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 SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY-                                                         2022

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

 

Now when he came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not.”

-St. Luke 7:12-13

 

In our Gospel lesson this morning, our Lord is confronted with a woman who has lost her only son. She has lost her husband, now her son. If there was no male heir to support her, the options were very limited. It is a tragedy that will shortly echo at the foot of Calvary as the widow Mary will weep over her own son.

Suffering and tragedy—replayed over and again through the ages. Sometimes it seems that we become almost immune to it, even on a mass scale, as we are saturated with media images and numbed through diversion and our modern inclination to whitewash suffering. Just this week, a breathless media has mined Hurricane Ian for its new images of devastation and loss, of death and misery. It is suffering that likely will continue for some time to come.

Once again, we see the nobility of many of our citizens, acts of charity without measure, sacrifice, and of faith. Once again, we see secular society trying to entice us away from the fact of suffering itself.

Here lies the crux of our message for this day and each day. When death and destruction visit us when we are overwhelmed, what is the cry that goes up from so many people? It is Job’s question. Where is God in all of this? Or, worse, yet, there are the voices from many directions that say that such things are “divine punishment” for some sin they believe has made God particularly angry at our nation or her people.

First, let’s say to this last group, it is particularly dangerous to claim to divine the mind of God. He acts in His own way and in His own time, and, He will make manifest His will in due season. His workings are not susceptible to our claims, particularly judgment. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” (Romans 12:19). In the meantime, we are to be concerned with loving Him with all of our heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves. Isn’t that tough enough?

To the question of whether suffering is deserved, I’d add this from the English saints. Lady Julian of Norwich, a holy woman, was disturbed by the Scripture references to the wrath of God-a God she knew as pure love. She asked God what His wrath truly was. So he showed her. She said of it, “I saw no wrath but on man’s part.” The love of God is no human projection, but the wrath of God is in many ways. We cast the shadow of wrath against the light of God’s love, and we ought to pay heed to the shadows we make.

However, let’s turn to the larger question, Job’s question, “Where is God?” Where is God in all of this suffering and pain? After all, to some people, He seems part of the problem, not the solution. C.S. Lewis found that out when his wife died. He wrote in A Grief Observed, “When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing him...you will be, or so it seems-welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate when all other help is in vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face.” And this from the great Christian apologist!

In fact, we hear in the lesson appointed for morning prayer the cry of Martha, sister of the dead Lazarus, “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.” (John 11:21)

Author Peter Kreeft says in his wonderful book Making Sense Out of Suffering, “How easy, how inevitable for the spiritual descendants of Job to look up with the big, betrayed eyes of a hurt child into the face of the Father, now apparently far away, and begin to resent, or even to hate him.” (p.12) It’s true. In our pain, and in our suffering, and in our too human grief don’t we strike out at the very One who loves us most?

You know, we Christians are human. We can be subject to the same feelings, failings, and flailing that even unbelievers have. One of these is resentment against God when things don’t go our way. We are all little children and we all reach a tantrum point when things go bad, some sooner, some later. Sometimes it is passionate anger, sometimes depression or despair. And when there is a big event, man-made or natural, we can end up walking with Job.

As Americans have come to love easy, fast answers. The devil has sold so many cheap and instant answers. We are impatient with Mystery, especially that with a capital AM”--the death that claims an only son, or the suffering of illness or the devastation in a storm’s wake. We just want the bottom line-who is responsible, upon whom do we fix the blame? We want to have a government commission to do that, right away, right now. Even Hurricane Ian was appropriated instantly by those with a particular view of our climate.

Beloved in Christ, the problem is that we have come to trust human knowledge and human solutions. We have supplanted the desire for knowledge of God, with a mere desire to know and subdue nature. When we do this, when we believe that we can control nature, human suffering is a scandal, something to be conquered or hidden, and not a mystery to be understood and a moral challenge to be lived. Suffering for modernity is a thing that must be overcome.

Modern minds are scandalized by a Christ who conquered sin and death but didn’t abolish the need for us to suffer and die. But you know, if the most important thing in life is to conquer suffering, to attain pleasure, and to be comfortable by conquering nature, then Jesus is a fool and a failure.

No, “If life has meaning, suffering has meaning, for suffering is an inherent part of life.” If there is a life after death and a heaven-and we know that there is--we can say with the Apostle Paul, “I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18) For, if there is life after death, and surely we are promised that there is, suffering has the “profound meaning of birth pains: A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow because her hour has come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. And ye now, therefore, have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.” (John 16:22)

Suffering also is the opportunity for service and for humility. It is a chance to lead a life in the imitation of Christ, and of the saints and perhaps the martyrs. In service, we may do charity for those who suffer. We hear in the Gospel of John, “A new commandment I give unto you: that you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13:34-35; cf. James 4:11). Suffering calls us to live out our Lord’s command to us working to the benefit of both sufferers and those who are caring for them.

And humility? We hear in Psalm 112 the very human cry out of suffering. The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. (v. 3) I was brought low. (v. 6) I was greatly afflicted. (v. 10) This is the face of suffering, and the state of humility-to be afflicted and brought low.

Out of it comes the response of faith. The words of the Psalmist tell us the proper response. “I call upon him as long as I live.” “I called upon the name of the LORD; O LORD, I beseech thee, deliver my soul.” “Gracious is the LORD and righteous; yea, our God is merciful.” It is an unabashed prayer that relies on God: it is earnest faith. It echoes the words of a grief-stricken Martha “I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee.” “I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.” (John 11:22, 27). This is having sufficient humility to trust fully in God.

Faith is not in feeling but in fact. We experience some of the joy of heaven now even in our suffering, as the saints did if our faith is not pinned on feelings, but on Him. “If you believe, you will see,” Jesus promises Martha at the grave of Lazarus. Our Lord says, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: 26: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?” It is reality, it is truth.

Joy follows faith-it is not a feeling but a fact. Christ is our joy. It is not something we are given, but we enter into the joy of the Lord. (Mt. 25:1) We are assured, whatever the suffering here, we will enter into His joy. It is beyond the joy over the resurrected Lazarus who must one day die again, or the son of the widow of Nain risen from the dead. For these are resurrected into this life, and we tend to forget that they still have to face suffering and death. No, it is more, it is to know the love of Christ, which passes knowledge, that we might be filled with all the fullness of God

How do we get there? We do it in weakness and lowliness. This is the point of the Beatitudes, of the Sermon on the Mount, of most of His parables: it is illustrated by the whole life of Christ, by the incarnation, the emptying—the kenosis. He “emptied himself” and took the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found as a man, he humbled himself, even the death of the Cross. (Philippians 2:7-8) Again from Psalm 112, “O LORD, truly I am thy servant; I am thy servant, and the son of thine handmaid: thou hast loosed my bonds.” We are called beyond self and into servanthood.

This is contrary to the dictates of all modern psychology, which tells us to love ourselves, accept ourselves the way we are, and feel good about ourselves. Our Lord can allow us to become content with this state, or he can mercifully slap us out of it. Only when we are weak, only when we have become humble can God enter in. It is at these times that God’s opportunities turn us away from ourselves and toward him.

Job, in all of his trouble, found his answers. Unlike his three friends, he found his answer because he asked God. Job prayed. His friends only philosophized, they only talked about God, while Job talked to God.

St. Augustine does the same thing in his Confessions-it is really a large prayer. St. Augustine talks to God, not only about Him because he knows that God really is present. He asks God hundreds of questions and gets hundreds of answers. “Seek and ye shall find.” St. Augustine believed that therefore he sought, therefore he found. He prayed, and it was given to him.

Amidst suffering, let secular philosophers and pundits alone pray-let them reach down and pray for a change rather than pontificate- and we soon will see something beyond philosophy, beyond suffering, something transcending temporal pain and grief. We will see something to startle the world. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY-2022

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

 

Be not anxious.”

-St. Matthew 6:24.

 

Friday I did something radical. I took my own advice and spent the day fasting from the news, particularly from the cable news. I did not even look at the crossword lest I be tempted to look at the editorials.

I was surprised at how frequently I reached for the remote or was tempted to open one of the many news e-mails I get. I was certain that there were key events I was missing and vital news that was passing me by. After all, the domestic and international crises of the day demanded my attention lest I be caught unawares. I was anxious.

By Saturday’s retreat on the Church Fathers, I discovered that I had passed through withdrawal. Arguing with a jammed printer at midnight to disgorge my retreat noted helped. However, it caused me to reflect on how current events and those who traded on them had encroached on my spiritual life.

So, this morning, I would like to speak to you about what I like to think of this as “the anxiety gospel”. This Gospel seeks to counter and does counter so very effectively our anxieties. We hear in the Gospel three words in three phrases. “Behold, the fowls of the air”. “Consider the lilies of the field”. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God”.

These are the strong words: behold, consider, seek. They provide, I think, a compelling antidote to our anxieties.

First, let us think about what Jesus is saying. He wants us to look at the world with new eyes. It will make a difference for us in our anxious lives. To behold what He wants us to behold, to consider what he wants us to consider, to seek what he wants us to seek counters the paralysis of our fears, the terror of our anxieties, and even anxiety about our anxieties. Behold, consider, seek.

Jesus says “be not anxious” more than once in this gospel. He knows how prone we are to being anxious, quite literally, about “a multitude of things.” This is what one writer called “The Martha Syndrome”. It is diagnosed by Jesus elsewhere and recorded in the Gospel of St. Luke, “Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and troubled about a multitude of things” (Luke 10.41).

Beloved in Christ, we all have our fears and our worries. We all have our troubles and our concerns. We all have our heartaches and our despairs. We can worry ourselves, quite literally, to death about them.

What are we anxious about? What are our anxieties? Quite simply, they are our cares, the things which, quite literally, occupy our thoughts. Our anxieties are the cares that choke and oppress us, the cares which give us great anguish of soul, quite literally, angst.

Our problem, it seems, and the cause of our anxiety is that we are often too careful, quite literally, too full of care about the wrong things and/or in the wrong way. The cares of this world beset us but Jesus would have us view the world and its cares in a new way.

What is that new way? Is it simply this threefold “be not anxious” which Jesus keeps saying as if it were some sort of mantra? Is our Lord saying, in effect, “Don’t worry, be happy!”, or for the contemporary culture, the affectation of cynical indifference is represented in one of my least favorite words, “whatever”. Whatever!

In short, is the antidote to our being “full of cares” simply to be careless? Does “be not careful”, as the 16th century Prayer Books accurately put it, really mean be careless? No.

Yes, we have our cares, our worries, and our anxieties. We each have only to look at ourselves. We are anxious about “a multitude of things”. There are all of our anxieties about the deeply troubling and perplexing affairs of the larger world as we contemplate the seemingly endless parade of death and destruction by war, hurricanes,s and tempests, not to mention the horrifying spectacles of terrorism. These are just all this week. In fact, these all appeared in ½ hour of the 24-hour news cycle on any day this week.

There are pundits and politicos to fan all of our anxieties about the economy, jobs, about whose getting what from whom, health care, political life at every level of government, our families, our schools, our parishes, and so on and so on. Again, all of these are mentioned in the compressed air of the news cycle. Throw in even an off-term election which is scary enough in itself and stir vigorously. Is there any doubt that there are reasons why we have become remarkably anxious people, a people fearful and fretful about “a multitude of things?”

Anxiety seems to be a rumbling base chord in the symphony of life.

Let me ask this question to you today prompted by my own reaction to a small fast on the news. How many of you have spent more than an hour this week watching cable news? Two hours? Three or more each day. How much of the time given to you by God have you spent reading news feeds from the internet? How much time did you spend on Facebook on stuff that was not family or faith-related? How much e-mail did you share with your friends and family did you do about the state of the world or politics?

Did any this, any of this at all, make you joyful, and hopeful, or even make you feel even slightly better? I bet I can tell you the answer. To paraphrase President Abraham Lincoln, “We live in the midst of alarms; anxiety clouds the future; we expect some new disaster with each newspaper we read.” At least Mr. Lincoln did not have to deal with each, heaven helps us, “tweet” we read. We like to obsess over them, and anxiety creeps in as a thin stream of fear trickles through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other's thoughts are drained.

The threefold “be not anxious” of the gospel, however, is not the antidote to “The Martha Syndrome”, though it offers a necessary check, a moment of pause, a counter-assertion, from which we might then be able to receive the real antidote.

What is the real antidote to anxiety? It does not come from what has become the anxiety industry often advertised on the very news feeds that make us anxious with noted side effects that are in themselves frightening. You cannot get it over the counter at the drugstore. You cannot get it by a doctor’s prescription. It is here in what Jesus says. “Behold”, “consider”, and “seek” are strong words that are all intertwined with Jesus’ repeated exhortation “be not anxious”.

The real antidote is nothing less than a new way of looking at the world. These strong words-behold, consider seek-are all verbs of perception and desire. They signal a new way of looking at the world. You see, that is the issue. It is all about how we see the world. God’s world or our world?

What about all of these birds of the air and flowers of the field stuff? Are we to go out bird watching and picking daisies? Well, maybe, it is surely better for the soul than cable news. However, the point is wonderfully captured in the third strong word our Lord says: “Seek.” “Seek ye first the kingdom of God”, which clues us to what is being said in the other two “behold” and “consider”.

You see, beloved in Christ, Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God is discerned in the seemingly little things. We are to see in the birds and the flowers the care of the heavenly Father for every living thing and, how much more, his care for us as his children. If God cares for the birds, making sure that the natural order of his creation supplies food for them, how much more will he care for us? People are far more valuable to him than the birds.

It is all about how we see the world. Is it God’s world or our world? Open your eyes! “Behold”, “consider” and, above all, “seek”. These strong verbs speak about us as spiritual creatures who see God’s will and purpose in the world and, ultimately, see the world in God.

This is the counter to our preoccupations, our carefulness, to our endless calculations about the use of things as if the things of this world only exist if we find and give a purpose to them.

As St. Ignatius of Antioch would tell us, these are the attitudes and tendencies which we have to crucify in ourselves. Indeed, this is just the prescription suggested in the epistle.

We have to crucify our desire to control and manipulate the world; otherwise, we end up being consumed by the use we make of things, consumed by our concerns and worries, serving worldly matters and not God.

What we need is a new way of looking at the world. It does not mean care-less–ness but a childlike care-freeness born out of a trust in God’s providence. You see, God wants something more and better for us, and that something more and better is signaled for us here in this place and in Holy Communion.

As children of God, we are inwardly fashioned for faith, not for fear. Fear is not our native land; faith is. We are so made that worry and anxiety wear down our lives; faith is the oil. We live better by faith and confidence than by fear, doubt, and anxiety. In anxiety and worry, our being is gasping for breath--these are not our native air. However, in faith and confidence, we breathe freely. (Dr. E. Stanley Jones, Transformed by Thorns, p. 95)

In the final two verses, Jesus says “But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Beloved in Christ, the anxiety-free life calls us to settle the question of priorities and make the Kingdom of God our primary concern. To do that, we must consistently honor and represent the Kingdom. Let us perform all of our actions for the sake of it. That is Christian witness. Certainly, we cannot do this if the necessities of life aren’t attended to. But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.

These are the radical demands of Christianity. They are full of life and love. When we put God first and have faith in Him, our happiness is no longer dependent on the contents of our closets, our bookshelves, our computers, our televisions, our iPhones, or even some of the people who move in and out of our lives. When we put God first, our happiness flows from the experience of the presence of God's love in our lives.

Signed with the sign of the cross at the font in our baptisms we pass under the cross, to the altar where we are fed with nothing less than “the body and blood of Christ”, if “the world has been crucified unto [us], and [ourselves] unto the world”, so that we can live in the One who reveals the providence of God, come what may in the circumstances of our lives. Then, and only then, shall we “be not anxious.” Amen.

The Rev. Canon Charles H. Nalls

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE FOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY-2022

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

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

-Galatians 5:22


 

This morning we hear the words of St. Paul in his stern rebuke to an erring and unhealthy church. The epistle should remind us that the western Church of which we are a branch is itself not particularly healthy. When I say this, I say it in anguish. You and I are fully aware of what is happening in so very many churches and in our society, and much of it is not very good. 

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

I have spoken about this before and beg your for clearance if a few of you have heard some of my remarks before. However, I think that it is vital for all of us to understand, “What is the normal Christian life?” 

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

Let us look at the first mark-to know Jesus personally and experientially and give your life to Him as Lord. This is a necessary truth to hear. To know Jesus is at the very root and the very foundation of our Christian lives. Jesus died and rose again and ascended to the Father. Then what? Then he does not communicate with us anymore? What nonsense!

To enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is to recognize Him as Lord; to go to Him; to know Him as a person; and perhaps, just perhaps, to listen to Him.  Hear these words from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is the Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9)  To confess that Jesus is the Lord is the very foundation of our Christian life, our normal Christian life.

Beloved in Christ, many people do not understand this. Many people do not have a clue as to who is the Lord.

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

You and I belong to a community of believers a Church. We are not here because we have subscribed to a set of dry dogmas. Why are we here at Epiphany this morning? There was a lot of energy that you had to muster to get out of bed, dress, jump in the car, and come here many from quite a distance. Why?

You are here because Jesus called you, and you heard and you responded. We are here because the Lord has called us together. We have answered His call.  You see, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is not something that is taken for granted This relationship takes an entire lifetime. It is a process of growing in the Lord. We understand that as the Lord speaks to us and we respond to Him, we develop purity of heart as we grow in Him.

In the epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul lists all kinds of really horrible things that can damage the relationship and defend against it when we are a people that constantly acknowledges that Jesus is the Lord. That marks us out because “No one can say 'Jesus is Lord,' except in the Holy Spirit.” (I Cor.12:3)

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

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

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

This is the way Jesus taught us to pray. When you pray, pray thus, “Abba, Father!” No one ever approached God up until the time of Jesus and call Him Abba. In fact, you did not even use the name of God out of respect and Jesus said, “Look, He's your Father. You can call Him Abba, Father.” Imagine it. This is normal! It is a normal Christian life that you and I have such a relationship with our Heavenly Father.

If we live in conscious awareness of the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we understand that we live according to those good gifts that we have received from the Father. The gifts are given to the Church, not just to the ordained clergy. They are given to all of us for the upbuilding of the Body of Christ, That is normal. 

The trouble with a lot of what is happening in the Church today is that people are trying to build the Body of Christ, not with the gifts of the Spirit, but with human power. No wonder it is failing and unraveling in so many places. If we begin to focus on the spirit of this age and say, “This is what the Church is,” we have it wrong.

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

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

This is a great book, this Bible of mine. And yet, it is just a lot of ink on pieces of paper unless we understand that this Word has to be alive in its people. When we breathe the life of the Spirit into the Word of God, that is what we call Tradition. Living out of what is in here. the Tradition of the Church, that is normal. We know that within the Word of God is everything we need to live in this world and for our salvation. That is normal. 

How many times have I heard clergy, “Gee, I wish I had more time to study the Scriptures. I don't have much time to do it at all.” They are more interested in developing programs. You know, programs are nice, and we have to have some programs here and there. However, too many churches hide behind their programs.

Jesus did not have any programs. I mean, did He have a multi-session healing program with workbooks and PowerPoint? Did He have a teaching program? Did He have a dying and rising from the dead program? No! So many churches are loaded with programs, but does anybody know Jesus there? That is the question, isn't it? Because that is not the normal Christian life. 

To know Jesus, to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, and to live in community means that we have a network of committed relationships centered on Christ. You cannot live out a normal Christian life all by yourself unless you are called with a very special charism to be a hermit. Otherwise. we're called to committed relationships. Remember the words of the father to the older son in the story of the Prodigal? “Everything that I have is yours.” You know that our attachment is not to the things of this world, but our bond is with Christ our Lord. 

Unless we show our normal Christian lives and the fruits of service to God's people, we are not living normal life. Now, in 2022, we are supposed to be the Body of Christ of which He is the head. We are the members and are the ones to carry the message of salvation to those that need it. All of us.

If you think about it, look at all of the people that do not even identify with any religion, much less know who Jesus is. Well, if it is only up to clergy to get to these folks, we had better ordain a bunch of people straightway! No, this is what the Body of Christ is supposed to do. All of us. We have been equipped by the Holy Spirit to do this. That's normal. 

This fifth item is that these communities be related to each other in unity.  That all may be one as Thou Father art in Me and I in Thee. That they also may be one in us. (John 17:21)  That was Jesus' prayer the night before He died. To Abba. That unity is still not there. That is not normal. Jesus has something better in store for us than all of the factions, divisions, and “one true church” we see in Anglicanism much less than the Church at large. To be sure, there are causes of this situation, but they can be overcome. That is for prayer.

The normal Christian life is not easy. We have come here because we acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. We have been given the power to develop within us the heart of Jesus. We have been called to live a community life, a community of committed relationships with one another where we would respond to one another's needs. We know that the Body of Christ in a normal situation is here for the salvation of mankind and it is the work of all of us to evangelize the world. We know that it is the plan of Jesus that all be one in His time. All of these are characteristics of a normal Christian life. 

What are we going to do with this? What do we do with it? How are we going to get in touch with God's plan? 

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

“By their fruits, you will know them,” said Jesus. St. Paul ticks off a list of fruits of the Holy Spirit that you can see. Love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faith, mildness, and chastity. 

If you see them in a community, there is Jesus. If somebody needs to know Him, you can say, “We got a little community. I think you will find Jesus there. Come and join us.” We each can do that.

May we live out these marks of the normal Christian life. Pray that people may say of us at Epiphany, “There's the Lord. That's where I want to be” Then, we can arise, for our faith will have made us whole.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY-SEPTEMBER 11, 2022

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

 

Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see: for I tell you, that many prophets and kings have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.@

ST. Luke 10:23-24

 

Tour guide Ann Van Hine is rewarded with tears, not tips, and frequently reduces visitors to an awed silence when she tells them how her husband, a firefighter, died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Younger visitors often chat freely with her before the tour, but afterward, they don’t know what to say to her.

As she is about to climb a steep flight of stairs to a walkway over the highway west of the site, Mrs. Van Hine invites visitors to imagine climbing stairs loaded up with firefighting equipment. “The firefighters got up to about the 70th floor, so it would have been like doing what we're doing 35 times.”

She and her husband, Richard Bruce Van Hine, had two daughters aged 14 and 17 at the time of the attacks that killed 2,992 people in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. “Ten days after, I asked my girls where they thought Daddy was and they said they thought Daddy was in heaven,” she said.

She like many others visited Ground Zero just after the attacks. It looked like war, she said, “There were still fires burning, there was this gray dust everywhere. Some part of me I think expected to see a computer monitor or a desk or something. There was nothing.”

Now, these years after two hijacked planes crashed into the Twin Towers, the debris has been entirely removed, replacement buildings erected and there is a fitting memorial. At the Pentagon, the gaping tear long since has been repaired. In Pennsylvania, grass grows over a blackened field.

Recall where you were on that day. I was in my last year of seminary-beginning a class on, of all things, moral theology. On that day, Richard Bruce Van Hine and hundreds of firefighters, police, and EMS personnel were climbing stairs, encumbered with equipment, pressing on to save the lives of people they didn’t know. “Think too about the sounds that came from within the buildings and within the planes--the phone calls and messages left on answering machines, all the last things said to whoever was home and picked up the phone.”

Something terrible had happened. Life was reduced to its essentials. Time was short. People said what counted, what mattered. There is no record of anyone calling to say, “I never liked you,” or, “You hurt my feelings.” No one negotiated past grievances or said, “Vote for Smith or Jones. No one said anything unneeded, extraneous, or small.”

Capt. Walter Hynes of the New York Fire Department's Ladder 13 dialed home that morning as his truck left the firehouse at 85th Street and Lexington Avenue. His message? He was on his way downtown, and things were bad. “I don't know if we'll make it out. I want to tell you that I love you and I love the kids.”

As Peggy Noonan once wrote, “Firemen don't become firemen because they're pessimists. Imagine being a guy who feels in his gut he's going to his death, and he calls on the way to say goodbye and make things clear. His widow later told the Associated Press she’d played his message hundreds of times and made copies for their kids. “He was thinking about us in those final moments.” Capt. Hynes and Firefighter Van Hine and others were living the Gospel, running toward Calvary.

We hear in St. John's Gospel, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he would lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) In New York, at the Pentagon and in the sky over Pennsylvania, our brothers and sisters lived this passage in its fullest sense. However, there is something else, something expressed in the messages of the 11th day of September. There was Tom Burnett’s famous call from United Flight 93. “We're all going to die, but three of us are going to do something,” he told his wife, Deena. “I love you, honey.” Todd Beamer of United 93 wound up praying on the phone with a woman he had never met before, a Verizon Airfone supervisor named Lisa Jefferson. She said later that his tone was calm. It seemed as if they were “old friends,” she later wrote. They said the Lord's Prayer together. Then he said, “Let's roll.”

These were people saying, In spite of my imminent death, my thoughts are on you, and on love and on doing one last thing for someone other than themselves. They passed on responsibilities “Tell Billy I never stopped loving him and forgave him long ago.” “Take care of Mom.” “Pray for me, Father. Pray for me, I haven't been very good.” They addressed what needs doing and they were giving to others. Theirs is and must remain, a lasting image in our minds-not just as Americans but as Christians.

Let's think, this morning, about those people who have made an ever-lasting impression on our lives. They are few, we can recall their names, and we can recall the reasons. These are the people who gave us not anything material but something more. Something to look up to and respect.

And here is the core of the Gospel lesson this morning, the lesson of the Good Samaritan. It appears, like several of the lessons, several times in the course of the year. You know, man is waylaid by robbers, the learned and rich pass by, Samaritan stops, helps him, takes him to an inn. We hear it so frequently that we tend to assume that we know all about it. Don't we tend to reduce these seven short verses of Scripture to a flat picture?

As I have often said, the Samaritan has become for us a bit like that bumper sticker on the recreational vehicles and campers You have probably seen, Goodneighbor Sam, a grinning fellow with a halo that always stops to help you with a flat? I think we may even lose sight of this superficial picture of charity at times.

As Christians, we should be concerned with a deeper notion of servanthood, a more profound call to being the Samaritan. In the tenth chapter of John, we hear “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Fathers commandments, and abide in his love.” (10:10) God “gave every man commandment concerning his neighbor.” (Ecclesiasticus 17:14) “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.” (10:12)

That is a great commandment one of the two great commandments, in fact. How serious is it? Look deeply at the situation of the Samaritan in the Gospel. The road between Jerusalem and Jericho, about 20 miles, was a known haven for highway robbers. The unlikely hero of the story was a prime target.

The victim is not even very sympathetic to a SamaritanBhe is a Jew and, to say that the Samaritans and the Jews did not get along well, is the understatement of all understatements. Hostility simmered between the Samaritans and the Jews for 600 years and had come to a violent climax in 109 B.C. when the Judean king destroyed the Samaritans= temple. For Jesus even to use a Samaritan as an example, must have been shocking to the hearers. In fact, the Pharisees had disparaged Jesus himself by calling him a demoniac and a Samaritan.

And, now in Jesus' parable, the Samaritan is placing himself at great risk for an unknown man who probably would have hated him under ordinary circumstances. The real Samaritan does not ask who is my neighbor. He does not think about “I never liked you, you Samaritan you” or, “You hurt my feelings.” He didn’t concern himself over past grievances. He didn’t say anything unneeded, extraneous, or small.

The Samaritan says, “Let’s roll,” and simply and directly moves to the question, how can I love my neighbor? He risks all for him.

Isn't this the pattern of charity and service we are called to? Isn't this the full measure of what we have received from those we really look up to? Isn’t this what went on in tens of thousands of ways on that dreadful morning?

So we are called this morning to understand the true cost of compassion, a sacrificial cost. First, we must be willing to cross barriers. As Jesus illustrated in using a Samaritan in this parable, we may not put up religious, racial, or national barriers to showing compassion or a willingness to sacrifice! Think about it did anyone you really look up to label you or measure out what they gave according to any of your attributes or merits? Were folks doing that at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, or in the cabin of a doomed airliner? Jesus Christ did not make that distinction in his sacrifice for all mankind.

We also must have a willingness to take risks. We can never be a people of fear. It is an imperative bit of a faith question. In the eye of the storm, Christ Jesus asks the disciples, “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26) The Lord is our helper, and we are called to proclaim boldly that we “will not fear what man shall do to us.” (Hebrews 13:6)

The Samaritan took a great risk by stopping to help. What if the robbers were still nearby? What if the building is going to collapse or this plane is going to crash?

Those who love us, take a chance on us they are willing to take that big chance. So we Christians are called upon to take risks. (Lk 6:30) How do we know people won’t take advantage of our generosity? We don’t? How do we know that we won't be disappointed? We don’t, and we may. How do we know that we might not get killed? It is very possible, and in the sacrificial moment, the moment on the stairs when the rumbling starts it is pretty darned likely.

This is an area where we need to have faith in God and realize it is not about us. It is about doing for others without stopping to worry or taking a tally or counting the cost. It is a commandment that we should go and do likewise to inherit the kingdom of heaven.

We must also be willing to give time. In our mostly false economy of the time these days, we have to set aside the busy schedules or schedules that we believe to be busy. The Samaritan was on a journey, but took the time to stop and care for the man. On the way to his death Walt Hynes took time to leave a message of love and hope to his family as would hundreds of others. They were not too busy to take a moment for that essential touch of compassion.

Finally, we must be willing to make sacrifices. The Samaritan sacrificed more than just time and energy. He used some of his own provisions, his own wealth. (Lk 10:34) Jesus consistently taught His disciples to be willing to make sacrifices (Lk 6:29-30,34-35) as he Himself would with His precious life. In so doing, we are truly followers of God and walking in love. (Ep 5:1-2)

As for us, we have been the beneficiaries of so many Good Samaritans but especially of the one true Good Samaritan the One we ultimately look up to. Beloved in Christ, hear today the words of St. Augustine:

In our lives, we have been left by the side of the road by robbers not necessarily those of the kind who attacked the man on the road but the robbers that are sin, sickness, and death. Yet we have been attended to by the Savior lifted onto the mule, brought to the inn, and treated. Christ has borne our wounds. We have received the Sacrament of the only begotten Son as medicine. And we are being fed and nursed to health in the inn that is His church. This is the love that we want for ourselves.

You and I always have Someone to look up to, he’s up ahead of us forging the way through sorrow and hurt and death. We look up to Him who sent bread from heaven, able to content every man's delight, and agree to every taste. (Wisdom 16:20). We look up to Christ on the Cross, where He risked all, gave all, for all. We look up to Him who taught us that “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” We look up to our risen and ascended Christ who waits to welcome us with all of the riches of Heaven if we but do His will if we but love one another as He loved us. Amen.

           

 

 

 

 

 

                 SERMON FOR THE TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY-2022

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

 

And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit and touched his tongue, and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened.”

-St. Mark 7:33-34

 

In ancient Greece, it was customary for peddlers who walked the streets with their wares to cry out, “What do you lack?” The idea was to get people to come out of their houses to see what that peddler was selling. It might be something they lacked and needed, and the cry was an invitation to come out.

  So it is with this healing miracle this morning, a miracle unique to St. Mark’s Gospel. The deaf man lacked hearing and had a speech impediment, probably due to the deafness. There is a lack of wholeness in him. This healing miracle invites us to look at what needs to be made whole in us. In the words of the peddler, what might we lack? Jesus’ call to wholeness compels us to take an honest inventory. Have you found contentment? Are you, in the words of collect today, ready to pray Lord who is always ready to hear? Are you suffering from deafness? Are you able to hear what God has to say to you, to be close enough to Him to receive guidance and strength? Christ can fulfill our deepest needs of heart, mind, and soul. Are we hearing when God speaks to these needs? Do we suffer hearing loss?

The deaf-mute lacked the physical ability to hear. However, too many lack the spiritual ability to hear. We suffer spiritual deafness. At one level, this involves not listening to people we ought to be listening to, those in need, those in want, and those who are calling out for our help. Don’t we so often suffer from physically listening to people, yet failing to comprehend, understand, and come to grips with what they are saying, particularly if it is a message we do not want to hear. How often do we simply nod in a feigned attitude of listening or even reply with a bored, “Whatever?” It is possible to listen to a person, yet fail to really hear them. To use a modern term, it is tone deafness.

Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered this from His own disciples. How many times did He speak, and they did not hear or want to hear. “Not I, Lord,” said St. Peter when faced with the news of his impending denial. Jesus suffers it now as we hear but do not listen to His word. Beloved in Christ, we can suffer deafness in the community, the body of Christ, when we fail to hear our brother or sister or selectively hear them. This kind of deafness is a plague upon the Church.

To be sure listening is a skill. We hear of active listening as a technique. However, we have to work at listening. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that one could have no greater impact upon the world then by closing the lips and opening the ears. What a difference that would make!

However, more pointedly, spiritual deafness, deafness to the Holy Spirit is deadly. You know, spiritual deafness is probably the most common of all the diseases of the soul. So let us look for our own healing in this miracle.

We were created so that we might find our highest happiness, our wholeness, in fellowship with God. Of course, we all think about this in terms of eternity, but it is true also of our life now. In the words of the Psalmist, “we are fearfully and wonderfully made,” our souls know it, and the thoughts of God should be precious to us. (Psalm 139: 14, 17). Alternatively, as St. John tells us, “Truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son, Jesus Christ.”(I St. John i. 3). That is a “right-now” fellowship, a right-now wholeness.

As they collect drives home, this fellow­ship implies the capacity to seek God’s voice in prayer and to hear His response. Some have a greater capacity for this than others do. Their spiritual hearing is more acute or has been better trained.

It is much like physical hearing. A hunter or tracker in the forest detects the slightest sound, the snapping of a twig, the slight rustling of the underbrush, where we hear nothing. The poet may hear the passing breeze or the faraway call of a bird, and we are tone deaf.

Perhaps it is the result of modern civilization, with cell phones, and boom cars. In the media, there are so many loud sounds, and so much continual noise, so many awful noises, that we fail to notice the more delicate sounds and gradually lose the power of detecting them.

It may be what we can call “drift.” It is like listening to a radio station while we are driving. When we drive away from the radio tower, the signal gets weaker and weaker.  However, if we turn the car around and drive back into town, the signal becomes stronger and we can hear it again. 

  In the same way, we stop hearing God when we drift away from Him.  If we will turn around and come back to Him, we will hear His voice again. The closer we are to God, the clearer we can hear Him. “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.”

However, spiritual deafness, whatever the cause, whether through the noise of the world, drift or willful lack of hearing, leaves us unable to hear God’s voice. God is always speaking to us and in many ways-through consciences, through revelation, through the teaching of His Church. How many there are who really hear His voice!

Contrast the thunders of Sinai for the Hebrews, and the noise of the trumpet exceeding loud, when the people said, “Let not God speak with us, lest we die,” with the still small voice of Horeb with which God addressed the trained ear of the prophet Elijah.

There are times when God speaks to the sinner with the voice of Sinai. Though, mostly, He speaks with the still small voice of Horeb. It needs a trained and attentive ear to catch the whispers of that voice.

There are some who live amid the beauties of nature, but never hear the voice of God in His creation. There are others who read the pages of revelation or hear the Word spoken but seldom feel that the words are spoken to them. Why is this? Why does this happen? Maybe because they are so accustomed to the clamor of the world that their spiritual sense is not acute enough to recognize God’s voice.

However, it is not just the things of the world that cause us to miss the still, small voice. If we are talking over Him, we will not hear. If we, like the Philippians, are engaging in murmuring, disputing, and anger, we will not hear.

We also should understand that it is not just spiritual deafness that affects our fellowship with God through not hearing His voice, but spiritual dumbness, which affects our power of prayer. Remember that the man at Decapolis was not only deaf, but he had an impediment in his speech. The Greek word suggests not that he was actually dumb, but that he could only speak with difficulty. Someone who is not able to hear any sounds at all comes to lose the power of distinct articulation.

How true this is in the sphere of spiritual experience! We pray with much difficulty because we have lost the power of hearing God’s voice. It is difficult, almost impossible, to carry on a conversation with one who may not utter words in reply to us. Yet that is very much the case for those who pray but do not listen to God’s voice. Prayer is the joyous communion of the soul with God if we hear God speaking in reply to us. However, we must learn to listen to His voice before we can realize the full joy of fellowship with Him in prayer.

Always remember that this dialogue with God, who does not speak as we do, differs from an ordinary conversation. St. John Damascene said of this conversation, “To pray is to offer one’s heart to God” conveying this attitude of the attentive and listening soul. To think of prayer as “dialoguing with God” (St. Augustine), “raising one’s heart to God” (Gregory of Nyssa), or “friendly conversation with God” (St. Teresa of Avila) is to have grasped the two-way aspect of prayer.

We also must remember that God may not answer our prayers as we would like him to, because “God’s ways are not our ways.” (Isaiah 55:8). He may also just give us the answer “No.” Part of listening to God is to hear the answer that we might not want to hear.

The way in which our Lord healed the deaf man may help us to find a remedy for our own spiritual disease. Our Lord looked up to heaven and groaned. This is the only place in the Gospels where this word is used. What was there in the condition of this man, which caused Him to groan?

Was it not, perhaps, that he represented that large class who are spiritually deaf, and who on this account shut themselves off from the fellowship with God, which would be their greatest happiness in this life? Our Lord, in His sympathy with us, groans at what we lose by our spiritual deafness.

How does He heal the man? First, He takes him aside from the multitude. As the noise of the world blunts hear­ing. If we are to regain it, we must seek solitude, and learn there to listen. For this reason, God in His providence sometimes sends us away from the multitude to open the ear of our souls to His voice. He may send a time of aloneness-of separation from things and people. He calls us to make time for listening-closeting ourselves that we may hear.

We should use all of these occasions as great opportunities for communion with God, for training the ear of our soul to hear what God has to say to us, that when we come back to our work in the world it may be with regained strength, not only of the body but of our spiritual nature.

Our Lord “put his fingers into his ears, and He spit, and touched his tongue.” The remedy for both deafness and dumbness is the touch of our Lord. How can we obtain this touch?

There is an easy answer to this question. Through the Sacraments, which are extensions of the Incarnation, the means by which the merits of Christ are applied to our souls—first in Baptism, then, if we have fallen into sin, in Absolution, and constantly in every Communion.

Haven’t the happiest moments of our spiritual lives been those when we felt very near to God, hearing His voice, and out of the fullness of our hearts speaking to Him in prayer? Is this, though, a rare experience, or is it our normal spiritual condition? We were created to have fellowship with God now in preparation for that fuller fellowship which we shall have with Him in heaven. We must seek our healing then in two ways: by going apart from the multitude and listening for the voice of God; and by such use of the Sacraments as may restore the health of our soul and with it our power of hearing God's voice. So, let us take to heart these practical lessons from the Gospel today, and ask for healing for hearing, healing to hear the voice of our Lord. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    SERMON FOR THE ELEVENTH SUNDAY IN TRINITY-2022

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

 

I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

- St. Luke 18:14

 

 

As often happens in our society, people who hold themselves out as larger than life are often the ones who suffer the greatest humiliation. There’s a very simple correlation between how far up you put yourself and how far down you come — simply as a result of being human; simply as a result of being a human being in a fallen world.

There is an old story that one day Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, visited a prison and talked with each of the inmates. There were endless tales of innocence, misunderstood motives, and of exploitation. Finally, the king stopped at the cell of a convict who remained silent. “Well,” remarked Frederick, “I suppose you are an innocent victim too?” “No, sir, I’m not,” replied the man. “I’m guilty and deserve my punishment.” Turning to the warden the king said, “Here, release this rascal before he corrupts all these fine, innocent people in here!” The biblical saying proves true, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).

Today’s Gospel reading teaches us many things. It teaches us about attitude to prayer — on how we should pray. It teaches us about self-righteousness, and not to be self-righteous.

We hear a lot about “self-acceptance” in popular psychology and in the “self-help” literature derived from it. “Accepting who we are” is often touted as the very first step towards mental health and general well-being. I suppose, up to a point, a Christian must surely agree. But self-acceptance has taken some very dark turns these last few years, and I am not sure that the term has any meaning. In fact, the gospel of self-acceptance has led to a wholesale flight from reality. Just this week it was reported that the New York City government recognized some 31 genders and, if you can’t get it right you can be fined up to $250,000 for a wrong answer that offends someone’s notion of self-acceptance. A flight from reality, beloved in Christ, is a flight from the truth and authentic honesty.

After all, being honest with ourselves about our strengths and our weaknesses, about what is good and bad in our character or habits, is an entirely reasonable beginning to our being honest about ourselves with God and with our neighbors. The old spiritual writers even had a name for this kind of honesty. They called it “an examination of conscience,” and they recommended it as a daily event, usually at the end of the day as part of our night prayers.

But, examination of conscience requires honesty–sometimes painful honesty. You and I, as Christians, are not permitted to fool ourselves in any aspect of our lives.

I will warrant you that it is pretty tough to ask honest questions at the end of the day, or at any other time for that matter. How about these two for starters? Did I love God with my whole heart, my whole soul, and my whole mind? Did I love my neighbor as myself?

If I were actually successful in these duties, these two great and essential commandments, what helped me to fulfill them? When I failed (and everybody does fail sometimes), what contributed to that failure? Was I proud? Was I careless? Was I hateful? Are there places, people, or situations that I need to avoid to keep from sinning? What practical things can I do right away to make a fresh start with God, so that I am less likely to sin tomorrow?

Self-examination just doesn’t work if, in the words of the Prayer of Humble access, we come to God trusting in our own righteousness–believing in ourselves, believing the legend we make up for ourselves, rather than believing in the God who knows us thoroughly, who knows our objective reality.

This really is the essence of the Gospel lesson this morning–it is a discourse on “righteousness” and false righteousness. Jesus tells us a parable that addresses itself to those who take pride in being righteous-a sort of compounded sin-pride and false righteousness which is lying in its rawest form.

Here’s a surprise. Did you know that there are indeed some people who believe themselves to be righteous, but without this really is the case? Imagine! These folks are “righteous” because they believe themselves to be righteous, but actually, they are not. They believe in themselves and their own reality and not in God and His reality which is the real truth. It really is kind of sociopathic, and that is where the problem lies.

Those who believe in God are righteous: “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” But those who believe in themselves are not justified, for they will always find, within themselves, a certain limit - that which belongs to them as creatures - that will prevent them from being actually righteous.

 

So it is that Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, (listen to his words, now) God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.”

But, do you know what the Pharisee’s initial problem is? Listen to how many times he has used “I”. Beyond the fact that he is talking to himself; beyond the fact that he is trying to convince himself what a great Jew he is; even beyond the fact he’s judging another human being — there’s something deeper. “I’m superhuman,” he thinks. He’s trying to convince himself that he’s something beyond the human. He’s trying to convince himself that he has self-esteem, and it is just an odd form of narcissism.

What is real self-esteem? Genuine self-esteem is knowing what you are. Authentic self-esteem is to be at peace with what you are, knowing that through prayer, through the grace of God, it is being transformed as we are invited in the Feast of the Transfiguration just yesterday. It is being developed, it is being saved, and being made into something beautiful — and knowing that it is the grace of God that is performing this miracle in your life.

The Pharisee in question does not have genuine self-esteem. He really doesn’t even believe that God justifies him: on the contrary, he believes in himself, a sin of pride without equality! The self-loving Pharisee accuses others of what he is most guilty of because of his pride and arrogance. The Pharisee illustrates the danger of pride for all who serve God with their sacrifices of praise. Instead of confessing his sickness through the medicine of repentance, he compares his own health to the diseases of others.

The Pharisee believes in the righteousness of his works, instead of believing in the righteousness of the grace of God. He may well have performed many good works: but, the Pharisee takes them to be an end in themselves. It is defiant, “I am what I am”–or, rather, look at me look at what a good boy I am. God cannot justify him, he isn’t telling the truth, or, rather, he is attempting to substitute his truth, the truth of the world, for that of God.

The publican–the tax collector doesn’t offer anything to God. He has nothing, . . . He offers to God only his poverty, or in other words, what he is: a sinner! The publican doesn’t even raise his eyes to the heavens, and he beats his chest as a sign of his unworthiness. The posture of prayer shows his humility. He asks for mercy and receives absolution. In comparing himself with others, he doesn’t claim to be better. Rather, he knows and confesses that he is the worst of all.

That is all. His prayer is finished. But his prayer is a true prayer. On the other hand, the prayer of the Pharisee consisted of a thorough eulogy of self-praise. The poor tax collector prayed well: he presented himself before God as an unworthy servant. We hear in the Gospel of St. Luke, that, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:10) The tax collector considers himself to be someone who must rely on God for everything, and this is why the Lord justifies him!

Beloved in Christ, it is always more difficult to confess one’s sins than one’s righteousness. And here, the one who thought that he was rich in fact was very poor. The principle of radical reversal applies, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” He who humbled himself was justified; he who exalted himself was condemned! What a mystery! How appearances deceive us!

We must do all we can for our faith. But after having done all that we must do - that is, after having carried out the will of God on earth - we must present ourselves before God as unworthy servants. Let us not forget: it is not the abundance or the greatness of the works we will have accomplished that will be of value in gaining us our eternal salvation. Rather, it is our faith that has caused us to undertake Christian works that will be the testimony in our favor at the judgment, and it is our humility in the face of the many gifts God gives us that is the key to a humble and contrite heart.

When we admit the truth of our need for redemption, we admit, as well, our trust that God will do more with our lives that we ever could do with them on our own. We accept the promise from God that if we are honest and objective about our lives as they really are, then God will never let our failures and sins define those lives forever. He will take away those sins with the Blood of Christ, and he will give us the strength to answer the Gospel call to eternal life in the affirmative.

It is here, precisely, that the Christian parts company with the secular idea, with the notion of “self-acceptance.” A Christian accepts himself as God accepts him: according to God’s standards of right and wrong, of good and bad behavior. A Christian offers his whole life to God in unblinking honesty, and receives his life again from God as a “new life in Jesus Christ,” to which is attached God’s faithful promises of holiness and perfection in God’s own good time. Thus, every faithful Christian can face the entire world, can face anybody and anything, in whatever calling God chooses to give him and can say with St. Paul in this morning’s Epistle: “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”

In stark contrast, those who take up a worldly doctrine of self-acceptance and who adopt an ethic of self-help, self-love, self-definition, and self-approval are not seeking a new life at all. There are no standards of right and wrong, or of good and evil in such a life, there is only self-will.

I am that I am” or “I am what I am” is the Name of God alone. When anyone else claims that Name for himself, when anyone else announces “I am what I am, take it or leave it,” that person has usurped the place and dignity of Almighty God. That person has made himself the tiny “god” of a wicked little world of his own. Since, however, all such “little worlds” are entirely imaginary, because there is only the One True God and the one creation that he rules absolutely, the people who stake their claim to them rule nothing. They are in danger, unless they repent, of condemning themselves to hell where all false gods must eventually go.

The choice, therefore, could not be clearer. We can embrace the love of God, put all our trust in him, and say with St. Paul, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.” Or we can try to be gods ourselves. Self-love will give us nothing, not even honesty about ourselves, and it will take us to the abyss.

If nothing else, all this proves yet again that sin and faith solely in ourselves have never made any sense as a response to a great and good God so willing to give us all his love and grace. God’s love will be greater than any love we can give ourselves, and God will bring us to heaven to share his life, honor, and glory. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Charles H. Nalls

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE TENTH SUNDAY IN TRINITYTIDE-2022

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

 

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

-St. Luke xix.41

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

But, man’s excitement over these fresh starts quickly fades. Instead of manna given from the hand of God in the wilderness, the Israelites clamor for the mundane food of slavery. Instead of a faithful God, the creator of the universe, the Israelites return to false and foreign gods and the comforts of the day.

At each turn, though, God pushes the reset button and grants new beginning after new beginning. The whole history of the prophetic books of Scripture tells of these repeated attempts to tell of a fresh start and the consequences for those who don’t take advantage of it. Hear the words of the prophet Isaiah who had to remind the people even of the power of God:

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

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

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

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

Why herein is a marvelous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes? Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man is a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth. Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind? If this man were not of God, he could do nothing. They answered and said unto him, Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teaches us? And they cast him out. Even sinners have a new beginning at Christ’s own table: And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And the reaction of the public? As we hear in the Gospels of Saint Mark and Saint Luke: “when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?” They don’t see that this marks the beginning of a new life for the sinners, a life cleansed from sin. Even the dead have a chance to begin again. He cried to his friend, “Lazarus come forth.” Lazarus came forth and sat down to eat. The reaction of the world? The authorities wanted to put him to death.

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

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

Psalm 111 gives us a reference point:

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding has all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth forever.

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

These beginnings aren’t easy. Imagine a life of darkness suddenly illuminated by day. The blind man needs to reorient his entire way of sense–of dealing with his world. What about the life of the healed sinners–the community knows you as one thing–perhaps a cheat or a prostitute–but you have been transformed. You, beloved, each of you is challenged to teach people about that fresh start–to tell of the healing power of Christ to a cynical and skeptical group of friends and even family. Think of Lazarus raised from death itself. How will he use that new life and how will he deal with the curious or un-believing?

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

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

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

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

It is in many ways the story of a wedding–you know where the disapproving family worries over the choice of the new husband or wife, clucks over the change of the status quo and wonders what will become of the family with the departure of the son or daughter into a new life. And what is it–there is supposed to be something old and something new?

Well, aren’t we there in a sense? We are called to the bridegroom Jesus Christ. Those who don’t know Him very well, or at all, worry over our choice–maybe disapprove of it. But we are called to something new–a new life in Him and with Him. We can do nothing else. And we do so with something old–the faith once delivered. It is the foundation upon which we build our faith and our lives as we begin again. It is the foundation of the world as we hear at the beginning of St. John’s Gospel:

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE 9th SUNDAY IN TRINITY 2022

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

 

AI will arise and go to my Father, and will say unto him Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee....@

 

How many times have you heard itBAYou did WHAT? You spent it ALL?@ It=s a scene replayed the world over between parents and children. The son or daughter comes home from college and the spending money to last the semester is gone in the first month and the credit card is tapped out. The how following along after protestations and many Aaww dads... or AGee moms.... will out. AI went on a weekend with some guys from the dorm and....well we pretty well can fill out the rest of the story in its many unpleasant details. There is a moment of parental outrage and a lecture on the order of “it does not sound like something you would do; or did you take leave of yourself.”

 

However, we are glad to get them back, safe and sound feed them, have them sleep at home in their beds, give them clean laundry and send them back into the world. Before they leave mom sneaks a few dollars into the pocket with an a don't tell your dad and dad sidles up and does pretty much the same. As they drive off, your neighbor puts an arm on your shoulder and says something like, Well...I guess the prodigal hath returned and gone again. It is a sometimes wry scene, but not altogether unpleasant. We can feel good that we have forgiven our little prodigals, lectured them a bit, and sent them on their way suitably chastised.

It is a cute scene but about as far from our gospel lesson as we can get. It really does not involve prodigality. Its resolution just does not have a bearing on reality the kinds of things that the kids are going to face in the world the things of the world that we face in the world ourselves each day.

Our family scene does not account for what we lament when we confess that we Have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We are not talking about blowing the textbook money on a weekend of fast living we are looking at an utter waste of resources to be sure, but in a way that ultimately wastes God's gift of life.

When I set out to prepare this morning's sermon I did not want to talk about the prodigal son. I wanted to talk about prodigality the very thing that put the prodigal son into this rock-bottom state. To talk about the son, we have to know what it is that afflicts him. We need to know what it is about the son that bears the similarity to our own lives and our own existence that is the point of our Lord=s parable.

St. Paul gives us a pretty good overview of prodigality in today's epistle. We are warned against lusting after evil things. We are cautioned against idolatry, against misuse of our created sexuality, and inveighed against tempting Christ. These are the things that can snare us and if we give ourselves over to them they are the things that capture us and waste us. Ultimately, they lead us from reality. They lead us away from the selves that God has given us-from our personhood and lead us into the hollowness of the sin itself.

The lost son is a paradigm of all of the prodigal ways rolled up into one genuinely bad example. He asks for his inheritance up front and demands instant gratification. I want it all now. We are told in the parable that the son then gathered up his goods and hit the road, taking everything with him. Up to this point, it looks like a simple case of youthful exuberance (although some of us may want to question dad=s wisdom in going along with it). Here is where the young man really goes off the rails.

He does not just misspend his wealth he loses it all. He engages the world and all of its offerings with a gusto that is astounding. He takes leave of himself and becomes merged with the world in such a way and to such a depth that all his wealth that supports the concerted debauchery is gone.

What has happened? St. Augustine, himself no stranger to prodigality, describes it as a loss of the man's own identity in the world. The prodigal's love goes away from him to those things which are without to the point where he spends his own strength. He is dissipated, exhausted, and without resources or strength. He is reduced to feeding swine and, is so low, that he even desires to dine with them.

At a moment of Grace, the son, at last, remembers what he was. He says, "How many hired servants of my Father's are eating bread, and I here perish with hunger!" However, when the son in the parable says this, what does the parable say of the son? What is said of a man who had squandered all he had on harlots, who wished to have in his own power what was being well kept for him with his father? What is said of the man who wished to have everything at his own disposal and was reduced to indigence? What, beloved in Christ, is said of him? And when he came to himself. That is when he returned to himself.

If Ahe returned to himself, he had gone away from himself. It's a remarkable statement. Because he had fallen from himself, had gone away from himself. He had not just gone away into a far country, he had gone away from himself from all of the things he carried with him as a man from the faith and love of his father from the very things that made him a child of God. He really had wasted it all and gone off from his very self into the world, a world that used him up and spat him out. No one would give him anything, and he was forced to face himself.

Here is the crux of prodigality, and the problem of sin for all of us. It is, in essence, the consumer culture carried to the extreme. For many of us, the world is full of goods to consume, but the more we focus on consuming, the more we are led by ourselves, particularly our Christian selves. If we consume the wrong things, we are led from ourselves to those things we are consuming. We pour ourselves out into the world, and there is nothing of ourselves left nothing even for us much less for God. We see it, particularly in addictive behavior, but also in all of the many ways we are taken from ourselves by the things of the world the distractions, the baubles, the tawdry, and the temporal. The consumables consume the consumer and prodigality is, then, the very wasting of the self.

Fortunately for the lost son and for us, the parable does not end with prodigality, and Thomas Wolfe notwithstanding, we can go home again. When we are all poured out, when we have nothing left, when we have been eaten up by the world, we are called to do two things to return to ourselves and then to say I will arise and go to my Father, and say unto him Father I have sinned. It is simple, but complexity is a confession that we have been prodigal, it is that hard admission that in some way we have wasted ourselves.

For the prodigal son, he had to go to the absolute bottomBhe had become as hollow and empty as the husks that he fed to the swine. He was truly running on empty of God and empty of himself he could no longer even rely on the kindness of strangers. At that moment, the prodigal is left with the shell of himself and recognizes the need to go home to confess. He arises and goes to his Father with no thought of riches, but only to receive sustenance as a servant.

He makes that confession that he has promised to make. When he does confess, then he is counted worthy of more than he prayed for. For the father does not receive him as a hired servant, neither does he look upon him as a stranger. The father kisses him as a son. He brings him back to life as from the dead and counts him worthy of the divine feast. He gives him his former and precious robe. So that, on this account, as St. Augustine describes it, there is singing and gladness in the paternal home.

For this are the work of our Father's loving-kindness and goodness, that not only should He make us alive from the dead, but that He should render His grace illustrious through the Spirit. As a result, instead of corruption, He clothes us with an incorruptible garment; instead of hunger, He prepares the Eucharistic feast. What is most wonderful, he stands ready to make us new in the image of the glory of Christ. These are the gracious gifts of the Father, by which the Lord honors and nourishes those who abide with Him, and also those who return to Him and repent. For He promises, saying, AI am the bread of life; he that cometh unto Me shall not hunger, and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst.

Our Lord's whole gospel is based upon these facts - man's need for penitence and confession---and God's willingness to forgive. So penitence is not miserable weakness, as men and women of the world would have us believe, but it is the only intelligent attitude for the person who faces the great facts of life as they really are - God - our human nature - our wasting sin and our responsibility for it. It is not the attitude of one crushed down, but that of one who rises from the mire to shoulder his burden and face his Father trustfully.

The parable of the Prodigal Son brings us to our knees. It is the gospel in a nutshell. For we are all prodigal sons, stumbling back when we come to ourselves, stumbling back to make an honest confession, stumbling back into the arms of our Father, who comes running joyfully to meet us. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE EIGHTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY-2022

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

 

A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.”

--St. Matthew 7:17-18

 

This morning we have a potent and very timely Gospel lesson. Our Lord tells us to “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” Certainly, there is now, even as in Apostolic times, an abundance of false prophets. As well, there are plenty of “itching ears” waiting to receive their messages.

However, as St. Jerome points out, this Scripture does not just point to those false teachers “out there” in the secular world. “What is here spoken of false prophets we may apply to all whose dress and speech promise one thing, and their actions exhibit another. But it is especially to be understood of [those], who … surround themselves as it were with a garment of sanctity, but inasmuch as their hearts within them are poisoned, they deceive the souls of the more simple brethren.”

No matter how much sanctity we put on, if our hearts are poisoned, we are in danger, and worse, we put into danger those around us who are new Christians or new to the community.

This morning, building on St. Jerome, we should look at the Gospel lesson as it reflects on us and our lives–on whether we practice false or true virtue. Looking in the mirror is always tough–particularly if we have to confront someone who looks like us staring back and wearing a sheep costume. However, self-examination and critical self-examination must precede penance and contrition, and honest amendment of life.

This morning, let’s look in the mirror using the Epistle, the Gospel, and the readings appointed to us for Morning Prayer for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, particularly Psalm 119:33-48 and John 7:14-21. Let these be both a mirror and a guide–a test to see whether we are wearing too much wool and a way out of the poisonous guise of the false prophet.

 

At the core of the problem is the sin of hypocrisy. Writing in the 18th century, St. John Vianney wrote that nothing was so prevalent as the problem of false piety or hypocritical virtue. How much more today? Sin is everywhere in the media, certainly in politics, and even in the Church. The constant examples we have made it easy for us to imitate. I am not just talking about the obvious examples, the politician who decks himself with righteousness while pursuing a deadly agenda, or the pastor who proclaims piety while leading a secret life of depravity.

There are enough of those to lead people astray. More significantly, we see it in business on a regular basis–the folks who lay claim to Christian virtue at church and among the community, then behave like Philistines. We extol these folks as “in the know”, or maybe even “savvy” and “cutting edge”.

By their fruits, you shall know them. Sometimes you have to wait, though. Superficial charity and good deeds frequently cloud the picture. That is why we are told in the Gospel of John (7:24) “Do not judge by appearances but judge with a right judgment.”

Godliness is an abomination to the sinner.” (Ecclus. 1:25) The hypocrite may be restrained at peaceful times within the trappings of faith, and therefore appears clothed with godliness. However, let any trial of faith ensue, straightway the wolf ravenous at heart strips himself of his sheep’s skin, and shows how great his rage is against the good. (St. Gregory) By their fruits, ye shall know them.

Here is the measure from the Gospel of St. John (7:18), “He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh the glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him.” Look at that again. [repeat]

That seems easy. However, we have an infinite capacity for self-delusion and our enemy is out there trying to assist. How do we know, when we look in the mirror, that a virtue we are claiming really is a virtue and our actions are bent on bearing good fruit?

Beloved in Christ, here are three tests. Our thoughts, words, or actions must be: (1) sincere and perfect; (2) humble and without selfishness; (3) steadfast and enduring. Again, [repeat]

Let us take that first one–sincere and perfect. In the words of the Psalmist, we need to ask to be taught His way and to be led in His commandments. (Ps. 119:33, 35). Our actions must come from the heart–again the Psalmist, “Incline my heart to thy testimonies.” (Ps. 119:36) The love of God, which His testimony must be the prime cause of our actions.

As St. Gregory said, “Everything which God requires of us should be founded on the love we owe him.” What is that Epistle message? We are debtors and we need to understand the nature of the obligation.

It is disastrous to submit to mistaken obligations. Those who allow physical appetite or personality to determine the pattern of their experience threatens every force that works for their true well-being. We are not debtors ... to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. A mistake in that area will have dire consequences. Much of the trouble in human life is the fact that error, even when sincerely adopted and conscientiously maintained, inevitably leads to tragedy. To be well-meaning never exempts us from the consequences of being wrong.

St. Paul tells us that a life disordered by the ascendancy of what should be a subordinate partner must end in death.

Words and actions that are based on the flesh or centered in the self, that are not of a heart that is centered on Christ, a heart indebted to God, are no more than hypocrisy in the eyes of God. Beloved in Christ, many people go to Church frequently and say a great many prayers, but are lost because they keep their bad habits and die in them. They are trying to be friends with God and friends with sin at the same time. It cannot be done. In the words of today’s Psalm, “Turn my eyes from looking at vanities.” (Ps. 119:37)

Our virtue should be perfect. We explored this theme at Morning Prayer this last week. It means that we do not just get to practice the virtues we feel like practicing–to pick and choose from the menu. The cafeteria is closed!

Faith, hope, and charity, the theological virtues, are perfect, and they are not about the self. The cardinal virtues, prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, they are not the easy way to live, but where they are in the heart, where they are lived, we are not pulling the wool over our own eyes or anyone else’s. Then we will bear good fruit.

Now, to the second test–humble and without selfishness. It is not “about me!” If it is, we are seeking our glory and not God’s, and the harvest will be poisoned.

Jesus tells us that we should not be basing our actions on the praise of others. However, there are many who fool themselves on this point. I mean, who would not like others to know that they come to Mass regularly and keep all of the fast days? If we give money to the poor or a gift to the Church, which of us secretly or not-so-secretly would not like it quietly known?

Remember the Pharisee and the publican? Lord, I am not like that man over there, a sinner. I keep the law, I give to the temple. You know the story from St. Luke. (18:9) What good fruit will that man’s gifts bear? Every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

Saints do the opposite of the Pharisee. They know their faith and seek to humble themselves in the face of God’s mercy.

Poor Christians are those whose religion is one of mood, habit, and nothing else. How many people focus on trying to do good works, with a great deal of fanfare, but will be lost because they just do not understand humility?

The Gospels of St. Mark and St. Luke provide us with a beautiful example of humility and selflessness. 41And Jesus sat over against the treasury and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. 42And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, ... 43And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in than all they which have cast into the treasury: 44For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want to be did cast in all that she had, even all her living. Here the widow had little, but she quietly gave all.

God does not forbid us from doing our work before others. However, He does desire that we do all things for His sake alone, and not for the sake of the glory of the world. You and I are called to selflessness, the selflessness of the widow.

Finally, here is the third test-steadfast and enduring. Really, this is a call to perseverance. We cannot be satisfied to do Christ’s work for a certain length of time and say that is enough, or to pray for a while and say that is enough, or to bear with the weaknesses of others or combat the devil or bear patiently contempt, or guard our hearts for a while and say that is enough.

We have to persevere until death. St. Paul tells us that we have to be firm and steadfast in the service of God, paying attention to the state of our souls every day of our lives. (Heb. 3:15-13).

A virtuous person does not waiver. He or she is like a rock beaten by a storm in the midst of the sea. We must be steadfast as His love is steadfast and His promise of salvation is enduring. (Ps. 119:41) We should be resigned to the will of God and zealous in faith in good times and bad. That is how the saints' act. That is how the martyrs stand unspeakable torment while growing closer to God.

Let everything come from a heart that is indebted to God and centered on Jesus. Neglect nothing in His service, and grow and increase in the knowledge and love of God.

Then we can look in the mirror and face ourselves. Then we can look at others and speak of His testimonies in truth. Then, one day, one glorious day, we can look at our Lord and face Him. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY-2022

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

 

And he commanded the people to sit down on the ground: and he took the seven loaves, and gave thanks, and brake, and gave to his disciples to set before them, and they did set them before the people.”
-St. Mark 8:6

 

On a Sunday morning, a vacationing priest got a call from a local parish-very small and very poor-telling him that their rector was ill and they needed him to preach on Sunday. He agreed. The next morning, he and his young daughter journeyed to the church, where he preached before eighteen people.

When the service ended, one of the people took the preacher aside and said, “You gave a wonderful message. I wish we could pay you, but we just don’t have any money.” The priest said not to worry, he was glad to help out. As he and his daughter were leaving the church, the priest noticed a completely empty offering plate. Moved by the poverty of the church, he put a crisp $20 bill in the plate, and the two of them went hand-in-hand out to the car.

As they started to drive away, one fellow came running across the lawn with an envelope in his hand. The minister rolled down his window and the man handed him the envelope, saying, “We couldn’t let you leave without giving you something.” The minister opened the envelope and inside was a crisp, familiar looking $20 bill.

As they drove away, the minister asked the little girl, “Did you learn a good lesson from this morning?” She said, “I sure did, Daddy. If you had put more in, you would have gotten more out!” It sometimes takes the fresh, intuitive intelligence of a child to penetrate through the familiar to the true. That is just what we’re called to see today in our Gospel lesson on the miracle of the loaves and fishes: the miracle of abundance.

Today, let us look at these familiar passages as if we are seeing them with the eyes of that child. Let us just look at what happens in the account of that day in Galilee. Jesus is interrupted during his mountain retreat by a crowd of tired hungry people.

What is His reaction? Does Jesus turn only to his disciples, giving them a moral from the situation a moral for the disciples, leaving them to digest a spiritual truth and the people to digest nothing? Does He send His disciples to shoo the people away so that He can continue His own prayer? Does He assemble them, and seeing how many tragically and desperately ill people there are among them, proceed to give them a sermon telling them that if they just think positively and have faith, they can overcome their handicaps or at least compensate for them in some constructive way?

No, He does not resent the imposition on His quiet time, nor does he despise their physical needs; we hear that He has compassion for them. He heals their illness and fills their hungry stomachs. They asked for healing, so He gave it to them. They did not ask for food, but He knows their need and provides for it. We see that it is not only the nature of Christ to provide for the physical needs we recognize and ask Him for, it is also within His character to recognize and fill the physical needs we don’t even bother Him with.

Notice as well that Jesus did not go around through the crowd and distribute the food personally to each person. He sent His disciples to distribute the food, and they did so.

Suppose you were there at the time. Suppose that while the disciples are busily distributing the food to the huge crowd, someone casually walks up to you and starts explaining Jesus’ teachings to you. “Are you a disciple?” you ask, wishing to clarify the situation. “Yes I am,” he replies with a modest smile. At that point, wouldn’t you look out to see the disciples struggling to distribute the food to all the people and wonder why this ‘disciple’ has so much free time? Wouldn’t you ask him, “Well, if you’re a disciple of Jesus, why aren’t you out there distributing the food like the others?” “Why aren’t you doing the work that Christ set you about?” Let’s hold on to that thought for a minute.

At the center of the miracle is bread—that great common food throughout the world. Bread is a staple of life.  And yet we sometimes forget that the eating of bread is a result of our fall into sin.  “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil, you shall eat of it all the days of your life . . . In the sweat of your face, you shall eat bread.”

 Before the Fall Adam and Eve simply ate the fruit of the garden which God had freely given.  Without any burdensome labor on their part, God provided to them all that they needed to sustain their lives.  There was no exhausting tilling of the fields or grinding the wheat or kneading and baking of bread.  No, they had food given to them in abundance as a gracious gift from their Creator.

 However, through the temptation of the devil, that all changed.  There was a rebellion against God by reaching out for the one food that the Lord had not given them to eat.  They wanted to do things their own way, be in charge of their own lives, and be their own gods.  Instead of gaining something, they ended up losing their life with God and were left empty and famished.

Don’t we, too, know the temptation to reach for that which God has not given, to consume the things and the philosophies of this world--trust in them to bring us happiness and contentment?  Satan wants your spiritual diet to consist of satisfying your own desires, focusing not on the Lord and His words but on the pleasures and the honors of this temporal, passing world. 

To appease your spiritual hunger, the devil tries to sell you junk food.  He hisses in your ear, “If you would just get that bigger and better and newer stuff if you would just spend more time on entertainment and recreation if you would just buy into the self-help spirituality of our culture, why then you would get where you want to be; then you would be fulfilled.” This pattern leads St. Paul to say in the sixth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your member's servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your member's servants to righteousness unto holiness.”

The prince of this world is a liar.  He offers nothing of substance, nothing that lasts, cotton candy that looks good but melts away.  The more we feed on such things, the emptier and more famished we will become.  None of these things can truly satisfy the gnawing hunger of the soul.

  However, into this barren world breaks the very Son of God Himself to save us.  Where is Jesus in the Gospel?  He is in the wilderness with a multitude of people who have nothing to eat, those who are feeling the effects of the fall in a concrete and physical way. 

Jesus said, “I have compassion on the multitudes.”  That word, “compassion,” in Greek has to do with the deepest possible empathy and feeling.  So fully does Jesus empathize with us and feel for us that He went so far as to make our problems His problems.  Jesus cares not only for the spiritual but also the physical welfare of these people. 

Jesus feels for what happens with our bodies.  He knows what we are going through.  In His great mercy, Jesus came into the world to suffer with us and to suffer for us in order to take the suffering away forever. 

 You can begin to see that taking place in this miracle.  The curse on Adam had been, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”  Yet, here the second Adam, Jesus, reverses the curse and produces bread in abundance apart from any sweaty or tiring labor.  At this moment He restores the bounty of the Garden of Eden, where food is received in overflowing measure from the gracious hand of God.  We get a glimpse of God the Son beginning to break the curse of decay and death and overcome the fall into sin.

Jesus would complete His work of undoing the fall and breaking the power of the curse on the cross.  As we hear in the Epistle, the wages of sin is death; and sin’s deathly curse was broken and undone in the body of Christ the crucified.  We have been released to a new life, free and full, through the resurrection of Jesus.

However, with that release comes servanthood-the basic requirement for being a follower of Jesus. As St. Paul puts it, “But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.”

Jesus took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to His disciples to set before the people.  He gave them to His disciples to set before the people.

In the same way still today, Jesus speaks His words of thanks and consecration, and His priests distribute the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.  The seven loaves were multiplied to feed and fully satisfy 4000 people.  In the same way still today, Our Lord uses seemingly insufficient bread to multiply His grace and feed and fully satisfy the church with His very life-giving body.  Jesus said, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”  In wine, He gives His cleansing blood for our forgiveness, that all those who believe in Him may never thirst.

Beloved, we all are called in a measure to share in the work of Christ-be servants of God, servants of righteousness. What does that mean? On that day when the great crowd had gathered, Jesus saw them—no-saw with them--saw with their eyes, felt with their nerves. He noticed every detail. There was a holy trinity of mind and spirit and senses here at work in Jesus--observation, imagination, and sympathy.

Often with us one of the three is absent, or all three together, and we are prevented from being servants of righteousness. Some people do not observe. There is narrow, focused on their own self-interest—focused on the things of the world. Good observation requires freedom from a focus on self, for pride covers the eyes.

Others, even when they see, lack imagination, or will not use what they have to bring home vividly what they see. To do what Jesus did here, to follow in the imagination of these people trudging down the road home, hungry, fainting--that would be a miracle far beyond their powers.

Still, others lack sympathy. They just do not care enough. The springs of love have never been opened. Many of the world’s greatest evils and much of its suffering go on because there are such multitudes of people who never send their hearts out on any journey, they never do the work Christ has set them to do. They never help set food before others—they never help collect the fragments that none may be lost. Let us ask ourselves this day whether we are distributing loaves and fishes, whether we serve righteousness as we are called to do, and whether we need to put more of ourselves in.

Beloved in Christ, we have been delivered from sin and death. We have the promise of the superabundance-the gift of life eternal His Son.  As you receive this living bread that came down from heaven, you are being given a taste of paradise. “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him.”

Let us then renew our commitment to labor to carry forth that food which can only satisfy—Word and Sacrament--“The poor shall eat and be satisfied.” Amen.

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY-2022

(Given at Church of the Epiphany, Virginia)


 

Jesus said to His disciples, ‘I tell you, unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.’” 

-St. Matthew 5:20

 

 

The words from our Gospel reading this morning are taken from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Did you ever wonder why Jesus went up on a mountain to teach His disciples? It was not only that He would have a natural amphitheater so they could hear well. There was something more, something symbolic about it. Remember it was God who gave the law to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. Moses went up on the mountain and received the tablets of the law from God. Now it is Jesus the Lord, the new lawgiver, who is giving the new law from the mount.

What is it that He is teaching? It is something so simple that it is easily misunderstood or even taken for granted. There is a difference, Jesus is saying, between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. He begins by saying, “it was said to you in ancient days, thou shalt not kill. But I say to you. . .”

He then goes on to talk about anger toward one’s brother. There is a great deal of difference between going down the street with a submachine gun and murdering people and the spirit of the law that involves our dealings with one another. You and I are not prone to the kind of violence that would be murder. However, we should not feel that we are quite good and quite justified simply because we are keeping literally and narrowly the Ten Commandments.

So, we have not killed anybody this week. We have not stolen. We have not robbed any banks. We have not committed adultery. Wonderful. That is great. That is the letter of the law.

Jesus is saying, however, that in the new kingdom that He comes to establish, there is to be much more than a narrow attitude toward the law. “Unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.”

The scribes and Pharisees kept the law literally; no more, no less. Jesus is saying, “there is more to it than that; much more than that.” So, Jesus speaks about attitudes that you and I might have that offend God and commit sin. This is not necessarily through an act, but even by the thought and the desire to act. This of itself can and should be seen as sinful. “. . . What I say to you is everyone who grows angry with his brother shall be liable to the judgment. Any man who uses abusive language toward his brother shall be answerable to the Sanhedrin and he who holds him in contempt, he risks the fires of Gehenna.”

That is from a modern translation and I think it lacks something. I prefer what we just read in the Gospel reading from the King James version: “Anyone who says to his brother ‘Raca’ will be liable to the Sanhedrin.”

Well, what is ‘raca’? Have you called anybody ‘raca’ lately? Have you heard anyone shout out of their car window in traffic “race”? What does it mean?

In ancient Hebrew, it means “you blockhead.” That is the best translation that I could find. “You’re a blockhead!” Jesus was saying, “That kind of an attitude is beyond ‘thou shalt not kill’, but it is also something that should not be a part of a Christian’s life.”

You fool!” Well, we are quite capable of calling people foolish. However, there is a very narrow meaning for the word ‘fool’ in the Scriptures. A fool is an unbeliever. As the Psalmist says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.” (Ps.53:l) If you, a Jew, are calling someone an unbeliever, that is about the worst thing that you can say about him. You are really…what’s the word…trashing…you are really trashing him or her.

Jesus is saying, “You trash him with those words, and, in turn, you can end up as trash.” That is the whole meaning of “risking the fires of Gehenna.” Gehenna is a valley on the southeast corner of the city of Jerusalem. The valley was the city dump where they threw all of their trash. Like most city dumps, it was smoldering all the time. It was constantly burning. So Jesus is saying, “This is not the way that a Christian will behave toward another Christian in this new kingdom according to this new law.” Otherwise, you risk being cast out.

There is quite a difference, isn’t there, between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Throughout Scripture, we can see that distinction made over and over again. St. John, in one of his letters, writes that if you speak ill of your neighbor you are guilty of murder (1Jn 3:15). That is strong language, but it is truth.

If you speak ill of your neighbor, something is involved and it is simply this: You and I have a right to a good reputation. If you slander an individual’s good name, that is not only a sin against charity; it also is a sin against justice because you slander that person’s right to his good name.

Beloved in Christ, we are, you and I, quite prone to excusing ourselves and the sins we commit. We do this almost offhandedly. We say, “Well, that is my temperament. That is just the way I am. I can excuse my faults and my flaws because I’ve always been that way.” What we do is a wink at our own faults and then we condemn them in others.

Remember that Gospel reading of a couple of weeks ago about a man who had a beam in his eye and he was going to take we are to live according to the spirit of the law. According to the spirit of that law, we do not excuse ourselves, but rather acknowledge the fact that we can and do sin. That we can and do sin several times a day.

What Jesus says we should not do to our brother are all things that are done with that one little part of us that can get us into so much trouble: our tongues. Our tongues are the source of more sin than any other part of ourselves. We can really get into trouble with what we say.

I learned a long time ago when I was a lawyer that if I did not say some things, I did not have to retract them later. It was a good lesson to learn! St. James, in his letter, writes very strongly about this power of ours, this tongue of ours:

All of us fall short in many respects. If a person is without fault in speech, he is a man or woman in the fullest sense because they can control their entire body. When we put bits in the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide the rest of their bodies. It is the same with ships, however large they are, and despite the fact, that they are driven by fierce winds. They are directed by very small rudders on whatever course the helmsman’s impulse may select.

The tongue is something like that. It is a small member, yet it makes great pretensions. See how tiny the spark is that sets a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is such a flame. It exists among our members as a whole universe of malice. The tongue defiles the entire body. Its flames encircle our course from birth and its fire is kindled by hell” (James 3:2-6).

Jesus our Lord agrees with that and that really is a commentary on the Gospel this morning. “If you say these things about your brother,” Jesus is saying, “you are not living according to the spirit of the law that involves “thou shalt not kill.” It is easy for us to live according to the letter, but according to the spirit. That is a different thing.

So, beloved in Christ, each of us needs to examine ourselves regularly, particularly about the power this tongue of ours has. We should try, to the best of our ability, to do no evil with that tongue; that we would set no forest aflame; that we would not be guilty of any injustice because we have injured the reputation, the good name of another.

Today as we offer this Eucharist and we offer ourselves, souls, and bodies, to God our Father, through and with Christ, let us remember that one part of our body, that is, our tongue. Let us offer our tongues to God, that they will be used only in praise of him. Amen. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

             

 

 

 

           SERMON FOR THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN TRINITY-2022

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

 

For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil.”

 

I St. Peter 3:12

 

Relationship.” There is a word that has been turned over so much we don’t really know what it means. Several thousand years ago, Socrates was offering relationship advice-“Find a good woman and marry her and you will be happy, otherwise you’ll end up a philosopher.” Shakespeare explored absurd relationships in his famous plays. As You Like It, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Much Ado About Nothing. Today, we hear about various relationships all the time, don’t we?

There are so many valid kinds of human relationships–husband--wife, worker--boss, government–governed. We also hear about people “being in relationships”, “life-long committed relationships” and “relationships of convenience”–a lot of these end up on talk shows–with the stars bearing all about their “relationships” too empathetic applause, ordinary folks tearfully recounting “relationships” gone bad and some folks hurling furniture at one another over their “relationships.”

Christians have relationships–and we buy a lot of books on how to deal with them. Run a word search on “relationships” on ChristianBooks.com and you will come up with over 14,407 books on the subject! There is Am I in Love? 12 Youth Studies on Guy/Girl Relationships which is an all-purpose guide to flirting, dating, and marriage–thankfully in that order. Or how about Relationships that Work (and Those That Don’t) which purports to provide trustworthy advice to Christian singles on compatibility matters. There is Be a People Person: Effective Leadership Through Effective Relationships–this one helps the aspiring leader inspire others to excellence. There is Beyond Boundaries: Learning to Trust Again in Relationships which offers practical tools to help you re-establish closeness with those who wronged you, recognize true change, move past relational pain, and create a safe environment for trust to thrive. That one comes with workbooks, DVDs, and other accessories. My personal favorite which has sold over 150,000 copies is Single Men Are Like Waffles-Single Women Are Like Spaghetti: Friendship, Romance, and Relationships that Work which helps you avoid the disaster of a spaghetti-waffle relationship–and I am still trying to figure that one out.

All of this reminds me of something my mentor Canon David Rodier said to me some years back. People would rather read a big book about what others think the Bible says on an issue like relationships rather than read the Bible itself. Now I am sure that we would not wish to deprive the waffle-spaghetti authors of their revenue from their books, workbooks, DVDs, and seminars, but there is basic wisdom in here, particularly when we consider that there is succinct, direct, inexpensive relationship advice in I Peter and you don’t even have to sit through a three-day seminar.

 

St. Peter speaks of relationships in terms of duties. In his epistle, Peter has defined the Christian’s duties in various relationships such as those to those of the world (1 Pe 2:11-12); in relation to governmental authorities (1 Pe 2:13-17); our duty in a servant-master relationship (1 Pe 2:18-25), and our duty in wife-husband relationships. (1 Pe 3:1-7)

We’ll have a chance to explore those during our Trinitytide propers and studies, but this morning’s Epistle defines our duty to each other as brethren in Christ. St. Peter provides motivation to fulfill our duties to one another in verses 10-12, but let's first consider what these duties are.

First, we are called to be of one mind. Our Lord prayed in the upper room–“that they all may be one” (John 17:21). Beloved in Christ, this isn’t a call to sameness but to be united in the same purpose, the same goal. Christ Jesus prayed for this kind of unity (Jn 17:20-21) and we hear in Acts that a church that demonstrated this “oneness of mind” is that of Jerusalem (Ac 4:32)

How can we have this “oneness of mind”? Well, it is attainable only to the extent that we all submit to the will of God. We all need to make God's Will our will, His purpose our purpose even as Christ did while on earth. As we hear in the Gospel of John, I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father who sent me.

In addition to making God’s will our own, we are to have “compassion for one another”. This means to have pity, a feeling of distress toward the ills of others. It is that disposition that is moved by the problems of others (like sickness, hardships, etc.). We can begin each week with our list of prayers and intentions and work from there. This is the attitude manifested by Jesus both during His earthly ministry (Mt 9:35-36) and during His heavenly ministry. Such compassion can only come from a tender, loving heart, which may be why St. Peter goes on to say that we need to love as brothers. This attribute is essential if we are to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Pe 1:7-8) and convince the world that we are truly disciples of Jesus. (Jn 13:35)

We have touched on this relationship cornerstone several times over the last few weeks. Do you love your brother? If not, you are not a lover of God, either! (1 Jn 4:20) In fact, as we heard in I John 4 (78) we do not even know God! - 1 Jn 4:7-8

Here is a test-and we don’t even need a workbook to take it, let’s ask ourselves this question: “Do I even know my brother?” If we don't, how can we honestly say that you are in love and charity with him? This isn’t a warrant to invade personal space, but the blessing of a parish community like this is that we can know about our parish family members and make a point to talk to everyone around us so that we know when there is distress or need, either physical or spiritual. What a blessing!

This paves the way for us to be tender-hearted–to be compassionate. At a basic level, it allows us to be courteous as St. Peter identifies as a must in the Christian relationship. This is a check on ourselves literally to be “friendly of mind, kind” to others. This calls us into the humility of spirit for an arrogant or proud spirit does not bother to be courteous.

Now we are heading for the tough part of our duty to others–to return blessing for evil. When someone (e.g., a brother) does us evil, we do well to respond with a blessing! This goes against our acquired habits. But, St. Peter gives two reasons why we are to react in this way:

We are called to follow the example of Christ (1 Pe 3:9 with 1 Pe 2:21-23) so that we might receive a blessing from God. (Lk 6:35)

So, these are six duties that we have one toward another: being of one mind, compassionate, tenderhearted, loving, courteous, and returning evil with a blessing. They are part of what constitutes the Christ-like character that we are to develop to maintain healthy relationships with one another.

As actors are sometimes wont to say, what’s our motivation? St. Peter quotes Psalm 34–you can see it on page 380 of your BCP–that we might love life and see good days. At the personal level, everyone wishes to enjoy life as we experience it from day to day. But too often, many make their own lives miserable by their own self-seeking, self-destructive attitudes. By constantly complaining, being contentious, and giving evil for evil, we only aggravate the situation. But the psalmist gives the secret to loving life and seeing good days: refrain the tongue from evil, and lips from speaking guile. (1 Pe 3:10) Remember, what comes out of the lips generally is a clue to what’s inside. We can’t possibly be fulfilling our duties one to another if we engage in slander, backbiting, complaining, lying, murmuring, and grumbling. It doesn't solve difficulties–particularly the difficulties of relationships--but only makes them worse.

As we hear in the Epistle, do good, seek peace and pursue it. Only then will our lives be really pleasant and our relationships full, for the qualities described by St. Peter make the best out of difficult situations and they make good situations even better!

Only by doing the will of God (as found in 1 Pe 3:8-9) can we ensure that...

a. His gracious eyes will watch over us

b. His ears will be open to our prayers

On the other hand, the Lord's face is against those who do evil and will not hear their prayers. Consider the list of abominations found in Pr 6:16-19 and notice how many are the direct opposite of how we are to be.

a. We are to be courteous (humble) - but the Lord hates a proud look!

b. We are to be compassionate - but abusing the innocent is an

abomination to the Lord!

c. We are to be tender-hearted - but the Lord hates a cold heart that thinks evil of others!

d. We are to return good for evil - but those who respond quickly with evil, the Lord abhors!

e. We are to be of one mind - but if we sow discord by murmuring and complaining, we are abominable in God's sight!

So if we want the Lord to watch over us, if we want Him to heed our prayers, let us fulfill our duties to each other. In so doing, we will enjoy life to its fullest, and see many good days during our pilgrimage here on earth! Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY-2022

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

 

Brethren: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

--Epistle to the Romans 8:18

 

I love the internet, and I missed it for three days this week when lightning laid waste our connection here at church and at the rectory. I missed the many resources for Bible study, church history, patristics, and theology. Perhaps, I also missed the many, many ways to waste time, particularly in the many tidbits folks know in their hearts that friends or colleagues positively, absolutely need to know about. The sun can literally rise and set some days just catching up on all of this must-have information. Either that or the lettering wears out on the delete key.

This week was different. This week I found myself reading an article sent to me entitled, “Taking The Drudgery Out Of Sermon Preparation.” It was penned by a fellow named Pastor Dave Redick. He helpfully pointed out, “Besides the Scripture, good illustrations are the bread and butter of sermon preparation.” Pastor Dave then goes on to give tips on how to get those illustrations organized on the computer for presentation on the big screen during the sermon. The big screen! Wow! I had to sit for a minute and imagine the church where Pastor Dave must preach, and then I thought about the Scripture lessons for this morning. What could we say about the words of today’s Epistle without PowerPoint and musical accompaniment by a rock band?

The afternoon turned into the evening when my reverie over high-tech preaching was interrupted by a telephone call from a former parishioner from long ago—someone who had stopped in on the Christian journey—“seeking” it is called these days. He had rung very late in the evening to talk about the “direction of Anglicanism” and of the “church” and what might be in store and what I thought God had in mind. (I didn’t venture out on that one!)

In the course of the talk, it came out that, after wandering for a while, he had gone to this mega-church in northern Virginia—the kind of place in which I had envisioned Pastor Dave shepherding. They had all the amenities, a fitness center, comfy theatre seating with cup holders, and even a Starbucks on-premises.

After several hours, my caller allowed that something was missing, that there was something not there. This giant church had great people, committed and praying for people. It sure had comfy, if not great surroundings. Yet, there was a piece or two out of the puzzle. In the end, the problem was two-fold: the lack of sacramental life, and the absence of community, real community.

As I thought about this fellow’s comments in the context of the desperate need for Christ in this world, a world with a crying need for the living Jesus. I awoke pondering the same question: why does the world seem to get farther afield from the Incarnate Christ each passing day? When the internet was returned to us, I was back at the old computer with my coffee when that ubiquitous chime signaled a message in the inbox.

This was not just a joke or a cute cat picture or even an ordinary article. It touched on the talk that I had had with that man looking for that lost piece of his faith. It reached the problems of the “church” in this entertainment-saturated world. It called to mind the propers appointed for today and of the struggles we have in our witnessed as traditional Anglicans.

The piece is a part of a book by Marc Galli (Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God). Galli recounts a Sunday when, while on the way to visit a mega church, he stopped into a small congregation. The service, which included maybe 35 people, did not really measure up to professional, “seeker-sensitive” standards. Communion was introduced abruptly—a bit of a scandal to Galli’s higher Anglican sensibilities. The priest took prayer requests, and petitions were made for illnesses, depression, and a safe journey for visitors.

It was during the announcements that the visitor began to suspect he was in the midst of the people of God. The priest sought more donations for the food closet, at which the small church had served 22,000 people with groceries in ten years. Everyone applauded, then settled in to hear a clear and truthful sermon about God’s love for us despite our sins.

There was nothing slick. No study attempts to be authentic or relevant or cool. Just a small bunch of sinners, looking to God for guidance and reaching out to the community in love. Now, here is the telling part, Galli allowed that he would have felt “good” if he had attended the mega-church, “But it was a more godly experience to go to that little fellowship because I believe that for all the good mega-churches do, this little fellowship manifested the presence of Jesus in a way that is unique and absolutely necessary in our age.”

St. Paul stated the problem directly in the Epistle to the Romans,

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

Here is the struggle and the project of our life in the body of Christ. We are part of a creation that is yearning for restoration to God. We groan with it—in the words of the hymnist, the cry goes up “how long?” However, we do not get the answer to that—we must live in the hope that the restoration of the world and our own restoration are coming. We must live into the fullness of that faith once delivered to honor the promise declared unto us by Christ Jesus.

We are commanded to live in word and sacrament. Further, we are to tell out that wondrous work- and it is not easy. The work of this is not done in padded seats or comfortable pews. It is done in the church militant and willing to suffer for witness. It requires all of us each and every one of us here today-to work in concert for Christ, and not merely to be part of the entertainment or coffee-hour religion.

Ah, you say, “We are few” or “Some of us are getting on in years.” What that means is that we have to concentrate on the qualities of what we do as Christians and not quantity. We all are to have an active part in the project.

From the beginning, Christians have been tempted to confuse success with faith. St. Peter was the first one to give in to this confusion. When Jesus told the disciples he would be killed, St. Peter was scandalized (Mark 8:31-33). I guess that he had imagined that Jesus was moving from success to success. Jesus had started with a small band of 12, and lately, he’d had up to 5,000 attendings. Now, that is an “average Sunday attendance: for you, and without the big screen!

Jesus had challenged the authorities of the day, but given his popularity, they had been unable to lay a hand on him. St. Peter likely imagined that when Jesus spoke about the coming kingdom, he was talking about politics, and Peter and the disciples would someday be cabinet members in his future administration. Power! Glory! Success!

Beloved, our Lord Jesus knew very well that craving success and respectability was a temptation to his disciples, and he spent his whole ministry trying to disabuse them of it. He told those whom he healed not to tell anyone—not great “outreach”, not great church “marketing”. St. Peter warned bickering disciples that they should worry less about who would have authority in the coming kingdom and more about serving one another. He explained that his ministry, as “successful” as it appeared, would culminate in his death.

St. Peter would hear no such thing, which provoked Jesus to “rebuke” him in turn. As is fitting, Jesus had the last word: “Get thee behind me, Satan!” He called St. Peter the incarnation of evil and then told him (in verse 35 about saving and losing life) to stop measuring success by human standards.

Since St. Peter is understandably confused—I mean, nearly everyone thought of the kingdom in political terms—Jesus seems cruel to chastise him as satanic. Not the most diplomatic approach in any circumstance. Apparently, though, Jesus thought that Peter was not just guilty of misunderstanding, but also of betrayal.

Today, we know all too well that the kingdom of God is not a political entity (though many on the Left and Right are sorely tempted to think otherwise). Some still, like St. Peter, thirst for glory and power. We too easily imagine that growing numbers are an infallible sign of faithfulness. We confuse righteousness with arithmetic.

Conservative churches, for example, often point out gloatingly how liberal churches are shrinking and conservative churches are growing. The usually unspoken assumption is that such growth signals God’s blessing.

Church growth, some claim, is often nothing more than the product of good social science. Today, when someone wants to start a church, the first thing they do is study the people they are trying to reach-the demographic-and then craft worship and ministry to meet the needs of that target audience. Church founders do their best to appear acceptable and relevant to their target demographic. There is a formula to this: allegedly, to minister to college-educated, upwardly mobile 20- and 30-somethings—the target of a lot of new ministries these days (whatever happened to preach to the poor and the prisoners?). You forbid hymns and organs, and preach—no, make that "share"—sans pulpit, while wearing an Abercrombie & Fitch shirt, Dockers, and flip-flops. It works, for a while.

Author Donald Miller, a 30-something himself, talks about this. He had a pastor friend who started a new church. It was going to be different from the old church, Miller was assured: It would be relevant to the culture and the human struggle. Miller notes, “If the supposed new church believes in trendy music and cool Web pages, then it is not relevant to culture either. It is just another tool of Satan to get people to be passionate about nothing.”

It is not an accident that Miller, like Jesus, uses the S-word to react to what is threatened here. To long for relevance, success, effectiveness, and glory—this is not just a slight misunderstanding of the Gospel, but its very betrayal. It is not an error. It is, according to Jesus, satanic.

Søren Kierkegaard made a similar point when he talked about Matthew 23, where Jesus speaks his harshest judgment on the religion of his day:

Woe to the person who smoothly, flirtatiously, commandingly, convincingly preaches some soft, sweet something that is supposed to be Christianity! Woe to the person who makes miracles reasonable. Woe to the person who betrays and breaks the mystery of faith, and distorts it into public wisdom because he takes away the possibility of offense! … Oh the time wasted in this enormous work of making Christianity so reasonable, and in trying to make it so relevant!

Fortunately, embedded in the argument between St. Peter and Jesus is just the mercy we need. Jesus’ rebuke to St. Peter—and the implied rebuke to us today—is the most gracious thing he could have done. Sometimes, Jesus’ rebuke comes to us in words, but most of the time it comes in day-to-day Christian living.

The reality of that community—the Christians really there, acting as they usually do—is a shocking disappointment to the seeker of the ideal church, particularly when we teach truth, a truth that is tough and to which modern ears are hardened. Yet it is this church, not our dream church, that Christ identifies with. He has put his very name on it, calling it his body. He endorses it and tells us to draw people into this institution if they are to come to know him. Along the way, Jesus works ever so hard to snap us out of our illusions.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship that faces such reality, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God's sight and begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

What it should be in God’s sight is not glorious, powerful, and successful by our standards, but faithful. This means the church, and every member in it must die to dreams of relevance and success. We have to let all that be crucified. We have to give of ourselves sacrificially against the backdrop of the Cross if we want the church to go forward. We may feel that we do not have all the answers, but remember, beloved in Christ: amateurs built the Ark, professionals built the Titanic.

We are not wise to disparage successful mega-churches, which often are catalysts for significant change in the church. What we should repudiate—like Jesus, in the strongest terms—is the notion that such churches represent the true church, the glorious church, the epitome of success.

To be sure, the church is in constant need of reform, during some eras more than others. So we need our reformers and, yes, visionaries, many of whom these days find their way into “successful” churches. However, in every era, God raises up the faithful within the small bands of the faithful, the remnants struggling to hold on to the truth. “Relevance” and “power” and “success” are finally a mystery, not something that can be manipulated by church growth science, but something to pray for in humility and faith. “It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD.” (Lamentations 3:26)

Like St. Peter, we have to die to our notions of relevance and success, and let God—through a crucified Savior, through an amateurish church, through His Sacraments—raise up his people when he will and how he will, with power and glory we can hardly fathom. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY IN TRINITY-2022

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

 

But the God of all grace, who hath called us into his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you. To him be glory and dominion forever and ever.”

I St. Peter 5:10

 

 

From the glory of God seen on Trinity Sunday, we passed to the two Sundays of Divine Love.  Let us continue that theme and, this morning, we consider the love of God in relation to sin, as grace; in relation to suffering, as mercy; and in relation to trials and dangers, as peace. 

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father,” are respectively the themes this morning and of the two following Sundays.  So, this is the Sunday of Grace. 

Love and grace are not two qualities, but one; and yet there is a distinction, for love, when manifested, bears the name of grace.  Love is the eternal fountain, grace the streams issuing from it.  Love is the fire, grace is the fire in relation to men, as heat and warmth.

As for grace, the word is an equivalent of the Greek Charis, which expresses the outward beauty and attractiveness of Love.  It is peculiarly fitted to express the manifestation of God’s love in the person of Christ. It is God's unmerited favor. It is kindness from God that we don't deserve. There is nothing we have done, nor can ever do to earn this favor. It is a gift from God. I want you to take away a little acronym this morning before we go on.

It is G-R-A-C-E. God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. (Repeat)

Grace is divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration (rebirth) or sanctification; a virtue coming from God; a state of sanctification enjoyed through divine favor. 

Let’s turn first to the Epistle this morning. Here we find two distinct views of grace. 

 

A. The Grace of Sanctification. 

God giveth grace,” the grace that is of sanctification which He imparts so that it becomes grace in us, and the power of a holy life.  This is perhaps the most frequent use of the word, e.g. — 
                   “My grace is sufficient for thee.” 
                   “By the grace of God, I am what I am.” 
                   “Receive not the grace of God in vain.” 

We learn from S. Peter two things with regard to this kind of grace. 

     First, there is the need for Humility. 
“God resisteth the proud,” who are unconscious of their need for Divine assistance. “[B]ut (He) giveth grace to the humble,” who, knowing their weakness, are content to trust alone in Christ.  Such humility towards God will make us “subject one to another,” it being quite impossible for us to be really humble before God while we are proud towards men. 

     Second, there is the need for Effort. 
The grace of God will not relieve us from the necessity of sobriety and watchfulness.  St. Peter, therefore, warns us against the opposite extremes of over-confidence and despair.  When tempted to the former, we are to recall the danger of temptation from an ever-watchful Satan.  When tempted to the latter, we are to remember that we are not tempted more than “our brethren that are in the world.” If all have the same “afflictions” (and we must see to it that our temptations are afflictions and not pleasures) all may have the same grace. 

B. The Grace of Justification. 

It is already here-it is already given. The God from Whom all grace proceeds have already “called us” in baptism, and bestowed upon us the position of His justified and accepted children.  This position of favor is frequently termed grace/ (e.g. Rom. v. 2.  “Our access by faith into this grace wherein we stand.”  and Rom. vi. 15.  “We are under grace.”) 

We are in grace as justified, and grace must be in us as sanctified.” What do I mean here?   The grace of pardon is a pledge of all further grace, and that which God has done for us is the earnest of what He waits to do in us. He Himself, Who alone knows what we need, and alone has power and love to impart what is needed, will make us perfect, possessed of each part of the true Christian character.

He will establish or confirm us in faith and feeling, in life and habits. He will strengthen us in moral and spiritual courage, turning the nervous recruit into a firm and reliable veteran. He will settle us on the firm foundation so that we “know in Whom we have believed,” and timid faith shall become tried certainty. From Him is all the grace, and to Him belongs all the glory.   

These themes of love and grace are carried forward in the Gospel appointed for today, which speaks to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. As God is love, so Christ is grace, or love manifested to men.  It was because of this that publicans and sinners, who turned with aversion from other teachers, flocked to hear Him.  They drew near to Him because they were drawn by Him, finding in Him one whom they understood and Who understood them.  He spake lovingly of love.  He offered them what their spirits needed, pardon, restoration, and holiness.  He taught them simple lessons of hope, and by accepting their invitations inspired them with self-respect and at the same time with penitence. 

He offers the very same things to us. We can have no better definition of grace than “that in God which receiveth sinners.” 

He spoke two parables as an answer to those who would limit His grace, and as an encouragement to all who doubt their acceptance.  These two parables may be taken together as a lesson on grace, and teach us that: 

A.  Grace Individualizes. 

It does not lose sight of one in ten or of one in a hundred, or of one in a whole world.  One sheep wanders, one coin is lost, and there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repents.  Though God has a universe of willing subjects whose happiness consists in doing Him service, He seeks out one erring planet as the scene of the Incarnation, and each sinner may know that he is not an outcast from the love of God. 

B.  Grace is Unconditional. 

Conditional grace is no grace at all.  That which inspires grace is not human merit, but human need.  The sheep wandered through ignorance, and the coin lay in insensibility, but neither was so lost that it could not be found.  The sheep strayed aimless, helpless, incapable of return, for all wanderers have a tendency to wander further.  The coin lay incapable of effort and hidden in the dust.  Man cannot return: he must be found. 

C.  Grace Perseveres. 

Until He finds” is the measure of God’s grace, and there is no other limit.  If one method fails He will try another.  He searches by His word read and preached, by repeated representations of truth—this is His candle.  Through hours of sickness, disappointments, warnings of evil example, and threats of disease and decay, He sweeps away the dust of worldliness in which man lies hidden, and restores to usefulness the defaced image of Himself.  God’s image is still there, for man is still a spiritual being possessing a will, an understanding, and a sense of right and wrong, and is still precious to God on account of what he once was, and on account of what he yet may be. 

D.  Grace is Personal. 

We are apt to speak and think of grace as a thing, whereas it is the attribute of a person, and its object must be a person.  Intense personal affection is seen in both parables.  It is “My sheep,’ “the piece which I had lost.” God seeks because He owns and values.  It is not the sheep that is lost, but the Shepherd Who has lost the sheep.  The loss is His, and the joy is His.  We are not bidden to rejoice with the sheep, but with the Shepherd.  Thus, the grace of sacraments is personal and is the grace of Christ imparted through them.  

How do we respond? How can we possibly respond to this incredible outpouring of love and forgiveness? We respond in prayer, particularly prayer of thanksgiving. This morning we learn that prayer begins and ends in grace. 

A.  The Grace by which we Pray. 

Not only prayer but even the desire to pray is the gift of God, for “we cannot turn to faith and calling upon God without the grace of God by Christ preventing (going before) us.” This is a pledge of all that will follow.  The Shepherd Who seeks can alone inspire us with the desire to be found. 

B.  The Grace for which we Pray. 

So, beloved in Christ, let us pray for the mighty aid of the Good Shepherd to rescue us. Let us pray for the tenderness with which He welcomes the lost to be our comfort in all our adversities. Let us pray for God’s continual grace. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE FEAST OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST

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

 

In the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Churches we mark the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist when we recall the birth of St. John and his role as a forerunner to Christ. Ut Queant Laxis is a traditional chant from this feast day. The words, sung in Latin, translate this way: So that your servants may, with loosened voices, resound the wonders of your deeds, clean the guilt from our stained lips, O Saint John. Below is a text from St. Augustine’s sermon on the birth of John, Like the chant, it focuses on the concept of voice:

The Church observes the birth of John as a hallowed event. We have no such commemoration for any other fathers, but it is significant that we celebrate the birthdays of John and of Jesus. This day cannot be passed by. And even if my explanation does not match the dignity of the feast, you may still meditate on it with great depth and profit.

John is born of a woman too old for childbirth; Christ was born of a youthful virgin. The news of John’s birth was met with incredulity, and his father was struck dumb. Christ’s birth was believed, and he was conceived through faith.

If I lack either the time or the ability to study the implications of so profound a mystery, he who speaks within you even when I am not here will teach you better; it is he whom you contemplate with devotion, whom you have welcomed into your hearts, whose temples you have become.

John, then, appears as the boundary between the two testaments, the old and the new. That he is a sort of boundary the Lord himself bears witness when he speaks of the law and the prophets up until John the Baptist. Thus he represents times past and is the herald of the new era to come. As a representative of the past, he is born of aged parents; as herald of the new, he is declared to be a prophet while still in his mother’s womb. For when yet unborn, he leaped in his mother’s womb at the arrival of blessed Mary. In that womb he had already been designated a prophet, even before he was born; it was revealed that he was to be Christ’s precursor before they ever saw one another. These are divine happenings, going beyond the limits of our human frailty.

Eventually, he is born, he receives his name, and his father’s tongue is loosened. See how these events reflect reality. Zechariah is silent and loses his voice until John, the precursor of the Lord, is born and restores his voice. The silence of Zechariah is nothing but the age of prophecy lying hidden, obscured, as it were, and concealed before the preaching of Christ. At John’s arrival, it becomes clear that the one who was being prophesied is about to come. The release of Zechariah’s voice at the birth of John is parallel to the rending of the veil at Christ’s crucifixion. If John were announcing his own coming, Zechariah’s lips would not have been opened. The tongue is loosened because a voice is born. For when John was preaching the Lord’s coming he was asked: Who are you? And he replied: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. The voice is John, but the Lord, in the beginning, was the Word. John was a voice that lasted only for a time; Christ, the Word, in the beginning, is eternal. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON NOTES FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY IN TRINITY-2022

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

 

What then shall I do when God riseth up? and when he visiteth, what shall I answer him?”

-Job 31:14

 

So important is love that a single Sunday is insufficient for its treatment, and our Church gives us the second Sunday of Love. It is a particularly poignant message in light of the events yesterday and the challenges to come as we defend the most innocent. It is a matter of the love we show in response to the great love we have been given.

Today we chiefly consider what we can return, what we can give back for the love of God. Nothing but love is adequate. We must ourselves reflect the love of God in the whole character and temper of our lives. This is the answer to our questions from Job.

Let us turn first to the Epistle. We should not be surprised if the religion of love exposes us to the hatred of the world. However, let this hatred be because of our firmness of principle, the strictness of our conduct, and the faithfulness of our admonitions. Let it never be because of our inconsistency, negligence, the disagreeableness of our characters, our inconsiderateness, or want of tact and wisdom.

Hatred must not lessen our love, for the spirit which lusts to kill is the very opposite of the spirit of life. Love and life are one, and the only proof that we have passed into the region of life is that we have passed into the region of love.

If love be the test of life, what is the test of love? Sacrifice.

It is by this token that we perceive the love of God, and ours must be known by our willingness “to lay down our lives for the brethren.” Our first duty is to these. (cf. S. John 13:34.) We must deserve the sneer directed at the early Christians-“their lawgiver has persuaded them that they are all brethren.” We must love our fellow Christians as such, because of our common connection with a common Saviour. St. Columba. Born in Ireland around 521, Columba left his native land in about 563, along with 12 of his fellow monks, for Iona, an island off Scotland. He then did his great work of the conversion of the Northern Picts, including Brude, king of the Picts.

His willingness to go wherever called by Christ is a holy example for all Christians. "The Lord prospered their works in the hand of the holy prophet. They went through the wilderness that was not inhabited, and pitched tents in places where there lay no way."

Let us prefer their company; cleave to them when despised; champion them when blamed; shew them every consideration; overlook their weaknesses and seek to learn from the strong points of their characters. We may be sure that we belong to that which we love best, and that there is no better evidence of the life of grace in ourselves than the love of God has grace seen in others.

Beloved in Christ, the test of life is more rigorous at every step of the argument the test of life is love. The test of love is the great sacrifice of life; the test of the great sacrifice is our willingness for lesser sacrifices. If we live we love; if we love we lay down life; if we lay down life we lay down things of lesser cost. We may not have to be dying sacrifices, but, just as we hear in the Mass, we are bound to be living sacrifices until we die.

So it is that the reality of our love for others will enable us to understand and feel confident in the love of God. If we have sure evidence of our brotherhood with Christians we have the best test of our sonship to God. This is the best test of all, for a quiet conscience does not in itself prove us to be all right. Likewise, an unquiet conscience does not prove us all wrong, for in both cases God’s greater knowledge may reverse our judgment. If our love confirms the conscience, its sincerity is proof of ours. Such confidence in God will enable us to pray and assure us of acceptance in our prayers.

That we are obedient to the commandment of Christ that we love one another may assure us that we are also obedient to the commandment of God that we “believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ.” Thus, we have a strong assurance that we dwell in Him for our justification and pardon, and that He dwells in us for our sanctification and holiness. Thus, love will be the final evidence of life.
How does this tie into our Gospel for today? Well, each Sunday of Love has a Gospel of warning in the form of a parable. So it is today, where we learn that we may not trifle with the love of God. Every call of God, however loving, demands the submission of the will.

The great supper is a picture of the love of God. The love of God is wide, for He has bidden many. The love of God is very rich in its provision for all the needs of man and is a great supper ready prepared. It is a feast of all grace, for everything is provided in the Church of Christ for our spiritual life and growth in holiness. It is a feast of joy in the present and of hope for the future.

No worldly feast can offer more than present satisfaction, nor even that without alloy; this offers present happiness and the future glory in the enjoyment of the things that God hath prepared for them that love Him. (1 Cor. 2:9.) The work of the ministry, the work of our Christian witness is to invite. 

The feast is so rich and the entrance so easy, do not we have to wonder why so many refuse to come. There are many excuses, but one reason, really. Some excuse themselves on the ground of their riches and position occupying mind and time, others on the plea that their business engrosses all their energy and must be attended to; while others urge the ties and duties of the home.

The real reason in each case is that all are pre-engaged in another feast. They are too satisfied with the world’s riches, too busy with its cares, and too happy in its delights to feel the need for anything higher and better. There is room at the feast, but no room in their hearts. Their excuses are vain, for the enjoyment of God’s feast will result in thanksgiving for that feast and of all that has been done for us.

The Master of the house vouchsafes no thought or word of reply to these manifold excuses, for He knows them to be worthless, and is angry, for He sees the ungodly will and worldly heart, which prompts them. His anger is roused, but His love has not stayed but turns to other plans. He seeks the outcasts of the city, and the waifs and strays of the country, who know the pinch of hunger. These know their need and are ready to come.

The parable, beloved in Christ, is for all ages, and the temptation comes to all to think themselves too rich, too busy, or too happy to be good. We cannot taste the supper until we have the taste for it. The penalty of refusal is rejection, and our heaviest punishment is ever what we miss. They, too, who have accepted the invitation, and have taken their seats on God’s board, must care that they really partake.

The supper is great, and it is but the crumbs of it that we have yet tasted. Amen.

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE FIRST SUNDAY IN TRINITY-2022

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

 

ASon, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.

-St. Luke 16:25

 

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.

-I St. John 4:14

 

There is a little book entitled Preaching the Hard Sayings of Jesus. Our Gospel lesson this morning certainly fits this task. It stands in stark contrast to the passage in the Epistle of St. John on the nature of love.

The Gospel is a vivid story. We cannot be casual with it, for its symbols are the shadows of realities. It tells us that inequalities on earth are redressed in heaven: lowliness (St. Jerome notes that Lazarus means A God helps) is rewarded hereafter, and self-indulgent pride is rebuked. We all see that selfishness makes hell on earth: why should we doubt that it brings hell hereafter?

The story tells us of a great gulf. If a man chooses cheap heaven here, he can hardly expect to have real heaven beyond death, for he has lost both taste and aptitude for real heaven.

If a man lives without compassion if he lives without love, he digs a chasm between himself and his fellow-men; and by the same token he separates himself from God, for God is love.

The story tells us that life here fashions an eternal destiny. Why should we call any day commonplace? Every time the rich man walked past Lazarus, every time he listened to time-serving speeches in which greedy men find comfort, he was building hell; and every time Lazarus refused to be embittered by his condition he was building a home in heaven. Every step is destiny. The reading of this story is destiny.

At first blush, this is a story of indifference or indifferentism. The rich man does not seem intentionally cruel. The likelihood is that he not only gave Lazarus scraps from his table but contributed generously to charity. But he just didn't see Lazarus. He did not say: "This man is lonely. This man has pains of conscience and flashes of glory and longs for God. This man wakes at night and asks 'Why, and whither?'"

He did not see. He was too much absorbed in himself to be able to see. He was a man of large affairs, and there were problems galore connected with his house and estate; and soon the rich man was so close to himself that he could not see Lazarus, though the beggar was as near as the doorstep.

 

His religion was only perfunctory: this we know, for had he prayed with sincerity, some measure of the life and love of God would have come to him, and he would have begun to see. So the rich man became locked in himself. A man is not meant to live alone any more than a house is meant to be shut away from the world. A man or a house shut away becomes a prison or a place of torment.

There is little reason to believe that vs. 27 indicates a change of heart. It is almost an attempt at self-justification; and it is still concerned, not with any Lazarus on earth, but with the fortunes of his household.

I don't know about you, but I keep trying to find a reason why despite the torments he is suffering. Maybe it is immaturity perhaps the rich man never became an adult, for he had always regarded life as his to have and to hold: notice the personal Athy in thy lifetime ... thy good things.

Yet the remainder is given by Abraham almost seems like turning a knife in a wound, until we recall that no man can be saved until he does remember. For memory, by its power to restore experience, to select from experience the saving item, and to use experience for a nobler way of life, is a door of hope.

Most of the time we live in the present--absorbed in the flow of the events of our lives. However, sometimes we live in memory, in a reflective mind: we stand above the flow to mark its meaning and direction.

If we are afraid to be still, to be quiet, to listen to God, we give up our place as His children. The streets are filled with many a would-be rich man who Takes life as it comes. If only there were some Abraham to buttonhole them with A Son, remember! For if we would remember, we might turn from mere present thought into the reflection that breeds sainthood.

We cannot be saved unless we remember.

Yet the remembrance alone is not enough: it can reveal the shabbiness of a man's life, but cannot of itself redeem. St. Augustine said: What shall I do then, O Thou my true life, my God? I will pass even beyond this power of mine which is called memory. Yea, I will pass beyond it, that I may approach unto Thee. ... And where shall I find Thee? ... And all my hope is nowhere but in Thy exceeding great mercy.

Beyond remembrance, we must pray in utter confession and in faith. And we must pray and live fearlessly and in love. And here is the lesson of the rich man set over and against St. John's First Letter.

Living in the present, living in indifference, living in routine relying on the things of this world builds a comfort zone. We become insular focusing on our families, the routine of household life, of comforts. It is easy, isn't it? We have our lives like the rich man attending to things and going to church and we don't want to get out of them. It makes us fearful that we might lose that comfort. And here's the rub.

If we are fearful, then we aren't loving as we ought. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment like the rich man worrying about the things of the earth. He that feareth is not made perfect in love. Fearing to step out in faith and to sacrifice for it to get away from the world goods and to the true good leads to hardened indifference and maybe to an evil heart. Love means not being indifferent. The love of Christ isn't indifferent it heals and cleanses and sacrifices right up there on the Cross. It gives the full measure. We love him because he first loved us fully and without reservation.

If a man says, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment has we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.

The text is clear it drives the point home. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only-begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.

That is a call to engagement, that is a call to the Christ-life. Abiding in love brings confidence for the day of judgment. Unlike the rich man, we can confidently face death only if we live in the eternal life of God by abiding in love.

It is healthy and necessary to face the fact that we shall die, but it is not healthy or necessary to fear dying. Fear of death and worse, fear of living the Christ-life is only overcome when we live in the faith that God is love and that we will experience eternal life through living in His love. When we hold that belief and live outside of ourselves and our self-made worlds one can say of them what was said of the early Christians that one could talk to them about dying without dropping into a minor key.

We know from the Gospel that, in one sense, we are even now being judged with the same judgment he will encounter at death. God knows the reality of our situation and it is our duty to try to walk in the light. When we consciously live in the spirit of Christian love, we are living as God intends us to live, and we can be fearless.

Anxiety caused by crises in our personal experience parallels what we feel over facing judgment (cf. Expos. on vs. 17). Adversity, temptation, persecution, and suffering, are forms of judgment in that they lay bare the precariousness of human life and test and reveal character. The crises, the despair, confusion, and disintegration of moral and cultural life in our century, must be interpreted as the reaction of a moral universe to human sin and as a judgment at work in and through the events of history. The difficulty in dealing with these events with confidence is underscored by the anxiety and despair evident in much modern drama, poetry, art, and philosophy, and in the alarming increase in mental disease and suicide. Our age has been called a neurotic age.

Confidence in dealing with these experiences rises from love. The solution of all problems and the resolution of all difficult situations usually will be found to lie ultimately in meeting life with the spirit of love.

Trust in God's love, love of God through all experiences of suffering and adversity, love manifest in a will resolved to seek the good of others at a cost to oneself, love of others driving out all self-pity love in these and other ways makes for confidence. There is nothing that so lifts a man, ... so arms him for the battle of life, as a pure and noble passion of the heart.

The only final source of confidence for living with dignity and serenity in an age of anxiety is the eternal life of God appropriated through faith and love that transcends time and history. Without self-righteousness and yet with confidence, the Christian can meet history days of judgment knowing that his mortal life is hidden in the safety of the eternal life of God.

To those who are ready to follow ChristBto get outside of self, the Resurrection tells us in vital words that the love of the Cross is on the throne of the world. God gives the illumined moment. We must obey its light when it comes, and throw ourselves on the divine pardon and power of the divine love.

Is the great gulf that chasm separating the rich man from God--forever fixed? Our Lord's compassion abides, and we believe it will not be in vain, but humans will abide, and it becomes hard and set. We know that here and now the rich man need not remain the rich man that the indifferent may live the Christ-life. In doing so we may fearlessly, confidently, and dwell in God and He in us. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR PENTECOST (WHITSUNDAY)-2022

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

 

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

-Acts 2:1-2

 

Today is the birthday of the Christian Church. It is a day of new beginnings in many ways. It is the beginning of the Church. It is the full change of the Apostles into something far greater than they had been.

So it is very important for us to be celebrating today, this Feast of the Pentecost. It was the Tower of Babel turned upside-down, and what fell out was a glorious manifestation of the grace of God. It was also a tough day for future lay readers: all those forbidding names -- Parthians, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Cappadocians, Phrygians, Pamphyilians -- that whole crowd. In Luke’s geography, they represented “every nation under heaven.”

Devout Jews of the Diaspora were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the 50th day after the consecration of the harvest and the Passover. Although bound by a common religious past, their languages and dialects were as diverse as those heard at Ellis Island in the early 1900s.

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

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

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

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

Then something utterly wondrous happened. God happened.

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

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

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

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

That was then. How about now?

Well, we belong to the same family as they did. We are baptized, have individual gifts, and believe that Jesus is Lord. We are called, you and me, by the Holy Spirit to our work to further the Kingdom. We are called in unexpected ways to serve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through these sacraments, the Holy Spirit enlightens us with ten special gifts. The three gifts that we receive at our Baptism are faith, hope, and charity. The seven gifts we received at our Confirmation are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. For some, we are called further into ordained ministry, to teach, to preach, to celebrate the Mass, and above all to serve, whether deacon, priest, or in the episcopate.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR THE SUNDAY AFTER THE ASCENSION-2022

(Given at Epiphany, Amherst, Virginia)

 

Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.”

-St. John 17:24

 

Today, on the Sunday after the Ascension of our Lord, we also commemorate Memorial Day. Originally called Decoration Day, tomorrow will be (or should be) a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service. There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, but there is evidence that organized women's groups in the South were decorating graves even before the end of the Civil War. A hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” (Nella L. Sweet) carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.” It’s difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; each of those towns and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor those lost in war tapped into the general human need to honor our dead, and each contributed honorably to the growing movement that culminated in the official proclamation of Memorial Day in 1868.

It is not important who was the very first to mark the day, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. It is not about a three-day weekend to begin the summer and it is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.

And those who are now far from the battle, those who rest in the sleep of peace? While anniversaries, birthdays, and endless milestones big and small in the lives of their children, spouses, parents, and friends will remind us of their absence, Memorial Day in particular should serve as a unique day to remind us of their contributions and their continued presence in our individual and national life. We as a nation are stronger because of them not just in terms of our own security, but more importantly, because their sacrifices are evidence that we remain a nation of honorable men and women willing to place duty above convenience and death before tyranny. They are a reminder that greater love hath no man than he would lay down his life for others.

Memorial Day is well and good, but, what does this have to do with the Ascension of Jesus Christ? What of our lessons for this Sunday-this Sunday after Christ has “gone up with a merry noise” to sit at the right hand of the Father? Even the wonderful hymns-celebratory hymns-seem to stand in contrast with the tone of tomorrow’s national observance.

The answer is that there is a transcendent message for us today. It is one of joy and assurance, a promise that goes beyond the affairs of men and of nations. The Ascension message is one of place, “place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before in Heaven prepared for us by the Son of God”, a place safe from warfare-physical and spiritual. What a message for the newly baptized, for the newly confirmed, and for the mature Christian alike!

Listen to the promise in the words of the Prophet Isaiah:

Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty: they shall behold the land that is very far off. Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities: thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down; not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be removed, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken. But there the glorious LORD will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby. (17-21)

 

We shall see the king in his beauty, behold the far-off land and make our home in that place where no man of war will again harm the people of God.

In the words of our Lord, we are promised that we, “all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, …” (John 17:21-22) That’s a promise! That is the promise of Christ Jesus, crucified, risen, and ascended in glory to our heavenly home. That’s the promise that we can tell our little ones.

When do we go there? When is there an end to the tumult and battles of man and of our ancient enemy? The end of all things is at hand. And there are thousands of books, ministers, and would-be seers out there claiming the prophetic, claiming to answer the “when” question. But the hour is not for us to know. It belongs to God.

We need to understand at the outset, beloved in Christ, that the road home, the way to the Father is not without peril or pain. Our Lord knew this. That’s part of the promise when we hear, “the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you because they have not known the Father, nor me.”

Don’t we know this? Just Friday, our brothers and sisters in Egypt were attacked again. Why? For daring to make a pilgrimage to an ancient monastery, 28 were killed including a number of children. The story has almost disappeared from the 24-hour news cycle. A random sampling of the reaction of the world to the message of Christ in a one-week period is stunning, and we needn’t belabor the point. But this is something our children and young people need to learn and understand. True Christian faith is not an easy way.

These “things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them.” We have a witness in the lives of the persecuted that the promise is true, and we can be walking a hard way and instant-perhaps just walking a village path to a Christian school.

The proper question, the real question for us is, “What are the directions to this place-this harbor where the Lamb sits upon His throne?” The First Epistle of St. Peter delivers an answer in an almost staccato form.

Watch unto prayer. We hear the words of our Lord in the Gospel of John, “I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me.” So we are to pray, to pray in the imitation of Christ who is praying for us. Pray without ceasing, we hear in Scripture. Like oxygen on a climb to the top of a tall mountain, prayer must be breathed in and out along our journey heavenward.

Above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins. To paraphrase St. Augustine, “Restoration comes from God’s grace, and Divine grace is shown us in divine charity, and the human response is a response of charity.” As St. Augustine said echoing the Epistle “Order your soul; reduce your wants; live in charity…”

Part of that charity, that part that begins among us, is to “use hospitality one to another without grudging. As every man hath received the gift, even so, minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” This is a message that is in sharp contrast with the wisdom of the world. But, the glory given by the Father to the Son is given to us. In the words of Scripture “the glory which thou gavest me I have given them.” No strings, no grudging—the hospitality of Heaven offered to us freely. Again, the words of the hymn, a succinct summary of true hospitality,

Since from His bounty I receive
Such proofs of love divine,
Had I a thousand hearts to give,
Lord, they should all be Thine,
Lord, they should all be Thine.

Shouldn’t we do likewise in the imitation of Christ Jesus? Can we do anything less?

As to doctrine, “If any man speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God;…” The news is filled also with novelties and innovations in the faith, but it is sufficient to say, same old heresies, bright new package. These are the things that have assaulted the truth of Christ from apostolic times. Our Lord asked that we be sanctified through God’s word: “thy word is truth.” We are called to read and meditate on the truth-the Word-make that a hallmark of each day in claiming the promise of the Crucified, Risen, and Ascended Lord. It is especially important for your parents to set this example even from your children’s earliest years. Read to them from the Bible so they hear the good news. Read the stories of the saints whose lives are filled with bravery, hope, and charity even under difficult circumstances.
Finally, work to glorify God in all things, no matter how small, through Jesus Christ. Make every part of your lives a vocation—a work dedicated to the glory of God, offering praise and thanksgiving at all times. Your children and grandchildren will see those examples and take them in, even when you think they might not be watching. They are, and they will imitate your examples for good or bad.

This is the message of Ascensiontide, and it is the strong promise for those we mourn and remember on this Memorial Day, but particularly for those whose lives in Christ are just beginning.

These are the driving directions home—you can’t get them from Mapquest, Google, or even from AAA. They are the directions for traveling the King’s Highway-the road that leads to that place that transcends the things of this world, a place apart from time and war, battle and tumult in all its forms. It is the path the Ascended Lord has laid for us, “who tread where He hath trod,….the Son of Man; Who every grief hath known that wrings the human breast.”

And the promise, the promise of the end of the road, the path “To Heav’n, the place of His abode, he brings our weary feet?” It is the promise of a beginning, a beginning where He shall show us the glories of our God, and make our joys complete. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                SERMON FOR ASCENSION DAY--2022

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

 

 

AWhile they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.  Acts 1:1-11

 

 

The Ascension Day Lesson from the Book ActsBis a remarkable picture. Our Lord is taken up into heaven as the Apostles look on gaping. They stand staring, in open-mouthed amazement until two men in white apparel, possibly the same angelic presence at the empty tomb, jolt them out of it with the question, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven. With this pronouncement the Apostles now have another piece of the puzzle on their way to the Pentecost, they not only know that the Lord will return but the manner of that return.

What is an incredible picture for us here are the ones who have not only witnessed Jesus' earthly ministry and heard his words, they have healed and cast out demons in his name, witnessed his death on the Cross, and been made witnesses to His Resurrection.

I think that we can identify with the gaping Apostles at the singular nature of the event of the Ascension of our Lord. The account itself has caused me to turn the text repeatedly as we use it in several Masses at this Ascensiontide. What can we make of this Ascent in glory and why is this account repeated twice by St. Luke?

First, the accounts begin in much the same way. Both are addressed to someone named "Theophilus" (a name meaning "friend of God" or "lover of God.") Theophilus may well have been a lawyer or teacher--He seems to be a cultured Greek man who would by his education be a seeker.

Others suggest Luke is writing to anyone who is seeking to be friends with God or to love God, that is, any seekers of God. It can be said that many who have read this wonderful story Luke tells so well certainly have come to find in the main character a friend, one who reveals God, who shares God's love like no other.

All of us, like those who witnessed the Ascension, are seeking something greater than ourselves, some meaning, some ultimate purpose to it all. There is within each of us this hunger for that which is eternal. It is a longing for God. Luke tells us where we can find God - in the one in whom God came seeking us, He who ascended and will come again.

 

No matter how educated or materialistically wealthy we become, there is still this deep need for seeking, to reach for God. I think sometimes we wonder what we, as Christians have to offer those who seem to have everything. However, the truth is that they do not have everything. They may think they do, but in their quiet, honest moments, they look deep inside and know something is missing. There is an incompleteness, an emptiness, a hole in their soul that nothing - fame, fortune, wealth - nothing is able to fill.

We see this everywhere - this spiritual hunger. We see it in the plethora of new-age religions that seem to spring up overnight. We have but to go on the internet to see some of these. One such movement is itself called "Ascension," the seeking of the exaltation of the self through physical-spiritual energy or something like that. People are hungry for God and are seeking God.

The whole background theme for this passage is that we must not be shy or reluctant to share or give witness to our faith, to help those who hunger for Him whom they do not yet know. Luke does so through his writing. In his words here we see the Risen Lord specifically telling his disciples (you and me included) to await the filling of the Spirit so that we can be his witnesses everywhere.

A witness is not someone who imposes his or her faith or beliefs on others, but one who has been a seeker of God and has been found by God in Christ. A witness is someone with fresh experiences of God and who shares that with others whenever the opportunity arises.

However, what always strikes me about this passage is that the disciples still did not get it. They thought the kingdom was coming fully right then and there. That way they would miss all that daily discipleship stuff - you know - the actually living and serving and dying parts. Who can blame them? "When will you bring in the kingdom?" they ask Jesus. They may still well have been in that "who's the greatest among us?" mode, thinking of themselves reigning and ruling with Christ on his cabinet in the new administration.

Jesus pretty much ignores this question and tells them not to worry about it. That is not for them to know. That knowledge is reserved only for God - for God's eyes only! God knows the days and seasons. Let God worry about the future. The only thing you need to concern yourselves with is seeking the empowerment of the Spirit so that you can be my witnesses.

Jesus has already told them he was going away and that this was best for them (see John's Gospel). Why? Because, as we learn in today=s Gospel, then Comforter - the Holy Spirit would come. Jesus, in the flesh, could not be with them always. However, through the Spirit, he could dwell within them, empowering them for the task ahead. He was going away and yet he would still come to be with them.

My father died about twenty years ago. I have never known a more complex man, and despite those differences that always occur between headstrong sons and their dads, I loved him dearly. You know what? I still feel him with me. For at critical times in my life, I have almost heard his words to me. From his example of simple faith in his daily reading of Scripture and prayer, I continue to draw great comfort, encouragement, and strength.

If this is true with a mere human being, and I suspect it's true for someone like my father for each of you, then how much more so can Christ, through the Spirit, be present with us always! The Spirit is as near to us as the air we breathe. Like air, the Spirit fills us and enables us to serve, witness, to live as Disciples of Christ.

The Holy Spirit is there each day to teach us, to give us new insights, and to nurture us in the faith. The Holy Spirit, the Comforter, also every day gives us opportunities to share our story with others - which we see happening throughout much of the rest of the Book of Acts. The Holy Spirit is our intimate connection to the ascended Lord and seeks to connect us to one another in the body of Christ and to others, like Theophilus, who are seeking God. We have the Holy Spirit, and the Sacraments--We already have everything we need to serve God, to be witnesses for Christ.

The Ascension account and our Gospel lesson today have at least four essential things to teach us.

First, Christ now rightly assumes his place of honor at the right hand of God. It is very much a coronation. Jesus ascends the throne. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is King of kings. All the earth now is literally beneath his feet or under his authority.

Second, Jesus does not leave us through his ascension. He comes back to us through the Holy Spirit of Pentecost. Yet, even more than this, he sits at the right hand of God, the place of power, the place where he can watch over us, and provide us his presence, guidance, strength, and encouragement. He also sits there as our mediator or intercessor with God. "Consequently he is able to save for all time those who approach God through him (Jesus), since he always lives to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 7:25). Jesus has the ear of God. Jesus fills the ear of God with our names, with requests for that which we need as our only Mediator and Advocate. Nice to have such a friend in such a high place.

Third, the Ascension means that now we are called to continue the mission of Christ. As we have seen already, the underlying theme of these passages is that we are now to be the empowered witnesses for Christ to the entire world. We have work to do. We are now the body of Christ in the world. We are his hands, voice, feet, heart, and eyes. Through the Holy Spirit, he lives within us, empowering us to continue his saving work in the world.

Fourth, he is coming back to finish what he started (see vs 11). We do not know when, where, or even how really. So we cannot stand around with our heads in the clouds. Instead, we wait for the Spirit and when the Spirit moves, we work, we witness, and we serve Christ each day and in every way, we can. That is the best way to be ready for that time of his return. Amen.

   

 

 

 

 

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 Second Sunday in Christmas-2021

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

 

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

 

 

Over the last year, we have had a series of banners out on the corner. Some simply service announcements, but others are meant to be thought-provoking. I have based these on a series of slogans that appeared on billboards seen across the United States–the “God speaks” campaign–a campaign to draw people’s attention to our Father.

Sundays–some of us are old enough to remember them-were days in which the stores by law were closed–absolutely no commercial trade went on. You couldn’t even buy a gallon of milk. God was the only focus of the day.

Now Sundays are days of competition. Have you seen how full stores and restaurants are on Sunday mornings? Of course not! You’re here at Epiphany! But the rumor is that the stores and eateries in Lynchburg are packed, particularly as people try to move past the virus that has so plagued us. That’s not to mention all of the competitive events, high school sports, and meets, that take place on the Sabbath.

Since Sundays are no longer exclusively days for worship, perhaps a little advertising might meet the tide and drive the Christian message home. At least that’s the method to the madness. For its part, the God Speaks campaign garnered local, regional, and national media attention even from “Good Morning America,” and the “Today” show.

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

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

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

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

My personal favorite remains:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re here to bring the good news to the people. And it is good news. Sometimes it's the only good news among the vapid and empty news or the bad news everybody gets every day.

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

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

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

The Rev. Canon Charles H. Nalls, SSM

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SERMON FOR 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 listen 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 about and 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 is a potential “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 like 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”, as 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, confusion, 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.

At that moment, St. Joseph lived out the attributes of true son-ship. He has a 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 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) He 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", and "Let it be done".

If we surrender and trust in God this Christmas and in this coming year we will acquire 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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