Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Taking the Gospel Cure: A Sermon for Proper 21B 2015

Proper 21B

[Listen to the sermon here.]

The great writer G. K. Chesterton was once asked by a British newspaper to write an essay in response to the question: “What is Wrong with the World?” Chesterton wrote back with just two sentences: “What is wrong with the world? Me.”

It’s always easier to point fingers at the failings of others or to blame circumstances beyond our control. But using humor, Chesterton made the important point that we need to look at ourselves - into the depths of our own hearts and souls - to discover the root cause for what’s wrong with the world. And the root cause is summed up in our Christian vocabulary by the word “sin.”

Sin is the problem for which the Gospel is the solution. Or, to put it another way, sin is the sickness for which the Gospel is the cure. And viewed through the lens of Holy Scripture, we discover that we are all infected by this sickness of sin and we are all in need of Gospel medicine.

Over the past several weeks, our Epistle readings from James have directly addressed ways that sin surfaces in our lives and the deadly consequences it can have.

For example, James has warned us that showing partiality to the wealthy at the expense of the poor is a sin that drives a stake into the very heart of our unity in Christ (cf. James 2:1-9).

James reminds us of the dangers of intemperate speech, noting that with the same mouth we both bless God and curse those made in God’s image (cf. James 3:1-12).

James has also cautioned us against nursing bitter envy and selfish ambition in our hearts (cf. James 3:13-18).

Such things create disorder and wickedness of every kind. And if left to fester in our hearts, they serve as the root causes for hatred, bigotry, and even murder. That’s some pretty serious stuff!

We could go beyond the letter of James to look at the letters of Paul and John. We could peruse the four Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. We could go back and read through the entirety of the Old Testament. And all along the way we would find numerous examples of how sin wrecks lives and compromises the life and witness of God’s people.

So the theme of sin as a serious and pervasive problem permeates the pages of the Bible. If we seek to be faithful disciples of the crucified and risen Lord, we cannot minimize or ignore this topic.

So, what exactly is sin? The Catechism in our Prayer Book provides a very succinct and helpful definition. It says: “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 848).

That’s important enough to repeat.

“Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.”

In keeping with Holy Scripture, our Prayer Book confronts us with the difficult truth that we are sinners. Our wills are out of whack. We have a predisposition to serve ourselves at the expense of other people and in defiance of right relationship with God. We have a tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, excusing our own moral lapses while sometimes judging others harshly for theirs. And even when we know what’s right, we are often inclined to give in to the temptation to do what’s wrong.

This predisposition manifests itself in so many ways: addictions, obsession with money or power, harsh judgment of others, uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, jealousy, resentment, divisiveness, racism, arrogance, insubordination, negligence in prayer and worship, the rejection of revealed truth in favor of personal opinion – the list could go on and on.

Living in a fallen world, many of these behaviors can feel natural and right, as though they are just a part of who we are. But in reality, they contradict who God created us to be as persons who bear His image for the sake of loving and caring for the world.

Because we are fallen creatures, sin is not something that can be dealt with by deciding to do things better, as though we can just make up our minds to exercise more willpower and that solves the problem. Sin is not just a matter of doing bad things, in which case the solution is simple: stop doing bad things and start doing good things!

Doing things that contradict God’s will is merely a symptom. Because the deeper problem is that the same will that tries to do better is also the same will that is predisposed to serving self at the expense of God and neighbor.

We’re caught in a Catch-22. And we can’t think or will our way out of it.

St. Paul sums it up in his letter to the Romans:

“For if I know [God’s] law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time” (Romans 7:17-20, The Message).

Paul’s diagnosis is dead on. Over and over again, we fail to do the good we know we should by falling right back into the very patterns of thinking and behaving we know we should reject. And we cannot cure ourselves.

That is the problem for which the Gospel is the solution. That is the disease for which the Gospel is the cure.

In our Gospel reading today, we have a prescription for this disease straight from the lips of our Lord himself. And that prescription can be described as nothing less than radical surgery.

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell …” (Mark 9:43-47).

The shocking language of Jesus’ words reminds us that we’re dealing with a very serious problem that calls for a surgical strike against the root causes of our predisposition to seek self-will rather than God’s will. It’s the spiritual equivalent of open heart surgery.

Biblically understood, the heart is the center of a person’s inner life, character, and intentions. And it is within our hearts that sin has taken root and grows, spreading its deadly tentacles into our thoughts, words, and deeds. For, as our Lord notes earlier in Mark’s Gospel, it is “from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come,” and “they defile a person” (Mark 7:21, 23).

And so we need surgery. Some things have to be “cut out” of our lives – removed from the depths of our hearts – to make room for God’s healing and restoring grace.

We aren’t qualified to perform that kind of surgery on ourselves. Only Jesus the Divine Physician can do that.

This is why it is so important that we regularly receive God’s healing grace in both Word and Sacrament.

As part of a lifestyle of repentance we need daily immersion in God’s Word. For God’s Word is “sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, laying us open to listen and obey” (Hebrews 4:12, The Message). Through prayerfully engaging God’s Word in Holy Scripture, we open ourselves to the ministrations of the Holy Spirit who convicts our consciences and guides us to the One who offers mercy, forgiveness, and newness of life.

As part of our ongoing therapy, we also need to attend weekly worship where we not only hear God’s Word read and proclaimed, but in which we also receive what St. Ignatius of Antioch called “the medicine of immortality” – the grace given to us in the bread and wine of Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. By receiving the Eucharist, we stay connected to Jesus the Physician of Souls, letting his healing love and grace permeate the depths of our being, grounding us in that source of life apart from which we cannot bear the fruits of love and obedience.

The Church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners. And so it is through the Church that we sinners receive the treatment we need for the sickness of our hearts.

Receiving God’s grace in Word and Sacrament opens our hearts to the Divine Physician, allowing Him to gently but firmly cut out the sickness that warps our wills. And then God administers the healing balm of the Real Presence of the Crucified and Risen Christ. Through the Word and Sacraments of the Church, we receive forgiveness of our sins, the healing of our hearts and wills, and the power to amend our lives. We become more fully united with Christ. And the more united we are with Christ, the more we become like Christ, letting His will shape and guide our wills so that we desire what God desires for us.

In Jesus Christ, God reaches out in compassion and mercy to a fallen and sin-sick humanity. For Jesus came, not to condemn, but to save sinners just like you and me. Regardless of what we have done or failed to do, Jesus never stops loving us. For Jesus is God with us and for us. He's always ready to heal us and to free us from bondage to our sins so we may know the joy of abundant life.  And that is, indeed, good news!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life
Such a way as gives us breath
Such a truth as ends all strife
Such a life as killeth death

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength
Such a light as shows a feast
Such a feast as mends in length
Such a strength as makes his guest

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart
Such a joy as none can move
Such a love as none can part
Such a heart as joys in love

Words: George Herbert (1593-1633)
Music: The Call, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Obituary for Someone Else

Surfing around the Internet, I came across the following satirical obituary.  For anyone who's worked in parish ministry for very long (lay or ordained), it strikes a chord.  And it offers a particularly appropriate reflection at this time of the year as many churches are preparing to highlight stewardship issues with annual giving campaigns.

Our church was saddened to learn this week of the death of one of our most valued members: Someone Else. 

Someone's passing creates a vacancy that will be difficult to fill. Else has been with us for many years and for every one of those years, Someone did far more than a normal person's share of work. Whenever there was a job to do, a class to teach, or meeting to attend, one name was on everyone's list. "Let Someone Else do it." Whenever leadership was mentioned, this wonderful person was looked to for inspiration as well as results. "Someone Else can work with that group." 

It was common knowledge that Someone Else was among the most liberal givers in the church. Whenever there was a financial need, everyone just assumed Someone Else would make up the difference.

Someone Else was a wonderful person, sometimes appearing superhuman. Were the truth known, everybody expected too much of Someone Else. Now Someone Else is gone. We wonder what we are going to do.

Someone Else left a wonderful example to follow. But who is going to follow it? Who is going to do the things Someone Else did?

When you are asked to help this year, remember: we can't depend on Someone Else anymore.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Sermon for Proper 18B 2015

Proper 18B

[Listen to the sermon here.]

I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. Over the course of the past month, it seems like we’ve had a funeral every week. And the persons we’ve lost range from those who have lived long, full lives to those who are too soon gone. The pain of loss and grief has cast a long shadow over St. Luke’s during these past weeks. Not only family and friends of the deceased, but all of us as one family in Christ have been affected.

At the same time, I’ve seen this church family live out our mission of caring for one another and bringing others closer to God through Jesus Christ in simple but very powerful ways. From sending food or flowers, to serving as ushers and lay ministers, to hosting visitations, to offering hugs and words of comfort and condolence, members of St. Luke’s have been the hands and feet and loving heart of Jesus Christ to those who mourn. I can’t begin to tell you how profoundly grateful I am to all of you who selflessly step up to the plate of loving service to our hurting brothers and sisters.

Those little acts of love and kindness are effective reminders that in the midst of death, loss, and grief, we who belong to Jesus Christ have reason to hope. It’s true that we live in a Good Friday world. The forces of death and decay seem to get the last word. But as baptized sons and daughters of God, we are Easter people who know that when those who belong to Jesus die, life has changed, not ended. And we know that God has a vision of transformation, not just for individual persons who depart this life, but for the whole of creation.

Today’s reading from the 35th chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah gives us a brief glimpse of this vision of transformation. But to really get the full impact of what we’ve heard our lector read today, it helps to know that the 35th chapter of Isaiah is directly connected to the 34th chapter of Isaiah. And the 34th chapter of Isaiah makes for disturbing reading. As one commentator notes, Isaiah chapter 34 “paints a verbal portrait of despair” “in which the heavens disappear, the land is ruined, streams and soil are poisoned, and only liminal animals and fruitless plants abound.” It’s a vision of utter desolation. It’s a vision of judgment and death that casts a long shadow of fear. It’s a vision of a world without hope.

But then we come to Isaiah chapter 35 and all of a sudden the desert blossoms with new growth and breaks out in joyful song. We’ve moved from judgment, suffering, and death to rejoicing, singing, and healing. It’s a dramatic reversal. And it all hits home with these powerful words:

“Say to those who are of a fearful heart, 
‘Be strong, do not fear! 
Here is your God.’” (Is 35:4)

Say to those whose hearts have been troubled by death, loss, and grief: Be strong. Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid. For God is coming to save His people. God is coming to claim His authority as the world’s true Lord. God is coming to bring exiles back home. God is coming to heal the sick and the brokenhearted. God is coming to free those held in bondage. God is coming to bring light into darkness and new life out of death.

Isaiah presents us with a beautiful vision of salvation that is far bigger than saving individual souls. For this is a cosmic vision of redemption. It embraces the entirety of creation.

In the beginning, God created the world and said, “Behold, it is very good.” But then Adam and Eve’s disobedience brought death into the world. God’s good creation was held in bondage to death and subject to decay. God’s people were alienated from the source of life and from one another. But in Isaiah’s vision of transformation, God promises to do something decisive. God promises to set the world right by bringing justice, healing, and peace. God promises to redeem a sin-sick creation by ushering in a new creation.

The promise is there. But it hasn’t fully happened yet. As we know only too well from all the funerals we’ve had lately, we still live in a fallen world subject to the forces of death and decay. We still live in a world in which loss and grief weigh on our hearts and souls.

When we shift gears from the book of Isaiah to the Gospel according to Mark, we see what a fallen world looks like. For in Mark’s gospel the world is a dark place. People are held in bondage to forces beyond their control, including demonic powers that make them hurt themselves and those they love. Sickness ravages and lays waste to people’s bodies. Physical deformities and disabilities kick people to the sidelines of society, marginalizing them and forcing them to live hand to mouth off of the pity of those who might throw them a coin or a piece of bread. Religious authorities categorize people as either religiously pure or unclean, with the clear message to those deemed unclean that they are beyond the scope of God’s love and care.

This is a world in which hope is a luxury for those who are fortunate enough to be healthy, prosperous, and part of the religious in-group. But in the end, even they must go the way of all flesh.

So much has changed since Mark wrote his gospel. We have iPhones and the Internet. We have instantaneous communication with people all over the world. We have medical advances that prolong our lives.

But almost 2,000 years later so much remains the same. We still live in a broken and fallen world.

And yet, our faith as Christians has the power to calm fearful hearts and banish weakness by giving us the strength to face whatever life throws our way. We can live without fear because God has come near to us in Jesus Christ to heal and to save.

We see it happening in today’s Gospel reading. Impressed by the wit and tenacity of a mother pleading for her daughter, Jesus frees the girl from demonic possession. Once there was no hope. But now there is freedom, new life, and a future to look forward to. And moved by compassion, Jesus heals a deaf mute, giving him the gift of fullness of life and the capacity to be a contributing member of society.

Such exorcisms and healings occur throughout Mark’s Gospel. They serve as signs that in and through Jesus, God’s kingdom is breaking into this world. For Jesus comes to heal us, opening our ears to hear the words of life, opening our eyes to see the beautiful truth of God’s love and mercy, and opening our lips to proclaim praise and thanksgiving for all that God has done for us.

Every time we gather for the Eucharist, we say together the following words that sum up the great mystery of our faith:

Christ has died. 
Christ is risen.

Christ will come again.

These three short sentences sum up the reasons why we can live with confidence and newness of life even in the midst of the most trying circumstances.

For Christ has died. On the cross, he has shared in our sufferings to the point of losing everything, including life itself. He knows what that’s like because it happened to him. And he did it because he loves us.

Christ is risen. Emerging from the tomb, he has triumphed over all the forces of evil over which you and I have no control. And because God raised Jesus from the dead, he has transformed death into a doorway to eternal life. And he did it because he loves us.

Christ will come again. He will never abandon us. He will make sure that all things are put right and made whole. He will take us to be with him and all those we love but see no longer. And he will do that because he loves us.

Even if the whole world feels like it’s falling apart, God is with us. Even in the face of things we cannot understand and that threaten to overwhelm, God is with us. Even when we’re at the end of our rope and we cannot see the way forward, God is with us. For in Jesus Christ, the love of God holds us secure and guarantees that we have a future of abundant life.

God’s love in Jesus Christ is eternal. Nothing we can ever do or fail to do can take that love away from us. Nothing in all creation can separate us from that love. Ultimately, the love of God in Jesus Christ is the only thing that really matters. It’s the one constant in the midst of the changes and chances of this life. And it’s that love that enables us to boldly say with the prophet Isaiah:

“Be strong, do not fear!

“Here is your God.”