mary, Christ's blessed mother and the beloved disciple who goes to the foot of the Cross. There is the reformed prostitute Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and a woman called Salome. Then there are the women of Jerusalem and a great unnamed crowd that wailed and lamented for Christ.

There are even those who are there reluctantly standing afar off, in anguish at the horror of the crucifixion but remaining faithful to Christ. They will be underground for a few days, dead with Christ, but they will rise again after Easter morn, witnesses to the resurrected and living Christ, to carry the truth of the Gospel to all the corners of the earth. These are the people for whom the palms were not an empty gesture quickly rejected, but an act of obedience, to signify both the triumph of his victory and the abundance of his mercy. For now, they are standing away standing out of the procession.

The enormity of it all is difficult to contemplate. The Scriptures tell us of the horrible aspects of the Passion in succinct, factual detail. The cruelties, the humiliation, and the pain Christ endured for us. There are betrayals, not just Iscariot, but the shouting adorers turned ravening mob and even disciples who deny their Lord in their own moment of fear. The Stations of the Cross, for those who dare walk them, bring this dreadful and I use the word dreadful in all of its definitions procession right into the heart and mind.

For those of you who have seen The Passion of the Christ, you have seen the absolute barbarity with which men and let me emphasize, all men treated the Living God. There are many who do not want to face this. Indeed, if they don't want to admit to sin, then they sure don't want to admit that they might be on the side of those who shouted, crucify him.

In a world of ease and comfort, people want to just stay inside and avoid the procession particularly when they realize that they might be called to sacrifice in some way. Even regular churchgoers like to hide from the fact that the Passion procession is constantly replayed throughout the world where Christians are daily persecuted and killed for their faith, and daily by our own sins and rejection, which spit in the Holy face of Christ.

However, unlike Palm Sunday, this is the real victory parade the true victory procession. Not a temporal victory, a military victory, a sports win, or political gain. It is not pretty, it is not clean or and it is not nice, but thousands upon thousands join it each and every day. Why?

Beloved in Christ it is because inside us built into our design we know that it is the ultimate victory. We can intellectualize, we can deconstruct, we can ignore, run away, or, God forbid, join the mockers and spitters, but we are his and deep down know that we are meant to be part of the victory parade once we know that it is passing by.

Let's go back to the Collect describing what Christ was doing in His Passion procession, Our Redeemer, having compassion on the misery of mankind, was making ready to fight against the prince of death for the life of the whole world, and by his death to conquer. So it is that we are in that victory parade too. That marvelous prayer sums up the promise of the Gospel, in him and through him, we may win the victory over the powers of death, and be made partakers of his glorious resurrection.

It is not always easy to join the real parade the Passion procession of the true followers of Christ Jesus. Although grace is freely given, it isn't cheap. While our earthly works won't get us into that band of saints, we are called to give all, to venture all, to risk all for Christ Jesus in order to follow him to the Cross and beyond.

Each Lent, I read the selections from a little book called A Procession of Passion Prayers by Father E. Milner White, late dean of York Cathedral. The titles of these prayers reflect each stage of that walk to the Cross and what it takes for us to enter on it, endure it, and join in the genuine triumph at the end of the passion procession.

We hear of the manifestation of the Cross we are called to realize that there is a Cross and with it a Passion, and an atoning death. This one is tough. Most folks want to get right to the Easter parade without even acknowledging the Passion procession. They don't want to face the instrument of shameful death. Yet, we know that this Cross will become for us a symbol of life eternal, and if we don't recognize it in the first instance, we cant join the blessed company of all faithful people.

Then there is the approach to the Cross we have to be unafraid and of faith to even think of taking this walk. We must go to Calvary with Christ we have to draw near to the Cross. We can't be in the crowd of bystanders.

That requires the obedience of the Cross we must obey God and seek to do His will. It is a point of irony, though, for the more we obey the more we may be called to approach the Cross even unto death. This is our high calling of Christian is, as Fr. Milner White says, the call of the Cross.

When we do these things, when we enter in obedience to the Passion Procession, then we enter the way of victory. We begin to understand the suffering of Christ for us and the love that caused Him to endure it. It puts our own suffering and losses into context and enables us to bear them. Walking with Christ on this last terrible mile allows us to see the incredible forgiveness that we have been freely given by our Lord.

The shadow of the Cross, widespread as its arms, widespread as our Saviour's arms upon it is no longer frightening to us. It becomes our refuge, the wings under which we are truly saved. What are the words of Psalm 91, "under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler"? It is a hallowed place paid for with the life of the Son of Man.

Those outstretched arms upon the Cross are hard as they may seem welcome. They welcome us into the fellowship of the cross, a fellowship that allows us to transcend suffering and experience true mercy and genuine redemption. If we embrace the likeness of the Cross, we can truly understand the suffering of others and help bring that message of mercy and redemption to those who either are not yet aware that the procession is underway and to those in the crowd of onlookers still mocking and spitting.

It is in the fellowship of the Cross a fellowship of all the Holy Apostles, Martyrs, and Saints that we can truly understand and explain the message of the Resurrection that is the true end of the Passion procession an end that changes the Cross into the Tree of Life.

So Palm Sunday presents us with a choice will we be in the Palm Sunday parade or the Passion procession? Will we risk all to come out of the crowd to be with Him? Will we dare to approach the Cross with Christ, in obedience and faith, risking all to come out of the crowd? Will we dare like St. Simon of Cyrene to join our arms with Him and carry His Cross? Will we go with Our Lord to witness and be a part of His Passion, or will we like the Palm Sunday crowd fade quickly as a morning mist?

As we enter Holy Week, let us think about these questions. Let us examine ourselves and our consciences to see whether we are walking with Christ or just standing in the crowd. Amen. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT-2022

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

 

Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first.”

-St. Luke 11:24-26.

 

In case you have not noticed, there is a pessimism afoot in the land. Most American parents no longer display an optimism about their children living in a richer, better country. The same can be said of the children themselves. Young people now worry about their future in a land that has been and, for the time being, remains exceptional no matter what anyone says.

More disturbingly, there is also a remarkable pessimism about the moral decline parents are bequeathing to the next generation. A new cultural-values survey of 2,000 American adults reveals that a strong majority (74 percent) believes moral values in America are weaker than they were 20 years ago. Almost half, 48 percent, agree that values are much weaker than they were 20 years ago.

Why? Why this pessimism? Is the answer right in front of them, in their own children, or their children’s friends? Or, is the answer more indirect, gleaned from staring at the popular culture?

For most folks, a leading indicator of moral decline is the media. Clearly, Americans look into their television sets and get a high-definition dose of Hollywood's take on values or a decidedly un-Christian worldview, indeed an anti-Christian viewpoint, being perpetrated by the news outlets. Sixty-eight percent of Americans in the survey said the media are having a detrimental effect on moral values in America.

The agreement is remarkable across political and religious groups. Not only do 73 percent believe the entertainment media has a negative effect on America's commitment to moral values, that's a sentiment shared by Republicans (86 percent) and Democrats (68 percent); conservatives (80 percent) and liberals (64 percent); even religious types identified as orthodox (82 percent) and those who classify themselves as “secular progressives” (62 percent) whatever that term may mean.

Really the question is one of being filled. What are our young people being filled with? For that matter, what are we being filled with? Let us be even more pointed on this Third Sunday in Lent: what are we filling ourselves and our children with? These are questions that go beyond the media, which is a convenient excuse, and not just to our Lenten discipline but to our lives as Christians.

The Epistle this morning continues St. Paul’s moral teaching and ties into the Gospel lesson that speaks of sweeping out the evil from the house. At basics, this is what we are trying to do in Lent-to sweep out sin in repentance and fasting and prayer. The big question is what do we put back in?

Let us talk about the context of the Gospel for a minute. The primary application of these words was, of course, to the Jews. Their religious history, from the time of Solomon to the captivity under Nebuchadnezzar, was one long course of idolatry. God had warned them repeatedly by His prophets, and finally, by the chastisements of captivity, He had driven out the demon of idolatry. The house was swept and garnished, the idols had been swept away, and it had been adorned with the rites and ceremonies of the temple worship.

However, that was all. It was left empty. (St. Matthew in the parallel passage tells us that the evil spirit when he returned found the house “empty, swept, and garnished.”)(St. Matt. xii. 44).

The spirit of true religion had never taken possession of it. So the evil spirits which had been driven out returned with others worse than themselves.

Ok, it was no longer idol worship under the forms of Baal and Ashtaroth, but worship nonetheless idolatrous, of self-will, of human theories in regard to the will of God, an excessive carefulness about the details of the law while the weightier matters were overlooked. An idol is something put in the place of God, not necessarily a material object; and the Jews, while retaining the outward form of religion, had lost its life and substituted for it worship which was mere formalism.

Doesn’t this all sound familiar? Our Lord’s words in St. Luke truly speak to each of us here in the 21st century. They point out certain dangers which have caused the ruin of many spiritual lives—the dangers of reaction and of an empty life.

After great moral effort, there is a danger of reaction; and this is especially true of penitence. What do I mean here? After a great act of penitence, particularly after the reflection and penance we are called to in Lent there is a sense of freedom from sin-there should be a real joy. We have struggled and worked on putting out those acts of uncleanness we hear of in today’s Epistle. Our souls have been swept and garnished—swept by Confession, garnished by the grace of Absolution.

Yet this is only the negative side of spiritual life and is in itself a condition of peculiar danger.

However, here’s the thing. The old tenant has been driven out of the house; the house has been cleaned and prepared for a new tenant, but it is still empty. A great victory has been won. But, beloved, don’t we all have a tendency to exaggerate the results of the victory, to think the war is ended when only one battle has been fought.

The enemy may have been routed, but if we give ourselves up to mere rejoicing, the enemy may return with backup, and fall upon us while we are resting on our laurels, savoring the memories of our first victory. We become an easy prey.

After victory, there is work to be done to secure its fruits. After penitence, there is work to be done to bring in another tenant in our soul in place of the evil spirit that has been driven out. That is what Jesus is warning us about.

The soul that is empty is an inviting mark for temptation. The life that has no special object fails for lack of a motive of success. As we hear in the Gospel of Matthew, Christ tells us, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” Mark that word-filled, we will get back to it in a minute. (S. Matt. v. 6.)

However, think about that-Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” If there is no hunger and thirst for righteousness, there is little hope we will acquire that righteousness.

Our desire for perfection is the greatest help towards becoming perfect. If we want to be perfect as our Lord is perfect, that will lead us to enthrone Christ in our souls and to cultivate Christ-like virtues in our lives. In the spiritual life, this is our only safety. Beloved in Christ, we dare not stand still; indeed we cannot, even if we dared to attempt it. We must go forward or fall back. Progress in Christ, progress in Christ-likeness, theosis, is our only safety.

However, we learn from today's Gospel that there is a constant danger of relapse, that we may become worse than we were before we made the effort to be better. The evil spirit finds the empty soul especially inviting, and takes unto him “seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first.”

In addition, the cause of this relapse is generally the emptiness of the soul, and the eagerness of man’s foe to gain possession of that soul.

We cannot stand alone. You know that. One of two spirits always rules; neither can take possession of us without our own consent; neither can enter without our invitation. Man’s will is free, but it can only act in conjunction with the spirit of evil or the spirit of good—the devil or the Holy Ghost.

The Epistle talks about this. Our project, not just for Lent, but perhaps especially in this holy season, is to be emptied of the evils that plague us in sin. We are called to have “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light…. We are, in the imitation of Christ, to pour ourselves like water, and then be filled. (Ps. 22:14).

Then we are to be about being filled, immediately. But, with what?

We can be filled with madness. Recall the Pharisee's reaction to the healing of the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath. (Luke 6:7-11) And they were filled with madness; and communed one with another what they might do to Jesus. This is the reaction of the worldly and the world to the goodness of Christ. Is this our state? Are we filled with the madness of the world?

Are we filled with envy? Are we like the Pharisees who, when they the multitudes hearing the preaching of Paul, were filled with envy, contradicting and blaspheming. (13:45)

Are we filled with indignation, like the high priest of the Sadducees who rose up to make his own case for an empty cause? (Acts 5:17)

Or perhaps we may find ourselves like the prodigal son? (Luke 15) He emptied himself. He emptied himself of all of his material possessions spent in sin. We hear that he was so empty, so hungry that he would have filled himself with the husks that the swine would eat. He would have filled his emptiness with something less substantial than what he had lost, and the hunger would only have gotten far worse.

Beloved, our measure is what we are filled with when we are swept clean, and he does sweep us clean if we are penitent. If we refill with the idols of the world, things, and the wisdom of our hyper-mediated world, then we are in great danger.

Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. (Luke 6:25) For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness.”

But if we hunger and thirst after righteousness: for we shall be filled. Matthew 5:6. In fact, we are blessed if we hunger for Christ now…now…right now: for we will be filled (21) filled with good things; and those rich in the things of this world will be sent empty away. (Luke 1:53) If we are filled with the Holy Spirit, like those first Christians as we hear in Acts, like those hearing the preaching and teaching of St. Peter and St. Paul, and witnessing the healings, we will be filled with wonder and amazement, filled with joy, filled with the Holy Ghost.

Beloved in Christ, in Lent we are called upon by the Church to acts of penitence, to cleanse the soul from sin, to sweep it and garnish it in preparation for what? It is for Pascha, for aster, that morning when we invite our Lord to enter in and take possession of us when we enthrone Him within us as our King and promise new greater loyalty to our risen Lord.

However, let us remember that after the glory of Easter will come to the danger of thinking that the work is all done, of resting upon our oars after the effort of Lent, of being satisfied with our freedom from sin.

The only remedy is to use that freedom as an opportunity, an opportunity to go forward, “to press toward the mark for the prize,” to press forward not only to Christ but with Christ dwelling in us; so that when the spirit of evil assaults us he shall find the citadel of our heart already garrisoned by the powers of good, with Christ the great Captain of our salvation as their King in command. Amen.

 

               

 

 

 

 

                    SERMON FOR SEXAGESIMA-2022

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

 

“If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.”

-II Corinthians 11:30

 

(Additional morning prayer readings: Psalm 71; Isaiah 50:4-10; II Corinthians 12:1-12)

 

It is a bit unusual to begin a week with sarcasm, particularly bitter sarcasm. However, the Epistle from II Corinthians does just that. “For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.” (11:19) St. Paul is literally body-slamming the Corinthians with sarcasm.

St. Paul is attempting to deal with a sophisticated group of Gentile Christians facing the temptations that living in a pagan city like Corinth pose. He does not provide details, but the problems that he addresses in his first letter to the Corinthians are indication enough-lawsuits (6:1-11), idolatry (10:1-22), drunkenness at the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34). He does give two examples in today’s Epistle that show his main concerns: Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (v. 29).

With the term weak, St. Paul could be referring to those who have a fragile conscience (see Rom 14:1-23; 1 Cor 8:7-13). Rather, he could be thinking of believers who do not have the spiritual fortitude to overcome temptation. Either or both of these are possible, and the Corinthians are not dealing with the problem.

St. Paul pulls them up short, speaking in anger against the pride that leads to blindness. Anger of this sort is an expression of the truest kind of love. St. Paul’s love for the people of his churches was of the same quality as Christ’s. It was self-identifying. If one of his flock was weak or ailing, St. Paul felt it because he was literally one with him. If any were being lured toward evil or seduced from the faith, he blazed with indignation. If anyone were led into temptation by others, St. Paul burned with anger.

This indignation was so intense that it rendered him sleepless. His wrath was terrible, and it did not evaporate in words. It was Christ-like indignation. It was the crime of offending “one of these little ones” of which Jesus spoke so severely (Matthew 18:6).

With those who were weak, crushed with remorse, fallen, the Apostle’s compassion, long-suffering, and tenderness were as beautiful as they were unfailing. However, falsehood, hypocrisy, the sin of the strong against the weak, stirred him to the very depths of his being. That is the reason for what seems to be boasting by the Apostle. It is his identification with the problems he is trying to address.

Certainly, St. Paul knew something about suffering. He had been under the lash five times-folks usually died from that-he had been beaten with rods, and nearly drowned. In this physical and mental pain he could, if he wished, have boasted, for it was much more than others had experienced. Here is the main point of the passage-he did not believe that this pain and tribulation was the basis for his acceptance with God. It was part of his willing service-his abandonment to Christ Jesus. It is a part of being the good seed-steadfast in the faith.

For the message to the Corinthians-a message very much against their deep sin of pride-is intertwined with this morning’s Gospel lesson. Our Lord is speaking of the categories of those who will fall away from the truth for various reasons. In fact, Christ is so intent in this parable, that he explains it rather than leaves it subject to interpretation.

Our Lord said that the sower went out to sow his seed. Some fell by the wayside, and the birds devoured it. Other seed fell upon. It sprang up and withered owing to lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns and were choked out. Finally, some fell upon good ground, sprang up, and yielded fruit a hundredfold.

Christ then explains the parable: the seed is the word of God. The first group hears, but the devil comes and takes the word out of their heart to stop them from believing and being saved. The folks on the rock also hear, receive the word with joy, believe for a while, and but fall away when tempted. They just have no roots. The people among the thorns, also heard, but they are choked with the cares and riches and pleasures of this life. Finally, the people on the good ground have a good and perfect heart. They also hear the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit in patience.

There are many Christians like the Corinthians who will fall away. Jesus is telling us that the Word of truth will be rejected by three-quarters of those who have heard it. This means that out of a hundred people, seventy-five will, at some point, refuse to believe and live according to the truth.

Rather than examine their conscience (Which they seldom do), they prefer to cast the truth from their minds and hearts. This means, also, that the majority of people will either choose to believe lies (and, in so doing, end up serving the Father of Lies); or they will fall away because of distraction, or they will run away when their faith is confronted by adversity.

That is pretty strong meat. It is a condemnation, but I think it probably is statistically provable if not demonstrable from stories taken from today’s news. It is the exact opposite of the words of the prophet Isaiah in today’s morning prayer reading, “The Lord GOD hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back.” No, these are folks who heard and rebelled one way or another.

You know, it is difficult not to rebel or fall away. Apart from the fact that our adversary is roaming about looking for the ruin of souls, it is a very difficult thing, even for saints, to fully put aside trust in self and rely on God. In fact, for most of us, it is certainly a temptation to think that there is virtue before God and man in the really good things that we think we do.

Suffering, or persecution or temptation? What of the indifference to our faith that comes from lives we believe are busy because we fill them with invented work done with artificial urgency?

The prophet Isaiah speaks to the Christ-like response to suffering and persecution (50:6-7): I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting. For the Lord GOD will help me; therefore shall I not be confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed.

Are we in the twenty-five percent of those who have heard the word who endure in their faith like this? Does our suffering honor God? In the words of the Psalmist (Psalm 71:15) do we “go forth in the strength of the Lord GOD.” Are we Corinthians who fall away in fear or pride or simple indifference?

This is the crux of this morning’s message, a message that St. Paul knew so well. Suffering? St. Paul’s sufferings were not just physical; they were of the heart as well, and were all the sufferings of selfless love. He carried a constant burden of anxiety about the spiritual welfare of the churches he had founded. His was an urgent, full life. He was truly burdened.

Beloved in Christ, the Christian faith does not take away our burdens; it changes their nature. They become the burdens of love. It does not remove our anxieties and fears; it ennobles them. Our anxiety about ourselves is supplanted by concern for others their spiritual welfare. This way our spirits can be tested by the nature of our burdens and our anxieties. Having patience and fully embracing Christ causes our lives to bear fruit for Christ rather than collapse and dry up under the heat of trouble or temptation.

Psalm 71 speaks to this way of life. It is the very pattern of what St. Paul is telling us. “In thee, O LORD, have I put my trust; let me never be put to confusion, * but rid me and deliver me in thy righteousness; incline thine ear unto me, and save me. Be thou my stronghold, whereunto I may always resort: * thou hast promised to help me, for thou art my house of defense, and my castle. Deliver me, O my God, out of the hand of the ungodly, * out of the hand of the unrighteous and cruel man. For thou, O Lord GOD, art the thing that I long for: * thou art my hope, even from my youth.”

Does this person have trouble? You bet, (71:6) “I have become as it were a monster unto many...” Is he suffering? (71:9-10) “For mine enemies speak against me; * and they that lay wait for my soul take their counsel together, saying, God hath forsaken him; * persecute him, and take him, for there is none to deliver him.” He is even worried about old age. This is trouble and anxiety! Does it sound familiar?

Beloved in Christ, the proper response of the faithful is not to turn inward or rely on the self or focus on our ability. We are to reject the Corinthian response. No, “As for me, I will patiently abide always, * and will praise thee more and more. My mouth shall daily speak of thy righteousness and salvation; * for I know no end thereof.” It is that patience we hear preached by Christ in the Gospel. It is key to rejecting the idea that we can overcome adversity on our own. It is the abandonment of pride and abandonment to divine providence.

The great 18th-century French priest Jean Pierre de Caussade writes powerfully of it in his book Abandonment to Divine Providence which I commend for your Lenten reading. True abandonment involves acceptance of suffering for Christ’s sake. It is the willingness to lose reputation, to be scorned and despised in the cause of Christ. It is like “the weakness of God” shown in the Cross (I Cor. 1:25), which in the eyes of faith “is stronger than men.” The Cross had transformed all St. Paul’s values just as it will transform ours.

The Apostle Paul offers this from experience--that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. It is hard to believe that someone can be sincere when he claims to find satisfaction in the things that humiliate him. Only the grace of Christ, changing our whole point of view and enabling us to “pour contempt on all our pride,” can make it possible.

At the end of the day, St. Paul reminds us that God sees all and everything! To him all hearts are open and all desires known and from him, no secrets are hidden. He is watchful and persuades us by many means to trust only in him for he alone is the source of all life, power, knowledge, and wisdom. He knows firsthand our suffering and anxiousness and travails.

St. Paul also knows of humility. Despite his own sufferings, St. Paul cannot mention the name of God without breaking into doxology. Here is the difference that Christ makes. The word “God” evokes different responses in different people according to our outlook and trust. To the folks in the seventy-five percent--it brings only a sense of gloom or fear; or a sense of austere demand, accompanied by a vague feeling of guilt. However, Jesus leads us to hear and see and realize that God is Father so that his very name would awaken confidence and love. The seed has taken hold when that name thrills the soul with joy and gratitude. St. Paul is sure God knew that when he boasted of his weakness he was stating the truth. All he does is done in the knowledge that God is looking on. All he says is said in the knowledge that God is listening.

This understanding makes suffering bearable, persecution endurable, and full trust in God possible. Calling God to witness can become a mere formality. But to one who knows God as the God and Father of Jesus Christ, and whose heart at the very mention of his name fills with adoring gratitude. Thought that he is looking on and listening will work against the evil living and bring patience and endurance. This is a planting that will cause our lives to bear fruit for Christ...

So, let’s pray that we be defended, not to avoid but be defended--from all adversity, whether in the form of testings or temptations, pain or suffering, trial or tribulation, the desires of the flesh or the wiles of the devil. Let’s pray to put pride aside and understand our own weakness. “When I am weak then I am strong,” said the Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 12:10). This is the beginning of humility. Only as we know our own weakness and rest in God’s strength are we making progress towards Christian maturity. In order rightly to approach Lent and benefit from its disciplines, we need to learn this lesson, embrace it, and finally to live it. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR SEPTUAGESIMA-2022

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

 

“Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.”

St. Matthew 20:14

 

 

This morning’s Gospel has been given a number of labels-The Parable of the Eccentric Landowner, Sour Grapes, the Parable Nobody Liked. And we really don’t like it, do we? After all, why do those who worked the least receive equal pay as the workers who have put in the time and effort? That’s not fair! Who in their right mind pays someone who has only worked one hour the same as he pays someone who has done the same job for 12 hours? That’s not only unfair, but it’s a bit crazy. Isn’t it a fair question to ask, “Why do the slackers prosper?”

But this story is not about running a business. I would like to suggest to you that this parable is all about the compassion of our God. This is a story that calls us to examine why we might be so uncomfortable with the outcome.

You know, beloved in Christ, these last few months we’ve had an opportunity to closely examine a profoundly human syndrome. When someone is negative about a situation after the fact when they’ve been disappointed about the outcome, there is a name for it. We call that kind of a reaction “sour grapes.”

Our favorite team loses and we have some nasty things to say about the referee or umpire or coach. That’s sour grapes. A person competes for a promotion at work and it goes to someone else, and the losing party backbites the very same employer he was just flattering to his face. Again, sour grapes. A candidate loses an election, and then afterward he begins to blame the campaign staff, the election judges, the press, anyone but himself. You guessed it, that’s “sour grapes.”

It’s not a very attractive, noble, or becoming characteristic. But, I say to you again that it is a very human, very common, reaction among us self-centered sinners. Most of us engage in it from time to time, in one form or another. And there are even times when we feel inclined to vent at God, blaming him for our own disappointments.

I am sure you have heard the lament, “I’m not getting what I am owed. It’s God’s fault. He’s not being a very good God, or else I would have gotten what I wanted, what I deserved.”

In our text today, Jesus meets head on this sour-grapes attitude. Ironically, he does this in a parable concerning people who work in a place where grapes are grown-the vineyard. So it is that we have “The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard”, or, perhaps, “Sour Grapes in the Vineyard.”

We hear this Parable at several points in the year. I hope the facts are familiar. A man hires some laborers to go work in his vineyard. They agree on a wage. He hires a few more workers a little later. “Whatsoever is right I will give you,” the master tells them. The story repeats a couple of hours later, and then, even as the close of the workday is approaching at the eleventh hour, the master hires still more workers. The whistle blows, the workers gather, and they receive their pay.

The early birds get the pay they had agreed upon. Ah, but, then they find out the master has paid all of the later workers the same amount he’s paid them, even the last lot hired. In turn, the first workers get upset. I invite you to look at the expressions on the faces of the vineyard workers on your bulletin cover illustration. You can almost hear them saying, “How come we don’t get more? Unfair, unfair! We worked much longer and harder than those other guys. You owe us more, master!” What sour faces—sour grapes.

Let’s take a look at what is going on in Jesus’ parable. The master is God, and the vineyard is the kingdom of God. The laborers are those who work in God’s kingdom. Jesus is telling this story to his disciples, who, as the apostles, would indeed be sent out to work in the kingdom. So this story especially has application for those called to work in the church, priests in particular.

But I think the parable actually applies to any of us, whether clergy or lay, who serve the church. The lay readers, the altar guild, the acolytes, the vestry, the church recorder and treasurer, the church school teachers, in fact, anyone who puts in their time and effort for the good of the church.

Especially for the most dedicated members of the church, the attitude of the first-hired can be a real temptation. We think because we’ve been slaving away diligently for years, in the service and for the good of the church--and what could be more noble than that? Perhaps we come to think we deserve all the appreciation and the applause we can get. When we don’t get it, it’s not fair. We feel slighted, unappreciated.

What makes matters worse, if someone comes along who hasn’t worked as long or as importantly as we have, and that person gets as much as or even more recognition than we’re getting, well…maybe we might be a bit angry about this! We might simmer and resent that other person what's the expression, the “come here.” We get mad at the people who are applauding him instead of me.

Inevitably, we can be led to grumble and get mad at God for letting this happen. Sour grapes in the vineyard of God.

This is a real danger in the church, isn’t it? We may be outwardly respectable people in most all features of our life, very moral, hard-working, devout, dedicated. In fact, these are the people who are most susceptible to getting “Sour Grapes Syndrome.” People like us, me especially. I think. I can really identify with those grumbling workers. I, me, my is the mantra that takes hold. …we feel underappreciated, under-rewarded. Then we become more than a bit impatient with God for not giving me what I deserve--I, that great and indispensable gift to Christ’s church.

When we allow ourselves to think like this, our priorities are really getting out of whack. No, let’s call it something stronger: Sour Grapes Syndrome is sin, a sin of pride. At that point, I have just put myself in the center of the church’s work. And the truth is, it isn’t about me. I just work here. The church, the vineyard, is all about Jesus. At least it should be.

I invite you to look at the Cross this morning. Has there ever been anyone more underappreciated than Jesus? Has anyone ever been treated more unfairly? No, not by a long shot. Here was the Lord of life, God’s own Son, coming into the vineyard and outworking anyone who’s ever set foot there.

There were only a few years in his public ministry, but, oh, the results! So many sick people cured of their diseases. So many demonized delivered from oppression or possession. Multitudes fed and taught. Disciples trained and raised up. Repentance and forgiveness, life eternal, are preached both to the crowds and to troubled sinners one-on-one. Yet, what did Christ receive? Rejection, humiliation, abandonment. His reward was unjust suffering, cruel death on a cross, hung out to die. What kind of a reward is that for the king of kings?

But this is precisely how Christ won the great reward that each one of us will receive in the end. That reward, beloved in Christ, will be based, not on our works, but on his. It won’t matter how long you’ve been a Christian. It won’t matter how many years of dedicated service you’re put in along the way. It won’t matter whether you were confirmed fifty years ago or baptized yesterday. Christ’ Jesus’s generosity toward us, eternal salvation, is far, better than we grumbling workers deserve.

Any reward that we receive at all comes to us only by way of the grace of God. Forgiveness of sins, eternal life--these are ours solely because of Christ’s death and resurrection, not because of our labors, which, even as Christians, are marred by sin and pride. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Now, don’t misunderstand. It’s a good thing, a right thing a tremendous blessing, to be a Christian your whole life long and to stay with it all the way. Consider yourself fortunate if that describes you.

I also have to say that I am heartily in favor of all of us Christians putting in many years of dedicated service in the cause of the gospel. That is a very great thing, and we certainly need more of it, from clergy and laypeople and those in religious life.

But that is just not the basis of your salvation. And it doesn’t mean that you won’t be underappreciated along the way. On the contrary, count on it. This is part of bearing your cross, this being underappreciated by men and even being persecuted.

And reward? Even if others do not thank you as much as they should, even if the church does not reward you sufficiently--and in the church, we ought to do a lot more thanking and rewarding than we do, even if people don’t appreciate your efforts, know that your heavenly Father, who sees what is done in secret, he does notice. In fact, he knows your good works ahead of you. He gives you the strength to do them, even when you’re not getting a whole lot of positive reinforcement.

So, my fellow workers in the vineyard: Although we are poor, prideful, self-centered sinners . . . even though we are, and will remain, unworthy servants . . . even though you and I get that Sour Grapes Syndrome from time to time, even so, in spite of our sins, by God’s great grace and the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior, one day our master will welcome us home, and to our astonishment he will greet us and faithful servant.” Amen.

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE FIRST SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY-2022

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

 

And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers. And when they saw him, they were amazed…”

-St. Luke 2:48

 

 

Prepare to be amazed! It is an advertising slogan for the ages. It has been used to sell everything from houses to home remedies.

Did any of you go to the circus growing up? I sure did. My father loved the circus, and we had tickets any time one came to town. Whether it was the Shrine Circus or the Ringling Brothers extravaganza, all of the programs seemed to have the same slogan, “Prepare to be amazed.” The barkers, ticket sellers, and ringmasters all called out, “Prepare to be amazed!”

Now I remembered, as probably many of you who have prepared to be amazed, that the show really did not amaze me. I was entertained-frightened actually, by some of the acts, particularly clowns. However, you know, I just was not amazed.

Now, today, it is the material that we continue to be called to be amazed by computers, iPods, gadgets, smartphones, and technology generally.

You know it might amuse us, intrigue us, and even draw us in to see how it all works…but, the best of technology, the online, the fast, and latest will never amaze. When the next latest comes along, or we get bored, or we see what we really have bought into, it will not amaze, it will just be so much junk.

Beloved in Christ, I am not trying to interject an Epiphanytide, post-“holiday season” bring down this morning. Not at all. However, you know, if we have not approached Christmas and the Epiphany looking at that which really can amaze, we are doomed to always wake up to the broken toy, the failed carnival act, the gold bar that really is lead.

What matters for us, what should matter for us is that which truly can amaze—rather, He who can truly amaze. For now, we have entered into that time when angels announced, “Be not afraid.” “Come, come to Bethlehem and be amazed…be amazed…be truly and forever amazed and changed.”

However, the imagery of today’s Scripture lessons is not initially one of amazement. Quite the contrary. The image is one of worry. We hear of a mother and father who brought their child to the temple. They then had Him go missing, went looking for Him, and found him teaching in the old familiar temple, to a bunch of old men.

It does not seem, in the Epiphany story, the height of drama. The Gospel does not touch the Scripture for Morning Prayer. Here we hear the urgent visit of the Magi, counterposed against the evil of Herod, “When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they have come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” And they departed another way. That is drama, which is amazing!

But today, we have as our text a mother and father looking for that same son, the Son—the Son they seem to have just lost on the way out of town in the press of so many people. You can imagine how frantic they must have been. They go back, they look, and they find Him in the temple-familiar surroundings.
But, wait. There is something powerful, something truly amazing going on. Here is a twelve-year-old boy, teaching the learned, the scholars of the Jewish faith in the temple of God. This boy is teaching and instructing those who for years had studied the faith of their fathers. They had studied, and they had lost sight of the prophecies of Him who stands among them now teaching at the age of twelve.

This is what it means to be amazed, to be hauled out of the norm, to be brought into the constant unexpectedness of God. Here we are called to look at the Epiphany-the Manifestation of our Lord to the Gentiles.

It is so much more than the awe that the wise men felt at the crib of Christ. Listen to the words, the call of the prophet Isaiah to all of us:

 Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee.

You and I are being called out. We are being called into the work of that Christ is beginning here-the father’s work. Again, Isaiah, “For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.”

Is there anything more striking to us? Darkness trying to cover the earth—the darkness of sin and death-or worse, the darkness of sin called un-sin?” Here we are-the Lord called upon the, and the chance that glory shall be seen upon thee. This is the Evangelion itself-this is the calling to God’s people to show His glory.

Beloved, you have been to the Christmas crib. You have seen the light and you have warmed yourselves in it. It is comfortable and joyful. Like our Lord, we cannot stay in the stable, and we cannot even stay in the temple. We are called to be about our father’s business.

Would you not that I be about my father’s business?” says the young Jesus. What a rebuke-even to the mother of Jesus! It certainly is a call to us from the youthful Jesus. As some folks say, it is the call to go up higher.

In the words of the psalmist that speak to the modern world, “Confounded be all they that serve graven images that boast themselves of idols…” We know that “Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart. We are called to “Rejoice in the LORD, ye righteous; and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness.” This rejoicing and joy and light are our Father’s business. It is the work of witness.

What does this witness, the witness-the Epiphany of the Incarnate Christ mean? It first is to be aware. “Lift up thine eyes round about, and see,” we hear from Isaiah. Beloved, look at Him, look to Him. And, if you love Him, at the same time hate evil. Then, be braced-here is what you will see. You will see at this Epiphany that, “Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart.”

What is your father’s business? Well, if you take this Gospel as truth, then first, “Rejoice in the LORD, ye righteous; and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness.”

We have no cause to be sad. We have no reason to be angry or distracted or anything else. If we have looked on Jesus, then we should be rejoicing and giving thanks. That is the sum of the message-the Epiphany. It is the consummation of a life in Christ that realizes all of His blessings and is about His father’s business. For that business is to save us, to give us everlasting life, and bring us into true joy and everlasting happiness.

Will we have our bad moments? Yes. Will we hurt? Yes, we will and do regularly. However, how can anyone look on the Incarnate Christ as did the wise men and not rejoice and give thanks? Again, the words of Isaiah, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee.” Go higher, “Rejoice in the LORD, ye righteous; and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness.”

Today, this day or any day, no preacher can call you higher than that. There is no literary hook, no allusion; no patristic teaching that can express the joy of the faith more simply. This is amazing.

I invite you to think about what the wise men faced when they reached their destination. There, in the Christmas crib-small, seemingly frail, was one of us. This is the one who “shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.” All in a babe, all in a twelve-year-old boy teaching in the temple.

This is what I have to tell you this morning. I do not have any quotes other than Scripture. I do not have any literary allusions or illusions. I will not make an attempt at humor. None of this works when compared with the living Jesus, God with us.

No, this morning, I simply ask you to look at Christ Jesus and be amazed. Be about His father’s business, in the words of the Apostle, presenting your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service-your father’s business which is that service. Then …be transformed… rejoicing, that you may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God in this year and in the years to come. Amen.

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY-2022

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

 

WHEN he was come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him. And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.”

-St. Matthew 8:1-2

 

 

In the words of Psalm 66, this morning in our Gospel we are invited to, “Come and see the works of God…” (v. 5) in two particular miracle accounts from the Gospel of St. Matthew, we see the elements of the miraculous work of Christ: faith, trust, and witness. These miracles are part of Christ’s manifestation to the Gentiles—the Epiphany, and a message of the fulfillment of the prophets.

Let us turn to the prophetic first. As we hear in the fourth chapter of Luke, our Lord Himself in the synagogue read the prophecy of Isaiah (61:1) to the Jewish faithful, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised…”

In the first healing in this morning’s passage, we see this prophecy fulfilled, but there is more. We should carefully read this Scripture as it goes far deeper than just the prophetic fulfillment, which is an amazing miracle in itself. St. John Chrysostom (Homily 25) calls us to closely examine the circumstances of the leper, his faith, trust and witness, and the moral and spiritual implications of the story.

Leprosy, in Jewish law, placed one wholly outside of the community. The leper had no support network, no ties, was outcast. In the New Testament, this physical ailment is can be seen as an image of spiritual illness—of sin. There is the comparable feeling of being unclean. There is comparable loneliness.

The leper was required to keep his distance, and to cry, “Unclean, unclean” at the approach of any healthy man. He was a pariah and accursed—and, no matter what our culture tries to tell us about the purported lack of sin, no matter how we try to deny its effects, there comes with it a sense of estrangement from God and man. At its core, no matter how the therapeutic culture tries to tell us that we are just fine, sin lays upon us distance and separation—we see it in the despair of so many who try to claim wellness. Like the leper, there is comparable pitiableness. To the basic ailment of sin, Christ comes--with power. Just as He did with the leper.

The story bears witness to the love of Christ and of the faith of the sick. The leper did not doubt Christ’s power: “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst ...” Instantly, Jesus touched him.

Christ could have spoken the cure, but he did not. In an image of the Sacraments, the visible, the tangible signs that our Lord would give us, love required touch, at risk. Christ bridged the six-foot distance, which the old law imposed. He crossed the chasm, and the meaning was clear to all who saw, and to the priests who would shortly see and hear the former leper’s witness.

My beloved in Christ, Love cannot live at arm’s length. There is no substitute for the actual sharing of life-we see that in the body of Christ that is the church, and in the call to us to be visible, tangible members of that body. Sinai thunders the command; Calvary stretches forth the hand. The story tells the power of Christ. His words are abrupt, assured, forthright and with a touch, “I will: be clean.”

The command to the man to fulfill the Jewish ritual has the same terse sovereignty. In the realm of the spirit's malady, Christ has power: “The Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins: (9:6). He is fulfilling the divine commission. He is the revealing of God; he is the channel of God’s renewal to those who approach in faith and touch.

The story also tells of witnesses. If the man did not report to the priests and make the sacrifices required by the law, he would still be an outcast. As well, public health was safeguarded by these rules. If the man delayed, he might never go--and at the cost of misgivings in the public mind and a missed witness. This is the kind of witness we are called to in this morning’s Epistle, when St. Paul writes to the church at Rome, “Render therefore to all their dues: a tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.” “For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.”

This is the power that healed the leper and heals our souls. However, by following the law and bringing the miracle into the sight of the witnesses-by being obedient to the law-there is a witness that furthers God’s work and tells out the miraculous. So, we have faith, trust, and witness.

Now, as the commentator says, “for the rest of the story.” The picture of the centurion does not need an interpreter. It speaks its own word.

The centurion was a tough Roman officer, a Gentile, exposed to all the temptations of military office. He could have despised the conquered Jews, but, as we hear in the Gospel of St. Luke, he built them a synagogue and loved their nation (see Luke 7:5). He could have been brutal to his servants--Caesar once apologized for feeling pity for a slave--but instead, he sought the help of Christ for a favorite servant.

He could have trusted only in brute force, but he was a man of faith and aware of a spiritual world. Not strangely, Jesus rejoiced in him.

The emphasis of the story first is on the centurion’s faith. He may have been a soldier, used to the difficulties of service in a hostile part of the Roman Empire, but he was ready to believe in the power of Jesus. As St. John Chrysostom points out, “The centurion had grasped what Martha had not, that Jesus Himself is the one who answers prayer. He fully expected the healing of his servant.” In the words of St. Augustine, the centurion was ready for Christ not merely to come into his house, but into his heart.

So fully did he trust that he was ready to stake all his hope on Jesus’ power? As a centurion commanded soldiers, Jesus could command the forces of good to expel evil and disease, and to save the servant from death. This faith was very different from Roman pride, the worship in pagan temples, or the worldliness of a weary soldier.

The response of Jesus was instant. “I will come and heal him.” This in itself is stunning-the universality of the miraculous, of salvation is made manifest. For Jesus, there was no defilement in entering a Gentile home. He confronted need, and to his compassion need was a command.

The joy of Jesus is immediate too. Our Lord marvels-he is shown a faith that seems to come as a surprise even to Him. This man fully believed and trusted in God, and in goodness, and he was “open” and the power of Jesus found the entrance. There was healing simply by the word of Jesus.

Whatever interpretation we set on the miracles, we can have little doubt that there was and is healing in Jesus for both body and mind.

What is faith? A built-in expectancy is built in the course of our experience by the promptings of God. We are born with that hope, hope that is rooted in “the numinous”--in our awareness of God. We expect well of life: we believe that even tragedy has its secret blessing and that death is at last swallowed up in life. At its core, this confidence is the response of our whole life to God, even though we might not, at first, realize where it comes from. Christ is God’s focal prompting--his self-disclosure. The centurion believed, and Jesus rejoiced in his faith.

Why is faith necessary? Jesus constantly stressed it. Why? Because this confidence is the main “drive” of our nature. It is more central than reason.

You know, a researcher first believes that a disease can be cured, and then applies his reason. If he ceased to believe, his reason would likely give up. Doubt at its best is the necessary odds of faith, but at its worst, it always involves a certain measure of stubborn perversity. Jesus can enter if a man should say, “This may be God’s word”; but is barred if the man should say, “God is not, and if he were, he has no word for my life.”

That is not the result for the leper, and certainly not for the centurion. The reward of faith is written in the story. The joy of Jesus was a deeper blessing even then and there than the healing of the servant. The reward is categorically stated in the word, “Many will come ... and sit at the table.” Faith makes this Gentile the soul-compatriot of the patriarchs; lack of faith bars all from the final joy. A startling truth!

Faith is ultimately heaven; lack of faith is darkness (as though a man had lost his eyes) and gnashing of teeth (life issuing only in bitter disappointment). This pronouncement-saying has deep meaning today.

What of our refusal to believe anything that our senses do not confirm? Forget the miraculous. Our society has made a merit of skepticism, and there are large sections of the world who deny the very elements of our nature. So, we easily despair both of ourselves and of our world.

The promise written in us is a better trust than “man’s wisdom.” The leap of the spirit toward Christ is our best clue, if we would just follow. As we hear in the words of the psalmist, (Psalm 66)

19: But verily God hath heard me; he hath attended to the voice of my prayer.
20: Blessed be God, which hath not turned away my prayer, nor his mercy from me.

In faith, we come to Christ, in trust we know that we will be made clean, and in witness. In witness, we share this faith, this trust, and all of the good that He does for us.   We “Make a joyful noise unto God,” and “Sing forth the honor of his name: [and] make his praise glorious.” (Ps. 66:1-2).

These are the ways to hold fast to all that is good, to give joy to our Lord in our faith, and to hear from His lips, “Go. Be it done for you as you have believed.” Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY-2022

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

 

AND the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there: and both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage.”

-St. John 2:1

 

This morning, let’s go straight to the heart of the Gospel--a marriage feast. Let’s think about marriage and family today. There is an Old Covenant aspect to the first miracle Christ. It underscores the importance for all of us those who are married, those who expect to be married, of the sacrament of matrimony.

A few years ago, there was a popular craze of mosaic pictures-pictures that are made up of small bright fragments of color. In fact, there are a number of modern churches that began to incorporate these images into their architecture. When you first look at them, all you see is just a profusion of colors. Ah, but if you let your eyes wander over the picture, and began to focus, you suddenly see something else in the picture. There might be a flock of birds, a face, or a shape of some kind. Then, if you shift your gaze, your eyes refocus on the surface again, and all you see is the colored mosaic again.

Reading the Gospel of St. John is a bit like looking at a mosaic. In this Gospel, we are given colorful, vivid pictures, like this morning's account of the wedding feast at Cana where the wine ran out. When the servants appeal to Jesus, the situation is saved, and new wine, wine better than the guests had had before, is brought out. But this is just the surface picture, and there's more to see in this story than first meets the eye, so much more than Jesus coming to the rescue and saving his hosts from embarrassment. If we look into this story with eyes of faith, we discover something else comes into view.

That helps us re-focus to see what is really within the story, is the opening phrase, the first four words: “And the third day...” What do those words bring to mind? Whenever we say the Creed, they introduce the section about the resurrection of Jesus, “And the third day he rose again…” In this Gospel reading, those words become a signpost telling us to look more deeply deeper into the story, because in fact, this is a story about the resurrection of Jesus. More accurately, it is a story about what the resurrection life means for us-for followers of Christ Jesus.

Sometimes we forget that all the writings of the New Testament were composed after the resurrection of Jesus, and therefore everything we read in all four gospels about the life of Jesus- the birth stories and the events of his ministry -is meant to be understood “in the light of” his death and resurrection and glorious ascension which were the culmination of his life and ministry. We are meant to hear this morning's Gospel, the story of the marriage at Cana, “in the light of” the resurrection of Jesus. “And on the third day,” we are told, “there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee.”

Beloved in Christ, what is a marriage? Marriage is a sign of a new beginning, a new life founded on and grounded in love. So, this story is about new beginnings, an image of new life. St. John is telling us that this story is about the new beginning brought about by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. All the details of this story elaborate on this underlying theme.

Next, we hear: “…and the mother of Jesus was there...” Blessed Mary represents Jesus’ beginnings, his family, and everything of that “old order” and covenant that had made him what he was. As well, the disciples who are also with him at the wedding are his new family. As he himself said, those who follow him in doing the will of his father “are my mother, my brother, and my sister”.

Now, we arrive at the heart of the story. In the midst of the celebrations, to the host’s dismay, the wine runs out. This is an image, a picture that tells us that the old order of things has run out, it is exhausted and spent. It is no longer able to satisfy thirst and contribute to the joy that the celebration deserves.

Mary points all to Jesus to save the situation, “whatsoever he saith do it.” But Jesus has made a rather cryptic comment, “what have I do with thee?” or more correctly translated, “What concern is that to you and to me?” This is not a rebuke. Jesus is simply stating that his concern is not with the running out of the “old wine”-the collapse of the old order. His concern is what comes next. “Behold I make all things new...”

Mary, attentive to his reply, tells those serving the wine to do whatever Jesus tells them. At the doorway, there are six large stone jars. These are not wine jars but are water-pots for guests to wash their faces, hands and feet as they come in off the street. They represent the old order, the rites of purification and cleansing, the water baptism of St. John the Baptist. Out of this “old order” of things Jesus is going to bring something new. He tells the stewards to fill the jars with water, one of the basic elements of the created order, the raw material out of which nature and we human beings are made.

They obey, then following Jesus' instructions they draw some off and take it to the master of ceremonies. To his amazement, he finds that something new has happened. Usually, people served the best wine first and kept the cheaper vintage until later, when most people wouldn’t know the difference. But Jesus has broken with common practice: and a new order has begun. We have the words, “This beginning of signs did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.”

On the surface, this story is about an apparently ordinary event: a local village wedding, where people have gathered to celebrate the beginning of a new life. They are doing it in “the old way” according to the received tradition.

However, at a deeper level, we discover that St. John is telling us something more. He is telling us that wherever Jesus is present - things become different! Where Jesus is invited into any gathering, when Jesus is invited into any situation - he brings about a transformation. And to achieve such a transformation he doesn't need anything more than very ordinary things, like water, bread, wine, or a very ordinary life - like yours or mine. But when he is invited in - we can expect things to be different.

At the beginning of the Eucharist, we pray that God's Holy Spirit would so inspire us that we might perfectly love him, and worthily magnify his holy name. We come together as an ordinary assembly of ordinary, needy people, to be with the Lord. If we are willing, in the course of our time together with him, things will change: minds will be changed at the hearing of his word in the scriptures; heavy hearts will be uplifted in our singing of hymns of praise; guilt, resentment, and fear will be washed away as we own up to and confess our failings, and allow ourselves to be forgiven and cleansed by God's self-giving love; our self-centeredness will be challenged as we are invited to pray for others even more in need than we are; · and bread and wine will become the very body and blood of Christ - who invites us to feed on him, that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.

Beloved in Christ, that is the promise of the resurrection life. That is what is on offer at every Eucharist if we will but allow ourselves to receive it. The ordinary water of our lives will be changed into the new wine of lives lived in the power of his spirit. As St John tells us later in his Gospel, “Christ is the food which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”. To which, with the disciples, we might reply: “Lord give us this food always.” Amen!

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE FIRST SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY-2022

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

 

And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers. And when they saw him, they were amazed…”

-St. Luke 2:48

 

 

Prepare to be amazed! It is an advertising slogan for the ages. It has been used to sell everything from houses to home remedies.

Did any of you go to the circus growing up? I sure did. My father loved the circus, and we had tickets any time one came to town. Whether it was the Shrine Circus or the Ringling Brothers extravaganza, all of the programs seemed to have the same slogan, “Prepare to be amazed.” The barkers, ticket sellers, and ringmasters all called out, “Prepare to be amazed!”

Now I remembered, as probably many of you who have prepared to be amazed, that the show really did not amaze me. I was entertained-frightened actually, by some of the acts, particularly clowns. However, you know, I just was not amazed.

Now, today, it is the material that we continue to be called to be amazed by computers, iPods, gadgets, smartphones, and technology generally.

You know it might amuse us, intrigue us, and even draw us in to see how it all works…but, the best of technology, the online, the fast, and latest will never amaze. When the next latest comes along, or we get bored, or we see what we really have bought into, it will not amaze, it will just be so much junk.

Beloved in Christ, I am not trying to interject an Epiphanytide, post-“holiday season” bring down this morning. Not at all. However, you know, if we have not approached Christmas and the Epiphany looking at that which really can amaze, we are doomed to always wake up to the broken toy, the failed carnival act, the gold bar that really is lead.

What matters for us, what should matter for us is that which truly can amaze—rather, He who can truly amaze. For now, we have entered into that time when angels announced, “Be not afraid.” “Come, come to Bethlehem and be amazed…be amazed…be truly and forever amazed and changed.”

However, the imagery of today’s Scripture lessons is not initially one of amazement. Quite the contrary. The image is one of worry. We hear of a mother and father who brought their child to the temple. They then had Him go missing, went looking for Him, and found him teaching in the old familiar temple, to a bunch of old men.

It does not seem, in the Epiphany story, the height of drama. The Gospel does not touch the Scripture for Morning Prayer. Here we hear the urgent visit of the Magi, counterposed against the evil of Herod, “When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they came into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” And they departed another way. That is drama, which is amazing!

But today, we have as our text a mother and father looking for that same son, the Son—the Son they seem to have just lost on the way out of town in the press of so many people. You can imagine how frantic they must have been. They go back, they look, and they find Him in the temple-familiar surroundings.
But, wait. There is something powerful, something truly amazing going on. Here is a twelve-year-old boy, teaching the learned, the scholars of the Jewish faith in the temple of God. This boy is teaching and instructing those who for years had studied the faith of their fathers. They had studied, and they had lost sight of the prophecies of Him who stands among them now teaching at the age of twelve.

This is what it means to be amazed, to be hauled out of the norm, to be brought into the constant unexpectedness of God. Here we are called to look at the Epiphany-the Manifestation of our Lord to the Gentiles.

It is so much more than the awe that the wise men felt at the crib of Christ. Listen to the words, the call of the prophet Isaiah to all of us:

 Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee.

You and I are being called out. We are being called into the work of that Christ is beginning here-the father’s work. Again, Isaiah, “For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.”

Is there anything more striking to us? Darkness trying to cover the earth—the darkness of sin and death-or worse, the darkness of sin called un-sin?” Here we are-the Lord called upon the, and the chance that glory shall be seen upon thee. This is the Evangelion itself-this is the calling to God’s people to show His glory.

Beloved, you have been to the Christmas crib. You have seen the light and you have warmed yourselves in it. It is comfortable and joyful. Like our Lord, we cannot stay in the stable, and we cannot even stay in the temple. We are called to be about our father’s business.

Would you not that I be about my father’s business?” says the young Jesus. What a rebuke-even to the mother of Jesus! It certainly is a call to us from the youthful Jesus. As some folks say, it is the call to go up higher.

In the words of the psalmist that speak to the modern world, “Confounded be all they that serve graven images that boast themselves of idols…” We know that “Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart. We are called to “Rejoice in the LORD, ye righteous; and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness.” This rejoicing and joy and light are our Father’s business. It is the work of a witness.

What does this witness, the witness-the Epiphany of the Incarnate Christ mean? It first is to be aware. “Lift up thine eyes round about, and see,” we hear from Isaiah. Beloved, look at Him, look to Him. And, if you love Him, at the same time hate evil. Then, be braced-here is what you will see. You will see at this Epiphany that, “Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright in heart.”

What is your father’s business? Well, if you take this Gospel as truth, then first, “Rejoice in the LORD, ye righteous; and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness.”

We have no cause to be sad. We have no reason to be angry or distracted or anything else. If we have looked on Jesus, then we should be rejoicing and giving thanks. That is the sum of the message-the Epiphany. It is the consummation of a life in Christ that realizes all of His blessings and is about His father’s business. For that business is to save us, to give us everlasting life, and bring us into true joy and everlasting happiness.

Will we have our bad moments? Yes. Will we hurt? Yes, we will and do regularly. However, how can anyone look on the Incarnate Christ as did the wise men and not rejoice and give thanks? Again, the words of Isaiah, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee.” Go higher, “Rejoice in the LORD, ye righteous; and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness.”

Today, this day or any day, no preacher can call you higher than that. There is no literary hook, no allusion; no patristic teaching that can express the joy of the faith more simply. This is amazement. This is amazing.

I invite you to think what the wise men faced when they reached their destination. There, in the Christmas crib-small, seemingly frail, was one of us. This is the one who “shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.” All in a babe, all in a twelve-year-old boy teaching in the temple.

This is what I have to tell you this morning. I do not have any quotes other than Scripture. I do not have any literary allusions or illusions. I will not make an attempt at humor. None of this works when compared with the living Jesus, God with us.

No, this morning, I simply ask you to look at Christ Jesus and be amazed. Be about His father’s business, in the words of the Apostle, presenting your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service-your father’s business which is that service. Then …be transformed… rejoicing, that you may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God in this year and in the years to come. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR CHRISTMAS DAY-2021

(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 to breathe in the scent of hay in a stable, the frankincense, the myrrh. Time to breathe in the sweet aroma of our salvation.

During the run-up to Christmas, we seem to be pushed more each year-pushed to sacrifice time and effort to “make the holidays work”, to get it all done--get the cards out and the presents in. And these days, you see folks making incredible sacrifices to be able to have a house, to have food on the table, to raise their children “right”. Well and good, but this Holy Day, this Christmas morn, is not about asking for more sacrifice and laying down for the things of the earth.

Today is about how 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 about the sacrifice of God that makes us a body of believers. 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 very one who leads his people out of Egypt and in the march toward the promised land must now learn to walk. This God has sacrificed-being above and beyond us and now with us.

This is why we love St 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 who has watched young children peeping into our Christmas cribs to catch a glimpse of “baby Jesus” will understand. In fact, anyone with even a spark of humanity left in them must be touched by this.

You can of course call it an appeal to sentiment, and so it is. If so this is the point I want to drive home to you this morning. 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 reasoning powers, even little children.

Each year, particularly Christmas, my attention has been caught by something that has happened while waiting in line while shopping. Even in this time of the mask and social distance, should a mother arrive with a baby in her arms generally most folks go out of their way to peep at the baby-even some pretty tough-looking men folk.

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, stooping down to where we are.

Perhaps you think I am being too sentimental. It’s true, and I say it in each Christmas Day sermon, I want to retain the sentimentality of Christmas. It is because I want to retain the reality of the Incarnation, the totality of God's coming down to our level.

You know, I am not surprised that more people attend churches at Christmas than at Easter; though Easter is generally taken as 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.

But let’s look this morning closely at two other chief characteristics of St Luke’s gospel. These are things that make this story even more exciting, more tangible, and more anchored in reality. First, it is a dated account—it is fixed at a specific time just like a newspaper story or an eyewitness account of an event. 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. In fact, there are some Bible scholars who even obsess about the precise dating of these enroll­ments down to a day of the week, and that 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 we can’t say precisely that it was on a Tuesday at 9:30 in the evening.

Like any good narrator, St. Luke structured his account artistically, but the Nativity of Jesus is fact. There is no “once-upon-a-timeless” about it. The Incarnation happened, and Christianity is a historical religion, not a myth. And you know, this morning, we ought to be excited about that! We ought to be thinking of the shepherds, and magi and old Simeon in the Temple—witnesses, all of the witnesses, so many witnesses who saw the Word made Flesh.

Here is a second thing to bear in mind: St. Luke takes great care to stress for us the humble circumstances of the Nativity of Jesus Christ. Mary’s baby was cradled in a manger where the animals were stabled and fed, a makeshift, emergency shelter because there was no room in at Bethlehem's inn. Think of it, the inn may have been a lower ground room jostling with travel­ers displaced on account of the great 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? You can almost see the innkeeper, probably at his wit’s end with the crowd. Both Joseph and Mary accepted that relatively private corner of the stable with its manager with gratitude, thankful for small mercies.

Did Joseph deliver the Christ child? That is a pretty difficult and very incarnational business-certainly humbling. 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! Christ Jesus appeared as a child full of love, full of tenderness, full of joy. The child looks at everyone; at the sight of the child, all fear vanishes. Everyone can 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, and what opens to reach more innocently than the hands of a little child?

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, this child is unselfish, is humble, and pure of heart. When we come to the Christmas 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 some might think that in this sermon I have been telling you how I personally read these nativity stories. You can charge me with a naïve or even a sentimental reading of them. So be it.

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

Beloved, the Incarnate Christ, the living Jesus will console you, He alone will make you happy, He alone can give you peace. Blessed are we, as St. Bernard says, when we come to stable, heading 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 infant Jesus, the humble Christ, the true message of Christmas. There is much that is a delusion in this world. It is a delusion that possessions can make us happy; that money can give us liberty, that wealth can re­deem us.

This morning, this Christmas morning, I pray that we all tear away our hearts from earthly things. Let us use our talents and our treasures to bring us nearer heaven, in works of charity, in the work of Christ. Let us make our hearts into a crib, so that we may have a dwelling that we can offer to the divine Savior, so that He may return to our hearts-Jesus, Jesus the Christ, Lord Jesus, 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—they will sing to our hearts, as they did on the plains of Bethlehem, that message of joy and peace to men of goodwill upon the earth. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS DAY-2021

(Given at Church of Epiphany Amherst, Virginia)


 

And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.”

-Galatians 4:6

 

These past weeks we have been among children. For those of us who dared to go shopping or venture out on the roads or listening to the national news, you may have been among some big folks acting like children.

We have been to the Christmas crib, and, during these days of Christmas and Epiphany, we will go there again and again in wonder and amazement of the child King who has come to save and redeem us.

In fact, the lectionary for the daily office today continues to draw us into the Christmas story—the story of a child “a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” A son. Hold the thought of Sonship.
We also have pondered on those little saints, the Holy Innocents killed for the convenience of Herod, the king. Children, innocents, killed for personal convenience, or a threat to lifestyle, in this case, the royal lifestyle. The Holy Innocents are worth thinking and to praying about.

Scripture draws us further into innocence. The Epistle for today calls us to think about being children ourselves—about son-ship. The epistle passage describes the whole history of the Church of God, in the legal metaphor, the image of an heir, who, during his minority, is under discipline and subjection. Even though he be potentially “lord of all”, he remains a minor until the time appointed by his father.

Certainly, this is not an image we think about in this time of unbridled youth, or rather, perpetual childishness when parents seem to want to be as children in thought and manner. We forget about the status of children until recently—that time when we did not think of them as “young adults”, but children

I want to speak to you this morning about this wonderful passage—words that translate “tutors and governors” to signify guardians and stewards. These have charge, the first over the person of the child so that he is not free to act as he pleases, and the latter having care of the child’s estate so that he cannot dispose of it as he wills. On reaching the age of majority, though, the heir enters upon his inheritance and is free from this subjection.

Beloved in Christ, I think that is a fitting image for us to bear in mind. If the Lord of the universe chose to occupy this position, perhaps as children of God we ought to as well. Perhaps we are called to a little obedience, perhaps even loving obedience to the Father who calls us to be His heirs if we seek to enter His kingdom as children.

I think the proper image is the complex picture presented by St. Joseph in the Gospel. We know so precious little about the adopted father of Jesus, but what we have been given speaks volumes about childhood, manhood, and fatherhood—about being a child of God and an adult in God.

After hearing today’s Gospel, ask what visions were going through St. Joseph’s head. What was the state of Joseph’s mind?

Probably there was the reaction of the child, confused, worried, and had a lot of fear. If we put ourselves in the mind of Joseph for a minute we may find ourselves asking many questions. For starters, “how in the world is my betrothed pregnant?! What will I do about it? I mean, I am a righteous and just man, an obedient follower of the Law. However, I love Mary, should I divorce her quietly?”

All these things were going through his mind before that first Christmas, when suddenly, God intervenes. God sends an angel and says, “Do not be afraid”, rather, “fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife.” It is the voice of the Father to the son. God brings peace to the mind of Joseph. He begins to show Joseph the mystery of Christmas.

Beloved, very big things are playing out here. The people that walked in darkness are to see a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them will the light shine. And here is a child of God-blessed Joseph- faced with the suspected infidelity of his young bride, humiliation, anger—all of the human emotions. What an occasion for a childish outburst.

No. He is comforted. He is looked after and cared for. God touches him with grace. What is his response?

Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him. He took unto him his wife Mary. He called the child’s name JESUS. St. Joseph fully, wholly committed himself, and obeyed.

In that moment, St. Joseph lived out the attributes of true son-ship. He has free conversation with God the Father in a direct gift of the Spirit—we are promised that in prayer.

He has absolute trust in His providence.

He isn’t tempted to criticize God’s dealings with him.

And mostly, Joseph shows a loving obedience, especially when that obedience demands sacrifice on his part.

This is what our Lord came at Christmas to teach us, not only by word, but by example as a child Himself. Look at the example here. Throughout Jesus’ life He:

(1) Freely spoke with His Father in prayer.

(2) His consistently trusted in His Father; in Gethsemane, “Abba, Father, all things are possible unto Thee; take away this cup from me: never­theless, not what I will, but what Thou wilt.” That’s the essence of trust.

(3) And, our Lord showed His loving obedience throughout His life: “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me, and to finish His work.”

These are the basics-the elements of being a child of God.

This Christmas we have many fears and worries as St. Joseph did. Maybe our cares are not the same, but they loom large to us.

Perhaps we have loved ones who are ill, and we are wondering will they be healthy for the New Year. Perhaps these are tough times economically. Maybe this has been the first Christmas without a loved one.

There are so many fears and worries possible for each of us, but with all of them, God is saying, “Do not be afraid.” God is inviting us to be His children, to surrender and put our trust in Him.

He is asking us to be like Joseph and trust him. He is calling us to surrender as we surrender every time we receive the Eucharist and say, "Amen", "so be it", "Let it be done".

If we surrender and trust in God this Christmas and in this coming year we will acquire a peace of mind. If we have this peace of mind as Joseph did, we will begin to see the true meaning of Christmas.

If we surrender to God this Christmas we may just have “visions of sugarplums” dancing in our heads. More importantly, we will have visions of God’s love. A love so great, that he sent his only Son, only to die, so that we may have life. Merry Christmas! Amen.


 

The Rev. Canon Charles H. Nalls

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon for Christmas Eve-2021

Given at Church of the Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.

-St. Luke ii.9

 

We are here this night attending upon our Lord awaiting His birth. After Advent=s four weeks of preparation for God’s coming-His Incarnation and of learning again what it means to live lives predicated on hope in God, the time has come. We are expecting the arrival of our Savior. As always, God takes us by surprise. Majesty and magnificence are encompassed in swaddling clothes; God=s splendid sanctuary is a manger-of-last-resort.

There is a little poem that comes to mind,

Our God who risked all

and as a child in Bethlehem

cried in the dark and cold.

Emmanuel: God is with us,

from heaven to earth see the story unfold.

The Word made flesh in a manger is laid,

see, in a baby, God's glory.

It always is surprising, this child, in the mean estate, yet very God of very God. Heralding the arrival is one angel, speaking not to kings, or priests or people of great wealth but to a few shepherds the common folk, saying, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

Tonight is a night to await Christ and to think of men and angels. Each year I like to quote the great evangelical preacher of the 19th century, Charles Spurgeon, preaching on the first Christmas carol--that of the angels. He said on a Christmas Eve more than a hundred years ago, “Mere men-men possessed with pride, think it a fine thing to preach before kings and princes; and think it great condescension now and then to have to minister to the humble crowd. Not so the angels. They stretched their willing wings, and gladly sped from their bright seats above, to tell the shepherds on the plain by night, the marvelous story of an Incarnate God.”

Mark how well they told the story, and surely you will love them! Not with the stammering tongue of one who tells a tale in which he hath no interest; nor even with the feigned interest of the orator, a man that would move the passions of others, when he feels no emotion himself. They tell the story but with joy and gladness, such as angels only can know. They sang the story out, for they could not stay to tell it in heavy prose.

They sang, “Glory to God on high, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men.” I think they sang it with gladness, burning with love, and full of joy as if the good news to man had been good news to themselves.”

The power of this moment, beloved in Christ, is the very power of the good news-the first Christmas Carol.

As we know, angels provoke fear. For those who knew of angels, their coming usually indicated that some fairly rough events were to follow.

In fact, Jesus was just about the only person to be comforted by an angel. Everyone else is confronted by God and usually called to some really drastic action when an angel shows up. No wonder we hear the angels’ standard opening line in the nativity story, “fear not.” I think that even if an angel were to glide quietly but visibly into our presence tonight, we would be startled. To have the night sky suddenly lit with the glory of the Lord would be a little short of terrifying.

The humble aspect of the manger is not the only truth about Jesus’ birth. Could the psalmist ever have envisaged the heavens declaring the glory of God in quite this way?

A more modern writer captured the scene this way. (Rosalind Brown, The Christian Century, December 16, 1998) “The angel is back! Overt glory shining round the fear-filled shepherds on the stony soil of Bethlehem. Brimming over with the news of joy, great joy, the back-up choir can’t resist an encore in the darkened sky of God=s concert hall and shepherds in the front row seats!”

 

After the remarkable sight and sound, the shepherds do act. They probably had to shake each other, push and shove to get going, but they do act. They go to see this thing which has happened. They go to the manager. It is exactly as the heavenly messengers sang it.

They tell the Mother of God what they have seen and heard. They tell her of the heavenly host that announced the birth of her Son-the Son. Then, those shepherds return to their homes glorifying and praising God for what they have seen.

It is fascinating to reflect on the different understandings of the incarnation, and the men and angels there, that the various artists have expressed. But, one of my favorite pictures of the shepherds is a detail from a 15th-century Dutch Book of Hours. Eight solid and solemn shepherds are clasping hands perhaps in fear of the sight of the heavenly host. One points to heaven, where the words of the angel appear in large letters. Their expressions do not suggest even a glimmer of excitement-these are sturdy, no-nonsense shepherds-but as joy seeps into their souls, the painting indicates that they seem to have begun dancing!

Contrast this with a card by a contemporary artist. In the stable scene, a red-cheeked Jesus beams cheerfully from his manger. Mary grins like a Cheshire cat and has her arms raised in triumph as though her team has just scored, and two shepherds in multicolored, almost gaudy clothes stand happily at either side. At everyone=s feet are seven of the woolliest sheep you could wish to meet, all falling around laughing for joy; one even seems to be holding its sides as it laughs. It is a jolly, domestic scene, but not overpowering or awe-inspiring. It isn’t the scene with the force of angelic hosts, or of revelation and Incarnation.

I wonder if the shepherds, those tough men from the hillside, ever anticipated the depths of the joy they suddenly found released in their hearts this night. When they heard the news they hurried off to Bethlehem. “They went with haste,” we hear. It is a wonderfully evocative phrase. If they fell over themselves to get there, what was the journey back like? Perhaps the joy really did hit their feet and they surprised themselves by dancing.

After four weeks of waiting for the coming of Christ, we too should be prepared to be overtaken and surprised by joy at his arrival. If we have domesticated the announcement of his birth, if we have tamed the Incarnation so that we are no longer stirred by the news, something is amiss. If we are no longer awestruck by the events of this glorious night, then something is not right. But, beloved in Christ, as people of God, we are, we must be, filled with joy.

But what of the Mother of God? What of Mary confronted by these joyful shepherds, brimming with the good news of the Angels. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.

The Blessed Virgin had nine months to prepare for this birth, three of them spent with St. Elizabeth, whose own story was as surprising and full of God=s mercy as her own. She already had enough experiences for a lifetime of meditation. Yet even she was taken by surprise at the arrival of the shepherds and their story of angels.

So she added all this to the store of things to treasure and ponder, things that might one day yield their deeper meanings. But, around her men and angels repeat the sounding joy-in the words of the hymn-heaven and nature are singing. All of Creation is singing!

So this Christmas, are we filled with joy? Are we awestruck by the Incarnation of a living Jesus who is with us always to the end of this world? And, this Christmas, what do we treasure? What will we ponder in our hearts?

Ponder long the glorious mystery breathe, in awe, that God draws near; hear again the angels= message, see the Lamb of God appear. God”s own Word assumes our nature: Son of God in swaddling bands; Light of light, and God eternal held in Mary’s gentle hands. The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

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SERMON FOR THE FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT-2021

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

 

And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, ‘Who is this?’”

- St. Matthew 21:10

 

Today we begin the Advent season. This is the real beginning of the Church year when we read and meditate and pray about the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ-when our Lord came to dwell among us. It is a challenging season that draws us toward and into the enormity of the event of Christ’s birth. It is the season to ask, “Who is this who comes among us?”

We hear in the Gospel lesson the cry, “Behold, thy King cometh unto thee.” He came into his own city, and it seems they welcomed him enthusiastically. “A very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way”, all the while crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David.

They received him, it appears, with wondering gladness but without a sense of real recognition. For “when he was come into Jerusalem all the city was moved, saying, ‘Who is this?’”

On the other hand, how did he receive the city into which he came? With open arms of gladness and joy? No. With wrath and anger, and surely, too, that must inspire us to ask, “Who is this?” Who is this who casts out, with such fury and wrath, “them that sold and bought in the temple; and overthrew the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of them that sold doves”? He was received with the cries of hope and joy; he responds with judgment and with wrath.

I think that many people would prefer not to see this. We would rather the spectacle of our welcoming Christ and not the sight of his fierce anger and disapproval of our ways. Our ways? Yes. Our ways, yours and mine.

It is not the case that Christ’s anger is only directed at some imaginary “them”, as if somehow we can be in the crowd that welcomes him, and not be in the same crowd busy at everything in the temple except what belongs to the purpose of the temple. For what has provoked his wrath and anger? Only ourselves in the busyness of our own ways, in the pursuit of our own self-interest and the material things, the things of this world. One need look no further than the appalling spectacle of the opening day of Christmas shopping season to see this at its worst. It may not be the case that we are in the brawl at the mall, but how many ways to we think of the things of earth and not of heaven?

Make no mistake. Between the church porch and the church pew, between the church pew and the altar rail, have you and I thought about so many things, none of which bear any connection to our being here in this Church and in this service? Are there not thoughts of Sunday dinner, of a football game, of Sunday afternoon talk shows, of the latest cleverness we expressed on social media, of getting back to our cell phones and that o-so-essential e-mail and a drink, and those are just a few things which captivate us in the house of God.

Oh, my! How dare that preacher! He doesn’t know what goes on inside me or inside each one of us! That’s certainly true enough. “We do not have windows into men’s souls”, as that wise theologian, Queen Elizabeth the First once said. And, that’s a good thing, too.

Yet, we can look, albeit in a glass darkly, into ourselves and if we will be honest, see what is there that should convict and move us to find ourselves in this Gospel account. In the telling of this story and reading of this Scripture, you and I are compelled to look into ourselves and to recognize that which in ourselves is unworthy of God and unworthy of ourselves. I know that it is undoubtedly true of me. Might be true of all of us?

But the good news of this wonderful scene of Christ coming into Jerusalem and cleansing the temple is that it speaks to you and me. It speaks about the meaning of his coming into our lives, our hearts, and souls. It is the meaning of Christ’s Advent. Unless he cleanses our souls and makes straight his way within us, there can be no coming and no hope. There can be no Christmas joy, no delight in the wonder of the mysterium divinum, the wonder of the divine mystery, the wonder of God with us. His wrath and anger are really about our denials of his coming, and our Lord would shock us into receiving him in his truth.

None of this Advent or Christmas or the Incarnation makes any sense if we close our minds to the meaning and the real identity and the real truth of the one who comes. It matters altogether “who he is.” In a way, it is the Advent question.

For the coming of the king is not about the politics of power; it is about the power of truth. It is about the truth that at once transcends the political and the material and shapes our souls into the things of heaven. We neglect and deny that truth at our peril.

Beloved in Christ, Advent is our wake-up call, a wake-up call through the spectacle of the wrath of Christ over and against the sentimental emotionalism of the Christmas season, the saccharine sweet over-coat of the vulgar and grasping impulses that pull at our very nature. SO many end up as thieves of God’s grace because we would take the things of God captive to ourselves, to our own ends and purposes, ends and purposes which are invariably about ourselves at the expense of God.

Advent begins as it has for centuries upon centuries with the spectacle of Christ’s royal entry into Jerusalem. Since the late sixteenth century, thanks to Archbishop Cranmer, we have been privileged to read the continuation of that story in Christ’s wrathful and violent cleansing of the temple.

Somehow you and I have to hold these moments together, the regal entrance and the joyous reception of the King coming to his city, on the one hand, and the scene of his wrath and anger at what he finds within the city, in the holy place of the holy city, the temple, on the other hand. We cannot help but ask, what will he find within us?

He came unto his own and his own received him not”. That is part and parcel of the great mystery of Christmas, part and parcel of its essential meaning. We will not even begin to understand that mystery apart from the pageant of the Advent of Christ which begins here with joy and celebration and then turns to wrath and anger. You see, both moments have their truth in Christ. He is our joy, to be sure, but when we fail to perceive and know who he is, then there is the experience of his wrath and anger. Why is that?

Because Jesus comes to us with a purpose. He comes with the purpose of Revelation and Redemption. But how many we ignore all the signs and markers along the way, both the long way of prophecy and law in the witness of the Scriptures and the long, long way, too, of the folly and deceit of human experience.

In this season, we seem to have received him with gladness-everyone likes a parade, full of bands and floats and big balloons straight up Fifth Avenue. In truth, though we “receive him not”, receive him not in the truth and purpose of his coming. Jesus Christ comes as at this time comes to restore and redeem. He comes to us in ways that challenge all our fondest hopes and aspirations, and all our assumptions and preconceptions. Perhaps only his wrath, might just might, get our attention.

Such is the Advent of Christ. “The night is far spent, the day is at hand”, now and always, as St. Paul reminds us. “Let us, therefore, cast off the works of darkness”, those works of hard thoughts and harsh words, of mean and selfish actions. Let us in this Holy season cast off any blindness and ignorance of the wonder that is before our eyes, the wonder of the love of God who wills to come unto his own.

You know, we really are his own despite our wandering ways. Jesus wants us to know that so that now we may repent then be genuinely be among them who received him, “to them that believe on his Name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” It means to learn from the one who comes, to learn who he is and who he is for us. Such is the purpose of his advent towards us.

We are bidden now. We are bidden to “come and see” that we may know “who this is” and follow him into the true joy only he can bring. Amen.

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