My dear St. Matthias friends, as our time together comes to a close this day, I want to say thank you for the time together we have shared. I am so grateful for you sharing your lives with me and for allowing me to do the same with you. It has been a privilege and an honor to be your priest. Coming to the end of anything in life is always very difficult, but doing so during a pandemic – with all the normal ways of socially marking time – is especially challenging. Although I have spoken to most of you on the phone, to not be able to see you in person to say goodbye, well, it has cast this priest into the grip of sadness, of loss, of an aloneness that isn’t remedied by social contact. It must simply be borne.
And yet, my friends, and yet, that deep sadness, though not a good in itself, tells me something. It tells me what I value: sharing in the Lord’s life and witness, with you. It tells me that this is core to me. And why is that? Augustine puts this so well when he says that we are often unknowingly, but naturally inclined to seek our maker – God our Father, in his Son Jesus Christ, through his Spirit. And even more than that, the reason we seek this one God is because he is, says Augustine, more inward to us than we are to ourselves. In other words, if you want to get modern and psychological about it, if we want to seek our core self, what we’ll find when we do that, is an inner longing to go to, to be with, to rest in God. God in Jesus Christ is the fullness of who we are; so also the one in whom we have all of our distinction from him as created things; so also though, the one who raises us from mere creation to life with the uncreated God who made us, who loves us, who desires us, who holds us, who never leaves us.
Paul puts this in the strongest, most powerful terms when he says in his letter to the struggling little Roman church: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Read those lines over again, slowly, thinking over your whole life: all the good things, all the bad things, all the frightening things, all the lost things, all the hoped for things, all the joy filled things. Not one of these things happens outside the scope of God’s grace, for nothing can exist apart from his grace.
I cannot read these lines, ever, without tears coming to my eyes. Just briefly, but so powerfully, a whole body movement in and by the Holy Spirit, that I am rendered paralyzed for a moment. It is for me, a moment of Transfiguration where I see, breathe, eat, and know – just for a moment – I am in Christ and he is in me. And I am not a person who cries.
Our lives can often become so busy that multiple things become our immanent concern and we do indeed have to attend to them: meetings, appointments, relationships, duties, etc. Even when it comes to ‘church,’ our focus on God is often marred by politics that raise emotional responses of anger, frustration, doubt, even hatred and shock. And the fact that we have to live not just a moment but a whole life in these circumstances, has the tendency to make us forget those moments with God that transcend, that raise us up that is, to see him even for a glimmer of a moment, before we, like the disciples, have to go back down the mountain to do the work of witnessing to God in a world not yet reconciled to him.
God knows this, my friends. He knows that we are often consumed by the questions, concerns and worries in front of us. He knows that although we are naturally inclined to him as our creator, that the things of this world tempt us away from him. His own Son, Jesus, faced just these temptations in the wilderness. This is what makes our relationship to God so incredible. You see, there is talk, in the Scriptures, of a final end when everything will be gathered to God. And in popular culture, this has often been depicted as a ‘place’ to which we go called, ‘heaven.’
Interestingly enough though, that’s not actually a particularly biblical picture of what being reconciled to God means. Reconciliation isn’t a place according to Scripture; that is, the Kingdom of God isn’t a place, but a perfection of relationship between every single person and every single thing that God created. That’s one of the reasons why living now isn’t meaningless; it isn’t just a sort of waiting room where, when we die, we finally go up into the sky to see God. The Kingdom of God is the reconciliation of the here and now to the intended perfection for which God made it. So the here and now matters because it’s what God made and so is ‘working with,’ and it matters because through it, God has already shown us not only what we should expect to see of the reconciled world – but because we get a foreshadowing glimpse of that – so also what we as his people are called to strive for if we want to find him not just at the end of our lives, but in our daily lives.
Of course it is impossible for us limited people to see the fullness of what that Kingdom will look like. So God gives us glimpses of it through the Scriptures, particularly in his parables. Today Jesus gives us 6 glimpses of what a reconciled world should look like. Six times Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” As I read & re-read them I could see how each could be a sermon on its own & I wondered why Jesus chose to run them all together. It then occurred to me that, as I said above, God is well aware of our own anxieties, our fears, our limitations. He doesn’t stand far off from us allowing everything to tick along without him. He knows that we need him. He knows that we need those transfigured moments or glimpses into what the reconciled world should look like so that we can go back into this world now, as it is, and seek to live in a way that fits with where God intends us to go and do.
I’ve talked to so many folks who have been wondering, these days, about the meaning of life and death or if life had purpose. Others wonder why God hasn’t stopped this pandemic, & if there was anything to this faith stuff. Some said they’d never really thought about it deeply before because life just has a way of moving on: we get busy, other things seem more immanently pressing. Crises – whether personal, local, or in our case global – have a way of forcing us to ask of all these things we spend so much time on usually: “Is that all there is?” Is that all there is to life? All of this could be gone in a second? Of what value are these possessions I have? Is there no purpose, could I be wiped out so easily?
And people have begun to ask the same questions asked though time: Once you die, are you just dead? What if there’s something more? How could I prove it? Must I in order to have faith? Is there anything worth living for, something worth dying for? One person said he left the church over a disagreement and has never returned. After all these years he is questioning his decision and wonders why we can’t model the behaviour Jesus demonstrates and how we might overcome the barriers of guilt, hurt feelings, and anger that prevent so many people from even considering the Church a place to seek answers to some of these questions.
But this is precisely the reality of life that Jesus steps into. As he explains the Kingdom of heaven to his disciples, so he speaks directly to us. He tells us ‘the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, yeast, a treasure in a field, a rare pearl, good fish, or a person’s treasures.
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like a very small mustard seed that grows like crazy. From something so small it can grow into a huge bush that can be home for all kinds of birds ... including you and me. The kingdom of heaven begins with one man: Jesus Christ, but in him, by the Holy Spirit uniting his followers, it can, like the mustard seed, grow into something large and substantial. It may even be something that we would normally throw away or dread, like listening to my sermon every week, but eventually something can grow out of it.
Nothing is as small and insignificant as a single mustard seed, one man who was executed on a Cross – but it can grow into something significant. And my friends, in that one man, that one seed, you were baptized and raised up so you can share your faith and extend the Kingdom to others. So never doubt your purpose, for you are made in the image of God and made to share it with others in love with hope drawn from the reality that you are held in an eternal relationship with him.
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.” It only takes a little leaven, or yeast, to make the dough rise. It only takes a small spark of the Holy Spirit to awaken people to their creator, the one who loves them holds, who made them for a purpose. That is what the kingdom of heaven is like. It only takes a little, a little yeast, a little seed, sometimes hidden where we don’t even know it exists to make a huge transformation. One person, one follower, one person who has found their creator, knows him, knows his love, who shares this with others.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field or a merchant looking for fine pearls.” In both of these parables someone finds something of great value and then they joyfully sell everything they have to get it. Both of these parables sound like horrible business practices. But it challenges us to ask ourselves what you are willing to give up to obtain eternal life. Yes, this might refer to material wealth. It might also refer to power. It often refers to these things because of something else though: giving up the fear that one must have money, power, possessions, control of things and people, control of ideas, control of events, if one is going to survive. But control through any means is always limited, and at the end of your life, that control is gone.
To what end is your life ordered? Control through money and power, control through emotional manipulation, control through demonizing others – all things that can so easily inhibit the humility necessary to receive grace? The kingdom of heaven is worth a treasure so profound, so great, that we are called to repent and choose a new life in Jesus, & be willing to give everything else away to follow him and in our life, to point not to ourselves and our control, but to him and to his love for all. What would your life have to look like to communicate that to others: friends and enemies alike?
“The kingdom of heaven is like a net.” Every type of fish is always going to be caught. The kingdom of heaven is like that. A net full of good fish and bad fish. And in the end, the angels will come & separate them, just like they will separate the wheat from the weeds in last week’s gospel reading. We don’t need to be concerned with sorting the fish. That’s God’s work. We need to be concerned with HOW we witness, the care with which we go about our fishing mission.
All of these parables have something in common. They are examples of everyday life. The reality is right in front of us, but sometimes we can’t see it because our view is limited. So Jesus uses examples from everyday life, the hidden, the common, the normal; the stuff that is right around us & within our grasp so we catch a glimpse of God and his ways. For what we are living in now is not useless, it is not a waiting room for the Kingdom to arrive. “The kingdom of God is near.” For the Kingdom is God who came in Jesus Christ, who gives us his Spirit, and in whom we are to actively work right here and now, as part of his mission to reconcile or draw all things to him. This parable reminds us that although God is other than us because he’s not created, and although he will bring about the extraordinary reconciliation of all things, he is fundamentally present in us and with us. So we can seek and find him at work in the most ordinary of things.
May our eyes be opened so we can see & experience the kingdom of heaven all around as we learn to mingle the Word of God into life everlasting. Amen
Again this week we are talking about Jesus’s parables. In today’s parable God has sown good seed & during the night Satan has come along & sown some bad weeds amongst the wheat. Our initial inclination, (just like the householder’s servants) is to want to rush out & tear out the weeds. The problem though is very complex, because the weeds look just like the wheat, & the roots of the wheat & the weeds have co-mingled & grown together so that in ripping out the weeds we tear out the wheat as well. What can we learn from this parable? How can it help us understand each other better, our world better, give us a place to reflect on how to minister better to our neighbors, and to discern what our prophetic voice is for our society?
If the past is any indication, we tend to be judgmental & at times want to rid our precious church of those weeds or thoughts that don’t belong (it never fails to astonish me that if this desire were answered, there would be no one left in the Church given how judgmental we tend to be!). Now I know that none of you would ever think think this way. After all, we are enlightened, fair minded & open to new experiences & people. However, we know those people who don’t fit, those who are not like us, who have suspect notions about who & what the church should cater-to, & support. If you doubt that, think of your own inner turmoil when the new BAS superseded our long time precious BCP standard, or your churning emotions about same gender marriages or women being ordained; or reverse that, those damn BCP lovers, those exclusionary conservatives, those women haters.
I suppose our behavior grows out of a sense that changes threaten our survival & wanting our church to be pure & embody everything that was good & positive. We are continuously vigilant about how broadly or how narrowly we should draw the boundaries of the contemporary church. Who we can let in, & who we don’t think should be let in because we think we know who is accepted by God, & why, & who is not accepted by God, & why not? After all how wide should our specifications of welcome be, if we are still to be the Anglican church & not some watered down denomination, like those other people?
In our impatient wisdom, (& I’m as guilty as anyone), we want to bring matters to a head with simple black & white answers to very complex issues. In our scientific way we try to break down these issues to the smallest common denominators. These are very real issues & they are complex & there are no easy solutions. I’m sure some of you have lived that phenomena right here or at your former parishes over the years - sometimes we’ve been right, sometimes we’ve been wrong. Sometimes it’s been subtle. Sometimes it’s been cruel. And about many things, we still have no clarity.
Then along came Covid 19 & all our church concerns dropped to the bottom of the list as everything we thought & fought for has truly been set aside as we seek simply to survive personally, and then as a church with buildings, administrators, and clergy to pay for. Well that what our parable is all about. The inability to separate the wheat’s roots from the weeds’ roots symbolizes the very complex problems we are facing today. We as a human race crave for answers to our Covid Crisis & when answers aren’t forthcoming we fall back into the age old habit of looking for someone to blame.
Again if we look to our parable today, the Master offers this alternate wisdom, “let them grow together [until the harvest], because one cannot always discern the wheat from the weeds until then.” God models for us an infinite patience, that frees us to get on with our lives & the crucial business of proclaiming the gospel; making disciples; & loving or at least living with one another. This picture of a blessed mixture of weeds & wheat growing together until the harvest is a glimpse of how we can survive when we are at a loss for answers & feel powerlessly out of control. It’s also a glimpse into the future judgment at the end of time as we know it. This parable lets us glimpse a time when God will not tolerate endlessly, a world that is a: mixture of good & evil, faith & faithlessness coexisting side by side. We are pointed to a time when God, in his time, acts to judge & redeem the world. How else can Jesus claim that the kingdom is like an enormous tree that grows from a tiny seed? A tree that grows so enormous that all the birds of the air can come & find shelter in its branches, even those strange birds like you & me?
For the disciples both today & those of ancient times who face all kinds of persecution, & daily struggles, this parable comes as a huge comfort. They & we should be overjoyed to learn that flaws were not due to the deficits in Christ’s message, but due to the work of the devil himself. This parable contains an amazing insight that our church & our lives are a mixed bag. It contains both, healthy wheat, & unhealthy weeds, and both of these often manifesting in the same person at different times in one’s life.
As difficult & as strange as this world is right now to live in, we are called not to decide who is within & who is beyond God’s attention. It’s our job, to imagine everyone as belonging to this God, & therefore endeavoring to overcome our own weaknesses to embrace through Jesus Christ, God’s holy & purposeful ambiguity.
Our gospel message highlights the challenge of distinguishing: good from bad; wheat from weeds; loyal opposition from heresy; healthy conflict from destructive antagonism; & an alternate way of living with this evil virus from succumbing to fear, anxiety & giving up.
If it were easy, we as a human race would not have made all the mistakes we’ve made through the ages. Having the patience called for in this passage however, is not an excuse for inaction or conflict avoidance, for Jesus knows the consequences of a failure to deal with evil because failure allows evil to spread & infest other fields. This leaving the sorting to God on the day of judgment does not preclude our ongoing job within the church, to proclaim the Good News to the ends of the earth.
Today we need to be on guard. Satan continues in our midst, & works to confuse & hinder our ministries. We have to double up & be in touch with those people God has placed on our hearts to contact, because Satan is working each & every day & night to do the opposite. To make you feel listless, out of control, anxious about the future & worried about where all this is going to end. So God is saying to us, “Live in the present moment, don’t worry about the future, wear your masks, wash your hands, self distance, have patience with yourself & others & by all means work at staying in touch with people you know you are called to reach out to.” There is still work to be done here and now; concrete work; work that is adapted to a changed world as has been the case for all living things for all time.
I know & appreciate that. It’s impossible to maintain absolute outward holiness in all our actions all the time, or that an unholy action by a member does not preclude the possibility of future holiness. In my experience we have mixed motivations, the noble & the base in each of us. Each of us is a mixture of wheat & weed, holy & unholy, potentially fruitful & potentially destructive.
Our challenge then is to learn as much as we can about our enemy and how he manifests in our own thoughts, words and actions about ourselves and about others. And moreover, to find hope to sustain in doing that hard and painful work of opening up and allowing God to whittle away our caving to the enemy within, we need to learn as much as we can about our friend, Jesus. Scripture is a good place to start. We must learn & inwardly digest the differences between the two, & come together (in community) to explore & proclaim what we have discovered about that which, increases the potential for holiness.
No one person has all the answers & it takes patience & perseverance to continue the quest. Unfortunately, sometimes I feel too challenged by all that is going on in my life to focus on these heady aspects of my life. I’m too tired, too worn out, too worried, too sore, too confused, & too unsure to trust my own abilities & talents. I don’t know if you feel this way, but from my experience, I bet there are times when you feel this way too.
It’s at times like this that I remember that Satan may be at work in my life causing these evils to exist, but I also remember that at anytime, I have the option of resting in the arms of Jesus knowing “his yoke is easy & his burden is light” because it’s not all up to me. Isn’t it comforting to know we have fought the good fight (to the best of our ability) & that in the end it’s not all up to us. God will sort out the wheat from the weeds.
Sometimes we need to let go, & make room for Jesus in our existence. Sure, we must make the effort along with our other seekers to know God. Sure, we are called to tend the seeds so they might grow & flourish, but in the end, growth is up to God, & we can take great comfort in the end at harvest time, that God will separate the wheat from the weeds & ease our minds, & take us to himself.
A colleague of mine says that in a world colored as ours is by Covid ambiguity, the only absolute is to be found in the absolution. I think those are powerful words, & supply one of the main reasons I long to be back in church. I want to be able to join with others & acknowledge that life is hard, sometimes really hard, & the choices in front of us are not always clear or easy. But not only do we have the support of the community in making these difficult choices, but no matter how they turn out we can rest in the knowledge & hear again words of absolution, forgiveness, grace, & commissioning as we are sent once again into the world to make difficult choices as we try to be the people God has called us to be.
My Great Aunt Dorothy used to have a favorite saying, “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken”. Only now, am I beginning to understand what this simple woman meant. God is still in charge, & he gives us the gift of freedom to participate in witnessing to him on this earth, to experience his joy, & we can take comfort in the knowledge that the one who created us, who sustains us, and who will draw all things to their final end, will be the only one to make the final decision as to “who is in” & “who is out.” This is not up to us. Imagine if you & the people you are reaching out to came to see church as a place where they could confess the confusion & ambiguity of their lives & find counsel, comfort, & hope as they seek to be the people God has called them to be. As Jesus concludes “Let anyone with ears listen.” And in he end, God will sort things out. In the end, there is hope. The weeds do not destroy the wheat. Amen
One of biggest questions I have always had for God is: what are you doing with us now? I don’t just mean, what is God doing with me, or with you as an individual. What I mean is what is he doing with everyone and everything that he has made? You see I don’t believe in what, in ‘theology speak,’ is known as a watchmaker God, or more formally, a Deist God who makes everything and then stands back and lets it unfold. That’s not the God of the Old and New Testaments who is and who promises to be ever present with us. That’s not the God who sends his Son into the world to become one of us, and in whom His Holy Spirit gathers us to our adopted Father. The God who does this is the God who is with us in the most exuberant joy and in the most excruciating, exhausting moments of our life.
In our Old Testament reading from Genesis we hear this: “These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham's son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived.” Recall God’s words to Isaac’s father, Abraham, “your descendants shall be more than the stars in the sky, many will be blessed through you.”
We hear God telling us what he is doing with those whom he created. He chooses this people Israel, beginning with Abraham and stretching out across generations with a sure promise: I will give you offspring for the purpose of going out and spreading across the world so that other people may receive me; so that they can be restored to relationship with me; as our reading puts it, so that they can be blessed: coming to know me, their maker so that they can find their purpose and place. But of course our reading leads us into foreboding territory: Jacob and Esau, twin boys struggle so much in Rebekah’s womb that she cries to the Lord, ‘why do I live?’ God’s answer is not simply about the pain and discomfort of pregnancy but speaks to the deeper truth of human pain and anguish: of separation from God and the ensuing envy and jealousy that often erupts into familial, social, cultural, and racial violence; a violence grounded in knowing oneself to be naked like Adam and Eve; that is: exposed, consumed by the fear of not being loved, of not mattering, of being left out, or shortchanged, of another taking your spot, your place, your birthright, which is nothing except relationship to God. Sin filled human I am, who will save me from this endless cycle of human anguish – whether ignorant or not – at being separated from God?
Then we hear Jesus – who can trace his adopted lineage back through Isaac and Abraham – retelling this story of how he will gather his people to him through Abraham, fulfilling his promise to his followers:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he replied, 'No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field." He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;” this retells God’s words to Abraham we see being fulfilled, even through generations who have turned from him. God is the planter or sower. God will tell one of the new born twins, Jacob, that his offspring are like the dust, or like seeds that are carried in the dust by wind; they’ll spread out from where he plants them to all the ends of the earth and not only Jacob’s offspring, but many others will be blessed through him. Jesus recapitulates those words in his parable saying: the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom. These are to be like Jacob’s offspring, the means through which God can bless those outside the Israelite nation.
But of course we know what happens with first with Esau and Jacob and then, as God foresaw, with Jacob’s offspring: so many of them go astray from relationship with God. We hear of wars, violence, betrayal, rape, murder, idol worship, fear, anxiety, loss, disease, all making it so hard to hear and see the fruit of God’s people; a reality that we see over and over through the centuries of human history. And Jesus says of this: the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the children whom God made are turning from him and living into the figure of Adam, into the flesh of Adam as Paul calls it.
Paul following Jesus challenges everyone who has been adopted into Jesus Christ through baptism: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace." Now this is interesting. Let us pause here for a moment: In chapters 7 and 8 of Romans Paul is essentially pressing one point: my friends, you have been set free from death by Jesus Christ who suffered your rightful death for you. So don’t live into death anymore. One of the things that Paul identifies as living into death is covetousness – precisely what occurs with Esau and Jacob – a covetousness that suggests that one doesn’t really believe that they have a relationship with God, that they are loved, that they have a place and purpose; so instead they turn to the things of the world and the measures the world provides, to give them the feeling of being loved and desirable. This, says Paul, is living into death; of living into fear instead of living by faith. And living into fear tears you and those around you down; not just your personal life, but your families, your work relationships, people who aren’t like you, and potentially your entire culture.
I think we remain rather deaf and blind to the reality of how fear warps our perceptions of the world, even our faith. You see I think we spend a good deal of time, and I think this is particularly true for men who have traditionally not been allowed to express fear, covering up that fear with anger, or withdrawal, or at an even more complex level, being judgmental and condemnatory of others; especially those ‘not like us.’ There are so many ways this plays out in various relationships: at a social level this fear can result in racism and socially stigmatizing people who don’t ‘fit’ into however we expect them to fit; at the personal level, fear can drive us to withdraw from our children, grandchildren, partners, and even from not pursuing relationships with others, or alternatively, to judge our friends and family, our co-workers and neighbors as lesser than us; at a social level it can lead to murder, genocide and war.
At the heart of this fear, I think, is the fear of rejection. I’ve said before that God has written on our hearts and minds a pathway, a knowledge, an inclination and a deep desire for his love alone. It’s an all consuming sort of love, a perfect love, which as Hebrews says, casts out fear. We live in a world though, where our relationships are fragile, imperfect, and easily distorted by a fear that has not yet been perfectly cast out. We still live in a world where our relationship with God is not yet realized. So we live, as Paul says, as a part of creation that is still groaning in labor pains, we ourselves, who even in Christ, having received the Spirit groan inwardly, while we await the fruits of our adoption in Christ, to be truly manifest in the world. We await that is, the perfect love of God. We long so deeply, Paul says, that we groan inwardly. Augustine, a great Western theologian says that God is more inward to us than we are to ourselves. So we know deep within that we were made by and for God; made to, with Abraham, then Isaac and then Jacob and the Israelites, go out into the world to show not ourselves, but God to the world. To become like a catalyst, through whom God himself might be seen.
And yet when, like seed, we are put out on the path, or spread out like the dust on the field, sent to all corners of the earth, or even to the corners of our neighborhoods, the corners of our families, of our changing towns and cities and countries, we often look out with fear because we do not see a world brought to fulfillment by God. We see a world, we see relationships with our friends and families and new people moving in and older people moving on, children failing to live up to potential or frustrating us in their unwillingness to do this or that, with a virus that has touched every corner of the world and brought economic and social shock, we see it with fear as if this is all there is; as if God does not rule over all these things.
We see our struggles and they become the focal point of our lives and we shout to God: where are you? You have planted me and left me to wither amongst these weeds. And perhaps in fear we lash out in anger or frustration or even withdrawal and dismissal and in so doing, shrivel ourselves from fruitful plants into weeds, or as Paul puts it, fall back into slavery to sin.
One of the things that we are tempted to do when fear is at the root, is to protect ourselves like Adam and Eve who, after breaking their relationship with God hide themselves and their nakedness, their obvious shame, guilt and fear. We do this in physical ways and in emotional ways. Often out of fear, we act as if we are the superior fruit or the very bad fruit. Either we are superior and can judge others, or we are inferior and unworthy and so we can withdraw ourselves from the lives of others. Both are mistakes, Jesus and Paul tells us. We were set free from the bondage of sin – from living as if our interpretation of events and of other people and our control over them, is all there really is.
We were in fact, given the Spirit to help us bear witness to God as his adopted children. And what this means is that we cannot succumb to our fears when we come before Christ and open ourselves to him. For he makes of us what we are; he makes us into the harvest. This is why Jesus tells his disciples in parable that they should not go and collect the weeds to burn them: for not one of us knows whether we or anyone else are wheat or weed just now. Not one of us knows what God is doing with us or has done with us, or will do with us as our lives unfold. So too, we don’t know this about anyone else’s life. We know it is God who made all of us, planted us, tends to us in Christ by his Spirit, growing, pruning, testing, pressing us out of fear and into his grace by faith. Testing us. Yes. This is true for all of us. But testing is not condemnation; it is sanctification; it is being pruned of those fearful forays into broken ways of living with God and one another so that we might grow into visible fruits along God’s vine. We are tested by other wheat and by the weeds alike; with this testing, however, facing our fear by facing into grace with hope and perseverance, then we shall receive the promise of adoption given to Abraham; Isaac and Jacob, and we might be made in this testing, a blessing to others as we go out into the world God has planted. AMEN.
Our passage from Romans this morning is probably one of the most famous passages that deals with the struggle of the Christian life: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” My first encounter with this passage actually came through a book called “The Confessions” written by a famous and very faithful Christian living in the fourth and fifth centuries, St. Augustine.
The Confessions recounts Augustine’s life through reflection on his own process of conversion to Christianity. When examined through the lens of faith informed by and in the process of being made more and more like Jesus Christ, the events of Augustine’s life were given new perspective. They were seen - not simply in the scope of the everyday, the visible or the known and immediate future - but rather in the scope of God’s providence. Or in other words, these events were seen from the perspective of God’s mission of drawing or gathering all of history and bringing it to completion in himself in and through Jesus Christ.
For Augustine, as for Paul here in Romans, human beings naturally long to "rest" in God, to be drawn to God, to know God and to harmonize their wills with His will: “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, I can will what is right ….” But, complains Paul “I cannot do it … I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Augustine shares Paul’s dilemma, offering that because they are weak and sinful, humans can never hope to harmonize their wills with God’s without God's assistance. This particular story is Augustine's alone, but as he presents it, it can also express the story of all humanity, painfully separated from God and always struggling to return.
Indeed, we are always struggling to return to the place we have rest: to God that is. We do seek him in various ways. Yet all of us at some point succumb to the temptation of being drawn back to what Paul calls, ‘our old life’, a life in slavery to sin. This struggle is certainly not an unfamiliar tale, as we know from the Scriptures. There is Peter’s story of denying his fellowship with Jesus three after Jesus is arrested. There is Thomas’ demand to touch the resurrected Jesus’ wounds. There is Sarah’s laughter at God’s promise of a son. There is Israel’s idolatrous worship of the golden calf made by Aaron to satisfy a people hungry and thirsty, wandering in the wilderness and contemplating a return to Egypt from which God had freed them. There is even Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemene: “Father, if you would take this cup from me ….” Scripture is not short of accounts that detail the struggles God’s people have in following him!
What lies at the root of this struggle? I would suggest, that it is fear. Fear of stepping out from what we know, what we can see, touch, understand, and control. Surely this is a frightening thing.
I have a friend, who I shall call Dave. Dave is a student at Wycliffe but prior to this he and his family were living in BC. Dave was the CEO of a small business he had started up with his wife. His family was well integrated into the community with close ties, financial stability, modest assets, and extended family around them. Business was booming and he was beginning to be able to delegate work out to his employees. This gave him more time to get involved with his church. After some discernment, Dave and his family found themselves considering the possibility of Dave entering into ministry full-time. This would involve returning to school to train as an Anglican minister; leaving behind the ties to family, friends and employees; entering into a period of financial insecurity and doing so not as a young teenager heading off to school, but rather as a middle aged man with a wife and children. Should we do this he asked? Will we have enough money to last us three years? What if I don’t find a job at the end of my time? What if no diocese and no bishop accepts me? How will we provide for the family while I’m in school? What about moving away from all our family? What about moving the kids? What if they hate us for doing it? And two and a half years later, with the assets sold off, the bank account nearly drained, the children uprooted, and not a job in sight, Dave tells me that he sometimes questions his choice to come. Was this right? Should I have stayed back in BC with the work and the ministry I was doing? In his fear, the comforts of what was tempt him; they create doubt and uncertainty, and he admits, sometimes falling back into old patterns of acting and responding to situations. Indeed I think Dave is right when he says: “I think it is fear that often makes us succumb to the temptation to see our actions only within the scope of what we can see and control and therefore away from God; it is fear that causes us to turn back to our old ways.”
Our lesson from Genesis this morning provides us with a Scriptural account of just these struggles and of our place before God as we live with them. Just prior to the section of Genesis we read this morning, we are told that Abraham commissions a servant to find his son Isaac a wife from his own kinsfolk. It is not simply that it is the servant’s duty to find Isaac a wife; rather in fact, Abraham outright refuses to allow Isaac to make this trip into the land of the Cannanites (where his kinsfolk live) on his own: by no means should Isaac return to the land and family that Abraham had left behind.
Abraham’s command conveys an important truth: Abraham is worried about sending Isaac back to the Israelites and with good cause. For remember that when faced with a fearful future – one that involved wandering, homelessness, concern for food, water and shelter, for protection and for relationship – the Israelites wanted to return to the the real but familiar liabilities of life – even a life of slavery – in Egypt. In other words, in order to quell their fears, the Israelites were prone to turn to worldly powers rather than to God.
But just here, Abraham’s command that Isaac not return to his kinfolk marks a departure from ‘returning to one’s old life.’ You see, Isaac carries the promised seed of the future: Christ Jesus (see the geneology at the beginning of Mt’s gospel). Rather than be tied to the past – to his kinsfolk – Isaac serves to show us how he, and so as God’s creatures, we too, participate in a larger story: a story with greater scope; one that tells of Christ’s mission to gather all the people and all the events of history to himself as the fulfillment of this history. By his not returning to Abraham’s kinsmen, Isaac serves to draw us into and shows to us, and to all who read the Scriptures, the broader scope of God’s work in the world. We are, in a sense, compelled to test out the role that Isaac plays; to see how we compare; to see where we fit within the narrative of God’s unfolding mission. And so here we find Isaac in the particular circumstances of his life: a man wandering alone, facing the death of his mother and isolation from his kinsfolk, a son awaiting marriage and children (critical for people of the time), a son asked by a father not to turn back, but to face into a future that is God’s. An uncertain and frightening prospect indeed … if in fact one cannot see or control how all the pieces of one’s life might fit together. The fear and temptation to turn back is surely real and grips all of us at some point. Yet here Isaac obeys his father and awaits the events that follow by which he will, with his wife, partake in God’s mission by bearing the future seed of God’s promise.
But our story does not end with Isaac, for both Abraham’s servant and Rebekah have a role to play – as we all do – in God’s mission. Like the servant who returns to Abraham’s kinsfolk to find Isaac his wife, we must live in the world to provide for the present and the future: to tend to family and friends, to jobs, to illnesses, to responsibilities, to day-to-day chores. But in so doing we should no more return our faith and hope to the limited powers of the world to appease our fears than should the servant take Isaac back to Abraham’s kinsfolk. We are called to live in the world – the servant shows us this – and this is part of who we are and must be; but we are also called to see our work in the world within the Scope of God’s mission as we find it given to us in the Scriptures. This we are shown by Isaac’s story.
Finally, we have the role of Rebekah herself; the one who will join with Isaac in marriage – another sermon itself – to bring forth and carry on the future seed who will give new life to the world. In the passage we read, Abraham’s servant asks Rebekah’s brother for permission to take her back to Isaac. The brother does not simply give Rebekah away to the servant but rather asks her: “will you go with this man?” There is no force used here. Rather, she replies: “I will.” Freely, of her own accord she replies, I will.
The meaning of that response goes deeper than just Rebecca’s pending marriage to Isaac, however. And this is so because in her response of “I will” to the servant who asks at the behest of Abraham and of God, we are pointed to Christ’s response of “I will” to God. But it is important we get the order of these responses right: it is Christ’s willing response of “I will” to his Father that gives meaning to Rebekah’s response. And in Rebekah’s response, we are pointed to and thus we see how her particular story is taken up, redeemed, and placed within God’s mission to the world.
And of course this is a response – a response given by unique individuals in unique circumstances – that we see repeated elsewhere with Abraham, Moses, Josiah, Peter, and with Paul. Rebekah, is asked to leave her homeland and the safety of family and the bonds of affection therein, the duties to which she had to attend, and the places that she new, for the sake of marriage to an unknown man on the word of Abraham’s servant who prays to God for help. And she replies: “I will.” Lord, despite my fears and my doubts, I will rest in you, I will. Her response – for us given purpose and meaning in and through Jesus’s own giving up of himself, his “I will” – demonstrates the wider scope of God’s work in the world.
Here in this brief passage, is one particular event by which we might see God’s mission of drawing things to a rest in himself. Indeed, as Augustine, I think rightly assessed, all people, and all things seek to find their rest in God. Rebekah, and so too Isaac and the servant, provide particular figures that conform, in their own unique ways, to Christ’s own: a giving up of oneself for the sake of the other: in Rebekah’s case, Isaac; in Christ’s, humanity. It is here – in the giving up of oneself to God in relationship with others, that one finds rest in Christ Jesus and the means of turning toward God and away from our fears.
These three figures point both to the need to deal with our own particular circumstances, but to hold these up to the Scriptures in order to determine how we might respond to our various situations and what purpose our situations might serve in God’s kingdom. What, for example, is the purpose of our relationships with one another? We find the measure of that purpose not in our culture and particularly not in our feelings alone; although comfortable and assuring since these are known standards by which to measure. For finding our answers in these things fails to acknowledge our dependence upon God and our particular place before him.
So yes, we are called to examine our lives and hold them up to the Scriptures to see where we fit into God’s unfolding mission; that is to find out who we really are. And yes it is here that we can find our place and the way we can respond in love, and so faithfully to God. But our redemption and our transformation as Christians is not accomplished by us. Note that I have said we participate in God’s mission. That is, we participate in what God has already accomplished through Jesus Christ. It is Christ who fulfilled all of history and so God’s promise by willingly giving himself up for our sakes on the Cross. It is Christ who gives meaning to all of the Scriptures and so too to all of our lives. And it is to Christ that each person, that each event, somehow points. Our participation then, is a response – I repeat, our participation is a response – to what God has already accomplished. It involves our finding our place in and of our coming to know God through the narrative given to us in the Scriptures. For this is where we might receive what has already been given: rest and redemption. By giving up ourselves to this continual search for God enfigured and revealed in his Scriptures and in his Church, we can come to know the sure promise and hope of life eternal won for us on the Cross. And in this way, our fears and our struggles are brought into the light in order that they might be seen through the lens of God’s redemption of our lives. This will certainly not erase our fear and the desire to turn back to what is comfortable for us. But it will pull away the scales that blind us to God’s presence with us more and more, so that we might see the irresistible gathering to which he is bringing us. And this will indeed begin to reorient our thinking and our actions as we are conformed to Christ’s own self through God’s love for us: for his love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things: Who will rescue me from this body of sin and death? “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest … in me you will find rest for your souls.” Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.
For so long, we in the West have become comfortable with the idea that our science, our economics, our education, and our possessions, are the things that define us; these things have come, we believe, to define our relationships, our values, ethics, morals, even our worth, and our status in this world and with one another.
To say that COVID has pulled down the figurative curtain on our ‘comfortable assumption’ about what defines and gives our live value meaning and worth, would be a severe understatement. COVID has just begun to shatter all the ways, all the things that we presume are somehow deserved, givens, expectations, the proper ways. Of course we have economists, politicians, medical specialists, professors of various disciplines, all offering their various analysis about what has and might happen. And it’s certainly important to pay attention to these analyses.
But we as Christians must go deeper that this, to the root of what it means to have life at all, and then to ask, ‘where is God in the midst of this?’ This is really difficult for us to do at this point in time for a single reason: we most often presume that we have control over our futures, that rational choice, that careful planning, that competent management or government will lead us in a direction that keeps us generally in the lifestyle we have become accustomed to. And precisely because of this it is very difficult for us to imagine what God might be doing in the midst of this COVID pandemic. It is nearly impossible for us to imagine that God could be using COVID as a test or a trial – if not as its cause – simply using its outcomes as a trial.
But I think we need to ask ourselves whether this might actually be what God is doing in the midst of this pandemic. Why? Because we have precedent for God using the most difficult of circumstances we can imagine in just this way. And that’s what we see in our story from Genesis this morning.
God says to Abraham, “take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering.” At first glance this seems a most horrific command. Sacrifice in death, the child whom you prayed, begged, and longed for. Sacrifice the child who, as I said two weeks ago, is the very extension into the future of Abraham’s and Sarah’s own life; the person, the means by which God says he will fulfil his promise to Abraham to make of him a nation. We know from this passage that Abraham’s son is spared. An angel intervenes and Abraham, standing over his son with a knife, instead sees a ram caught in a thicket and this ram becomes the sacrifice offered to God.
The story remains shocking to us though. It does so, I believe, because we are so used to dictating the terms of justice on the basis of an illusory sense of power and control over ourselves and over creation. So to imagine that God would test us in such a way, given our perspective, can seem only an affront to goodness. The test however, isn’t arbitrary or capricious. It is intended to force us to face into our brokenness, our frailty, our violence toward one another and ourselves – original sin – that manifests in each of our lives and in all of the structures and relationships we develop, in so many ways. God testing us then, is absolutely an affront to our presumption that we must depend – before we seek him – upon broken things, upon the frailty of who and what we are and what we have, upon how we have made and structured our societies, our relationships, our countries, our economy, our possessions, our governments.
We can see this in the story of Job. God allows Satan to take Job’s entire world from him. Everything that ‘makes Job who he is’ is stripped away. Likewise with Abraham in our reading this morning, the dependence upon natural procreation as providing true life, is shown to be not irrelevant – no not at all – but not primary; not the first thing to which a person must attend in order to make sense of all the other things he or she encounters in life. In other words, if you wanna know what procreation is about and use it well, if you wanna know what owning property, or managing a company, or being in relationship with people, or having possessions is about, you must FIRST SEEK GOD. And not just seek.
You see what the story from Genesis this morning suggests, I think, is that out of those things we are tested by – whether the coronavirus, illness, or death of a loved on, or the trials of our jobs, or our relationships – God shows up in his most magnified form, his most powerful, precisely because we are stripped of all the things that give us a sense of control, order, protection, that we construct apart from him, that can be conceived apart from him.
You see Isaac represents the fruit of human fertility and life: he is ‘the next generation,’ the means of human survival and perpetuation. This is a reality possible only through human procreation. We can’t will a child into existence or create them from nothing. Abraham’s trial demands that he act in accordance with the reality that it is not by his own power that his future will come about; but by God’s own fulfillment of the promise that he makes to Abraham. Abraham that is, is entirely dependent upon the action of God for God’s promise to occur. Abraham’s role in this, is to be faithful to that promise and to the reality of how that promise is going to be fulfilled: by God himself. The trial then, is reorienting Abraham to fulfill the first of the two commandment’s, summarizing the 10, that God will give in Jesus Christ: to love God first and foremost. Nothing can or will be undertaken toward the fulfillment of goodness and truth, unless it is done foremost by seeking to do the will of God. In this case, Isaac stands in not just for the fragility of human fertility but also for the ways that we come to depend upon ‘making our own futures:’ plans, projects, governments, investments, etc.
For Abraham to be willing to put the knife into Isaac, he must first give up his life (remember that his life is essentially tied to his child’s life, the perpetuation of his family line). To gain life, one must lose one’s life, Jesus Christ says. And so we see in Abraham’s act, God’s own act of sending his Son into the world to be a ‘propitiation’ or a sacrifice, taking human sin upon him as the sole true human, and obliterating its effects upon human nature. This is why living into the defects of a fallen nature can only lead to brokenness and death: because not seeking God first leads us to seek death instead. It leads us to seek things that break, hurt, fall apart, and are self and other destructive. For in God alone we find the good, the truth, the way, and life. To give up one’s life – as Isaac symbolizes, as Job’s commentary demonstrates – is to seek, in everything a person does, the will of God instead of the frail and distorted constructs we have come to depend upon.
Let me be clear that this doesn’t mean we should retreat from the world. This lesson today is about how we live in this world we have. If we see COVID as a way through which God is testing us, we are not to retreat into little domiciles of isolation, rather we are challenged to ask how those things we have depended upon, our governments, our education systems, our ideological presumptions, our medical sciences, fit with God’s will for us. It may be that we have to live in peace and order with certain aspects of our culture and society. It may be that we need to challenge others. It may be that we need to make or challenge or strive to make changes. But central to our life as Christians in the midst of what is in fact a trial in which and through which God is acting, is the recognition that we ARE NOT to put our hopes in false things, but in God himself. From there – having renounced worldly things as being our be all and end all – from that orientation of loving God first and foremost; from that turning from worldly things to spiritual things; we can seek things like justice, good governance, medical interventions – not as goods themselves, but as things and as people that belong to God, being shaped, challenged, and pressed in ways that illumine his will. Attending to this perspective or orientation to worldly events, we can engage in this world seeking to learn and share God’s truth and wisdom with others, not with condemnation, but by reflecting the love and hope we have received in him. AMEN.
One of the things that I have been turning over and over in my mind is this question: “how long O Lord.” At first, it was a question to God about how long we would be away from one another in our worship and fellowship. How long would these restrictions go on, where social distancing is often being experienced by people as social isolation and fear. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that much as I thought I was coping with it, what I was really experiencing was the rebound effect of a global trauma. I felt dead inside.
That changed as I heard about and then saw a string of events – black people killed at the hands of police officers – occur. I have spent the last two weeks or so dealing, not with a slowly unfolding shutdown, but with shock at what appears to me to be a bleak world and a bleak future. I know many of you don’t like to read and hear negative things. But my friends, to ignore what is going on in the world, to stick our heads in the sand and only speak about those things that make us feel good at a time when everything has been thrown up into the air - to not speak about it, to not question, challenge, listen, and be open to change – is to fail to take hold the gift of the Spirit we have received in God. To ignore what is going on in the concrete in the United States and Canada is to persist in the sin of systemic racism.
“How long O Lord,” these words of lament were not about racism per se. They were a cry to God from his people – individuals and the whole gathered body of Israel – to deliver them from enemies, from persecutors who physically (so likely mentally and emotionally probably sexually as well), harmed them simply for being Israelites. When will you deliver us from the hands of our enemies? When will you stop our suffering? When will we see the hope you say you have in store for us, O Lord.
Our first story from Genesis tells of the barren marriage of Abraham and Sarah. Life was understood in different terms for the Israelites than it is today (for the most part). To have life wasn’t simply about the individual, but rather about the children two individuals could bear and raise together. To not be able to have children, for Sarah, would have been experienced as an existence empty of life: the persistence of one’s family through children. Whatever we might think of that now, for the Israelites of the day, the ability to have children would have been understood in the same way we might today understand life as necessitating autonomy (rather than coercion) to serve one’s family and community, competency (education) to serve one’s community, and safe space to engage in relationships, work, and play. In other words, children provided the equivalent of those things we value today as constituting a true life. We hear that due to advanced age, Abraham and Sarah believe they shall not be able to have children. Their visitors tell them God has heard their anger, their fear, their pain and Sarah’s deep lament for her life. He hears, and, they promise, God will deliver a child to her. And so, as we know, Isaac will be born to the aged pair. A supernatural miracle of life, surpassing the finite limits of natural life. God hears. God answers.
I can hear those of you who demand a better answer than this though: really? Where was God to hear and to heal my lament about my cancer, my husband’s Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, the lament of my family or my people who lived in slavery for hundreds of years. These miracles sound lovely. So why has God not delivered me? Why has God not delivered my people? Why has God allowed racism and evil tyranny to run rampant over the globe now, or frankly, for the whole of history? How long, O Lord, will you let evil triumph. This isn’t an abstract question. George Floyd was suffocated for 9 minutes with no answer to his begging for mercy. How long, O Lord, will you let gun violence kill child after child after child in American schools? Recall the words of one parent who responded to Christians saying, ‘you’re in our prayers.’ We don’t need your prayers. We need you to act NOW.
You see there’s this thing that people do when we’re faced with a hard, brutal, stunning, shocking truth: we suddenly turn to God. Most of us spend a lot of time ignoring God in our day to day lives. Or we say we’re seeking or relying on God when in fact we’re turning to our own inclinations, our own biases, our own prejudices, in order to mitigate our fear and justify acting out of it.
I would suggest the cost of our individual and social ignorance of God in Canada and the United States – most particularly of those who call themselves Christians – is the very seat of our undoing. You see, a person whose character, whose very core self, is formed by deep immersion in God’s Word, is able to let go of their fears and their presumptions to have certainty about everything. A person who seeks God with hunger and depth, might not always agree with someone; but that disagreement will not be harsh, fear driven, so angry dismissal, harassment, violence, or social and institutional blackballing; and it won’t be antagonistic political, social, educational, job related, or medically related denial of service, or denial of disparities in access, or disparities in treatment.
A person who seeks God, that is, all of us gentiles who have merely been grafted into the root who is Jesus Christ, will have as their focus not exclusion, but the fullness of inclusion God promised first to his people, the Jews, and then second, to ALL gentiles. The disciples were all Jews. They were sent first to the Jews to fulfill God’s plan to deliver his people. They were told to force no one, nor even to try to invoke civil laws, nor divine judgment (Jesus healed the soldier’s ear and would not let the disciples ask for harm to come to people for their lack of adherence). Being grafted in to this body and its head, Jesus Christ, this WAY OF LIFE applies to us now. To follow that way is to “read, mark, learn;” to draw on those people we find in Scripture to learn from how God responds to all of them, what not to do, to be sure; but importantly, how to build, as Paul says in our letter from Romans, chapter 5, “character, and so endurance and perseverance.” Why? So that we can do the exceptionally hard work of being in relationships that often involve sacrifice and some degree of suffering, of holding back, of not lashing out in anger and fear, of not forcing or hurting others, of checking the known and unknown privileges we have so that we aren’t undermining other’s ability to see God in our words and actions.
How can we do this? The ways will of course vary in their particulars. But I think they begin right here with what Paul says to us in his letter to the Roman Church. Remember this, he says: “… since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” If we can remember that we are loved by God, desired by God, commissioned by God (given jobs or vocations to share his life with others through what we do and say), then this love that isn’t contingent on our actions, sets us free to really open up so we can figure out what it means to concretely love others in this time of tumult, anxiety, worry, stress, and recognition that we are a very broken society in so many ways.
Why doesn’t God perform miracles in the ways we expect, with regularity and equality as we’d expect? Getting rid of the evil and uplifting the good? Why doesn’t he just heal? Why doesn’t he just end the life of the tyrant? I don’t know for sure but knowing Scripture, I can begin with this: “no one is good, no not one.” Many secular people have said that we are all capable of evil. I would go further and say that I don’t know a person that hasn’t done evil. To wipe out the ‘tyrant’ would be to flood the earth once again, to destroy all people, who, as we know, are all sinners through the ‘one man’s sin.’ Why doesn’t God heal the social fractures that have resulted from racism and slavery? Once again, in the scales of divine justice, would anyone survive such judgment? Where then are we left? We are not left to our own devices.
We are not left in the clutches of the Deist’s ‘clockmaker God’ who sets the world in motion at its beginning and then stands far off watching us rail at one another. No. He completed his greatest miracle in sending his Son into the world to take on our nature, to become us, to suffer the consequences of death every one of us has inside us that explodes out far too often in our actions, and to eradicate the proper end of those words and actions: DEATH. He rose so that we could enter him, to give up our distorted inclinations that lead us toward death and to follow our natural end of life in God. He enabled us to live this reality in the here and now with one another.
I don’t know what the reality of God’s love for you looks like. You need to dig into Scripture to figure out how that unfolds in how you engage with others, in what organizations your support, in how you live, where you give your money, how you treat people, in how aware you are willing to make yourself, of other’s struggles and how you might support them. That’s for you to determine; I cannot say, nor can I force, for that is not the work of a disciple. I can only remind you of God’s truth: the one who endures in love, to the end of his or her life, this is the one who will see God. AMEN.
Today marks a day that can worry many pastors and preachers: how on earth am I going to preach about the Trinity! And throughout history, people have hauled out many analogies: there’s the three leaf clover where each leaf is to symbolize the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But of course, this is sort of problematic because that suggests that God is somehow three separate things. Then there’s the analogy of the egg: there’s the shell, the white part, and the yoke; but again, same problem, it suggests that God is actually three separate substances, or things.
So people decided on another analogy (and this one is probably my favorite because I was hugely into the Transformers as a kid). If you know anything about the Transformers, you know there was this character named Optimus Prime. Now Prime, as he was called, could transform between three different types of things: a robot, a command center (where all the transformers hung out to plan how to defeat the Decepticons), and finally, a transport truck. Now the problem with this analogy – in terms of applying it to God – is that it suggests that God is one thing – the Father, in the Old Testament, then he sort of transforms into something completely different when the Son is born into our world becoming incarnate, and doing ministry here on earth. And then finally, he transforms to become a third thing: the Holy Spirit who does some other stuff like makes people speak in other languages or leads people into some new truth. So God becomes sort of like this ‘transformer’ always becoming something new.
And here’s the thing. It really took people quite a while (hundreds of years and several really anger filled councils) to figure out exactly how God who claims to be one, could be encountered in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I mean, let’s face it, when you hear or when we pray the collects or the offertory prayer before communion, or the prayer after communion or the blessing at the end of the service and you hear, ‘in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’, surely it must sound like either we’re praying to three different gods, or to a god that can change forms at different times in different places right?
I don’t think that it’s actually possible to understand how God can be one and yet three. But our Church has insisted that God is one substance, one being who is simultaneously three Persons. This means that all three Persons we name in the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are identical, except that they are not each other. Confusing right!! I think that ultimately we have to hold this a little bit loosely because we don’t have any analogy (a comparison, that is, with any created things) that can make sense of who God is, because there is no one or nothing like God in any way. He is completely unique and unchanging. He doesn’t become who he is by moving from Father to Son to Holy Spirit, or showing up in history in these forms or persons. He is, who he is, as He himself says to us in Exodus: I am who I am, eternally unchanging. So our trying to compare him to someone or something else isn’t really going to help us.
Now the Orthodox have this really helpful way then, of thinking about God. Because we can’t compare him to anything or anyone else, the Orthodox said, okay well then how can we know God. And some brilliant theologian amongst them said, well, we can say what God is not. In theology this is known as apophatic knowledge: defining what God is not. So we’ve already said that unlike all the things he’s created, he doesn’t change; he is not becoming something else, which would imply that he was imperfect and had to come to perfection. We can say that he is not impotent in what he created. What he made will come to pass because he is perfect, what he made is perfect, and so because he is our maker, he will bring what he made to its perfection. He is not created and therefore he is not finite. Because he alone simply is, without having been created by something else, we can say that he is the creator of all that is, the sustainer of all that is and the one who brings everyone of us to perfection just how he made us.
Now see this stuff is actually really important. It’s not abstract and it’s not philosophy: it’s actually the testimony of Scripture itself. This is what the early Church was doing at the councils: it was reading Scripture and saying, how can we make sense of this God whom the Scriptures tell us about. How can we love the one God and no other gods (how can we make sense of this in light of Father, Son/Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit we find in Scripture), how can we love neighbor and enemy (who is our neighbor when we are not of the same race, religion, language, culture, etc; and aren’t we supposed to destroy our enemies, what sense of this are we to make given the testimony of our Scriptures). This is why it took our Church hundreds of years even to come up with the Creeds that we read: it took hundreds of years to make sense of God’s testimony about himself that is recorded in the Scriptures. And guess what, the Church has had to examine these Scriptures and our testimony about who God is and how he calls us to act and react in every age, again and again and again, for God is the sole and eternal source for us to understand who we are at any moment in time, as our creator, our sustainer, our redeemer and our final end.
So what does this mean for you and I here and now. What importance does this seemingly so abstract idea of the Trinity have for us. Well one reason we say the creeds, along with reading Scripture every week, is because we need to remind ourselves continually, given our changing contexts, who God is, and who God is not. Let’s imagine for a moment that we fell into thinking that God was actually three different things – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Holy Spirit representing our present. You see one of the things we could easily do, or claim is that the Holy Spirit is leading us into our personally chosen truth. And guess what, this has been done throughout history in the early centuries by the Montanists, in the medieval period by spiritualists who thought a third age of the Spirit had arrived, and at present, the Holy Spirit has been turned into a bit of a ‘choose your own adventure’ book where individuals and Churches all claim that he is leading them into their own personal perspective of what the truth is:, using church funds to buy a giant yacht, being the only group to recognize the end times, or leading someone to choose whether or not to marry someone or go to grad school or pick a stock, etc.
Apophatic theology – thinking about what God is not so we can figure out what we can say about who he is – can really help us here. You see it presses us back into the Scriptures where we find God with his people. Does the Holy Spirit operate on its own? Heck no. Jesus told us in the Scriptures last week, that the Spirit testifies about the things that he, Jesus, heard from the Father. So there is your first clue: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit don’t each say or do things that would be self-contradictory: the things each Person says and does conform to the one being that God is, the same God, the one God who speaks to us in the Scriptures. So in every single act or word that we hear from God in Scripture, it is the one God who acts; what the Father does, so the Son and Spirit share in this work (see for example how this manifests in the transfiguration or in Jesus’s baptism or in Jesus’s sayings in John).
So then one thing we have to be really careful about is imagining that we can write off what is said in Scripture in one place because that’s just what the God of the OT, the Father said, whereas Jesus or the Holy Spirit are doing a new thing. Presuming this is an act of self-justification, not of faith. You see in our Gospel lesson today when Jesus says, ‘go therefore, and make disciples in all the nations,’ he is equipping us not to ‘do a new thing,’ but to do an old thing: the thing God gave to us through Abraham and Moses that was fulfilled in Jesus Christ: to love God and to love neighbor and even, to love enemy. Why? Because as Jesus said through the Scriptures that unless people encounter Jesus Christ they cannot come to know their Father who in his Son Jesus sustains them in his perfect ordering of their lives, through his Holy Spirit. And how do they encounter this Jesus who gives them life? That my friends, is where you and I come in. They encounter Jesus as we live his own life, in our unique ways, in our relationships with other people. For us to be the hands and feet, the mind and eyes, the ears and hearts of Jesus, we must know this one God: Father Son and Holy Spirit. In him, as we come to know him, our lives become the testimony of God’s love for everyone he created, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I want to conclude by sharing a reflection from a colleague of mine, Scott Sharman, a priest and theologian in the Diocese of Edmonton. He writes: “One of the mysteries we are invited to learn from the concept of Trinity is about the coinherence -- the overlap, so to speak -- of persons. The three persons of the Godhead share one and the same essence. We can say, therefore, that Divinity is so perfected in love that the three persons are not in fact able to be divided from one another at all, even if they are still rightly able to be distinguished.
From this it follows that if we, as human beings, are created in THIS image, we have the basis for some pretty radical conclusions about social justice: We are called to be persons who come to understand ourselves to be so deeply interconnected with all others that the idea of using someone's race (or gender, or sexuality, or anything else) as a reason to hate or exclude them from us becomes nothing less than a form of heresy.
Another principle we can receive from Trinitarian thought is that the persons of God are mutually kenotic. In other words, they exist to give themselves over entirely for the sake of the good and glorification of the others, even at personal cost.
Here again, if we, as human beings, bear THIS Divine mark in us, than our lives ought also be marked by a willingness to give ourselves away in compassion for everyone else; especially those who are neglected, excluded, and oppressed; even when facing up to this reality is hard.
I think it comes down to this: One of the best ways to honour the great mystery of the Triune God is to put it into creaturely actions -- to tell the truth about racism in our midst (and all the other isms that keep people apart), and to pour ourselves out to dismantle systemic abuses, whatever the personal cost.” AMEN.
Ten days ago we marked Jesus Christ’s ascension, his return to the Father. Then today we hear about this tremendous tornado like wind that rushes through the house where Jesus’s followers are staying and, “Divided tongues as of fire” appear and rest on each of them. We’ve called this: Pentecost. God’s Spirit is now made present again just as we heard going “before and behind” in the exodus, that rested over the tabernacle as recorded in Numbers, and that filled the temple in Kings. This same Spirit now hovers over and fills up God’s new dwelling – not a temple, not a church building, but God’s very people. Having entered into relationship with God in Christ through their baptisms, now receiving the Holy Spirit as members of Christ’s body. Being made holy even as we remain sinners here on earth.
The Spirit rushes through like a tornado, but it doesn’t destroy. He burns upon his descent to us, but doesn’t consume. How is this possible? Because Jesus stood in our place. Destroyed and consumed by God’s holy presence at the cross so that God could be present with – take up residence in – us, his temple, his Church, his people. The Holy Spirit fills the disciples and in so doing, they’re able to speak in other languages. If we remember in John’s Gospel especially, Jesus had promised to send the Spirit to empower his church’s witness in the world. So here on this day of Pentecost, we celebrate each year, the ascended Lord keeps his word.
Where does this strange moment fit within the story of redemption? How does it tie the old and new testaments together? How should we understand it? We must begin with the audience in attendance on that day. So just imagine it: here we have pious Jews from “every nation under heaven” in Jerusalem, and they gather around to see the commotion. To their astonishment, these foreigners hear the disciples preaching about God’s mighty works in Jesus in their native tongues.
Now to catch the significance of this, we’ve got to reflect on another part of God’s story with us: Remember what happened with the tower of Babel; God had judged and restrained rebellion by confusing languages and dividing the people. Off they went in their own directions, a theme we hear repeated in Scripture. Remember at the end of the book of Judges, “and the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Think too about how I’ve recounted the last 500 years of our Church’s history of doing precisely that – going off in our own direction, according to our own wishes – we’ve done it as individuals and as a Church, and as divided parts of the Church – right to our present.
What we hear about today is God’s overcoming that self-righteous claim to be right in our own eyes – an idolatry that leads to lack of life and so to a lack of true purpose and meaning. How does this take place? Of course it begins with Jesus’s coming into the world, sent by his Father, it is brought about with his faithfulness which results in his death and his redemption in his resurrection, it is fulfilled in his ascension that we celebrated last week. And the reality of God’s overcoming our self-righteously formed divisions is poured out for us as a promise of reconciliation in his giving us his Spirit, which is what we observe today.
The story we hear today is that God pours out his Spirit not to give us yet another new way to be in the world, but instead to draw us back, that is, by being conformed to Jesus; to draw us back to being conformed to the law and gospel that is fulfilled in Jesus’s own life: to love God, to love neighbor, to love enemy. To love God so that we might come to know him. In his security, being able to let go of the things we cling to – our fears that lead to a sense of self-righteous proclamation, to excluding or harming others – so that instead, we can make room in our lives to love others as Christ loved us. And in loving others, to serve as a catalyst, working in our various gifts as Paul talks about, to share the Holy Spirit, who draws our neighbors and enemies to Christ, who transforms them, shaping them in accordance with Jesus’s own life.
Some of you might have learned that Pentecost is the reversal of Babel. It’s not. It’s actually the overcoming of the consequences of our divisions in culture and language that have lead us to things that still plague us like racism, sexism, hatred, envy, jealously, gossip, sloth, gluttony, pride, and cruelty. It’s the restoration of the kingdom. It is Jesus coming into the world and in his death and resurrection, ending these divisions. Yes, ending them. That is, bringing words and actions that rely on those divisive ways, into the light; showing that they are a failure to heed God’s commandments, therefore bringing them under condemnation.
This in turn gives shape to God’s commandments to love God and neighbor. To love God, one must seek the good of one’s neighbor, and reconciliation with one’s enemy. We are given not just the command, but God’s presence to fulfill it: the Holy Spirit comes amongst us – so we mark at Pentecost – to lead us to live according to Christ’s own life. That is, leading us, guiding us, securing us, giving us the courage to act with the fruits of the Spirit: kindness, gentleness, patience, love, and self-control. Why? Because these are the things Christ did. They are the attributes Christ had that drew others to him, that over turned the harsh, brutal, violent, unfair, disgusting ways of the world as having any validity for the way we treat one another even where there is disagreement, tension, fear, and frustration. We are called and given the Spirit to secure us in our hope in Christ so that we can create space where the Spirit works to transform someone into Christ’s own way of living.
So what do the events of Pentecost mean? Peter’s preaching in Acts seems to imply that this coming of the Holy Spirit, following Christ’s ascension, is a wake up call. It is a call out with respect to how we treat one another – friend, enemy, people of different cultures, of different colored skin, of different language, of different upbringing or class. Why: because as Galatians puts it, “all are equal in Christ Jesus. Distinct? Yes. But equal in being and value and worth.” The Holy Spirit though a comforter, like a good parent, also cuts people to the heart. If what Peter declares in our reading from Acts is true, what must God’s followers, US, do? We must repent—agreeing with God about the sinfulness of their sin and looking in faith to Jesus—and enter the church through the covenant sign and seal of baptism. Having been marked as Christ’s own in baptism, receiving God’s fullness of love – himself – and the forgiveness and life of his indwelling Spirit, we are to love those whom we encounter.
I’ve been talking to you over the years I’ve been here about sharing your gifts; gifts given to you by God, not for your own good, but to bring other people to God; to be a catalyst who allows the Holy Spirit to work through you, to proclaim the universal language of the Gospel, Jesus Christ for all those who are willing to hear, to seek, to follow. How can you, how can we do this in a world where God’s love is so evidently not being fulfilled? To put it in theological terms, how do we witness to the hope of God come in Christ in between Christ’s having come, our living in the Spirit being constantly pointed back to his words and his ways, and this time of waiting for his return where, as we’ve seen particularly in the last few years and months, racism, sexism, and hatred run rampant from the top levels of authority, to the most local?
I think this is a question on everyone’s mind. The world really is a mess. Yet another black man lost his life when a police officer, unprovoked, kneeled down on his neck cutting off the air and blood flow to his brain. In just a few moments – three other police officers standing around watching – a man made in the image of God had his life suffocated out of him. The officer, charged with homicide, is at the center of a firestorm of sadness, anger, and protest that has caused damage to various properties in the Minneapolis area where this occurred. This isn’t an isolated incident. American news of late has been filled with people in positions of authority at the city and State levels, misusing their authority in acts of violence leading to harassment, assault and murder of black individuals, with no justifiable cause. This is far too often the result of what psychologists call, “implicit bias,” by which they mean presupposed assumptions about someone’s guilt based not on evidence, but on false conclusions associated simply with the color of a person’s skin. It is racial profiling and it is sin because the presumptions begin with a failure to recognize others first and foremost as God’s own. As people God made and loves. To act out of presumptions based in fear rather than based in real evidence violates God’s commandment to love neighbor. Why? Because the presumptions made lead to decisions and actions that lack the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
This event has inspired intensive rage for many as you might expect. But God also calls us to refrain from responding out of anger toward our neighbor and to refrain from losing faith and hope in him. God come to us in Christ, and granting us the Holy Spirit calls us to something quite different: he calls us to speak the truth in love.
The truth, in this case, is that while we must take the time to proclaim condemnation of this act in the name of God who gave his life for the sake of all, we must not turn away in fear, in hurt, in anger, or in a sense of helplessness. We must seek to make the places we live just and equal places of safety and opportunity for everyone whom God has made. To do that, we have to work out of hope and faith, not out of fear and cowardice or selfishness. For the one who gave us life and his Spirit to follow him did so out of the courage and conviction of faith; of laying down his life and his capacity to control us. What would it mean for you to live out of hope and faith; to lay down your life for your neighbor who is not of your skin color? Of your culture? Of your class? Is it simply developing a friendship; not an acquaintance, but a real deep friendship with commitments and sacrifices? Is it learning about why ‘implicit bias’ occurs and learning how we can participate in reducing its effect on us and on those we elect into power? Is it sharing in the resources you have? Is it writing to those in government? Is it talking to your neighbors about this? Is it raising awareness that this is occurring with friends and family members? Is it talking to you children and grandchildren? Is it being an ear for someone who is targeted? Is it letting go of biases you have and asking yourself why you hold them? I can’t give you the answer. This is yours to come up with as you pray to God. But I will say this: God did not give us his Spirit for our self-satisfaction and mere comfort. God gave us his Spirit so that confident in God’s love holding us securely, we can risk testifying to the truth in love in order that the world might come to seek and know him. How can we share in this hope in the midst of seeming darkness, to help others navigate a time that can seem so very dark? AMEN.
Our readings for celebrating both the 7th Sunday of Easter and Jesus's ascension to the Father: Ascension Readings: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=45 AND: the 7th Sunday of Easter Readings: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=46
Today we celebrate our Lord’s Ascension, where we remember Jesus’ final return to the Father in Heaven, as recounted in Acts 1:9 – an event further testified to in 1st Timothy and 1 Peter. Further on in Acts, Saint Peter, in one of his addresses, affirms that Jesus was ‘exalted at the right hand of God’ (2:33), and uses this fact as confirmation that He has fulfilled the promises made regarding the Messiah in Psalm 110. Of course with the Church from very early on and across the world, we affirm this very thing in our shared profession during worship, of the Apostle’s Creed, which says that Jesus is now ‘seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead’.
So, it would seem that the Ascension is a vital part of Christian belief. Yet it’s rarely something we talk about in the Church. I would suggest this is for a couple of reasons. First, I think we’re uncomfortable with the idea of monarchy and power because, well, it’s often been experienced or described to us as a political order that has not only established order, but also enforced brutal and sometimes violent laws. So the language which describes Jesus as being enthroned next to the Father is often left to the side or simply absorbed into the resurrection discussion so we don’t have to deal with language we might find repellant.
Of course Scripture itself can give us warrant for doing this. The Ascension is seen as continuous with the Resurrection, something particularly noticeable in Saint John, who presents it as something both present and yet to come. This can be seen most clearly in Jesus’ exchange with Mary Magdalene, where He says ‘Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’ (John 20:17). Even Saint Luke in the gospel and in Acts talks about the Ascension as both a current and a future event happening. So again, how tied is this Ascension of Jesus to God’s ‘right hand’, to the resurrection. Do we have to think of them as separate events? If so, why?
Saint Augustine seemed to share this view of the Ascension being continuous with the Resurrection, but he also affirmed its role as the seal of the whole process, as something without which the previous events would have had no effect. In a homily given on the Feast of the Ascension* he says:
‘This is that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together,
without which the profitableness of every festival would have perished. For unless the Saviour had ascended into heaven, his Nativity would have come to nothing…and his Passion would have borne no fruit for us, and his most holy Resurrection would have been useless.’
What Saint Augustine says here resonates with the passage in Ephesians 4:10, where Saint Paul says that ‘He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things’ – i.e.; that by ascending into Heaven, and taking our very selves, our nature as human beings, up with Him into the heavenly places – had he not ‘gone up’ – something that required waiting, a separation out from his resurrection, we could not have been reconciled to God.
This is what we hear in our gospel reading from Luke: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
Of course we know the disciples had been with Jesus from the beginning, watching the Scriptures being fulfilled. Only with the resurrection then, could they truly come to know what the Scriptures mean and how every single word of Scripture is fulfilled in his suffering, death and resurrection. But you see, this is important: it is not simply that the Scriptures were fulfilled, but that all of history was fulfilled in this moment; all the events of history are and will be fitted into those Scriptures, drawn into God himself in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
It is one thing to know this. But it is quite another to understand and then be moved to witness or testify to this fulfillment of the Scriptures; to the very person, the life, death and resurrection itself. It was essential for Jesus to return and be with the disciples again, to be present, to be with them, for them to see, hear, and put their fingers into him, to be able to proclaim this real event to those who would not be able to directly be with Christ, but who, as Jesus says to doubting Thomas, would have to come to Christ in and with persistent faith, not sight. And time, the time between Jesus’s resurrection and his ascension is a living embodiment of simultaneous waiting for God to act, and of persistent waiting in him, in faith. Waiting, without being able to touch, in literal terms, his cloak like he warned Mary not to do. “Do not hold onto me for I have not yet ascended.”
You must wait, my children, wait in faith, sometimes in suffering, sometimes in fear, sometimes with deep Peter or Thomas like doubt. Wait as we are stuck in a desert of serpents who bite at one another for power and control to quell our fears, wait with self-doubt, confusion, loss of purpose, broken love and years of facing its consequences, wait as a vulnerable babe borne in a manger in a world of uncertainty and possible threat, wait in a world filled with false hope, distorted purposes conditioned into us from birth; wait as our minds and bodies decline, looking back to see what trail of witness we have left in this world. Wait, not however, in despair, but knowing that the time of our waiting has actually been lived, taken on, and taken up when Christ is with us between his resurrection and ascension.
This time between his resurrection and ascension is critical to recognize because it is a sign to us, that God has been with us from the beginning, that he remains with us in our waiting, whatever form of good or bad unfolds in our lives, and that, as he says, to the disciples in Luke, that when he ascends, he will not depart from us but remain as the Holy Spirit draws us into him and unites us to the Father in heaven. In heaven and on earth we persist as his body. In our faithful witness and in our failures to do so, we are sanctified (stripped of false coverings, revealed more and more for who God made us), enabled to see how we are being drawn into his life if we’re willing to look not at ourselves alone, or ourselves in the constructions of our world, but ourselves as we are being moved by the Spirit and conformed to him.
Saint Augustine, in another homily on the Ascension, affirms this point:
‘He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven.
So the Apostle says: Just as the human body, which has many members, is a unity, because all the different members make one body, so is it also with Christ. He too has many members, but one body.’
When Jesus came into the world – which we celebrated at Christmas – he took on every part of us, our whole nature and ever peculiar aspect of who we are, he took with him all the brokenness of that nature to the Cross and when he was raised, he made for us new life. But it was with the Ascension that this union was completed, our humanity being forever joined to God through our baptism, so that, as Augustine says, ‘we by our union with him are the children of God’.
The Ascension is therefore truly a seal and guarantee of our redemption – the confirmation that He who entered into the depths of our experience has torn down the veil between God and human beings. This is the truth and the sure hope on which our faith can endure waiting. And as represented by Christ in the time between his resurrection and ascension, we are given the time to come to know his love for us. What would it mean to you to be loved unconditionally; where all the places in your life of shame, deep anguishing shame, of guilt, of fear, of loss, of regret, of worry, of hope, of joy, where all these places are met by the one who gave his life so that you might have life, forgiveness, and deep abiding love not contingent on your success at life, but merely your faith in opening up to receive this love? What would it mean to you? What would it mean for how you treat those around you? What would it mean about how you live your life, the things you hold of value, the things that you cling to, the things you’re willing to let go of? What would it mean for you to be set free from fear and despair, in the time that you have left, free to love as you have been loved by God in Christ? AMEN.