I’m sure you folks are aware of the murders that took place this week in New Zealand (describe briefly what we know so far). As I was listening to responses, one notably stuck out not simply to me, but to many around the world. This was it. It came from a New Zealand senator: “I am utterly opposed to any form of violence within our community, and I totally condemn the actions of the gunman,” Anning said. “However, whilst this kind of violent vigilantism can never be justified, what it highlights is the growing fear within our community, both in Australia and New Zealand of the increasing Muslim presence.” The senator claimed “left-wing politicians and media” would blame gun laws and nationalist views, but “the real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” Let me read this to you again.
I don’t know whether this senator has any belief in any god, or whether he is atheist who believes in a materialistic universe where individuals construct and reconstruct meaning and purpose as they see fit with their own goals or agendas. But our Scriptures have something quite explicit to say to such a response perfect love, God come to us in Jesus Christ, casts out fear. This doesn’t mean that you will not feel fear, that you will not experience being made uncomfortable, that you will not be challenged, or confused, or worried about your present or future; about how your culture, your country, your city, your schools, your customs and traditions are changing. Perfect love doesn’t get rid of events, or how you feel about events, or even the consequences of events. Rather the perfect love who is Jesus Christ come into the world, who fundamentally changes the world when he reconciles us to God, he gives us the true capacity to respond not out of those fears we experience about so many things, so many changes to our lives, our customs, our cultures, but out of thanks for all that we have been leant by God to be stewards over.
Our readings this morning really drive at the fact that Jesus Christ delivers us from evil and death and so we’re asked to live differently, to live and act out of hope, joy and love. And yet, we’re asked for something more. And we’re asked for something more precisely because while we’re still waiting for Jesus’s return when we’re all finally gathered to God, there will indeed be things that scare us, that challenge us, that can cause us to suffer, physically, mentally and emotionally; there are things we are asked to give up, to sacrifice, to let go of. And foremost amongst the things we are asked to let go of, are responses of violence where there isn’t immediate and evident physical threat to our lives.
Listen to what God says to Abram when Abram is afraid. You see, Abram has a problem. Bearing children was essential for the Israelites because this is how they survived and sustained their families, worked their land, fed their families, were able to find food and shelter and protection. But Abram and Sarai couldn’t conceive as it appeared that Sarai (who will become Sarah) was barren. Today this would be very sad, but also not about a matter of survival that it would have been then. Abram with great fear says, my heir cannot be the slave boy, Ishmael, whom I made with Hagar. I must have a child with my wife Sarai. For the rightful heir cannot be a slave, an imperfect heir. And God answers Abram as we know. And from barren Sarah, comes the true heir Isaac. And Isaac of course, as we know, will go on to beget another generation who then begets another. And God says to Abram, see those stars up there, your ancestors, from Isaac, will be more numerous than them. Now here’s the important part. Remember that Abram here was dealing with a really concrete issue of fear: heritage, survival, provision for family, and he’ll have to deal with land and even an order from God to sacrifice his only son who of course Abram thought was to be the one promised to him.
It’s really important that we stop here because in this story, God is telling us a story not just about Abram and Sarai and their fear; he is telling us a much bigger story about his relationship to all of us in our fears. For you see, in this story, we’re actually hearing a repeat of the Fall in the Garden, and of God’s keeping his promise to us on the Cross to reconcile us to him. How so? In the story, Abram represents more than just himself. He represents all human beings in their natural fear about survival and a next generation, but he also represents the first Adam when he reproduces Ishmael with Hagar. Abram could not join with Sarai his proper wife, to produce offspring that could rightfully inherit Abram’s land. Like Adam and Eve, Sarai tells him to go into the forbidden fruit, Hagar, who is not his wife, with whom he is not one flesh, and like Adam, the result is fruit/offspring/Ismael who could not be the inheritor of Abram’s family line and land. Ishmael then represents all of fallen humanity who cannot, by themselves, be in relationship with God, like Ishmael, slaves to sin. And yet still children who were made and belong to God, and so people for whom God will provide just as he does for Ishmael and for Hagar.
But just think about how frightening this is for a moment. Think of the complexity we have going on here: massive fear about survival, fear about being overtaken by enemies, fear of the unknown, fear of people of different cultures and tribes … this is all real stuff that Abram is dealing with and guess what? It’s the same stuff we’re struggling with today.
This is why it’s so important that we see the story about God, within this story about Abram. So here we have Abram, saying, God what on earth, I’ve gone into Hagar because Sarai wanted me to produce a child. But this child, he is a slave. Now let’s move this story into God’s perspective. God gives to Adam and Eve, to Abram and Sarai everything they could possibly need with one stipulation, don’t seek more than I have gifted you with. Sure enough, Adam and Eve do, and Abram and Sarai do. So God says, okay, you have determined that’s how you want to live, I’ll let you live out those consequences. And what are those consequences? Being enslaved to sin we created for ourselves that snowballs in so many ways in every relationship we get into, and in our treatment of other people.
And what does Abram say to God, as will be repeated over and over by generations of Israelites: my God my God why have you forsaken me, please help me, I cannot do this anymore, I am terrified, my enemies are all around me, my body is wasting, my mind is falling apart, my relationships are crumbling, I’m lost, our whole culture is being destroyed, there is violence all around me, even within my own mind, who will take my place, who will follow you from my bloodlines as you promised. And God answers Abram: "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own child shall be your heir." He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And the Scriptures say, “that Abram believed and followed where God led him.” Here, we move to God’s promise, to the Cross, because we can cheat and know that Abram and barren Sarai will indeed bear a child they name Isaac. Again God tells us about himself here. In his faithfulness to God, and so through God, Abram represents God the Father, in being born of a barren woman, Sarai, Sarai who represents the Virgin Mary, baby Isaac is grace, the gift of God, and he of course represents to us Jesus: the pure gift of God. What two human beings through the natural sexual act could not produce – children, born from below, who could live in the Kingdom of God, children reconciled to God – God provided in Jesus’s Virgin birth, his life, his death and his resurrection.
The key here is to understand that our one Scripture passage from Genesis has laid out the one story of God, told from two perspectives. The first perspective we encounter is of course this basic story about survival and offspring to ensure this. This is a story that each one of us sitting in this room shares: how will we pay the bills, what happens if I get sick, what if my spouse is sick and I lose him or her or they change so much, I feel as if I have lost everything; how will my children or grandchildren do in life, will they be okay, this world is changing, no religion, wrong religion, no longer the culture I grew up in; I don’t know about this, I am afraid. And yet the story of Abram and Sarai in their own pedestrian life, in their calling before God, in their faithfulness and righteousness and in their doubt; these bits and pieces of life, just like the bits and pieces of my life and yours, is taken up into the greater story of God who has fulfilled his promise to us in Jesus Christ. No story we have, nothing about who we are – our worst and our best – has not already been taken up by God in Christ through his Holy Spirit. Not one fear we have, not one moment of suffering, or loss or anguish or worry, or agonizing, debilitating despair, has not been met and taken up in God, we see all our stories across the Scriptures and how these are taken up into God, being gathered to him.
This goes for the fears we have about other people; about their distinctions from us, about their customs, languages, religions, or ways. And the issues we have cannot be resolved with simplistic responses because they’re complex. Many people are afraid of things like Sharia law being enacted or enabled in Western countries which would allow for some disciplinary measures that are considered illegal in Western law. I am afraid of this, for example. And yet, to react out of my fear would be to forego the freedom won for me in Jesus Christ that presses me and insists, in fact, that I love my neighbor and even my enemy. That I take the time to get to know my Muslim neighbors, that I don’t cut them off, that I don’t judge, especially out of my fearful ignorance, that I ensure that as they, like Abram, went out from their lands, that I not become territorial about the land God has leant me and my family to steward. In the aftermath of such a heinous act of cowardice, driven by a lack of faith, hope and love, for the gift of grace and life we have received TO SHARE WITH OTHERS, let us ask where we as Christians are in our own lives. How are we sharing our faith and our hope; how are we sharing God’s love with others? Let me end with this written my friend and former colleague, Paul Hand:
The Christian soldier is not the murderer but the martyr. The martyr is fearless to die and has no fear that would lead them to kill. They know that Christ is Risen trampling down death, and that no power of this world can kill a flesh that has already been crucified with Him. However, as St. John Climacus said, the man who doesn't fear God is scared by his own shadow. Those who fear shadows, who think everything is a conspiracy, turn to guns to save them, destroying lives and souls, including their own. May all who fear God be protected from the vain fears of the world. To anyone who celebrates these acts on behalf of my skin color: I know you're out there and I hope I'm as unattractive to you as the "shadows" you fear. I would rather suffer with them than celebrate with you. God grant us love, strength, and mercy. AMEN.
Lent 1, 2019: A homily on temptation
And he became like us – exactly like us, tempted just as we are tempted – yet he did not sin. This is what the writer of the Book of Hebrews tells us. This Jesus Christ, born of a virgin by the Holy Spirit, came into the world and lived among us; became one of us; was tempted just as we are. This is the truth of God’s relationship with us that you and I proclaim in our adoption into his family at baptism, in our weekly confession, thanks, and praise during our Eucharistic service, and in our daily devotions.
As I have been saying throughout Epiphany, this one whom we know to be our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, the thing that is special about him, is precisely how ordinary, how pedestrian, was his life; and yet simultaneously, that precisely his ordinary, pedestrian, day-to-day, week to week, month to month, and year to year faithfulness, is the substance, the content, the manifestation of love, the fulfillment of human life as God intended it, this very human life, filled with trials, temptations and ultimately death, is the very fountain of life. The fountain of water out of an inanimate rock, out of desert, dry bones, and death; the fountain of water that enfleshes once again our dry bones, that restores, by his own blood, the life that flows through our own blood. This very human Lord, we proclaim, comes into the world, suffers and struggles as one of us, lives, is tempted and dies as one of us; and yet this one named Jesus Christ is God, God who came into the world, the Son sent into the world, to change our fate; to change the end we’d chosen for ourselves that we hear about through Adam and Eve.
The first Adam was tempted and chose his own way, believed that he could make of his life and his desires, a better life than the one that he’d been given by his creator. He was not alone of course, who is ever alone when tempted. Those who are tempted are tempted precisely because they live in relationship with others and seeing what others are, what they have, what they don’t have, what they have become or can become, their own distinctions from us – their power, wealth, their success, their looks, their prestige or place or honor, their youth, their capacities, their intellect, their health, their power, their families, their lack of families – their own distinctions from us are no longer goods that God has created, but things that drive us to envy, jealousy, frustration, or maybe lust, maybe despair or disgust, or a sense of self-righteousness built on anxiety and insecurity.
The Second Adam, the one whom we call our Lord God, Jesus Christ, this one, boy was he tempted just as we are. We of course hear about this story of temptation when the Holy Spirit takes him out into the desert, just as he did with Job, just as he’s likely done with many of us, just as he’s done with the entire Church, the whole people of Israel, ‘blown’ all of us have been, out into a figurative desert where we are tempted to cave into those places where we are weak and vulnerable.
Just imagine yourself being Jesus for a moment. Imagine, knowing that you have been sent by the Father, that you are one with the Father. Surely you should be able to bring your own suffering, your own weakness and vulnerability, your own lack of power and control, the fact that people don’t recognize you as God, surely as the Son of God, you ought to be able to bring all these sufferings to an end. Wouldn’t that be an incredible temptation by which Satan could grab you? Thrust yourself off this here tower, turn these stones into bread, worship me, Satan, turn yourself away from your God and hey, then I’ll give you real power, I’ll give you control, I’ll give you wealth, I’ll other people into your hand to do whatever you want them to do. Isn’t this exactly what you desire, Jesus? And what about you Job, Leigh, Irene, Paul, Tyler, Mavis, Shirley … what do you all desire, just, turn yourselves to those things you most desire in your heart, I will bring them about and you will have everything you ever wanted.
We of course know how Jesus responds: We do not live in accordance with the reality God made for us, the world he made for us, if we put everything we are, if we set our hearts and minds, on achieving the things of this world, power, wealth, health, control over our lives, our friends our families, our society and culture. Silly Satan, how blind do you think we are? Does not the light of God that shone on the face of Moses on the Mountain in the desert, who came down that very same mountain with laws for you to live, illumine for you, give you light to see that you are to worship and love God only. Surely you must know the Law, dear Satan, that human beings do not live by bread alone, the figurative bread of this world that feeds your body but not your soul.
Jesus is indeed tempted just as we are. Make no mistake, Jesus had the same hunger we do, had the same need for love that we do (think of what he says in the midst of his worst moments, ‘Father why have you forsaken me),’ he had the same desire to enact his will (‘take this cup from me,’ no, in truth, I have another mission, so I will take and drink this cup and go to the Cross), indeed, in relationship he too had fear, anxiety, a sense of conflict about his desire for basic survival, his desire for love, his desire to love others – his Father, and his neighbor (you and I), these relationships were not neat and tidy, they were complex, nuanced, and filled with people he was supposed to draw to him who instead spit on him, reviled him, turned their backs on him. So surely he must have been tempted to turn away from them, and in so doing, turning away from God who sent him into the world for our sakes.
But of course we know how the story goes. God sent his Son into the world to change it fundamentally. To make it so that all the partial, ignorant, fearful, and sometimes aborent ends we construct for ourselves and others – things we couldn’t fathom at the outset of our conjuring them – he sent his Son so that our broken ways of doing things wouldn’t dictate our fate, our end, our final place and so our very meaning here and now. Jesus came into the world as Isaiah tells us, the suffering servant, the one foretold by every word of Scripture, the God who would come into the world to rescue us from ourselves. The God who would bring us out of Egypt, our own figurative Egypts, where we have trapped ourselves, and been trapped in slavery to sin, to ourselves and our own broken ways, trapped in slavery unable to turn ourselves to our God. God came into the world and led us through his blood, red as it flowed, through the red sea into freedom. The thing is, that desert the Israelites went into, that Jesus went into, it is our world; it is our culture, our country, our city. It is our families, our relationships, our own personal circumstances: simultaneously barren if we allow ourselves to set our minds on ordering our lives solely to the things of this world; and yet filled with the hope of Christ who entered into temptation, into the desert, who there in that desert provided water in the desert for the Israelites, who in our own lives provides the river of life through his own blood when he gave himself up for us on the cross. For in this way, he opened the way for us to cross our own figurative deserts; to let go of the things that tempt us away from him; to step out into this desert of ours – this time where we are waiting for him to come again, to step out and into our lives living them based in hope, based in the love that God first shared with us, knowing that we are not being left on our own to figure it out, but that we have given a home in his house, his kingdom, his life eternal. AMEN.
Last week I talked about God’s commandment to us to love our enemies. One of the things that I said was that if we fail to love our enemies, it’s quite likely that we will end up using them as an excuse to hide the things we find shameful about ourselves: our insecurities, our frustrations, fears, anxieties … the kind of stuff that can become a sort of low simmering anger, that often manifests as irritability, cynicism … that can sometimes even burst into near temper tantrums of rage. It’s much easier to imagine that ‘it’s all our enemy’s fault that we are the way we are,’ than to do the very hard and often painful work of examining our own lives and potentially having to spend significant time and effort redirecting our habitual ways of responding to things. What would compel us to engage in the hard work that is growth? And what does it mean to ‘grow’ anyway?
I’m not sure about you, but I do know that for me, and apparently (having read a lot of the literature), growth is about coming to flourish – that is to live into the person you were created to be. As for what would compel me to grow? That’s an easy one: safety, security, being loved, having purpose, mattering to someone. Here’s the thing – as most of us know – if we rely on transient, ever changing things or people (people who come and go, people who might for one reason or another leave our lives) for safety, security, being loved, and having purpose, at the end of the day, we’re not going to have a solid foundation for the seed we are, for our roots to spread, for our leaves to blossom, for us to weather the inevitable storms life throws at us. Why? Because things and people are, well finite, limited, they hurt us, they leave, they move, they get sick, they die. And as important as these relationships are – and they are exceptionally important for us – they are not the bedrock, the foundation, the cornerstone of our very lives. Your best friend, or your spouse – they might be an essential part of your life, of how you think of yourself (a best friend, a life long friend, a spouse, a parent, a teacher, a mentor, an aunt or uncle), but these people did not bring you into existence, they do not define you completely, and they cannot be with you from cradle to grave, more inward to you than your very own self is to you.
What we all are seeking – however we might pursue it or speak of it – is an unbroken endurance of embrace: of physical, mental and emotional protection, of meaning and purpose, of being desirable and desired, of being desired for who we are even when we find ourselves twisted and broken and fragile in our own particular snaggled ways. Here’s the catch though. You often hear – usually in backlash to the sort of judgmentalism and exclusion that has too often been part of everyone’s experience – that we must love people, ‘just as they are.’
But true love, perfect love, cannot actually do this. Only imperfect love, love that is limited, itself fragile, and pulled in multiple directions without knowing fully the purpose for which it was made – only imperfect love can love people ‘just how they are.’ In contrast, perfect love, will embrace you indeed, and move you to the place, in accordance with the purpose for which that love made you. How do you feel about this? Does this make your neck hair stand on end? Does this sound coercive? Does this sound as if your freedom is being somehow suppressed? I have heard this said many times: I must be free to do as I please; if you love me, you will let me do what I want.
I heard someone say this once. The person who said it was wriggling on the floor pinned down by three persons. “I don’t want my life, this person said,’ ‘I want to die,’ ‘if you truly loved me, you would let me kill myself.’ Those three people, though, they ignored this person’s physical pushes, their thrashing, their cries, their name calling, their rage. They ignored, not because they didn’t love the person pinned to the floor, but precisely because they did. I have seen parents yank children hard, turn around and scold them, even – yes horror – spank them, because the child was inches away from being run over by a car that they were not even aware was there. I have seen parents financially cut off and institutionalize their children who were addicted to drugs, who had eating disorders, who committed crimes.
And in all these cases, wow, have I seen shame. Massive shame, anger, rage, embarrassment, fear, and desire for rebellion. How dare you strip me of my freedom to be me. How dare you judge me. How dare you try to correct me. How dare you try to redirect me. F- you. I want my freedom. Here’s the thing, while our collective human push for freedom has taken many shapes and forms, and our individual lives may have looked like some of these cases, or perhaps in far less drastic ways, one of the things that each one of us shares, are things that – when seen through the lens of perfect love – ought to bring us shame. This, my friends, is sin. Sin takes so many forms that I cannot possibly name the ways it is manifested in our own lives, in our own reasoning, in our relationships with others, in things we do or don’t do, in ways that are unknown to us (that others can often see when we can’t).
The thing is perfect love refuses, actually, to accept us just as we are. If perfect love did that – we would be left thinking, ‘hey, it’s okay to respond in this really nasty way,’ or, ‘it’s everyone else’s fault that I’m always angry or moody, or irritable,’ or, ‘I’m going to constantly criticize this person, never give them credit because I want them to be just like me and what I want, rather than grow into who they actually are.’ If perfect love did not shine light on actions that are taken out of fear, anger, bitterness, envy, jealousy, greed, sloth, gluttony, avarice, and lust, we would be left in a degenerate world where our meaning was solely about what power we could wield over ourselves and others. Don’t let North America fool you my friends. It is constructed solely out of a basic Christian ethic. Our wealth, our education, our medical systems, these all grew out of a basic Christian ethic, not out of a universal human desire to be kind and good. You and I live as we do now not because a good that has so recently been stripped of Christian ethos is inevitable. We live as we do because we grew out of a belief that we had a duty, a mission, a lifelong vocation, to share with everyone whom we encountered, the revelation of God in the very life of Jesus Christ.
Our reading today, about the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ – God’s revealing his presence, his power, his creation of us, his reconciliation of us, his love for us that reshapes how we even think of the good – this is fundamentally about the truth, not A TRUTH, but THE TRUTH, being unveiled. No longer can you and I live our lives as if the truth of God in Christ has been veiled to us. We have been baptized and adopted into God’s family. We are his children through Jesus Christ. In his Holy Spirit, the love he pours out that constitutes his very being, corrects, burns away, chastens, and reforms us into the image of his Son. This is why the disciples bow down if fear: they recognize the truth. God has come, born to us a babe in a manger, God of God, light of light, to show up all those shameful ways we live, the things we think we can hide, not so we can remain in our shame, but so that we can find joy in our being moved by the Spirit, into conformance with the Son, as we stand before God our Father. Paul puts it like this: And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory, the love, the power, the joy of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another … therefore since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry [of sharing the gospel, or proclaiming it in every word and deed that we undertake] we do not lose heart, most particularly when our shame is revealed.” Why? “For we have renounced,” in our baptisms, every time we say our common confession and then approach the alter to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ, “we have renounced the shameful things we hide. We renounce these things so that they can’t be hiding places, so that we can’t make them into idols that allow us to practice cunning, that allow us to evade or proclaim God’s word falsely. We have renounced these shameful things so that opened to the sometimes painful burning away of this chaff of our own lives, this falsity, this presumption, this fear and anguish and anger and bitterness in our own lives, we might be opened to God’s grace, transformed into the image of his Son, and given hope of life now and eternal, in order to sustain this ministry through our own particular tough times, here and now. AMEN.
I have been a Christian now for 13 years. As I’ve said to you before, I came into the Church after a series of pretty tough events: a friend’s suicide, the death of two other friends and a car accident, all within the space of 6 months. I was looking for meaning and purpose after this, because the meaning and purpose I saw around me – of long hours on a job to accumulate possessions, of mortgages, home ownership, marriage, children, old age and death, of repeating the same routine day after day, of constantly being in fear of being downsized or moved on if I didn’t have enough billable hours, of dealing with people who frankly, were jerks, of struggling with friendships that were transient and contingent on people’s jobs, not their relationships – all of these things simply made me feel crushed under the weight of a broken world’s expectations.
I came into the Church with tremendous expectation: the expectation that I would learn the meaning of life, its purpose, its reason, all so I could figure out how to live a meaningful life. I expected Christians to be filled with hope that was grounded in a transcended purpose; a purpose, a God, that would provide to me a reason for enduring life at all amidst all the crap I saw ahead of me. And as you know, I was really excited to go almost immediately into formal theological study. And my first year and a half was really brilliant. I felt like I was on a cloud, soaking heaven in, highly motivated, highly productive, given a specific purpose – to study theology and in particular – the polity or governance of the Church. I was all over message boards, all over theology, philosophy, and political science books, I was responding left, right and center to Anglicans and people of other denominations about issues of law, governance and morality in the Church.
Somewhere along the way, my transcendence bubble burst. And I was left with a really stark reality: Christians really don’t behave any differently from non-Christians. In fact, what I soon discovered is that Christians can often treat each other far worse than would ever be allowed in any secular organization without being disciplined, fired, or even sued.
This discovery didn’t just burst my bubble, it actually made me sink in figurative quicksand of faith and of hope. I actually entered into the desert of spiritual life, sinking into a sort of quicksand of anger, doubt, regret, and, yes, hatred. At first, the hatred flowed from seeing one group of Anglicans as enemies. Could they not see, I thought, that they were wrong, Scripturally, theologically, politically; could they not see that they were the ones tearing things apart. And while trying to engage with a modicum of charity, I really saw this group as ‘the other,’ ‘the enemy,’ ‘those to defeat.’ It was so easy to make them my enemy too because I’m really good at turning people into abstractions, generalities, ideologies. I’m not very good, however, at recognizing people as complex and multifaceted individuals. People who study human behavior would say this is actually a really common trait for everyone. Why? Because when we can group people and label them with traits or ways, we can much more easily dismiss them; we can much more easily retain our ‘in group status,’ and protect ourselves from being challenged, and the painful feelings, the anger, the loss of equilibrium, that can go along with having to potentially change.
So I continued seeing this group of Anglicans as outsiders and this gave me a purpose; it also gave me a ‘team’ of like minded people to work with and for, it made me feel like I belonged. And finally, and critically, it hid the root pain, anxiety, fear, and self hatred that had been at my core for most of my life. If I could have a place on this team, and if I had an enemy to fight, I would be secure; I would matter; I would be valuable. How, by taking apart my enemy; by turning my pain and anger on my enemy, by lashing out with all the bitterness and rage I housed inside, and using my knowledge of human behavior, and my intellect, to strip them down and take them apart.
This worked. Indeed, I felt fantastic, purposeful, strong, no longer wandering, no longer lost. Until I didn’t. I’d read this passage before, heard it read in Morning Prayer, but to me, the people I was fighting weren’t enemies, they were sinners; they were wrong; they deserved my judgment, my condemnation, my dismissal and my refusal to engage them, my writing them off or gossiping, my plotting against them. But one day in Morning Prayer I heard these words differently: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you … for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."
It finally clicked for me that I had actually made these people, these Anglicans, these children of God, my enemy. Why? Because I had presumed and pronounced judgment AS IF I WERE GOD; because I had condemned, as if it were my place to condemn, I had written them off not even as enemies, but basically as non-Christians, which removed them from the mercy God speaks of in this passage. There was nothing to forgive for they weren’t repentant, and I rigidly held that their obstinacy had already placed them outside of God’s mercy.
In that moment of hearing that verse read – for whatever reason – it suddenly struck me that Jesus was judging me. My own judgment and condemnation of others, Jesus was condemning. Why? Because in trying to draw me to himself, Jesus was forcing me to let go of what stood in the way of receiving his forgiveness and mercy. My condemnation was a shield to protect me from my own anguish, fear, frustration and pain. My making people into an abstract group with an ideology rather than people with complex hearts, minds and motivations, and my condemnation of that abstract group, was actually an unconscious response to my own fear of rejection of not being loved, of taking out those feelings by acting them out on others.
This was standing in the way of me letting go of my own ‘stuff’ and going up to God and saying, God, I am a broken sinner who lashes out because I am sad, I am scared, I am angry and lost, I am hurt, please help me. Instead, I built an idol out of my hatred and condemnation of my enemies: look, look at me, look at me climb my babel tower made up of intellectual thrashing of others, of gossiping about others, of speaking ill of others. I built an idol of false faith, an idol build on sand, the sand of my insecurity that was bound – if I was to remain following Jesus – to be blown away by grace.
This is when the cracks in my pseudo armor of faith began to appear. My faith was not based in love; for love doesn’t have to fear; my faith wasn’t based in love, because to truly trust that God was healing and would continue to heal me, I would not need to condemn, to lash out, to use vitriolic words, to gossip or hurt others, or to base my entire self worth on being accepted by a group who’s basic arguments I never even really examined or challenged. I was utterly blind in my devotion. This isn’t to say this group was necessarily wrong, but only that I would never have known that because they gave me a forum for my own personal idolatry. And every group, everywhere does this of course. And oh are we tempted to claim membership in those groups that grant us our own personal desires, as inhibiting of grace for us as those might be.
You see, loving your enemies, as Jesus calls us to here, isn’t about simply accepting the actions or words of those with whom you disagree. Rather, loving your enemies is about HOW you treat those with whom you vehemently disagree. Why? Because HOW you treat your enemies, as Jesus puts it, ‘the measure of what you give to others, will signify whether you truly have received the grace of God. If God says, “love your enemy,” and you condemn them instead, can you really say that you are motivated by grace; can you say you are truly following God in Jesus Christ? In a sense then, Jesus’s message is very simple: you can know yourself before God by your works, by how you treat those, by how you respond to those who you consider enemies. Your response to your enemy – whether long term enemy, or someone whom you are exasperated with in the moment – reflects where you believe yourself to stand with God. For perfect love that is God come to us in Christ casts out fear and allows us to live with other people, even when suffering, with hope that presses us to respond to them with humility, patience, kindness and charity. These are the fruits of the Spirit for a reason my friends, they indicate a life that is bound to and willing to carry one’s own cross while following in the pathway and life of Christ as he walks through this world of ours encountering friend and enemy alike. AMEN.
One of the things I like to spend time doing is talking to people – random people and often strangers – about their lives. It’s a bit weird I know, but I am simply fascinated by how distinct and diverse are people’s experiences and perceptions of the world. Sometimes they really freak me out, and sometimes I find people utterly fascinating. As a Christian, and as a type of critical evangelist (in other words I don’t stand on street corners shouting about the benefits of beliefs or that non-believers are going to hell), I have actually often found it quite difficult to admit that I’m a Christian, let alone speak publicly about my faith.
Why? Probably for the same reasons you find it difficult: if the foundation of our faith cannot be measured by science, and is therefore utterly out of the ordinary for anything we know, well, it can be awfully difficult to not sound potentially crazy, not very bright, easily snowed, or just looking for a crutch rather than constructing my own purpose and value.
But Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church this morning declares that it is precisely an ‘out of our ordinary experience event’ that grounds our hope. Listen to what he says, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”
Let’s look at Paul’s proclamation here first: last week we heard in Corinthians, what the Church has declared as a credal statement: that is, a summary of the main points of the faith. These points or this creed provides a declaration of who the Christian faith is about, and it also provides limits as to what we can and cannot say about this faith of ours (that’s what a Christian Creed provides). The foremost thing Paul tells us as having been passed on to him is this: Christ was raised from the dead. You see, just as in our times, apparently some in the Corinthian Church (and of course those outside the Church) were saying, ‘oh come on, no one is raised from the dead, this just doesn’t happen.’
Maybe, just as today, people then too thought it was a kind of metaphor; symbolic wording to represent a kind of figurative reality: Jesus did all these wonderful things to show us, by example, how we should really live. Jesus’s life was a nice moral lesson for us so that we could proclaim a kind of figurative being raised from the dead. Paul says to those who believe this, ‘my friends, if it’s really true that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was not raised from the dead, then we’re actually left in a really bad state. Why?
Because we’re going to be left in our sins. We’re going to be left in a world where those with power and wealth, those who have material goods and who get lucky and have plenty, are born into good families, don’t get sick, we’re left in a world where they matter and most of the rest of us are pretty irrelevant. Because that’s how a world that thrives in sin looks: the powerful – whether that power is gained honorably or through corruption, greed, using, building life on the backs of others, crushing or even killing others, so you can gain power – those powerful people are the true winners even if they step on others to win. That’s the ultimate end or telos of a sinful world: anything goes, the only purpose is given by those who have the power to make purpose.
So then if Christ has not been raised from the dead, Paul’s point is that the world will not have changed. We will be left to death where our lives have meaning solely in accordance with what we achieve and accomplish here on earth, the power and legacy we leave. And if this is so, then our hope is grounded on our capacity to gain power and control and to do so by any means and in any way we need. So if this is what we believe, we’re now setting our lives on things that Scripture tells us are going to perish and have no ultimate meaning, even if we think they do.
Next Paul says, folks, if Scripture is true – that God has come into our world for our sakes, that he has overcome our sinful choice to live without him by himself in Christ, choosing the Father – if Scripture is true that this willing obedience and faithfulness and love of Jesus for his Father has overcome death and achieved God’s command that we love him first, then if we say that the dead are not raised, then “we are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ--whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.”
And here’s the real clincher. Paul says, folks we have a real problem if we can’t affirm that Christ was raised from the dead: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Again, if Christ has not been raised, the gospel has no power. Why?
Because a mere example of how to live, well those are a dime a dozen. They may change a life here and there, maybe a few thousand lives, but they do not change the world. Paul’s claim here is bold: when God raised Jesus Christ, when Jesus Christ rose from the dead, from the Hell where all of us were headed, he didn’t provide a mere example, he fundamentally changed our final destination, he literally brought us from death, into life now and eternally. This is not something that someone who just provides an example of how to live can provide. Someone who just provides an example or a good way, will meet the same fate as all others: death. But God, as the Scriptures say, is not confined by what he created for he himself is not created; he is eternal, and therefore, he alone has the power to raise us from death into eternal life with him. This is the part that really matters for us.
Paul declares the central claim of the Gospel: But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. If Christ, fully God and fully human being has been raised as the ‘first fruits,’ than all other human beings, whether we are talking about Abraham and Sarah, or you and I, have not only our very existence, our being, in him, but we also then find out what our lives mean when we look at his own life and see where we are right now, 5 years ago, where we want to be, before him. The Scriptures proclaim to us that they are a mirror for us to hold up. The one who creates the reflection of us is Jesus Christ himself, we walk, run, live, work, sleep, do good, do evil, give birth, get sick, and die, in his reflection, in the shadow that his own body casts on our personal lives.
We hear in our Gospel lesson today, that those who struggle by our world’s measures and standards, will be blessed by God. It is not that those who struggles, or suffer are somehow doing so because this is a good thing; rather in a fallen world, for one reason or another, struggle and pain and anguish and loss of capacity, of another, of power and control, are simply inevitable. But this is not how we are judged or viewed by God. God sees those who struggle to sustain, to survive, to find the truth, and he says, I will have mercy on you and I will forgive you. I do this, God says to us through Paul here, not because any of you deserve forgiveness or life more than any other – you are all fallen and all are incapable of being faithful to me – no I do this because I have come for you in Jesus Christ my Son, just as I told you.
If we take hold of this promise God made to us, we can let go of the things that hold us back from seeking truth. We can let go of our need for power and control, for revenge, for certainty, for accomplishment, and we can live with others acting out of our faith with patience, kindness, perseverance, endurance and love. To recognize that Christ was raised from the dead is a gift. It is the gift of love itself, that poured out abundantly, enables us to live by faith rather than by sight. It allows us to live beyond the fears this world so often leaves us with. It allows us to step in – not to the mere example – but to the reality of life which is being conformed to God himself. AMEN.
So last week I talked about who this God of ours is. I said that God is The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In theology speak, we say that he is one substance, but three persons. So we have to say of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that in every single act we hear about in Scripture, The Father, the Son and the Spirit are acting together. The Spirit isn’t going to do something distinctly from Jesus, different than or ‘new’ that Jesus or that the Father has not done. It’s actually impossible for the three Persons of the one God to act distinctly since, they are the very same, one God.
Now the reason I went into this bit of challenging and confusing theology, is because I said I wanted to guard against one thing: presuming that that you or I, or even one church, or one part of a church, could claim that they had the leading of the Holy Spirit, for example, and that no other individuals or Churches did. Or alternatively, to guard against the idea that usually the Holy Spirit, or that Jesus, could overturn something in Scripture that the one God has revealed to us i.e. to go against his own revelation. Now let me state at the outset that when we hear about Jesus acting or the Holy Spirit acting or confirming or directing, in a way that might at first sound to us as if God is suddenly doing something different, that in fact, what is truly going on is a matter of God redirecting or refocusing us on himself and his revelation to us.
We might hear it in this sort of language: “you have heard it said that you should love your neighbor, but I say unto you, you must learn to love not just your neighbor, but your enemy.” Why does Jesus seem to ‘add something’ to his revelation here? Well Scripture itself gives us a pretty good clue. Foremost, think about the chaos that ensues – disruption to family life, safety, food, culture, and of course worship of God, when individuals or the whole nation of Israel gets involved in violent acts against their presumed enemies without God’s direction. But then think about the parable of the good Samaritan. An expert in religious law says to Jesus that he wants to know what to do to inherit eternal life, to be faithful. And he then summarizes the law he’s supposed to follow. And wanting to demonstrate how righteous he is and how much he is considering this he says to Jesus, “I know I am supposed to love my neighbor, but Lord who is my neighbor.”
Jesus tells this parable about these supposedly wonderful law followers, priests, and men with esteem and place in their culture, they all see this poor man who has been beaten by robbers and wanting to AVOID contamination or getting too close to someone not appearing holy, or good or worth saving, maybe even a social misfit, and they cross to the other side of the street to get away from him. A Samaritan, potentially someone who could have merely been indifferent, if not actual enemies, with nothing to gain at all from helping the beaten man, takes care of him. Actually makes a sacrifice of himself in order to take care of him. Jesus asks the law keeper: who do you think, of all the people who went by this beaten man, was a neighbor to him?”
The law keeper answers: the man who had mercy on him. Jesus says, yes, now go and do the same. Now notice something key here: the law keeper had asked, ‘who is my neighbor.’ Jesus ends up answering him: ‘the true question is not for you to determine who is your neighbor, rather it is for you to be a neighbor to all people: whatever their status, whatever their stance, their position, their actions.’ You are not their judge, you are a sinner as they are, therefore you are the neighbor of all and as the neighbor of all, including your enemies, how should you, how should we respond? What does Jesus say? To have mercy.
Now I want to tie this back to my statement about who God is. We have affirmed that the Father, Son and Spirit are the one God and so they’re not going to do something that thwarts the will of this one God. Here’s the catch that’s happened throughout our history. You see, too many folks have looked at the particular gifts they’ve been given whether as individuals or as a church, and they have treated these as if God has given them something special, or better than others (again as individuals or as churches), things that set them above other people, above other Christians.
So on the Church level, in the 17th century for example, and again today, some Churches have claimed that they have the Holy Spirit’s leading over and against the claims of other Christians or other people, and frankly, against the tradition of the Church that has gone before us. In a figurative sense, they have seen followers of Jesus through time and in very difficult circumstances and they have said, I’m going to cross to the other side of the street: uhg, you are wrong, you are weak, you are bad, you are unholy, you will contaminate me and I will not appear holy before God, so I’m going to leave this church, I’m going to make sure I don’t waste my gifts on you.
In our Epistle or Letter, Paul echoes this message of Jesus to the Corinthian Church: friends, you are commanded by God to love him and to love one another, friends and enemies alike; you have been given these commandments in order to show the world God’s mercy. So guess what then? Your life – the way that you use those gifts God gave to you sometimes even through really terrible circumstance, or even out of struggles – those you are to use to tend to your neighbor, to tend to your enemies, to tend to them, to be with them, to share them, in order to show them who God is: Father, Son and Holy Spirit: the one who, as we heard last week with Jesus’s baptism, came into the world and took on our human flesh and the sin that comes with it, this one who was sent by the Father, who willingly endured the confines and struggles of human life through to his death, who in turn was baptized with the Spirit so that when we’re baptized into Jesus we too might have his Spirit too, all of us.
But if you’re baptized into Jesus, you’ve got a responsibility to come to know how your gifts ought to be directed. Your gifts are a responsibility in that they are to be used for pointing others to the very life of God seen in Jesus Christ’s own life: so then you’re gifts need to be used in the way that Jesus would use them. That’s not necessarily going to be obvious, you’re going to have to discern what it will mean to apply mercy in a whole variety of circumstances, and you have to be humble enough to accept that sometimes you might be wrong, sometimes, despite your best effort, you might be rejected, but ought not to lose hope. Listen to how Paul himself puts this: Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed … I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says "Let Jesus be cursed!" and no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit. (As I said, this Spirit in whom we receive the gifts can only lead us to live out Jesus’s own life, for he is of the same substance, the one God, as Jesus). Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. (You see what I mean here: no one can claim to have a superior gift, or a gift only for herself, or that he or she has a gift by the Spirit but that another Christian does not).
(Now here’s the big key folks): To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
In this congregation my friends, we have many gifts. How those gifts are developed and shaped by God, and for what purposes, can change over the years as our circumstances change. But one thing is true: whomever we are, whatever our strengths and weaknesses, whatever conditions, whatever our frailties, whatever our expertise, everything that we are, every gift drawn out of them, is an opportunity for us to point others to the mercy of Jesus Christ. How shall we do that this year as individuals and as a parish? AMEN.
As North Americans we live in a very strange time, comparatively to pretty much the entirety of human history and to this day, most cultures around the developing world. You see we live in a culture where most babies survive and grow up into adulthood, have kids of their own, and so on. So many diseases have been if not cured, than at least provided a treatment, my type 1 diabetes for example. More people live to old age in our culture than throughout history or in most places in the world, including the United States. Of course we believe this is a sign of progress, of greater knowledge, capacity, peace, options, choices, and freedoms.
So then when someone who is young dies suddenly and unexpectedly, it tends to shake not only our own sense of personal loss, but often times, even causes us to ask what are known as existential questions: why does death happen? What happens when someone dies? Will we see them again? And if we’re believers, we might add on the question of how God could allow death to come to someone young, just starting out, or with a whole life of possibilities and choices ahead of them.
I have to tell you that these are actually not questions that have been asked through history for the most part. Why? Because death, even death of young people, seemingly healthy people, people with a future ahead of them, were actually a fairly regular event. Whether because of disease, or accidents, or war, young men and women often had their lives cut short, and everyone pretty much knew this was a reality for them and those whom they loved. It was not unusual to lose at least one child in birth, or to have babies or young children or teenagers die. So the question for most people wasn’t, ‘why or how could this happen to someone so young, with so much potential,’ but instead, the focus was on what would happen with those who died. Where would they go? We can see in ancient Egyptian culture, ancient First Nations cultures, ancient South American Indian cultures, that the real question wasn’t, ‘why did this person die,’ but how do we ensure they are prepared for what comes next? What in this life must one do to prepare?
This was a tough week for me. I did in fact, lose a friend. Rob was his name. Rob worked at the bike shop out of which my cycling team trains. Little did he know that after training sessions, I would often go into the shop to talk to the guys and gals that work there because I needed to be grounded, I needed to feel not so alone and isolated as I felt working constantly, especially on my dissertation. But you see, because Rob was young and healthy, I expected that I’d see him whenever he was in there working. What reason did I have to think our conversation about England in the 17th century would be the last time I saw or spoke to him? After four deaths of young friends of mine, four unexpected and surprising deaths, you might expect that by this fifth, I would be used to the reality that no one, young, healthy, fit, wealthy, poor, is protected from death; that it can happen to anyone at any time. And yet the first question out of my mouth was, “how could you let this happen God?” I too, however theologically trained I am, am still a product of our time and culture.
As I do when sad, with sadness building into anger at my helplessness and lack of capacity and control of the situation, I sifted Scripture in my mind. What can I make of this? Why? Why? Why was he taken. Theology that attempts some version of saying, “he was taken because God has a greater plan for him, or there is a sure purpose to this,” enrage me. Not only are they empty of Scriptural truth, but they also convey a sense that God’s purposes involve the intentional and unjust destruction of people for an arbitrary reason, as if God reasons in the same way as does a psychopath on a murder spree.
To be sure, God has allowed people to suffer the consequences of their own actions; a just God could not do otherwise. He has also allowed human beings to live lives that have resulted in the most horrific of consequences for other people, from genocides, murders, wars, to abuse, manipulation, financial ruin, and suicide. And so we are right to scream out: HOW CAN THIS BE JUSTICE? How can this world belong to God if these things occur? Is God impotent to stop them? How can a good person, a young, trying to get it together person, a struggling young person who has a whole lifetime ahead to get things straight, die? But we are right to scream this out precisely because it is not God’s intention that we live in a world that is unjust. It is not God’s intention that, even if human life is finite, that natural death would cause us the pain and anguish of loss.
How can we know this though, when we see all around us all sorts of suffering where people have fault and where they also don’t? How can we know that this is not God’s intention when we know the sort of pain we all go through when we lose someone we love because we will miss them, because we don’t know what has happened with them, because there is a hole in our very selves that was filled with the space our experiences and memories with them took up?
I will tell you how we know what God’s intention is, and so also what it is not. We hear it today in our reading from Hebrews. Remember some of the things we know about Jesus that we’ve been covering in the last month: Jesus Christ is God, fully and completely. He is also fully and completely a human being. Jesus Christ was, as the Gospel of John put it, in the beginning with God. He is the Alpha and the Omega (or the first and the last). And finally, we know that this God of ours does not change. I’m not going to go into the metaphysical explanation here, but I will simply say that what all of these things together mean is that Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man and not changing, really is ‘the first human being.’ And if he is the first human being and the last human being, his life shows to us God’s fullest intention for every other human being, and he shows us the fulfillment of his promise to come to us and to gather us in himself and to restore and reconcile us to him. Why is this important in my case, and perhaps in yours if you’re struggling with the loss of someone you love?
Because what this means in really concrete terms is that we can trust God when he promises that death isn’t the final word; that death isn’t the end of our lives; that just like the true human, the first human Jesus Christ, in him we are raised from natural death into life in relationship with him. This is how Hebrews puts it: Since, therefore, the children themselves share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
You see, I cannot say why Rob died. I remain sad, and angry, that he did. My doctor told me that emotion isn’t bad, rather that it signifies something of value to me. I think he’s right. You see, I think my sadness and my anger signify two things: 1. That death and my experience of losing a friend isn’t ‘the way things ought to be;’ 2. That my lack of knowledge about what happens now with Rob, and my lack of ability to control how things happen, is a realistic acknowledgement of the fact that in a world fallen in sin, fallen into death, the control, the victory over death comes from God in Christ through his Holy Spirit. Finally, although you and I will inevitably feel sad when those we love die, when we see people suffering, when we cry out, ‘why,’ because we lack knowledge and control our modern society suggests we ought to have over all things, our sadness is actually a sign of faith: it is a sign not only that we love our neighbor, but that we love God; that we know our world is not as it ought to be. And acknowledging our dependence upon God acting, taking on our flesh, dying for our sake, and rising again, we are not left in despair, but with the hope of restored and reconciled and eternal life with God. AMEN.
The Rev. Dr. LEigh Silcox
Born in Windsor, ON, Leigh moved around Northern and Southern Ontario during her childhood. She attended North Carolina State University to play soccer, but after repeated injuries, instead took up mountain biking, road cycling, bouldering, trail running and hiking, which she continues to do to this day.