Friday, June 24, 2011

Proper 8A 11

          From Advent through Trinity Sunday the Bible readings focus our attention on the events of Jesus’ life; each Sunday has a theme. On the Sundays after Trinity we read through various books of the Bible in “course reading.” This summer the Old Testament readings follow Abraham and his descendants through the Passover. The Epistle readings are from the Epistle to the Romans from chapter 6 through chapter 13, and the Gospel readings from St. Matthew chapters 10 through 18.

Today’s readings are about temptation, sin, law and grace, and the rewards of discipleship. In Genesis 22 “God tested Abraham.” Abraham heard what he believed to be a command to sacrifice his only son Isaac. God had called Abraham from Haran, on the border of Turkey and Syria near where now refugees are huddled for fear of the Syrian army. God had promised childless Abraham and his wife Sarah that his descendants would be like the stars in the sky. (The promise was made 3 times – Genesis 15:5, 22:17, 26:4) But Isaac was the only son Abraham and Sarah had.

Sacrificing children was not uncommon among the other peoples of the area. First Kings 16:34 tells us that in the days of King Ahab of Israel Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho and laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub. They were buried alive in the foundations as a sign of the founder’s commitment to the city. In 2 Kings  3:27 we read that the King of Moab sacrificed his first born son as a burnt offering when he was attacked by the combined armies of Israel, Judah, and Moab. And at the Exodus all the first born sons in Egypt died while the angel of death “passed over” the children of Israel.

Killing children abhorrent. But it does happen. It is a major crime, but it was not so to Abraham. Abraham obeyed what he believed to be the God’s call just as he had obeyed God’s call to leave Haran and go to the place God had promised to show him. He came to the mountain God showed him with Isaac carrying the wood for the burnt offering. Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son. But then the angel called to Abraham and the ram caught his horns in a thicket. Abraham’s descendants never again sacrificed their children. God never again tempted any one as he tempted Abraham. Abraham’s sacrifice of obedience was sufficient.

Christians see in Abraham’s obedience a foretelling of the obedience of Jesus that resulted in his death on the cross. Because Jesus was the only-begotten Son of God his sacrificial death has ransomed us from the power of sin and death forever. The temptation of Abraham was unique. The sacrifice of Jesus is unique. We offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in union with the saving sacrifice of Jesus.

     The Christians in Rome to whom St. Paul wrote were a mixed community. Some were still observing the 613 commandments found in the Law of Moses; others were gentile “god-fearers” attracted by the moral law but unable to keep the dietary laws or be circumcised; still others had come from a culture where all desires were indulged if there was money to do so. Today’s reading is part of an extended discussion of salvation and sanctification. Salvation is God’s gift to us in Jesus, sanctification is our response to God’s gift of salvation. The verses just before today’s reading are in the Easter Canticle “9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Salvation is death to sin. Sanctification is new life in Jesus Christ.

Most of us most of the time don’t think much about sin. Maybe we should. What chews on us is guilt and shame. From an early age people have an internal sense of right and wrong, some learned from parents and others; some innate. How many of us have heard our children say, “That’s not fair; that’s not right.” The sharp moral sense of a young adolescent is one of God’s gifts to us all. They can see black and white; as we grow older our eyes dim and we see more shades of grey. Our salvation in Jesus Christ offers us freedom from sin and from guilt and shame. Every day offers us the opportunity to repent and to begin again; every day the Holy Spirit of truth offers us opportunity to see truly the will of God; every day the Holy Spirit of power offers us the opportunity to do the will of God. Every evening offers the opportunity to measure our behavior by the plumb line of God’s will, to claim forgiveness in Jesus, sleep well, and begin again.

Finally the Gospel assures us of God’s continuing love and care. John Keble’s hymn, “New every morning”(number 10) sums it up:

New every morning is the love
Our wakening and uprising prove;
Through sleep and darkness safely brought,
Restored to life and power and thought.

New mercies, each returning day,
Hover around us while we pray;
New perils past, new sins forgiven,
New thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven.

If, on our daily course, our mind
Be set to hallow all we find,
New treasures still, of countless price,
God will provide for sacrifice.

Old friends, old scenes, will lovelier be,
As more of heaven in each we see;
Some softening gleam of love and prayer
Shall dawn on every cross and care.

The trivial round, the common task,
Will furnish all we ought to ask;
Room to deny ourselves, a road
To bring us daily nearer God.

Only, O Lord, in Thy dear love,
Fit us for perfect rest above,
And help us, this and every day,
To live more nearly as we pray.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Trinity Sunday

          Today we begin again with the Trinitarian acclamation, “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and the response “And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.”

          We all continually have to deal with questions of personal identity. “Who am I?” How we understand who we are makes a difference in how we think and what we do. Human beings seem to be alone among the animals in having a sense of self, in being self-conscious, in asking, “Who am I?”

That seems to go back to the creation story which was our long first lesson today. We read there that after creating the universe and the earth and the animals, and seeing that they it was  good, “God created humankind in his image, male and female, and God blessed them.” Self-awareness is part of the divine image in us; so is the ability and desire to love.

So every year we come to seek to understand God’s identity as it is revealed to us. We reason from what we know to what we don’t know. We are in relationship and we experience God in relationship to us. We are unique individuals and we experience God in our and his uniqueness.

So we pray to “Almighty and everlasting God” who has “given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity.” We pray that this God will “keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever.Amen.”

Special attention to the biblical teaching about one God in Trinity seems to begin in the Celtic church in Ireland and Britain. The prayer/hymn “I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity” called St. Patrick’s breastplate has been used from the 700’s on. In the 1160’s Archbishop Thomas aBecket of Canterbury received papal permission to celebrate the Trinity on the Sunday after Pentecost and about 150 years Pope John 22nd ordered Trinity Sunday observed in the whole western church. Just 100 years ago Pope Pius 10th increased its importance in the Roman Catholic calendar. Trinity Sunday has always been a major feast for Anglicans - and Lutherans. With them we used to count the Sundays until Advent as Sundays after Trinity.

          Trinity Sunday tells us of the church’s understanding of the bible teaching about how God has revealed himself to the humanity he created. For Episcopalians the Articles of Religion help us. They were “established” in 1801 by General Convention to spell out the doctrine of this church to which clergy at ordination promise to conform and to clarify the Episcopal position on some church controversies. The 1801 Convention mostly rejected a 1798 proposal to revise and “update” the Articles as they were first adopted in 1571 and reaffirmed in 1662. They have been in the back of the Prayer Book ever since.

    They begin, “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Some of that is positive: God is one, living, and true, everlasting, Maker, and Preserver of all things. Some of it excludes alternative opinions: God is “without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness.”

    That God is one is a belief common to all the Abrahamic religions-to Judaism and Christianity and to Islam. There are no other self-existent powers. We believe in one God, not many gods. A consequence is that our life is a unity; we may take on many roles and functions, but at the center of it all is one person.

    God is living. Some years ago the cover of Time magazine in white letters on black wrote, “God is dead.” Despite those who try to ignore him in everyday life God is alive and well and lives in and beyond his creation.

    God is true. True for whom? Where? In what circumstances? Does truth exist independent of who believes it/ Are there different truths for different people? Pilate asked at Jesus’ trial, “What is truth?” Pilate didn’t wait for an answer, but in St. John 14:6 Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The truth of Jesus is independent of who believes it. And our understanding is limited. We all will die; our senses pass away. Only God is everlasting. God is more than, and different from, us. Cardinal Avery Dulles once preached in a church which had a pulpit banner, “God is other people.” Dulles, an eminent Jesuit theologian, added the comma so the banner read, “God is other, people.” God is, in the 16th century language, “without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness.”   

          God is without body. As Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well (St. John 5:24) “God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Because we are both body and spirit we need the sacramental life, material things that communicate spiritual realities. We naturally think of God in material terms, but God has no body; God has no physical parts; God is neither male nor female; but God is also personal. God is not an “it.” English lacks a personal pronoun that personal but not gendered, so the old custom was to use “he” for both “he” and “she.” The point is that God is personal and God takes a personal interest in each of us. We learn that from having and being parents, lovers, and friends.

    God is “without parts or passions.” Human sexuality is an important gift of God, but it is part of our creature nature; it is not divine. And God revealed in Scripture is not dispassionate. God cares; God is sometimes angry; God grieves, “Jesus wept.” But God is not governed by his passions as we are sometimes governed by our passions.

    And God is “of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness.” We know how limited are our power, our wisdom, and our goodness. We frequently seek to increase our power, and on our better days also seek to increase in wisdom and goodness.

    God has revealed himself-Godself-in Holy Scripture, God has revealed himself in relationship with a community. The story begins with the creation in Genesis, continues with Abraham and his family and with the people brought out of slavery in Egypt “with mighty power and outstretched arm.” This people received God’s law, God’s self-revelation in relationship with the community. When the community fell away from obedience God sent the prophets to call them back to live as God’s children in a community created and sustained by God’s spirit.

    And then God sent his Son “to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.” Some of the community could recognize the presence and saving power of the Son; some could not. To those who could receive him, God gave the gift of the Spirit, the Spirit of truth and power, and love. In that Spirit we live today.

    God has revealed himself in his creation and in his relationship with his chosen community. He has revealed that his nature is love. Our identity is in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as we share the love which is the nature of God. That love makes us at the same time one with God and a unique creation.

          So from now till Advent we begin each service, ““Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.”

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


          Pentecost is a from the Greek pente – 5 (the Pentagon is a 5 sided building) 50 days after Easter. The Jewish feast is Shavuot 50 days after Passover when the first fruits of the winter wheat harvest were presented in the Temple. It was like our Thanksgiving Day and like Thanksgiving Day a time to remember God’s saving work in the life of his people Israel. Shavout, Pentecost, has become a special remembrance and celebration of God’s giving the Law on Sinai. The Jews were proud of being a people of the Law. Others had to guess but they knew God’s perfect will eternally expressed in his unchanged and unchanging Law.

          Shavout, Pentecost, is celebrated by the men spending the night studying the Bible and eating  dairy foods - lots of cheesecake – to remember the manna in the desert and the women preparing a feast, inviting people who had come from far away to Jerusalem for the Passover. The Passover seder meal ends, “Next year in Jerusalem!” To celebrate Passover in Jerusalem was the dream of every devout Jew in the many countries to which the people of Israel had been dispersed. It was a long, expensive, difficult trip: people came in March for Passover and stayed the 7 weeks visiting family, worshipping in the Temple, seeing the sights until the weather got hot, then the Pentecost feast and the trip home.

     The disciples with the many new believers in Jesus gathered for the Pentecost feast. They talked about Jesus and his free and freeing teaching about the Law. The traditional interpretation had made the Law so complicated it was impossible to keep. They remembered Jesus’ teaching, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

I’ve had neighbors over the years; Jesus quoted this commandment from Leviticus because he knew how tough it is to keep.  The church has discovered that in fact we cannot keep even these two commandments, to say nothing of the 10 commandments, or the 613 that the scholars have found in scripture. We have learned that we not saved from sin and spiritual death by obedience to the Law. We are saved by the grace of God made real for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus, grace received in faith. We are justified by God in Jesus without the Law, and then God the Holy Spirit, the spirit of truth shows us through obedience to the law how to become the holy people God calls us to be. We cannot be obedient to God in our own strength, but with God’s power and strength given by his Holy Spirit we can grow in joyful obedience.

But all that learning was yet to come. On the first Pentecost the disciples knew that Jesus was true, and he had promised them the Spirit of Truth. They knew Jesus’ power because he had defeated the great enemy death by rising from the dead, and he had promised them the Spirit of Power. They remembered the giving of the law at Sinai, Moses on the mountain top, the fire lighting up the sky, the powerful wind almost blowing the people away. They  remembered Jesus teaching 10 days before just before the Ascension when “He opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”  They remembered that teaching and so they wondered about Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit. What was this Spirit going to be like? How would life be different with Jesus no longer physically present with them?

Then suddenly came a sound from heaven like a mighty rushing wind, . . . tongues as of fire appeared among them, and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” From Iran in the east to eastern Lybia in the west, from the north coast of Turkey to south Yemen and all the places in between, “we hear them tell in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.”

And the telling goes on. From Jerusalem north to Antioch in northern Syria, through Asia Minor to Greece and Rome, to France and Spain, across to Britain and Ireland, to Germany and Scandinavia, by Cyril and Methodius sent from Greece to the Slavic people, to Kiev and Moscow, with the Nestorians to India and China by land, with Francis Xavier and the Jesuits to India and China by sea, with Thomas Bray and the Society for the Propagation to North Carolina in 1702, about 140 years ago with John Coleridge Patteson, martyr in the Solomon Islands, with James Hannington and his companions martyrs in Uganda 125 years ago (1886), 10 years later with Bernard Mizeki in modet rn Zimbabwe.

In our own time with Bishop Janani Luwuum, murdered 1977 by Idi Amin in Uganda, Bashir Deqani-Tafti, son of the Anglican Bishop of Iran, killed by Iranian government agents 1980; Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador murdered March 24, 1980 by government agents during the prayer of consecration. Martin Burnham a Bible translator killed in the Philippines May 2001. Tom Fox a Christian Peacemaker Team member murdered in Iraq March 2006. German missionary Tilmann Geske and two Turkish converts from Islam Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, murdered May, 2007. And Jessica Mandeya lay leader of a rural parish in Mashonaland East, Zimbabwe, a grandmother in her 80s, serving the church, raped, mutilated and strangled in February this year. And that’s just a sample of those who in their time and our time proclaimed “in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.”

A few years ago I heard Professor Bruce Rigdon tell of an experience in Russia where he was helping make a movie about the church under Communism. Mikael was their minder, arranging interviews, getting churches opened, making the project possible. After the last night’s farewell party Mikael told Rigdon, “You showed me parts of my Russian heritage I never knew; I had never been in a church until you came to make this movie.” He fell silent ; Rigdon moved to the door, tired and ready for bed. Mikael stopped him and said, “You are a Christian?” He knew Rigdon was an ordained Methodist minister and seminary professor, but he had to ask, “You are a Christian?” Rigdon said, “Yes, I am a Christian.” Mikael said, “It was not true when I said I’ve never been in a church. I was once but I don’t remember it. My parents are atheists and Communist party members, but my grandmother was a Christian and one day when I was an infant and she was keeping me while my parents worked she took me to church and I was baptized. Tell me now, I’m just curious, you understand, but for curiosity’s sake, tell me, do you think anything happened when I was baptized?”  The Jewish custom is to spend the night of Shavout in study of the bible and prayer. Rigdon and Mikael spent that night in study of the bible and prayer.

An American Christian speaking in Russia to a member of the Communist party, “We hear them tell in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” The same Holy Spirit who came to the disciples on Pentecost comes to us when we are baptized and believe. St. Paul writing to the contentious church at Corinth reminds them that the Holy Spirit gives many gifts, but they are given in the one body of Jesus Christ. We are all baptized into one body, filled with one Holy Spirit just as the disciples were on that first Pentecost.

We are filled with the Holy Spirit so we may remember Jesus’ teaching, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” We are filled with the Holy Spirit to keep the commandments and grow into the holy people God calls us to be. We are filled with the Holy Spirit so we may know the truth of Jesus and witness to that truth in the world he has redeemed by his death and resurrection. We are filled with the Holy Spirit so we may know the power of Jesus who defeated the great enemy death by rising from the dead and giving us new life. We are filled with the Holy Spirit so that the whole world and everyone we know may say, “we hear them tell in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” Amen.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Sunday After Ascension 2011

          Because Jesus ascended we can pray, we have victory, we have hope.  We can pray because Jesus, ascended to heaven, prays for us and with us to God the Father. We are not defeated by the power of sin and death; we have the victory in Jesus ascended to heaven. And we have sure and certain hope because  “Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." 

            If every day is a little Christmas because Jesus is God incarnate, fully God, fully human; if every day is a little Easter because Jesus was dead and is alive again; if every day is a little Pentecost because Jesus continues to give us his Holy Spirit, then every day is a little Ascension because Jesus, ascended to heaven to the right hand of the Father makes intercession for us.

          It is sad but true that for many the Ascension brings to mind on the few occasions we think about it the Tiffany glass window of Jesus in billowing robes floating in the air both feet well off the ground going up never to be seen again. I think that is bad art and I know it teaches bad theology.

          The Ascension, no less that Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost is both a real and a sumbolic statement of truth. The truth of Christmas is the Incarnation God coming to us in human flesh. The truth of Easter is the Resurrection Jesus dead on the cross for our sins and risen from the dead that we may live eternally in him. The truth of Pentecost is the gift of the Holy Spirit God dwelling in our hearts by faith to teach us the truth of God’s will and to give us the supernatural power to do  God’s will in our lives. The truth of the Ascension is that in Jesus humanity is included in God.

          What are the only man made things in heaven? They are the wounds in the hands and feet and side of Jesus, Jesus who was crucified and resurrected and ascended into heaven where he sits at the right hand of the Father making intercession for us.

          He sits down in victory. By his death and resurrection the power of sin and death is forever defeated. Professor C.S. Lewis used to say that the war is won and we are part of the mopping up operation. The victory came from many causes but one cause is prayer. People under oppression pray for freedom, and the ascended Jesus presents those prayers to the Father.

          Did you ever wonder why most of the collects end “through Jesus Christ our Lord?” It is because the ascended Jesus joins in our prayers, and our prayers join in his prayers. He prays for us as we pray for one another. We are joined in prayer, and as we join in prayer our divisions and separations cease; we are united in God as Jesus prays in the last words of today’s Gospel, “Holy Father . . . that they may be one, as we are one." 

          The Ascension marked for the Apostles the end of the physical presence of the resurrected Jesus.  “As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” But in the physical absence they found a deeper spiritual presence.

          That is true in our experience. Garrison Kellior said of his parents, “I don’t have to call you; I hear you in my head.” We all hear our parents in our heads. Sometimes we hear the critical parent calling us names, but more lastingly I think we hear the nurturing, loving parent with words of praise and support and love, “You’re doing good; keep it up; you can make it.” I remember a 7th grade student telling me that on the difficult part of a ropes course he heard his father’s voice reading from The Little Engine That Could, “I think I can;  I think I can;  I think I can;  I think I can.” The ascended Jesus speaks to us in hard times; we hear his voice by his Holy Spirit.

          Our experience of friends is another example. We go to a camp in Maine at the end of August and as we make arrangements to visit them we think more of friends we haven’t seen in a while. The final coming of Jesus will be like that. (I say final coming because Jesus has come to be really and spiritually present with us in the Eucharist today, in our hearts by faith, joining us in prayer.”)    

“As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." 

          Dean Henry Alford of Canterbury sums it up in a hymn written in 1867 and sung at his funeral four years later:

Ten thousand times ten thousand in sparkling raiment bright,
The armies of the ransomed saints throng up the steeps of light;
’Tis finished, all is finished, their fight with death and sin;
Fling open wide the golden gates, and let the victors in.

What rush of alleluias fills all the earth and sky!
What ringing of a thousand harps bespeaks the triumph nigh!
O day, for which creation and all its tribes were made;
O joy, for all its former woes a thousand-fold repaid!

O then what raptured greetings on Canaan’s happy shore;
What knitting severed friendships up, where partings are no more!
Then eyes with joy shall sparkle, that brimmed with tears of late;
Orphans no longer fatherless, nor widows desolate.

Bring near Thy great salvation, Thou Lamb for sinners slain;
Fill up the roll of Thine elect, then take Thy power, and reign;
Appear, Desire of nations, Thine exiles long for home;
Show in the heaven Thy promised sign; Thou Prince and Savior, come.