Feast Day: Reformation Sunday
Readings: Isaiah 35; Psalm 85

“Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us,” (85:4).

Today we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On October 31st, 1517 a Roman Catholic monk by the name of Martin Luther wrote a list of ninety-five theses and nailed it to the Cathedral door in Wittenberg where he was professor of moral theology. He had hoped to provoke debate about corruption in the Church which he did and it spread throughout Europe like wildfire. Archbishop Justin Welby called it “the viral content of its day.”[1] Within two decades the Reformation rent Europe in two between Protestants and Catholics.

Anglicans are those who are indebted to the Reformation and yet committed to a Catholic vision of the Church. As heirs of the Reformation we give thanks for the emphatic proclamation that it is Christ alone who heals our sinful hearts. Christ alone who brings us home to God. Christ alone. Yet in our commitment to the Church Catholic we ought to lament the fragmentation of the church and commit ourselves to pursing unity wherever possible.

The words of the prophet Isaiah which we heard proclaimed this morning help us, I believe, to honestly assess our present reality and see our way through to the promise of God into which live by hope.

First of all it is important to provide a bit of context. The prophet Isaiah lived in the 8th Century BC during what is considered to be one of the most tumultuous times in Israelite history.[2] Israel herself was a nation cut to the heart by division with a number of tribes combining to form the northern kingdom of Israel and the remaining tribes left to form the southern kingdom of Judah. One people, divided.

In the mid-8th century BC the northern tribes were besieged and carried off by the Assyrians. By the turn of the century the southern tribes had met much the same fate at the hands of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, leaving the kingdom of Judah—home to Jerusalem/Zion—ravaged.

It is into this context—one of a people divided and torn asunder by strife and foreign powers—that Isaiah speaks the word of the Lord. The passage that we heard read signals a note of hope. Despite the fact that Israel is at present cut to the heart by division and under God’s judgement it remains true that God is using all of this, their stubbornness and all of the calamity that has befallen them, to refine them and bring them into a future that he has not only promised but is preparing.

The whole passage speaks of Israels return from captivity to Zion, to that great city where they will be at home with their God. Yet it is held up as a promise, as a reality that they are not currently experiencing but towards which they are being brought: “They shall see the glory of the Lord.” “He will come and save you.” “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened.” “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way.” “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return.” All of this shall be but is not now. For now it is a promise. A promise that Israel is to cling to and not forget.

Israel’s present is like a parched desert in which nothing much can grow. But when the Lord their God comes to bring them home then that arid and dull land will burst forth with life and beauty: “Like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly.”

Another figure of God’s promise to Israel is that of a disordered body being made whole again. Weak hands and feeble knees will be strengthened and made firm. Fearful hearts are made courageous and at peace. Blind eyes and deaf ears will be opened. The speechless tongue will sing for joy. The lame shall leap like a deer (35:3-6a).

It is no accident that one of the primary figures the Apostle Paul uses for the Church is that of a body and indeed we are Christ’s Body. And yet at present this body, like Israel in Isaiah’s time, is disordered, out of whack, disfigured, bearing the scars of our division.

Archbishop Justin Welby wrote a piece for a British newspaper last week in which he recalled being at a service of Holy Communion in the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral. Knowing that Anglicans and Roman Catholics are unable to receive communion together when Archbishop Welby went forward at the time of communion he knelt down to be prayed for by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster. Recalling what happened next the Welby wrote: “He took my hand and lifted me to my feet. Both of us had tears in our eyes. We are the closest of friends, and being reminded of the divisions in the global Church pains us both very deeply.”[3]

Here is the point: the wounds of our division obscure our witness to the world. Recently a faithful Roman Catholic woman visited St. John’s on a week when we used the liturgy for Holy Communion from the Book of Common Prayer. After the liturgy had ended she made a comment about how familiar it all felt. “Why are we divided?” she wondered. If this is what people of faith wonder we can only imagine the ways in which our division trips up those who are not yet believers. In this way our division is literally a scandal to the gospel.

Yet the wounds of our division cut deeper still. If you know your Church history you know that ecclesial division has very often led to brutal violence and murder. A Professor and mentor of mine from seminary wrote a book a few years ago about Church division which was initially titled Division is Murder. Murder in the sense that we kill one another but even more-so in the sense that division tears apart the one Body of Christ. The title of his book was later changed by the editors to A Brutal Unity, indicating that the way to unity, the overcoming and healing of our division is a costly enterprise. It comes at the cost of Christ’s own life.

“A highway shall be there,” proclaimed Isaiah, “and it shall be called the Holy Way.” “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing.” This is true for the Church as well. At present we are divided and this division is a scandal. Yet Christ is bringing us home, calling us into a future in which the wounds of our division are healed and we are made one. And that highway, the Holy Way, upon which we the broken and divided Body of Christ travel is the broken body of Christ himself, once offered upon the cross and now in this Eucharist. As Isaiah writes elsewhere: “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed,” (53:5).

We cannot heal the wounds of our division, that alone Christ can do and he begins to do so as he heals our sinful hearts. This is the great emphasis of the Reformation. That our salvation is bound up in Christ alone and our trust in him. Yet in the Gospel According to St. John Christ himself prays prays for his followers saying: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one,” (John 17:11). We like Jesus to answer our prayers but I want to end with a petition that we be a church that strives to answer his prayer, that we be one.

I believe that one of the gifts of Anglicanism is to help us to see how we can be heirs of the Reformation in a way that conforms to a Catholic vision of the Church. So let me end with a few modest proposals.

First, and chiefly, submit yourself to the Word of God in every area of your life. Let the Bible stand at the centre of your life and feast upon it daily. Plumb the depths of Scripture which can never be exhausted and approach it with the faith that the living and risen Jesus is waiting there to meet and address you.

Second, submit yourself to the Sacraments. Approach the Eucharist with the faith that Christ gives himself to you in the form of bread and wine. Trust that God really gives you a share in his life and love in these seemingly ordinary things.

Third, as you do this, submit yourself to Christ’s judgement. For the Christian, every day is judgement day. Let the light of his word and his presence shine into the recesses of your heart and mind and let him purify any dark way that is in you. Let his love heal your sinful heart.

Forth, study the faith. Be not content simply to have faith but seek understanding as well. Read broadly. Pick up something by Irenaeus, Chrysostom, Augustine or any of the Church Fathers. Read something by the contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologian John Behr or by Pope Benedict XVI. Heck read some Calvin while you’re at it and some Richard Hooker too.

Fifth, bear with one another in love. Recognize that the baptismal bond we share makes us brothers and sisters and this should make us slow to sow dissension. Also, be quick to reconcile with one another. Do not withhold from others the mercy Christ has given you.

Finally, pray for unity. Really pray. Pray for other churches. Pray for persecuted Christians. Pray that Christ would give us the will and ability to do all we can to work for the unity of the Church.

May the words of the Psalmist be ever on our lips: “Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us,” (85:4). Amen.

Endnotes
[1] Justin Welby, www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/justin-welby-luther-s-historic-act-did-so-much-to-shape-the-world-we-live-in-a3669686.html
[2] Old Testament Survey, 279.
[3] Welby.

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Feast Day: Pentecost 20
Readings: Matthew 22:15-22

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)

Perhaps the most important part of our gospel reading this morning is not what Jesus says but rather what he does not say. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We know what belongs to Caesar but what belongs to God? What are we to render unto God?

Our reading this morning asks to be understood in light of what has just come before in Matthew’s account of the gospel: “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.” Then. Their attempt to ensnare Jesus, to back him into a corner and force him to indict himself, comes on the heels of that reading we heard last week. The parable about the wedding banquet. The story Jesus tells to highlight the incomprehensible mystery of God’s grace and his desire to have the company of each and every human creature. The Pharisees—the religious leaders—had just heard this and what is their response? They conspire against him. That is, they embody those who were invited to the feast but who shrug it off as if it were of no interest to them. Not only that but they even plan to do-in the Son himself.

And so that Pharisees send their own disciples to him, along with the Herodians. The Herodians and the Pharisees were unlike in many ways except they were united in their opposition to Jesus. Here it is the Pharisees and Herodians plotting against Jesus but in a few chapters on the morning after his arrest just before he is taken to stand before Pontius Pilate Matthew writes that, “all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death,” (27:1).

In the gospels, opposition to Christ begins as a small seed planted in the hearts of some religious leaders but by the end it has grown into a full-fledged resistance. It is the crowd, that mass of humanity aligned in opposition to Christ, that cry out, “crucify him!” (27:23). And during the tumult of Holy Week we find that even we ourselves are caught up with the crowd.

So they go to try and catch Jesus up in his own words and after buttering him up a little bit they hit him with it: “Tell us, then, what do you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” They’ve got him now. The matter of Jews paying taxes to Caesar was one of the hot topics of the day. How Jesus responds matters greatly.

If Jesus says “yes” then it appears as if he is colluding and collaborating with the enemy which would anger those Jews who sought liberation from Rome’s oppression. On the other hand, if Jesus says “no” then it looks like he himself is signing up to be the next in a line of renegades that would take up the case of Israel’s liberation with the sword and lead a violent rebellion against Rome.

The books of I and II Maccabees tell the story of Judas Maccabeus whose revolt against the civil authorities when Jesus himself would have been a boy was mercilessly crushed and left bodies hung up on crosses along the roadside. For the Pharisees it did not matter whether Jesus answered “yes” or “no” for either answer would have accomplished the goal of alienating Jesus from the people.

In every age the Church faces similar temptations to the hot topics of the day. Lean too far in one direction and we are in danger of capitulating to the culture altogether. Lean too far in the other direction and we are in danger of forming a holy huddle, forgetting that we are called to love the world that Christ has made and to work for it’s flourishing. Yet Christ calls us each in our own time to walk that narrow path between both of these ditches. The narrow path of being a distinctive people that have been set apart, with our own strange practices and languages that nourish our faith in Christ, while at the same time working for the good of the world that Christ loves and gave himself for and inviting others to find their life in following him.

A contemporary example might be the matter of human sexuality which if you pay attention to Anglican insider-baseball you know is a live debate in the global Anglican Communion as well as here at home in the Canadian church. This week a new website was making the rounds in my social media circles. It’s a website that literally scores churches on whether or not they are LGBTQ affirming and how clearly their website communicates this. “We believe,” states the website, “that ambiguity is harmful.”

I imagine that there are those of us who would like to get Jesus on record with that question. “Tell us, Jesus, what do you think? Should the church be affirming of the LGBTQ community or not? Yes or no?” And I imagine that Jesus would have a way of turning the question back on us to both challenge our unspoken motives while calling us deeper into our commitment to him and him alone. Because the way of Jesus does not line up all that well with any particular party or worldview. You cannot hijack Jesus to serve your own ends, try as we might. And when we do Jesus simply calls us deeper, calls us to set aside our political maneuvering and rest in him alone.

As we heard Jesus settles the debate by pointing out the fact that the Roman currency used to pay the tax had the likeness of Caesar imprinted upon it. In essence what he says is, “This is the property of Caesar so go on and give it back.”

Christians have commented here on the relationship between the Church and the State and on the Christian duty to the State, within reason. In Jesus’ words here he both dignifies and limits the State. Limits, because sometimes the State is hungry for more. Sometimes the State wants everything and the 20th century provides a litany of one murderous dictator after another that over-stepped the boundaries of the State.

Even now we hear concerning rhetoric coming from down south. Talk of, “respecting the flag,” and so on. Suddenly the most powerful man on earth is very concerned with how football players conduct themselves on the sideline and demands total and unflinching allegiance to country. Yet as one New Testament scholar has said, “the State becomes demonic in the measure that it asks for itself, “the things of God,” such as total commitment, unconditional obedience, or uncriticizing allegiance.”[1]

Here we are now back at the question with which we began: What are “the things of God” which we are to render unto him? As noted Jesus leaves that question hanging out there for the Pharisees and more importantly for you and I.

However, by the end of the chapter Jesus will say two things that point us in the right direction: “He is God not of the dead, but of the living,” (22:32) and, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” (22:37). That is to say, God gives life and sustains it only to invite us to offer it back to him in love.

That this scene takes place during Holy Week as Christ is on his way to the cross where he will offer his life unto the Father for the sake of the world only underscores this. And in calling us to follow him you and I are invited to take the same leap into the merciful arms of God, casting aside all else.

Why? Because we belong to God. The Roman denarius may bear the image of Caesar but each and every human creature bears the image of God and those who are in Christ are being transformed into his likeness. It is therefore God and God alone who can claim you as his own. Only God can claim your total allegiance and obligation and he does indeed do so. You are his and he fashioned you that you might learn to render unto him the love that he has given unto you.

In our Tuesday small group study we have been reading Rowan Williams’ book Being Disciples. Along the way we have come face to face with the challenge of following Jesus. If you’re going to be with Jesus the bar is very high. There is no area of your life that he does not claim as his own. He is not interested just in your Sunday morning worship but in you yourself. He wants to invade every square inch of your life with his love and invites you to relinquish control of yourself to him. There is no middle ground. You’re either in or your out.

Needless to say not many of us who gather on Tuesdays feel particularly qualified. And yet those who struggle to give themselves to God will find that he is rich in mercy. As the Lord says to Moses: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest,” (33:14). They will also find that if they give their life to God he will return it 100-fold in his Son Jesus Christ. Render unto God the things that are God’s. Render unto God your very self. Amen.

 

Endnotes
[1] Frederick Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, 400

Feast Day: Pentecost 19
Readings: Matthew 22:1-14; Philippians 4:1-9

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”

The parable that Jesus tells in our gospel reading this morning is a challenging one. And it ought to be. Jesus told parables not to comfort and console but rather to jolt his hearers out of their slumber with startling news. Sometimes that’s what we need. We need the Holy Spirit to grab us by the collar on occasion and give us a good shake so that we stay alert and sober, rather than drifting off to sleep.

This morning Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven. He wants us to know what life with God is like. So Jesus tells this story about a wedding banquet to highlight the great love and mercy of God and his desire to lavish that love upon his creatures. There is a lot going on in this parable but the king is the real actor. In fact, he’s the one with all of the speaking lines. So it would be fitting for us to focus our attention this morning on the figure of the king.

What does Jesus tell us about the king? Three things: the king invites, the king clothes, and the king judges. Let’s look at each of these briefly this morning.

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” Here is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, and he’s giving us an image of what life with God is like and what does he pick? Is it the image of a hermit hidden away in the woods? Is it the image of a classroom full of students with their noses in the books? No. It’s the party of the century. A royal wedding.

Now, I don’t know what you think life with God is supposed to be like. I don’t know what your parents told you when you were young or what others have since told you about the Christian life. But if you think about following Jesus Christ and the joy of a good party doesn’t come to mind then you’re missing something.

And we Christians are often to blame! A few years back Pope Francis lamented the fact that many Christians leave mass looking as if they were coming from a funeral. May that not be so for us! May we leave here each week, faces aglow with the glory of God as was the case for Moses when he descended the holy mountain.

Alright, now that I’ve got that out of my system let’s move on. So the kingdom of heaven is like a king who throws the party-to-end-all-parties for his son who is getting married. And what does the king do? The king invites.

He sends his servants out to everyone who’d received the save-the-dates months back. But they wouldn’t come. So he sends out his servants again to say what a grand affair it is. Everything is ready! The food is piping hot! Please, come! But still they refused to come. “They made light of it and went away,” Jesus says. In other words, they didn’t give a damn.

Some of the invitees simply went off about their own business. But others seized the king’s messengers and killed them. As a professor of mine once said, “This is not only refusing to attend Mom’s thanksgiving dinner, but going on a senseless rampage when she says to turn off the TV and blowing up the car in the driveway.”[1] Enraged, the king himself sends out the troops to destroy the murderers and torch their city.

A brief comment about the violence in this parable which surely strikes us as irrational. First, some commentators have said that it is exaggerated in order to get our attention. Second, the violence within this parable has to be understood within the context of Jesus’ last days. Matthew has this story told during Holy Week. Jesus is on the way to the cross where he will suffer terribly and unjustly. So this parable anticipates, tragically, the treatment that Jesus will receive from his own people as from the pagan rulers. The great banquet is ready but Jesus knows what is in store for him.

So, those who had received the first round of invites refused to show up. Yet the banquet is still set and the tables still spread and laden with food and drink. A third time then the king sends out messengers: “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Previously it was, “Go and call those who have been invited.” Now it’s, “Go and call everyone and anyone at all, whoever you can find.”

The servants hit street and round up every one with a pulse, both bad and good, and in the end the wedding hall was filled with guests. Because the kingdom of God is totally indiscriminate. It doesn’t matter what sort of shape your marriage is in. It doesn’t matter if you’re not married at all and you’re shacked up. It doesn’t matter if your mental health isn’t in top shape. It doesn’t matter if you’re not in top shape. It doesn’t matter if you’re addicted to God-knows-what and it doesn’t matter if you have a past that any decent person would consider questionable. Because God doesn’t give a damn about decency. He loves you and he wants you and he refuses to be God without you and he’ll suffer death to make it happen. Because the joy of the gospel is for everyone.

So, the king invites and what else? The king clothes. Because those of us who have been invited to take their place at the table alongside those who did show up cannot enter into the joy of the feast without a wedding garment. What’s that about and where do we get it?

It’s worth saying that actually Matthew does not tell us and that the wedding garment has been interpreted in various ways. Is it holiness? Is it faith? Is it Christian love? To which I would say, yes. The point is that when Christ calls you to share in his life and joy he himself will renew you by the power of the Holy Spirit. When Christ calls you he clothes you with his love and releases you from the fear and anxiety associated with having to pick out your own outfit. Indeed, he clothes you with himself.

“Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” says the Apostle Paul (Romans 13:14). And elsewhere, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ,” (Galatians 3:27). And again the passage from Philippians that we heard this morning: “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any virtue and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you,” (4:8-9).

In other words, when we are baptized Jesus himself gives us a change of clothes and in committing ourselves to love him in return, in setting our minds on him, we enter into that heavenly banquet dressed for the occasion. I like the way one theologian put it: Christ clothes us in his love without measure, that we might absorb his love, understand it, and implement it.[2]

The king invites, the king clothes, and the king judges. In fact, this is a parable of judgement. Just as the Church is constituted by the grace of God’s call so we ought to be sobered by the justice of God’s judgement.[3] But let me ask you, what is the principal judgement in this parable? What’s the judgement in light of which all the other judgements are rightly understood? Is it not the divine invitation with which we began? The invitation is God saying, “I want you at my party.” That’s the principal judgement, that in Jesus Christ every single person—from every street corner and alleyway, bad as well as the good—has been invited to the banquet. This is “a judgement filled with grace, and it never once, through the whole parable, loses its status as such.”[4]

But when this invitation is refused either in distrust, disinterest, or disregard then it simply caves in all around you. It remains grace, however, all the way down. God still wills nothing but the party and he still invites everyone and anyone at all. But if I’d rather sit out in the lobby sulking and complaining about the noise than enter into the warmth and joy of the banquet hall where there is food and drink for all then he’ll simply go and find others who know what a good deal is when they hear it. Notice, however, that no one, absolutely no one finds themselves excluded at the end of the parable that wasn’t invited in the first place. We are judged simply by our acceptance of a party that is already underway and that Christ has paid for at the price of his own death.[6] All that counts in the end is his grace and our trust in it.

You and I are invited to this kind of banquet every single day of our life and even now in this Eucharist. Christ himself has fashioned garments for us and he has spent all he has on this outlandish banquet so that by his love and poverty we may be made rich. Will you join in? Will you say ‘yes’ to the feast? Will you put on the beautiful garment of love that he has made just for you and in your size?[7] In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Endnotes
[1] Christopher Seitz, http://stmatthewsriverdale.org/01/the-parable-of-the-wedding-feast/
[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Light of the World, 135.
[3] Frederick Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, 386.
[4] Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgement, 461.
[6] Ibid 459.
[7] Seitz.

Feast Day: Harvest Thanksgiving (A)
Readings: Deuteronomy 8:7-18; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Luke 17:11-19

“You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.” (Deuteronomy 8:10)

Harvest Thanksgiving is a time when we celebrate and give thanks for the giftedness of life, the abundant goodness of God’s creation, and above all for the love of God in sending his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, to reconcile us to God. “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.” Or to use the language of Paul in the Epistle: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Cor 9:15).

Thanksgiving, or gratitude, is a virtue that ought to mark the life of God’s people. This was the case for Israel as we heard in our reading from Deuteronomy but it is also the case for us today. How do we become a community that is growing in gratitude to God? Like Israel we remember and we eat.

Remembering and eating cultivate the sort of thankfulness that Christians are called to embody in the world.

In our reading from Deuteronomy Israel has been liberated from slavery in Egypt and we hear something about the home that God is going to give them: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.” (8:7-10)

There are two things I want us to notice about the land here. First of all, the land is pure gift: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land.” Israel is being brought to the land. The promise of land, of a home, is not based on Israel’s good behaviour but rather on the faithfulness of God and their arrival in the land will be God’s own doing.

The second thing for us to notice about the land is just how fruitful and good it is. Everything about it is utterly gratuitous. It is bursting with life and beauty. Listen to how the author of Deuteronomy describes it: “a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up.” The land is dynamic. The waters flow and well up. Furthermore, there is wheat and barley yes, but what else? Fig trees and pomegranates, olive trees and honey, and of course vines for the production of wine. No hum-drum melba toast here. No what we have are all the fixins for a banquet.

And what are the Israelites to do once they arrive in the land? Two things. Eat: “a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing…You shall eat your fill.” All the world is a gift that we are called to take into ourselves and offer back to God in praise and thanksgiving. And remember: “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God…When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.”

Remember, because it is so easy for us to forget. In our day and time we have a certain name for this forgetfulness. We call it being “busy.” “We’d love to get out to church more but you know, we’re just so busy.” “I wish I could pray more but I just don’t have the time.” And please don’t get me started about the activities we commit our children to on a Sunday morning! We’re all just so busy running around the place from point A to point B that we forget. We forget who God is and the great love that he has lavished upon us in Jesus Christ. We’re so busy we hardly even notice the giftedness and beauty of all that he has made. In order to remember we need to slow down and take the time to notice.

Take those leperous beggars St. Luke told us about this morning. They stretched out their hands, crying out to Jesus for mercy and he saw them and sent them away healed. Yet only one of the ten lepers seemed to notice. Only one saw that he had been given a great gift in Jesus Christ. And this leper turned back and praised God “with a loud voice.” He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.

In times of plenty remember. Remember the pit that God has saved you from. Remember how he stooped down to your level and poured the fullness of his life and love into your heart. Remember how he cleaned and bandaged your wounds. Remember how he clothed your shame with this righteousness. Remember how he has led you and protected you on your spiritual journey through the wilderness. Remember his loving provision. Remember that every good thing comes to you from his loving and merciful hand. Remember that you do not live purely by physical sustenance but by the sustenance of the Holy Spirit who upholds you in every moment.

Remember and eat. Eat of Christ’s body in the Eucharist. “Eat your fill and bless the Lord your God.” I began by saying that remembering and eating cultivate the sort of thankfulness that Christians are called to embody in the world. I want to end by suggesting that the Eucharist—Holy Communion—is capable of doing this in a unique way because in the Eucharist we not only remember the loving kindness of God in Christ but we eat of it too: “…and, when he had given thanks, he brake it; and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat: this is my Body which is given for you: Do this in remembrance of me.” It is, therefore, in loving the Eucharist that our lives reap a harvest of thanksgiving unto God. Indeed, the word “Eucharist” itself means “thanksgiving.”

The remembrance that Christians engage in during the Eucharist is not simply the remembering of some distant and past event. It is rather a re-membering, a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ once for all on the cross. We are brought into that very moment and stand in awe before Jesus as he gives himself in love for each one of us. In the Eucharist the risen and living Jesus is looking at you.

And we eat. This is my Body. It is not simply a piece of bread that you are eating, it is Christ’s own flesh. When you come to the communion rail and stretch out your hands, as a beggar would, what you receive into your palm or onto your tongue is not simply a scrap of bread to feed your hungry stomach but Jesus himself to feed your hungry soul.

And receiving the very presence of Jesus into your life in the Eucharist you receive forgiveness of your sins and all other benefits of his passion and are filled with the grace and blessing of God the Father. Recall those wonderful words from the Prayer of Humble Access: “Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, So to eat the Flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, And to drink his Blood, That our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, And our souls washed through his most precious Blood, And that we may evermore dwell in him, And he in us.” Thanks be to God!

I want us together to cultivate a profound Eucharistic piety. What do I mean by this? I mean that I want us to be growing in our awareness that Jesus himself is really present to us in the Eucharist. That we truly meet him here in a unique way. That if we listen he really speaks. That as we are open to receiving him he really gives himself to us. That we would love the Eucharist and along with the Psalmist we would enter the house of the Lord with great rejoicing and thanksgiving for the opportunity to really be with Jesus.

We can begin to take small steps to cultivate such a love of Christ in the Eucharist even now. For example, whenever we gather for worship let us come with a sense of awareness and expectation; let us still our hearts and minds before the liturgy so that we are prepared to meet with Jesus; let us kneel down in our pews after we have received Communion and listen to what Jesus may have to say to us. During Advent we are going to introduce some practices as a way of trying to cultivate this sort of devotion and love for the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. In the meantime, let us remember God’s abundant love for us in Christ. Let us eat of his body. And let us be thankful. Amen.

Feast Day: Pentecost 17 (A)
Readings: Matthew 21:23-32; Philippians 2:1-13

“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” (Phil 2:13).

In our gospel reading this morning we are confronted with two questions, one pertaining to the source of Christ’s authority and the other having to do with the way in which this authority extends into the lives of those who would follow him.

First of all we read that when Jesus entered the temple and as he was teaching he was approached by the religious leaders who tried to trap him with a question: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Throughout the gospels people are drawn towards the power and authority of Jesus’ teaching and actions. For example, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7 we are told, “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes,” (28-29). And again after calming the stormy sea his own disciples wonder amongst themselves, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (8:27).

It would seem that everyone in Scripture who meets Jesus is confronted by the question of his authority and power. “What sort of man is this?” is an important question for everyone, then and now, who are drawn towards Christ. There is something different about Jesus but people cannot really put their finger on it, at least not until after the resurrection when they can look back and see and understand finally that his power and authority come from the fact that he is God. To use the language of one of the three creeds of the church, he is co-eternal and co-equal with the Father in heaven.

As Jesus says elsewhere in Matthew: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him,” (11:27).

If this is true, that the source of Jesus’ authority comes from the fact that he is God and not just a religious teacher or holy man then the implications of this for us and for the world begin to come to the surface. We begin to understand why the disciples left everything to follow him. We begin to understand why many in the history of the Church, including the apostles, are willing to die for their faith. We begin to understand why so many even in our own time are willing to submit their whole lives to Jesus Christ, to give up worldly pursuits and goods for the sake of knowing him—because they see in Jesus, and especially in him crucified, the power and wisdom and love of God at work in the world.

We also begin to understand why some reject Christ, submit him to a mock trial, and have him strung up and killed. Notice that when Jesus flips the question on the religious leaders they are afraid of the answer. Because they know that if they were to answer the question truthfully then they would be faced with a second question: Why then did you not believe him? So what do they do instead? They pretend that they do not know the answer because they fear the implications.

Are we not tempted likewise? How often does the living word of Christ penetrate our hearts and we know what he wants us to do, or we know the answer to the question that he is asking us, but we fear the implications for our own life so we respond as if we simply have no idea? We plead ignorance though we know full well! For those of us with something to lose—power, privilege, wealth, reputation—it can be difficult to submit to the authority and power of Christ. This was the case with the religious leaders in Jesus’ own days. But for those with nothing or little to lose—usually because they have already lost it—the power and authority of Christ is compelling. That is why Jesus said to the religious leaders that the tax collectors and the prostitutes were entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of them! What a thing to say!

This is the scandal of grace. We are judged not on the basis of our moral accomplishments or our moral failings. Being a “good person” does not qualify you for the kingdom of heaven and being a “bad person” does not disqualify you. No, we are judged solely on our response to the mercy and love of Christ. The grace of God is indiscriminate. To quote one commentator, “it lets rotten sons and crooked tax farmers and common tarts into the kingdom, and it thumbs its nose at really good people.”[1] Will you trust in Christ along with the tax collectors and whores or trust in yourself along with the religious leaders?

Continuing on in our gospel reading, Jesus tells a parable about two sons and what we learn here is that for Matthew faith is more than simply an intellectual exercise. Faith is obeying. Faith is going out to work in the vineyard. This morning’s reading, about the authority of Christ and the obedience of faith that gets to work in the vineyard, maps nicely onto the very last words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. There the risen and living Jesus meets his no-doubt-bewildered disciples and says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” (28:18-20).

Every single person who recognizes the authority and power of Jesus and places their trust in him is sent: “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” Not tomorrow. Go today. And this is the task of the whole church. You know, when I was being interviewed to be your priest the committee asked me a few questions along the lines of, “What are you going to do to grow our church?” Because you see, the assumption is that evangelism is the work of “paid professionals.” But brothers and sisters, let me tell you, it is a holy task entrusted to us all. Do you trust in the authority of Christ Jesus? Then hear his words to you: “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.”

I had two experiences within the last few weeks that made me stop and pray. The first was a conversation I had with someone who was recalling to me the ministry of another priest. This priest, I was told, had been at the church for about 15 years and when he left the church was at about the same attendance level as it was when he started. And this was heralded as a victory in light of the more common narrative of church decline.

The second experience I had was at a gathering of clergy. Part of the conversation was about how the growth and decline in their area was due in part to Anglicans moving from one Anglican church to another.

Friends let me tell you, our task is not simply to stem the tide of decline. Our task is not simply to recruit Anglicans that are new to our area. Rather our task is to make new disciples of Jesus Christ. To nourish our own children in the faith and life of the church and to proclaim the gospel to people who have never heard it before.

Of course, this is ultimately a work of the Holy Spirit but we need to recognize that if we are not going to be about the business of making new disciples then we might as well close up shop. “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” I was so pleased that our little church had such a big presence at Autumnfest yesterday. Meeting families and pet owners and inviting them to church. You’ll have another opportunity to do this soon. On October 15th we’re going to mark Back-to-Church Sunday. Think now about one person you can invite to church that day. Someone who either hasn’t been before or hasn’t been in a long time. Invite them. Pick them up. Drop them home. Buy them coffee. Do whatever you can to extend the welcome of Christ to them so that they can be with us on October 15th and hear the gospel preached for perhaps the first time.

Let us end with those incredible words from the Apostle Paul that tie all of this together: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” (Phil 2:13). Work out that gift which you have already received in Christ Jesus by faith. Work it out and take it seriously for it is a high calling. And as you work it out recognize that in fact it is God at work in you. You do not have to muster up the will to get out there in the vineyard. The Holy Spirit is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Amen.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, 447.

Feast Day: Michaelmas
Readings: Revelation 12:7-12

“But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death,” (Revelation 12:11).

When you think about what it means to be a Christian what sort of things come to mind? Perhaps living a moral life. Or, maybe, working to make the world a better place. Or raising our children to love Christ. How about cosmic warrior? Let me frame it in a way that you may not have heard before: Christians have a vocation along with the angels to participate in Christ’s defeat of Satan and the powers of darkness. To be a Christian is to be enlisted in a cosmic battle. It is to have one’s eyes opened to the reality of the unseen world that God has made and the reality of evil and darkness, and to fight with the weapons that Christ himself has given us.

Turning to this morning’s reading from the twelfth chapter of Revelation we cast our collective gaze up with John: “And war broke out in heaven.” Michael, the General of God’s army, and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels who fought back but were defeated and subsequently cast down from heaven to earth for, “there was no longer any place for them in heaven.” I love that line. Evil has not a home nor a future with God. There is literally no place for them.

The feast of St. Michael and All Angels is, “explosive and gritty,” cutting to the heart of what is real: “It does not offer escape. It offers blood and sweat and tears, the great struggle for all that is good against the dark desire to destroy it. And it offers the sure and certain hope of victory. This is the feast of the battle won.”[1]

St. Michael and the angels are victorious in this battle but how? “They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb.” That is to say, this is the victory of the Lamb over all that which would oppose him. It is worth noting that this battle scene is inserted into the middle of another scene in the twelfth chapter of Revelation, one in which a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” is in the midst of the agony of childbirth and there in front of her stands the dragon, “so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born,” (12:4).

And this firstborn child we are told is a son, “who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” This language hearkens back to one of the great messianic Psalms (Psalm 2), and this child is of course Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of his people. And yet, here he is, vulnerable, the dragon waiting to consume him.

Lest we think that good and evil confront one another as equals the tension is resolved almost immediately as the baby is taken up to the throne of God (12:5). There is an element of risk here to be sure, but this child is the Son of God and as such is sovereign over every enemy. The dragon’s jaws snap shut, and come up with nothing but air.

The curious thing about this birth scene, however, is that it is followed immediately by an ascension. Which begs the question, when is it that Christ ascends to God’s right hand? Not at his birth but rather after his crucifixion and resurrection. That is to say, the birth in this story is a metaphor for Jesus’ death, “his entry into the only true life, the life of God.”[2] Satan seeks to devour Christ, and thinks that in the cross he has succeeded, but as we heard in our other readings this morning, the cross becomes the ladder which unites heaven and earth and the body of Christ himself is the Way on which the world may walk back to God.[3]

“But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb.” This is a battle that Christians as well as the angels are enlisted in. Just because the Lamb has conquered, those who have been washed in his blood too can conquer. Just because the woman’s firstborn has conquered, so too, “the rest of her children,” (12:17) may conquer. Indeed, some interpreters see in Michael and his angels a figure for Christ and his followers. To be a Christian is to become a participant in a cosmic battle with Christ and the angels against the forces of evil.

This is not, however, reason to perpetrate violence. We take our cues from the Lamb, who conquered his enemies not by the shedding of their blood but by the shedding of his own blood. So too those who are marked by the Lamb (14:1) conquer not by violence but by self-giving love. As the Apostle Paul writes elsewhere: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,” (Ephesians 6:12).

How are Christians to take up arms then in this cosmic battle against the Devil and the powers of darkness? “But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” As followers of Jesus we participate in his once-for-all-decisive victory over the powers of sin and death by “the word of our testimony,” that is by bearing witness to the Lamb that was slain.

For Christians, this starts in baptism for it is here that we are confronted by Jesus Christ the true witness, the one who tells us the truth about ourselves by claiming us as God’s own. And so in baptism we follow Christ into his death that we might follow him into the very life of the triune God.

From there we take up arms and bear faithful witness as we gather around the table and eat and drink Christ’s flesh and blood. And we bear faithful witness as we sing “holy, holy, holy.” And as we pray, “thy kingdom come.” And as we pray for our enemies. And as we live lives of Christian charity and love, giving ourselves in sacrificial love to one another. And as we read and meditate upon God’s word. And as we proclaim the good news of God’s love in Christ to those who are unaware. Each of these Christian practices and more is a blow struck against the devil and your ordinary life of daily faithfulness to Christ in the little things, your struggle to resist temptation and to flee from sin, your struggle to pray and to love one another, all of this is a testimony to the victory of Christ over the powers of darkness.

So do not give up but persevere. And believe not the lies of that conquered devil, the original bearer of false witness, who spreads the false rumor that the Christian life and witness mean nothing to God, that a life devoted to God is a life wasted. For this is how Christians conquer—loving God and loving neighbour, even enemy—by taking the humble road of self-giving, the giving of our whole life as an offering unto God in Christ. This is how Christians conquer because this is how Christ conquered—and we in him—for the life of the world.

“Bless the LORD, all you works of his, in all places of his dominion; bless the LORD, O my soul,” (Psalm 103:22). Amen.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Catherine Sider-Hamilton, http://feastfastferia.wordpress.com/2014/09/26/st-michael-and-all-angels/
[2] Joe Mangina, Brazos Theological Commentary: Revelation, 152
[3] Sider-Hamilton

Feast Day: Holy Cross Day
Readings: 1 Corinthians 18-24; John 3:13-17

“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)

Today we commemorate Holy Cross Day, the day in which the Church recalls with intention and humility that great symbol at the centre of our faith around which the Holy Spirit is gathering a people—the cross.

Holy Cross. The pairing of these two words is familiar to us. Perhaps even comforting. Certainly, they do not strike many of us as odd. But they should strike us as odd for the cross is a great paradox as the Apostle Paul draws out in that magnificent passage that we heard from from 1 Corinthians moments ago: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The word of the cross is foolishness says Paul, scandalous as he puts it a little later. My concern as a pastor is that our familiarity with the cross may mean that it’s scandal and foolishness is lost on us. This morning, on this Holy Cross Day, I want us to try to recapture together a sense of the great paradox of the cross.

The reason why the cross appears as foolishness and a scandal to so many, in our day as well as in Paul’s, has to do with the shame associated with this manner of execution.

Years ago in an effort to try and help another church think upon the great shame of the cross I used a rather crass example, Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ. Piss Christ is a photograph that depicts a small, cheap plastic crucifix submerged in a container of the artists own urine mixed with the blood of a cow. The following Sunday after mass had ended a very gentle and well mannered older woman pulled me aside. She told me that she had been greatly disturbed all week by this image of Christ submerged in such a foul liquid and that she took offense to my referencing it in a sermon. In my mind I pictured myself taking her gently by the hand, looking her directly in the eye and saying, “Precisely. Now go and weep for your sins.”

Of course that is not what I said but she got it. That week where she was unable to get away from the disgust of the image, she began to understand what I want us to understand this morning: the utter shame and degradation of the cross. The humiliation, the condemnation, the abandonment, the casting off as less-than-human of all those who were hung up on the wood of the cross.

In her book The Crucifixion, the Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge devotes an entire chapter to trying to help her readers understand just how shameful a thing it was to be crucified by the Romans. The title of that chapter is ‘The Godlessness of the Cross.’ The Cross is Godless. What does she mean by this?[1]

It is not simply the fact that Jesus died that is the scandal, it is rather the manner in which he died that creates offence.

Crucifixion as a method of execution was never used on Roman citizens. It was, rather, reserved almost exclusively for the scum of humanity. The lowest and vilest of creatures. And the point of crucifixion was to degrade, to rob the crucified person of any last shred of dignity. They were hung up there in public, tortured, stripped of their clothing, and subject to the merciless and diabolical ridicule of passersby. Crucifixion was the means by which human beings were made less-than-human and strung up like beasts. “It was a form of advertisement,” writes Rutledge, “this person is the scum of the earth, not fit to live, more an insect than a human being.”[2] It is this stigma associated with crucifixion that we need to try and imagine if we are to comprehend the offensiveness of worshipping a crucified Christ.

To Jews and Greeks alike crucifixion was just about as low and despised as one could get.  And yet it was precisely into this state that Christ entered, and joyfully so. He subjected himself to the shame and degradation of a crucifixion, he was condemned to the death of a beast, not even of a man. He was rejected and despised, deserted even by his own disciples. A nobody.

The Hebrew Scriptures themselves anticipate the shame of Christ’s crucifixion. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account,” (Isaiah 53:3). Moreover it is written in the book of Deuteronomy, “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon that tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse,” (Deut 21:22-23). Despised. Rejected. Cursed.

This helps us to understand what Fleming Rutledge was getting at when she spoke of the Godlessness of the cross. The cross is Godless because it is totally counter to what we anticipate religious experience is meant to be like. Who would have ever projected their hopes, wishes, longings, and needs onto a crucified man, let alone a crucified God?[3] Christianity is unique in that it is the only religion to have as it’s centre the degradation of its God.[4]

To be executed in such a shameful way was to be rejected by one’s people and cursed by one’s God. Yet from the beginning Christians have worshipped the crucified Christ. This is why Paul said that Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. A shameful death is not the sort of sign that religious people look for when they look for the presence of God. We are like the Jews in that we desire signs from God. God, show me you are real. God, if you are real then remove this suffering from me. Show us some razzle-dazzle Lord! And yet the good news is not that God comes rushing in to save us with a show of flamboyance and strength. But rather that he takes on our human form in Christ, entering into our captivity to sin, only to become nothing, to be weak and powerless, to be mocked and degraded. That Christ helps us in this way, by virtue of his weakness and suffering, turns our expectation of God on it’s head. Folly! Scandal!

Yet this is precisely what God’s love looks like. As we heard in that towering gospel passage this morning: For God so, what? Loved the world. That he? Gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life, (John 3:16). Christ voluntarily and joyfully gave himself up on the cross to be condemned, enslaved, and made subject to death, entering into the deepest darkness of our human condition, and he did so for us—in our place and on our behalf—so that you and I might be liberated from the power of sin and death. Thanks be to God!

A crucifixion is, as Rutledge puts it, totally unsuitable as an object of faith.[5] And yet not only is it an object of faith, for those who are being saved it is the power of God, writes Paul. The love of Christ poured out on that shameful Cross is powerful and accomplishes much. For by the cross we are brought out of darkness into light, out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life. By his suffering and death, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who put their trust in him. Not the cross plus something else. Just the cross. Whatever it is you are facing at whatever moment the cross is sufficient for your weakness. For “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” (John 3:17). And, as we come to the altar rail in a few moments we will eat of the fruit of the tree of the cross, Christ’s own Body and Blood.

It is for this very reason that we must resist the temptation to hide our faces from the cross and to esteem it not.[6] In the same letter that we heard read this morning the Apostle Paul writes that he is willing to set everything else aside except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). My prayer is that we as a church would take the same approach. That the one non-negotiable for us would be the proclamation of Christ crucified. That we would hold on to this more fiercely than we would any of our other beloved traditions, no matter how long “we’ve always done things this way.” If we’re going to be absolutely rigid and uncompromising about anything, let it be the cross. May we be a community that is growing, always growing, in it’s knowledge of and trust in the love of God poured out for us and for the world on that shameful cross. May God grant us the courage to draw nearer to this unimaginable act of God’s love for human creatures. And may we come to know more deeply the wisdom and power of God.


Endnotes:
[1] For these few paragraphs on the shame of the crucifixion I am indebted to the work of Fleming Rutledge. Particularly the second chapter of her book The Crucifixion entitled, ‘The Godlessness of the Cross.’
[2] Rutledge, 92.
[3] Rutledge, 75.
[4] Rutledge, 75.
[5] Rutledge, 75.
[6] Rutledge, 82.