I will presume that most of you have been seeking after God for some time. Or maybe you have not, or only have been for a short period of time. How has that time of seeking God been for you? Have you ever experienced doubt? Doubt about God being real? Or doubt about the God you heard proclaimed in the Scriptures? Or doubt about the sort of God proclaimed by Christians of one type or another? Maybe even your own priest?
In our gospel lesson from John this morning, we hear about St Thomas, or doubting Thomas as he’s often known. As we just heard, Thomas had not been with the disciples when Jesus came to meet with them and so when he arrives on the scene, the disciples rush to tell him, “Thomas we saw the Lord.” Thomas replies, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
Now doubt of course is not a new thing. We’ve encountered story after story of doubt through our Scriptures. Sarah actually laughs in doubt at God, when he tells her that she’ll have a child in her old age. Abram says to God, ‘how on earth could you give me a child God, I’m an old man well past child bearing years.’ Then of course as we heard over Lent, there were the Israelites in the desert who doubt God so much that they make a golden calf to offer to other gods in the hopes that they will be provided for when they doubt God’s provision of food, water and life for them.
There are the Israelites we hear about in the book of Judges who complain so mightily that they need a king to help lead and guide them because they cannot follow God loving him with their hearts and minds, they doubt in the midst of their struggles and do not hold fast to the faith. Of course God finally grants them their wish with the kings of Israel and ultimately with the King of kings, Jesus Christ. We also know of course about the disciples’ doubts: who will betray you Jesus, surely it is not I, I will not deny you Peter says to Jesus, until he hears that cock crow. On and on I could go in the Scriptures, and on into history books: doubt, fear, worry, struggle, for a whole host of reasons.
Each of us has likely faced a moment of doubt, or perhaps a long drought of doubt, even a loss of faith. Maybe you’re not even so sure now. Are you really there God? If I cannot see the mark of nails in his hands, and put my hand in there, and put my hand in his staff wound, I will not believe. In day to day lives where we measure most of the things of our lives by the ability to count, see, demonstrate, prove, show, confirm, how can we believe in the story of God come into the world, crucified for our sakes, resurrected three days later? How can we believe when we cannot see, touch, hold onto? How can we believe that God sent his Son into the world for us, to transform it completely, when the world still looks violent, when Christian faith seems to be in decline in the West? How can we believe God truly loves us when most of our lives are about navigating relationships where people leave us, get sick, fall apart, become angry with us or we with them so much so that there’s withdrawal, sometimes for good? How can we trust that God really has got us and isn’t going to let us go, when we experience nothing but that here on earth?
I know for me, I have come to doubt God’s existence at several points in my decade and a couple years of being a Christian. I’ve talked before about my doubt that came after I realized I had followed people and their ideology, rather than God. I wondered if there was a God underneath all their personal professions and characterizations, especially as these contradicted those of other Christians. Who had it right? Did anyone. Or was God simply an invention of people looking to control their own lives or the lives of others; to give themselves order and purpose in a world that can seem very much without either.
Then there was the doubt that has come with actually studying historical theology. Ironic hey? As folks in the Church have tried to work out what we call doctrine (or, central tenets of belief, doctrine of the trinity, how Christ can be both God and man, etc, how one is saved), not only has the Church split over and over again into different groups, but along with that came executions, murders, war, imprisonment, manipulation and violence. How many conceptualizations of atonement are there? Is it essential to hold to one? If so, am I not a Christian if I don’t hold to one? What if I’m wrong? Or is the Christian faith merely about vague sincerity: I believe in some concept of God and I try to be a good person in accordance with the Scriptures and at the end of the day, I rely on Jesus to get me there. Maybe that’s actually true. Personally, I’m too skeptical, I think too often about the worst possible case when plotting out my life, and try to avoid that. So I tend toward thinking I must actually ‘do the right thing’ for God to save me, which of course creates massive doubt because I can’t tell – amongst the myriad of ways the faith has been articulated – what the right way necessarily is!
For a variety of reasons, intellectual and quite pragmatic, I had to work out these doubts while going to church every week, not to sit in a pew, but to climb into a pulpit to preach faith, hope and love. In order to do this, I was forced to reckon with what John, in today’s gospel lesson, calls ‘signs.’ John says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” You see to preach, you cannot simply read the Scriptures and regurgitate them; you must determine where you, where your congregation; where your friends and family, where the people of this world past and present, are met by Jesus in the Scriptures. Where does he encounter all of us, each of us? The fact of the matter, is that he encounters us right where we are. And in his Spirit, he draws us into the world he has already created, and which he brings to an end, that is, into the world we find in the Scriptures.
The signs he does then, aren’t simply being done to or with characters that we find in Scripture. No. That’s not how it works. The signs we find in the Scriptures are being done to us and with us, and with our neighbors and our enemies. Those are the signs into which everything I saw in this world were being drawn every time I had to preach. And do you know what I discovered? Especially in the midst of doubt, doubt perhaps much deeper than Thomas’s?
I discovered that my doubt was actually fear. Fear that God did not come for me. Like you, I too grew up in a world that measures all things by Thomas standards: let me put my hands into you, right into your body, let me see, hold, count, be utterly certain of your presence with me. Only if I can hold, see and measure, can I know for certain that I am okay. Only if I know for certain that that I’ve got the right doctrine, that my grandparents who have died are with you, that you are going to make this world better than it is now, only if I know you will save me despite the decisions and choices I have to make in light of my body’s and my brain’s failures to be ordered rightly, only if I know I am wanted, safe, of value, only if I know that in my failures, you will still have me, only then will I believe, only then can I sustain.
Jesus says to Thomas and so to me and to you: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus isn’t actually asking us for a blind faith here. In fact, what he is saying is that in order to see me, first, you must follow me. I have often heard it said by older people that it is only in retrospect, looking back on their marriage, or looking back on their lives with their children, that they can truly say ‘what it is that they actually had.’ Any relationship – whether with friends, or co-workers, or with a spouse, or with kids and grandkids, or with neighbors or bosses, requires faith. Faith to sustain through periods of struggle, doubt, fear, frustration, boredom, loneliness, anger, bitterness, jealousy, envy, confusion, illness, disease, change, and decay. But faith over time reveals the signs that become interwoven pieces of the story of our respective lives together.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Jesus does not tell us this because he demands blind faith to him. Rather he tells us this because he knows precisely who we are: finite creatures who still live in and see the world through a glass darkly, as Paul puts it; people for whom faith is not about obtaining mathematical certainty. Faith is not perfect knowledge. It is following God, hearing his Word, the Scriptures. That Word, the whole of the Scriptures, made incarnate in Jesus Christ; the one who fulfils and makes them real to us as we are drawn into their times and characters and so into him by the Holy Spirit. Faith then is about allowing ourselves to let go of our present so that we can be caught up by these signs given to us in the Scriptures. For it’s just here that we encounter him and he encounters us. It is therefore simply following Jesus, attending to his Word with the kind of work we’d do in relationship with our friends or spouses, or that we’d do to work through new challenges in health, in living situation, in family situations, that sustains us through doubt. Why? Because when we look back at the path we’ve walked in this life through our Scriptures, there we might see the signs of God present with us. AMEN.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. We of course recite this in what we call the Sanctus – the part of our Eucharistic Prayer where we usually sing, ‘holy, holy holy.’ This comes right before the priest says the words of institution, or what’s better known as the part of the Eucharistic prayer where the bread and wine are consecrated; where we have present with us the body and blood of Jesus Christ who offered himself to us once and for all, which we recognize and receive most Sundays.
And where are these words from? Well they come directly from Jesus’s descent from the Mount of Olives as he prepares to ‘go to Jerusalem,’ to live in faith and love his Father to the very end of his own life where, before he dies, he is stripped naked, tortured, mocked, and mounted up on the Cross with stakes being driven through his hands and feet, and finally thrust through his side with a spear. But before this final day of all time which we will mark this coming Friday (and which I hope each of you faithful and thankful to our Lord for his sacrifice, will attend), there is much celebrating to be done.
You see Jesus’s followers anticipate something monumental happening. Our Gospel reading today tells us that they had seen his great deeds of power and they fully believed that he was their King, the one who came in the name of the Lord: God come to deliver them, to restore them to relationship with him in their land. There was a sense of expectation and of fulfillment: he is here they cry: it is coming, it is nearly here, peace in heaven; glory in the highest heaven, deliverance in this Jesus who has done great things among us is finally here.
And so in accordance with his command, off go some disciples to get him a colt as he asks, so that he can ride it into Jerusalem just as the Scriptures (what we refer to as the OT Scriptures) foretold. The owners say, ‘uh, guys, where are you going with my colt.’ And the disciples reply without fear they’d be charged with thievery, ‘the Lord needs it.’ And off they go placing their own cloaks on it as a saddle. When Jesus gets on and begins to ride, people start lining the streets and they lay down their cloaks to mark his way to what they believe will be his great triumph. Here we see that, at least at some level, they are shedding their own layers of clothing (the clothes God provided to Adam and Eve after their fall from relationship with him). They give back those clothes, in one sense, and in so doing they are offering up to God not merely their clothing which he provided as an interim, but their whole lives, which is what he actually wants.
Now just remember that these folks didn’t have a NT with the Gospels laid out in front of them. They knew only the Scriptures that you and I refer to as the OT. These were ‘the Scriptures.’ And it is these Scriptures that were and are to be fulfilled. So to them we turn to understand why they would shout out, as we hear in other gospel passages for this Palm Sunday, ‘hosanna in the highest, along with waving palm fronds. Blessed is he (Jesus) who comes in the name of the Lord, hosanna in the highest. These words that make up what we call our Sanctus during our Eucharistic Prayer are a recognition of this moment, of this time of Jesus’s life, each Sanctus, (which is the Latin word for Holy), we proclaim, is a mini palm Sunday where we shed our own flesh and our own clothes, and prepare receive spiritual bodies renewed and made in the image of God, in the way and in the life of Jesus Christ himself: this one who comes in the name of the Lord.
So in our Sanctus, we join with all those Christians who have come before us, and all those Christians around the world who celebrate/have celebrated the real presence of Jesus Christ with and in us through the Eucharist. And I mean this. When we take of the body and blood of Christ after the bread and wine have been consecrated, when we say the Sanctus, we are not merely doing a ritual to mark something that has occurred; we are physically joined by God, with those Christians who have died and are with God, and those Christians who are all around the world. It is a fellowship, a moment of elevation to receiving the presence of God in us, uniting us to one another.
The Sanctus closes off that part of the our service that is referred to as the Preface which begins with the Sursum corda (when we say, "Lift up your hearts!"). This prayer prepares us for entering the Holy of Holies to worship God, the inner sanctum of the Temple which is Jesus’s Body.
Holy, holy, holy
Lord God of Hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
As I said, the words we pray, that we hear in our Gospel today, "Holy, holy, holy" are not those of ‘the NT, which was not yet in place in the disciple’s time. Rather these words come to us from the Scriptures they had, what we know as the OT, from Isaiah 6:3. In this passage, Isaiah tells us of his vision of the Lord in the heavens. These words are part of the heavenly refrain of the seraphim: "'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts! they cried one to the other. 'All the earth is filled with his glory.'" So what is going on here is a fulfillment of the promise God has made to his people: I will come amongst you and I will gather you from the four corners (N, S, E and W). And Jesus’s descent from the mountain, like Moses descent from the mountain, is the descent of the law perfectly fulfilled, coming into the midst of people who had gone astray in Israel and in the disciple’s day. Down the mountain, across and beyond all time and space, God comes in the Jesus Christ, He who comes in the name of the Lord, to reclaim us, to grab us, to hold us and secure us and conform us to God himself. We hear this testified to by John’s vision of the heavens (the fulfillment of all time) in Revelation, “holy, holy holy is the Lord God almighty who was and who is, and who is to come.
By these words we are not only recognizing or confessing our fallenness, but stripping away our on cloaks – the defenses we have of emotions, of possessions, of desire to control, of anger or bitterness or resentment – we are laying these things on the ground both as the impediment they are to us, and as the invitation to God we make to enter into us and draw us into his own mission, his own path from descent from God, to earthly life, to death, to resurrected or reconciled life with God. That is what those cloaks thrown to the ground mark: they mark our commitment to go from a life created by God, to one so often mired in the sin of this life and all the fears, defenses and blocks we put up to receiving grace, to a commitment to lay these things down, to give them up, so that we might follow the path and life of God himself revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
So following Jesus, shedding the confines of this world, we are raised, each Sunday, each encounter with Jesus upon which we can draw, into a world that is illuminated by his grace, rather than kept in the darkness of sin. We are invited then, by the grace first laid down for us in Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem we hear about here, into Jesus’s own life of righteousness as we hear in our psalm, psalm 118: vv 25-26 "Open the gates of righteousness; I will enter and thank the LORD. This is the LORD's own gate, through it the righteous enter.” Jesus is of course this very gate by which the righteous enter into the Holy of Holies, into a reconciled relationship with God, adopted as we have been.
And what is the proper response to receiving such grace? Well, let me tell you, I actually think that it’s something that can’t authentically come unless you’re willing to stick with, endure and persevere in the sometimes major struggle to live a life of faith in this world – to go out from here having received the body and blood of Christ – to engage the world in and with faith in God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. In other words, the proper response I think comes only when we actually find God present with us where we sustain in being faithful to him in our day to day lives. That proper response, at least for me, comes out much like this one we hear in psalm 118: "I thank you for you answered me; you have been my savior."
There’s no formula for getting to this point because I think it comes for each of us in such incredibly unique ways in such a variety of circumstances. But it is where all of these unique, sometimes complex, sometimes immediately recognizable and sometimes only recognized after many years or a whole lifetime events intersect with being taken up and into the life of God himself through his Son by his Spirit – that we are moved, I do believe, to give thanks. It just comes. And it comes because it is this moment of recognition: I am with my creator, my redeemer, the one who gives me purpose and eternal life. He has come, he is coming, he will come for me. And I endure here now – through all of this ‘stuff’ – in the light and because of the light of his presence: hosanna in the highest. AMEN.
Have you ever had one of those conversations with someone where you’re talking about faith and belief in God and someone says, “well, I know a lot of really crappy Christians, or look at how Christians did this or that bad thing in history, and you want to tell me that somehow belief in God makes you righteous, when my atheist friend is so much a better person than any Christian I know. My friend or my daughter or my nephew is much better person, much kinder, does more good, than any Christian I know. Go ahead and raise your hand if you’ve ever spoken to someone who’s said something like this.
If I were being really blunt (and frankly a bit of a jerk), I’d blurt out, “you’ve entirely missed the point of God’s relationship to human beings and of the Scripture’s testimony to this.” Fortunately, I generally catch myself before responding so insensitively. Paul provides a much more helpful response to the claim about ‘human goodness’ in our passage today from Philippians. He says, ‘if we’re going to go on about our own righteousness and the ‘goodness of our own works,’ here, I’ll lay mine out for you. You know that law that God gave to his people, well here’s are my credentials: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
Here Paul defines what it means to be righteous: to be righteous, to be holy, is to fulfill the law completely, to love God and to love neighbor without fail; it is to have been born without sin. Oops. We have a problem: who of us has been born without sin? According to Scripture, ‘no one is good, no not one.’ That’s not a statement about whether we perform good acts that the Psalms make, that is a statement about the fact that every human being is born into the sin of Adam and Eve. If you are created, you are a sinner. Only a human who is uncreated, who is and was and always will be, before all things that were created (as John chapter one says to us), could be without sin. Only the one whom we call Lord, could be a human being without sin.
So Paul’s claim here then, is that if you were born through the sexual union of two human parents, or cloned from human DNA, or developed in a test tube, you are a human being born into sin. So whatever good or bad we do as human beings created in sin, even if we were to follow God’s law to a T, these acts do not make us righteous before God, because they cannot do so by themselves. Article 10 in our Book of Common Prayer, on Free Will puts it like this: “The condition of every person after the fall of Adam is such that they cannot turn and prepare themselves, by their own natural strength and good works to faith and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works … acceptable to God …
Of course we affirm this sort of thing in our liturgies all the time, ‘my works don’t save me or make me righteous before God, that’s why I need Jesus.’ Paul makes this bit pretty clear when he says, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Paul makes a pretty bold claim here that we might just take as zeal were we to hear him or anyone else say it: “I regard all the good things I have or do as loss, as rubbish even, in comparison to my knowing Jesus Christ, and being filled with his own will.” I’ve got to tell you that if I actually did hear this, I’d likely think the one proclaiming it was a brainwashed, zealous nut, or at best, a follower groupie who couldn’t think for himself, perhaps a man with serious personality issues and an inferiority complex.
But here’s the thing: I’d be halted in my thinking when I heard what Paul says next. Paul has said, I regard all my actions and my ways as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ; in order that I might be found in Jesus Christ, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from me ‘doing the good’ i.e. doing the law, but one that comes through what: through the fact that my brokenness and sin, together with my faith, has been taken up, has been literally taken on by Jesus Christ, who offers every single human life to God unstained by sin, cleansed, washed clean, and reconciled to relationship with God. That’s quite a claim. It’s a claim about receiving the fullness of existence and of my own particular life, through this one whom I commit to follow. And this is why Paul says, “I’m willing to give my claim to ‘do good’ to ‘act well’ to ‘be holy’ to ‘be righteous’, because having known Christ, I recognize my sin, my weakness, my incapacity, my frailty, my part in sin and brokenness, and so my inability to actually fulfill the law. Everything I have that matters at all in God’s figurative eyes, “I receive as a gift, as grace, from God alone.”
This would fundamentally stop me in my tracks in thinking Paul to be a wild zealot groupie. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Umm, what, I might say. This is where the story turns. I want to know Christ and to be the recipient of the goods that come out of his resurrection. This of course implies that this one who Paul is following is going to die at some point, and then be resurrected or rise from the dead. This is of course a shocking enough claim – what could it mean? But Paul continues on, that he wants to “share in Jesus’s sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if he himself can obtain resurrection from the dead.” Paul isn’t suggesting that he’s going to become powerful, wealthy or famous, but more strangely, he is actually implying that by following Jesus in faithfulness to God, he will have to endure suffering, and struggle; this, we know from the Gospels, is the mission of going out into the world to live, through what we say, and how we act, our faithfulness to God. This is what Paul is saying, I want to live into this life of Jesus Christ, and I accept that to inhabit it, I will have to endure the things that come with sticking to my faith.
For Paul this meant enduring torture, imprisonment, snake bites, constant threat, fighting parishioners, breaking up immoral or unethical practices, calling people out on false proclamations of the faith. But potentially the hardest thing it required, was not just speaking with, but living with the humility of being a finite and sinful person. Acknowledging that, and acknowledging that it is solely by the gift of grace that he has life at all. But that this gift of life is given as God intended it, for a particular purpose: the exercise of loving God and loving one’s neighbors, including one’s enemies. Paul acknowledges this when he says, “Not that I have already obtained this [promise of resurrected life or the fullness of life with God] … but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own [because I must always remember that this is a pure gift from God]; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind (all those things that I once thought made me a good and righteous person, complete and satisfactory) and straining forward to what lies ahead (fully reconciled life with God), I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
This is a tremendous and many might think – were this to take place today – a foolish commitment of the fullness of one’s life. You see the thing about faith that we sometimes struggle to understand in North America, is that receiving grace doesn’t set us free to do whatever we please, and receiving grace often doesn’t feel pleasant precisely because as we receive grace – that is, as we come to know God through his Scriptural revelation to us of Jesus Christ – the following we do, the following of Jesus’s own life through all the characters and situations, the ups and downs that we find in Scripture, as we follow that life figured in all of the Scriptures, as we find ourselves into those characters and situations, our very following him strips away so many of the false idols we like to cling to that make us feel as if we’re safe (whatever that happens to be, whether that’s money, possessions, emotionally controlling others, gossiping about others, always walking around as if we can be righteously angry at the world, being moody or irritable, or self-righteous, or condemnatory, or self-righteously violent, or sustaining in ignorance, or hatred, or bigotry, or lacking in the willingness to step into the shoes of another, our impatience, our constant criticism or cynicism, or lack of kindness all exuding the fruit of defense mechanisms against real or perceived threats).
You see to follow Jesus where he has gone and continues to go in this world is to give up our claim to ‘be good or do good, with our self-perceived effort being sufficient.’ This claim is usually made by those who have underlying insecurity about their value and worth. To follow Jesus though is to step into a value and worth that is well beyond the value of any gift we have to provide God with, as our gospel reading makes clear. We can provide our finest oil to anoint Jesus, but we can also steal from him the very gifts, the common purse, that he gave when he created all human beings. We cannot, even at our finest, do works or provide gifts sufficient to reconcile every human being to God. This is something we can only receive. And our reception of this overflowing abundance, this overflowing gift of washing and cleansing from sin, this overflow of God’s love, well our receipt of it is a journey, a lifetime journey that takes guts, the kind of guts that arrogance and demand for certainty cannot foster. It takes the willingness to sacrifice the illusion that we are self-reliant, so we can let go and give ourselves to God for him to transform us in his love. AMEN
Lent 3 March 24, 2019
This vocation of being a priest involves really hard discussions sometimes. The discussions that are hardest are those where someone’s pain is rippling off the surface of their skin, and there is absolutely nothing I can do to relieve what they are experiencing. I was speaking to a friend this week whose partner is in stage four pancreatic cancer. A mutual Instagram friend messaged me to ask what had happened to our friend’s profile as it seemed to have disappeared. I checked and sure enough it was gone. So I started hunting around, knowing only my friend’s name, what city he lives in and what he does for a living. I messaged him through facebook and through Instagram and grew increasingly worried as I wasn’t getting a response.
Finally, the next morning, I received a response and my friend said to me, I just had to get off Instagram for a while, I had to turn away from everything. I’ve just experienced something that is just not of this world. I am dazed. I took the conversation slowly, giving him space to explain in his own time, meanwhile extremely anxious about his well-being. Eventually, he told me that when he had driven home that night, he got out of his car and heard his partner, who was inside the house, scream with a kind of guttural agony that would chill anyone to the bone. He said that he went into the house and could see things not of this world near her. He got in to the house just in time for her to fall limply into his arms. He said to me, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t take on her pain and her suffering, I couldn’t take on the physical and mental agony, the desire to let go and be taken by death. And I felt gouged out, as if something had simply ripped my soul knitted to hers out of my body and left me a hollow shell, unsure who I was, what I was, or how to go on as if there was still meaning rather than mere routine.
I know I’ve been in a situation like this. I know that at least several of you have as well. I know some of you or those you love have been diagnosed with cancer, or Alzheimer’s, with arthritis or wicked back or stomach pain. I know some of you have lost children and or partner’s yourselves, sometimes to long term sickness, sometimes it happened very suddenly. I know some of you have grappled with a struggle to figure out personal relationships, not just at a surface level, but deep below, struggling with insecurity, loss, fear of getting close, fear of being vulnerable, lack of self-worth, or a kind of indifference that sometimes grows out of the pain of failed or complicated relationships from the past. We have likely all gone through some sort of struggle and wondered: why me, why this. And we’ve wondered, how can I deal with this? How can I go on? What will I do with …?
I remember once talking about things I was struggling with with someone whom I respected very much and he said to me our very words from 1st Corinthians today: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” At first this made me pretty angry. I thought, you’re diminishing my own suffering. You’re not taking me seriously. You’re giving me no space to feel anything. You want me to just get over it, as if ‘everyone struggles so suck it up, be stoic, and get on with things. And yet part of my anger had to do with the fact that what this person said to me was true: and I called to mind the stories of friends who had been sexually abused or physically abused as children, friends who live in a corrupt nation where they can barely scrape together what is necessary to feed themselves, friends who lost children, friends who lost parents, friends who died, in their 20s, of cancer. I had friends who lost jobs, who felt squashed by their workloads, not sufficient for their families, who worry endlessly about how their kids will turn out. While my generation might curate their live to look perfect on social media – while under the surface trouble is all around them – your generation curated your lives by not talking about your pain, your suffering, your fears and anxieties. Particularly the men of your generation; told not to share, not to feel, because to do so would be weakness. So we have all in some way spent time covering up, hiding, masking, and distracting, from our own struggles.
Into this God says something very key to us that we too often forget living in a world where we have spent so much time and effort curating our lives and distracting ourselves from real struggle. ‘Testing is common to everyone.’ In the passage from Corinthians, Paul had been telling of Israel’s test in the desert. Having been freed from slavery in Egypt, just as we are freed from the slavery to sin, Israel is taken out into the desert and there find themselves all tested by elements common to all of them: the need for food, for water, the danger of their physical environment, the difficulty of dealing with sick, ailing people in the desert, the danger of temptation to turn away from the freedom they’d received and the new life they had in the desert, to slavery in Egypt.
Likewise Paul is saying the danger is always present to us, that having been freed from slavery to sin, the things that we encounter in this world that test us – need for food, for shelter, for water, for community, for safety, for treatment for conditions, for basic love and relationship – can become a snare for us where instead of trusting in God when things fall apart with family, with friends, with our health, with our loved one’s health, with our careers, with our personal lives, with our sex lives, with our retirements, we imagine these things to have power over us instead. We can end up placing our hope in the figurative golden calves of so many things: possessions, a sense of personal justice, vengeance, our self-righteous anger, our ability to control, scold or mold another in our likeness. We can in fact turn away from God in despair – just as the Israelites did in the desert – God why the hell would you free us from Egypt, from sin, only to lead us out into the desert where we hunger, thirst, get sick, where our relationships go bad and we hurt and maim each other, each one of us bitten by figuratively poisonous serpents, who are in fact, us.
I’m in the desert each one of us have said. I have nothing left. Why should I turn to you God? If you loved me, why would you allow this to happen? Why wouldn’t you stop this from happening? Why would you let us have to walk through this land, through this life, without bread, without water. There is no testing that is not common to all. Why? Because every single human being who lives, must walk through the desert that is in fact, life. We spend our lives constantly tested through so many means for we are the Israelites, we enter into their very desert, their very reality as we struggle through our own particular lives. And like my friend, we sometimes wonder, why Lord, would you leave me helplessly here; why would you leave me helpless to cure or take away this other person’s pain whom I love so much?
This is what Paul says to us in the midst of our darkest moments of this life where we are all tested: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” We know from our reading from Corinthians that God provided both bread and water for the Israelites: the bread of heaven, manna; water from a rock, that rock being the foundation of all life, Jesus Christ himself.
From where did that water and bread come to the Israelites, and where does it come for us? For both, it comes of course through Jesus’s own incarnate life, where he takes on our humanity, where he takes on the death due to us for our sin, where he rises from death and reconciles us to life with the Father through his Spirit. We know this is where life and so our hope to endure come from because this of course is precisely what we hear echoed again and again. What more could water from the rock in the desert mean than the water that poured out of Christ’s own side when he was stabbed upon the Cross. This is the water, the Christ, the bodily substance, by whom we have life. God is faithful, he will not let us be tested beyond our own strength. He provided a way out in the desert by remaining ever faithful to his promises to reconcile us to himself. He provided a way out by not leaving us to death, but reconciling us to eternal life in himself. He provides a way out by showing, in the desert – remember our reading from Lent 1 – that he has overcome Satan, sin and the temptation to turn away from God in the greatest trials of life. Jesus opens the way for you and for me as we walk in the desert that is life. We are often parched, hungry, fearful about our capacity to survive, confused about our meaning and purpose, saddened by losses, by our decline, by changes and disappointments we couldn’t have anticipated, or that we knew and always dreaded.
Every single one of us is or will be tested. That is what it means to live. We all enter into the desert where we will all face a myriad of things that will constantly tempt us to turn from God. I don’t know what these temptations will be for you. But here’s the thing: you are not alone in facing temptation. God himself in Jesus Christ faced into temptation and overcame it. In doing this, he didn’t just come along side you in your struggle to comfort you – as any person could – he literally took on your suffering, your decline, your sadness, your death, your loved one’s death. He took this on when he took on our humanity, and so he inhabits us, draws us, kneads us, shapes us, forms us, sustains us in the worst of times, in the worst of circumstances, in the most utter anguish and despair and sense of loss, he is within us, holding on to us, securing us, breathing life into us, or raising up our spiritual bodies. Testing will happen to all of us, but God in Christ through his Spirit has given us a way out, so that in Jesus Christ, as he is in our bodies and minds, we have the assurance, the love, the physical presence, and therefore the hope to endure and persevere in our respective deserts of life. AMEN.
I’m sure you folks are aware of the murders that took place this week in New Zealand (describe briefly what we know so far). As I was listening to responses, one notably stuck out not simply to me, but to many around the world. This was it. It came from a New Zealand senator: “I am utterly opposed to any form of violence within our community, and I totally condemn the actions of the gunman,” Anning said. “However, whilst this kind of violent vigilantism can never be justified, what it highlights is the growing fear within our community, both in Australia and New Zealand of the increasing Muslim presence.” The senator claimed “left-wing politicians and media” would blame gun laws and nationalist views, but “the real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” Let me read this to you again.
I don’t know whether this senator has any belief in any god, or whether he is atheist who believes in a materialistic universe where individuals construct and reconstruct meaning and purpose as they see fit with their own goals or agendas. But our Scriptures have something quite explicit to say to such a response perfect love, God come to us in Jesus Christ, casts out fear. This doesn’t mean that you will not feel fear, that you will not experience being made uncomfortable, that you will not be challenged, or confused, or worried about your present or future; about how your culture, your country, your city, your schools, your customs and traditions are changing. Perfect love doesn’t get rid of events, or how you feel about events, or even the consequences of events. Rather the perfect love who is Jesus Christ come into the world, who fundamentally changes the world when he reconciles us to God, he gives us the true capacity to respond not out of those fears we experience about so many things, so many changes to our lives, our customs, our cultures, but out of thanks for all that we have been leant by God to be stewards over.
Our readings this morning really drive at the fact that Jesus Christ delivers us from evil and death and so we’re asked to live differently, to live and act out of hope, joy and love. And yet, we’re asked for something more. And we’re asked for something more precisely because while we’re still waiting for Jesus’s return when we’re all finally gathered to God, there will indeed be things that scare us, that challenge us, that can cause us to suffer, physically, mentally and emotionally; there are things we are asked to give up, to sacrifice, to let go of. And foremost amongst the things we are asked to let go of, are responses of violence where there isn’t immediate and evident physical threat to our lives.
Listen to what God says to Abram when Abram is afraid. You see, Abram has a problem. Bearing children was essential for the Israelites because this is how they survived and sustained their families, worked their land, fed their families, were able to find food and shelter and protection. But Abram and Sarai couldn’t conceive as it appeared that Sarai (who will become Sarah) was barren. Today this would be very sad, but also not about a matter of survival that it would have been then. Abram with great fear says, my heir cannot be the slave boy, Ishmael, whom I made with Hagar. I must have a child with my wife Sarai. For the rightful heir cannot be a slave, an imperfect heir. And God answers Abram as we know. And from barren Sarah, comes the true heir Isaac. And Isaac of course, as we know, will go on to beget another generation who then begets another. And God says to Abram, see those stars up there, your ancestors, from Isaac, will be more numerous than them. Now here’s the important part. Remember that Abram here was dealing with a really concrete issue of fear: heritage, survival, provision for family, and he’ll have to deal with land and even an order from God to sacrifice his only son who of course Abram thought was to be the one promised to him.
It’s really important that we stop here because in this story, God is telling us a story not just about Abram and Sarai and their fear; he is telling us a much bigger story about his relationship to all of us in our fears. For you see, in this story, we’re actually hearing a repeat of the Fall in the Garden, and of God’s keeping his promise to us on the Cross to reconcile us to him. How so? In the story, Abram represents more than just himself. He represents all human beings in their natural fear about survival and a next generation, but he also represents the first Adam when he reproduces Ishmael with Hagar. Abram could not join with Sarai his proper wife, to produce offspring that could rightfully inherit Abram’s land. Like Adam and Eve, Sarai tells him to go into the forbidden fruit, Hagar, who is not his wife, with whom he is not one flesh, and like Adam, the result is fruit/offspring/Ismael who could not be the inheritor of Abram’s family line and land. Ishmael then represents all of fallen humanity who cannot, by themselves, be in relationship with God, like Ishmael, slaves to sin. And yet still children who were made and belong to God, and so people for whom God will provide just as he does for Ishmael and for Hagar.
But just think about how frightening this is for a moment. Think of the complexity we have going on here: massive fear about survival, fear about being overtaken by enemies, fear of the unknown, fear of people of different cultures and tribes … this is all real stuff that Abram is dealing with and guess what? It’s the same stuff we’re struggling with today.
This is why it’s so important that we see the story about God, within this story about Abram. So here we have Abram, saying, God what on earth, I’ve gone into Hagar because Sarai wanted me to produce a child. But this child, he is a slave. Now let’s move this story into God’s perspective. God gives to Adam and Eve, to Abram and Sarai everything they could possibly need with one stipulation, don’t seek more than I have gifted you with. Sure enough, Adam and Eve do, and Abram and Sarai do. So God says, okay, you have determined that’s how you want to live, I’ll let you live out those consequences. And what are those consequences? Being enslaved to sin we created for ourselves that snowballs in so many ways in every relationship we get into, and in our treatment of other people.
And what does Abram say to God, as will be repeated over and over by generations of Israelites: my God my God why have you forsaken me, please help me, I cannot do this anymore, I am terrified, my enemies are all around me, my body is wasting, my mind is falling apart, my relationships are crumbling, I’m lost, our whole culture is being destroyed, there is violence all around me, even within my own mind, who will take my place, who will follow you from my bloodlines as you promised. And God answers Abram: "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own child shall be your heir." He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And the Scriptures say, “that Abram believed and followed where God led him.” Here, we move to God’s promise, to the Cross, because we can cheat and know that Abram and barren Sarai will indeed bear a child they name Isaac. Again God tells us about himself here. In his faithfulness to God, and so through God, Abram represents God the Father, in being born of a barren woman, Sarai, Sarai who represents the Virgin Mary, baby Isaac is grace, the gift of God, and he of course represents to us Jesus: the pure gift of God. What two human beings through the natural sexual act could not produce – children, born from below, who could live in the Kingdom of God, children reconciled to God – God provided in Jesus’s Virgin birth, his life, his death and his resurrection.
The key here is to understand that our one Scripture passage from Genesis has laid out the one story of God, told from two perspectives. The first perspective we encounter is of course this basic story about survival and offspring to ensure this. This is a story that each one of us sitting in this room shares: how will we pay the bills, what happens if I get sick, what if my spouse is sick and I lose him or her or they change so much, I feel as if I have lost everything; how will my children or grandchildren do in life, will they be okay, this world is changing, no religion, wrong religion, no longer the culture I grew up in; I don’t know about this, I am afraid. And yet the story of Abram and Sarai in their own pedestrian life, in their calling before God, in their faithfulness and righteousness and in their doubt; these bits and pieces of life, just like the bits and pieces of my life and yours, is taken up into the greater story of God who has fulfilled his promise to us in Jesus Christ. No story we have, nothing about who we are – our worst and our best – has not already been taken up by God in Christ through his Holy Spirit. Not one fear we have, not one moment of suffering, or loss or anguish or worry, or agonizing, debilitating despair, has not been met and taken up in God, we see all our stories across the Scriptures and how these are taken up into God, being gathered to him.
This goes for the fears we have about other people; about their distinctions from us, about their customs, languages, religions, or ways. And the issues we have cannot be resolved with simplistic responses because they’re complex. Many people are afraid of things like Sharia law being enacted or enabled in Western countries which would allow for some disciplinary measures that are considered illegal in Western law. I am afraid of this, for example. And yet, to react out of my fear would be to forego the freedom won for me in Jesus Christ that presses me and insists, in fact, that I love my neighbor and even my enemy. That I take the time to get to know my Muslim neighbors, that I don’t cut them off, that I don’t judge, especially out of my fearful ignorance, that I ensure that as they, like Abram, went out from their lands, that I not become territorial about the land God has leant me and my family to steward. In the aftermath of such a heinous act of cowardice, driven by a lack of faith, hope and love, for the gift of grace and life we have received TO SHARE WITH OTHERS, let us ask where we as Christians are in our own lives. How are we sharing our faith and our hope; how are we sharing God’s love with others? Let me end with this written my friend and former colleague, Paul Hand:
The Christian soldier is not the murderer but the martyr. The martyr is fearless to die and has no fear that would lead them to kill. They know that Christ is Risen trampling down death, and that no power of this world can kill a flesh that has already been crucified with Him. However, as St. John Climacus said, the man who doesn't fear God is scared by his own shadow. Those who fear shadows, who think everything is a conspiracy, turn to guns to save them, destroying lives and souls, including their own. May all who fear God be protected from the vain fears of the world. To anyone who celebrates these acts on behalf of my skin color: I know you're out there and I hope I'm as unattractive to you as the "shadows" you fear. I would rather suffer with them than celebrate with you. God grant us love, strength, and mercy. AMEN.
Lent 1, 2019: A homily on temptation
And he became like us – exactly like us, tempted just as we are tempted – yet he did not sin. This is what the writer of the Book of Hebrews tells us. This Jesus Christ, born of a virgin by the Holy Spirit, came into the world and lived among us; became one of us; was tempted just as we are. This is the truth of God’s relationship with us that you and I proclaim in our adoption into his family at baptism, in our weekly confession, thanks, and praise during our Eucharistic service, and in our daily devotions.
As I have been saying throughout Epiphany, this one whom we know to be our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, the thing that is special about him, is precisely how ordinary, how pedestrian, was his life; and yet simultaneously, that precisely his ordinary, pedestrian, day-to-day, week to week, month to month, and year to year faithfulness, is the substance, the content, the manifestation of love, the fulfillment of human life as God intended it, this very human life, filled with trials, temptations and ultimately death, is the very fountain of life. The fountain of water out of an inanimate rock, out of desert, dry bones, and death; the fountain of water that enfleshes once again our dry bones, that restores, by his own blood, the life that flows through our own blood. This very human Lord, we proclaim, comes into the world, suffers and struggles as one of us, lives, is tempted and dies as one of us; and yet this one named Jesus Christ is God, God who came into the world, the Son sent into the world, to change our fate; to change the end we’d chosen for ourselves that we hear about through Adam and Eve.
The first Adam was tempted and chose his own way, believed that he could make of his life and his desires, a better life than the one that he’d been given by his creator. He was not alone of course, who is ever alone when tempted. Those who are tempted are tempted precisely because they live in relationship with others and seeing what others are, what they have, what they don’t have, what they have become or can become, their own distinctions from us – their power, wealth, their success, their looks, their prestige or place or honor, their youth, their capacities, their intellect, their health, their power, their families, their lack of families – their own distinctions from us are no longer goods that God has created, but things that drive us to envy, jealousy, frustration, or maybe lust, maybe despair or disgust, or a sense of self-righteousness built on anxiety and insecurity.
The Second Adam, the one whom we call our Lord God, Jesus Christ, this one, boy was he tempted just as we are. We of course hear about this story of temptation when the Holy Spirit takes him out into the desert, just as he did with Job, just as he’s likely done with many of us, just as he’s done with the entire Church, the whole people of Israel, ‘blown’ all of us have been, out into a figurative desert where we are tempted to cave into those places where we are weak and vulnerable.
Just imagine yourself being Jesus for a moment. Imagine, knowing that you have been sent by the Father, that you are one with the Father. Surely you should be able to bring your own suffering, your own weakness and vulnerability, your own lack of power and control, the fact that people don’t recognize you as God, surely as the Son of God, you ought to be able to bring all these sufferings to an end. Wouldn’t that be an incredible temptation by which Satan could grab you? Thrust yourself off this here tower, turn these stones into bread, worship me, Satan, turn yourself away from your God and hey, then I’ll give you real power, I’ll give you control, I’ll give you wealth, I’ll other people into your hand to do whatever you want them to do. Isn’t this exactly what you desire, Jesus? And what about you Job, Leigh, Irene, Paul, Tyler, Mavis, Shirley … what do you all desire, just, turn yourselves to those things you most desire in your heart, I will bring them about and you will have everything you ever wanted.
We of course know how Jesus responds: We do not live in accordance with the reality God made for us, the world he made for us, if we put everything we are, if we set our hearts and minds, on achieving the things of this world, power, wealth, health, control over our lives, our friends our families, our society and culture. Silly Satan, how blind do you think we are? Does not the light of God that shone on the face of Moses on the Mountain in the desert, who came down that very same mountain with laws for you to live, illumine for you, give you light to see that you are to worship and love God only. Surely you must know the Law, dear Satan, that human beings do not live by bread alone, the figurative bread of this world that feeds your body but not your soul.
Jesus is indeed tempted just as we are. Make no mistake, Jesus had the same hunger we do, had the same need for love that we do (think of what he says in the midst of his worst moments, ‘Father why have you forsaken me),’ he had the same desire to enact his will (‘take this cup from me,’ no, in truth, I have another mission, so I will take and drink this cup and go to the Cross), indeed, in relationship he too had fear, anxiety, a sense of conflict about his desire for basic survival, his desire for love, his desire to love others – his Father, and his neighbor (you and I), these relationships were not neat and tidy, they were complex, nuanced, and filled with people he was supposed to draw to him who instead spit on him, reviled him, turned their backs on him. So surely he must have been tempted to turn away from them, and in so doing, turning away from God who sent him into the world for our sakes.
But of course we know how the story goes. God sent his Son into the world to change it fundamentally. To make it so that all the partial, ignorant, fearful, and sometimes aborent ends we construct for ourselves and others – things we couldn’t fathom at the outset of our conjuring them – he sent his Son so that our broken ways of doing things wouldn’t dictate our fate, our end, our final place and so our very meaning here and now. Jesus came into the world as Isaiah tells us, the suffering servant, the one foretold by every word of Scripture, the God who would come into the world to rescue us from ourselves. The God who would bring us out of Egypt, our own figurative Egypts, where we have trapped ourselves, and been trapped in slavery to sin, to ourselves and our own broken ways, trapped in slavery unable to turn ourselves to our God. God came into the world and led us through his blood, red as it flowed, through the red sea into freedom. The thing is, that desert the Israelites went into, that Jesus went into, it is our world; it is our culture, our country, our city. It is our families, our relationships, our own personal circumstances: simultaneously barren if we allow ourselves to set our minds on ordering our lives solely to the things of this world; and yet filled with the hope of Christ who entered into temptation, into the desert, who there in that desert provided water in the desert for the Israelites, who in our own lives provides the river of life through his own blood when he gave himself up for us on the cross. For in this way, he opened the way for us to cross our own figurative deserts; to let go of the things that tempt us away from him; to step out into this desert of ours – this time where we are waiting for him to come again, to step out and into our lives living them based in hope, based in the love that God first shared with us, knowing that we are not being left on our own to figure it out, but that we have given a home in his house, his kingdom, his life eternal. AMEN.
Last week I talked about God’s commandment to us to love our enemies. One of the things that I said was that if we fail to love our enemies, it’s quite likely that we will end up using them as an excuse to hide the things we find shameful about ourselves: our insecurities, our frustrations, fears, anxieties … the kind of stuff that can become a sort of low simmering anger, that often manifests as irritability, cynicism … that can sometimes even burst into near temper tantrums of rage. It’s much easier to imagine that ‘it’s all our enemy’s fault that we are the way we are,’ than to do the very hard and often painful work of examining our own lives and potentially having to spend significant time and effort redirecting our habitual ways of responding to things. What would compel us to engage in the hard work that is growth? And what does it mean to ‘grow’ anyway?
I’m not sure about you, but I do know that for me, and apparently (having read a lot of the literature), growth is about coming to flourish – that is to live into the person you were created to be. As for what would compel me to grow? That’s an easy one: safety, security, being loved, having purpose, mattering to someone. Here’s the thing – as most of us know – if we rely on transient, ever changing things or people (people who come and go, people who might for one reason or another leave our lives) for safety, security, being loved, and having purpose, at the end of the day, we’re not going to have a solid foundation for the seed we are, for our roots to spread, for our leaves to blossom, for us to weather the inevitable storms life throws at us. Why? Because things and people are, well finite, limited, they hurt us, they leave, they move, they get sick, they die. And as important as these relationships are – and they are exceptionally important for us – they are not the bedrock, the foundation, the cornerstone of our very lives. Your best friend, or your spouse – they might be an essential part of your life, of how you think of yourself (a best friend, a life long friend, a spouse, a parent, a teacher, a mentor, an aunt or uncle), but these people did not bring you into existence, they do not define you completely, and they cannot be with you from cradle to grave, more inward to you than your very own self is to you.
What we all are seeking – however we might pursue it or speak of it – is an unbroken endurance of embrace: of physical, mental and emotional protection, of meaning and purpose, of being desirable and desired, of being desired for who we are even when we find ourselves twisted and broken and fragile in our own particular snaggled ways. Here’s the catch though. You often hear – usually in backlash to the sort of judgmentalism and exclusion that has too often been part of everyone’s experience – that we must love people, ‘just as they are.’
But true love, perfect love, cannot actually do this. Only imperfect love, love that is limited, itself fragile, and pulled in multiple directions without knowing fully the purpose for which it was made – only imperfect love can love people ‘just how they are.’ In contrast, perfect love, will embrace you indeed, and move you to the place, in accordance with the purpose for which that love made you. How do you feel about this? Does this make your neck hair stand on end? Does this sound coercive? Does this sound as if your freedom is being somehow suppressed? I have heard this said many times: I must be free to do as I please; if you love me, you will let me do what I want.
I heard someone say this once. The person who said it was wriggling on the floor pinned down by three persons. “I don’t want my life, this person said,’ ‘I want to die,’ ‘if you truly loved me, you would let me kill myself.’ Those three people, though, they ignored this person’s physical pushes, their thrashing, their cries, their name calling, their rage. They ignored, not because they didn’t love the person pinned to the floor, but precisely because they did. I have seen parents yank children hard, turn around and scold them, even – yes horror – spank them, because the child was inches away from being run over by a car that they were not even aware was there. I have seen parents financially cut off and institutionalize their children who were addicted to drugs, who had eating disorders, who committed crimes.
And in all these cases, wow, have I seen shame. Massive shame, anger, rage, embarrassment, fear, and desire for rebellion. How dare you strip me of my freedom to be me. How dare you judge me. How dare you try to correct me. How dare you try to redirect me. F- you. I want my freedom. Here’s the thing, while our collective human push for freedom has taken many shapes and forms, and our individual lives may have looked like some of these cases, or perhaps in far less drastic ways, one of the things that each one of us shares, are things that – when seen through the lens of perfect love – ought to bring us shame. This, my friends, is sin. Sin takes so many forms that I cannot possibly name the ways it is manifested in our own lives, in our own reasoning, in our relationships with others, in things we do or don’t do, in ways that are unknown to us (that others can often see when we can’t).
The thing is perfect love refuses, actually, to accept us just as we are. If perfect love did that – we would be left thinking, ‘hey, it’s okay to respond in this really nasty way,’ or, ‘it’s everyone else’s fault that I’m always angry or moody, or irritable,’ or, ‘I’m going to constantly criticize this person, never give them credit because I want them to be just like me and what I want, rather than grow into who they actually are.’ If perfect love did not shine light on actions that are taken out of fear, anger, bitterness, envy, jealousy, greed, sloth, gluttony, avarice, and lust, we would be left in a degenerate world where our meaning was solely about what power we could wield over ourselves and others. Don’t let North America fool you my friends. It is constructed solely out of a basic Christian ethic. Our wealth, our education, our medical systems, these all grew out of a basic Christian ethic, not out of a universal human desire to be kind and good. You and I live as we do now not because a good that has so recently been stripped of Christian ethos is inevitable. We live as we do because we grew out of a belief that we had a duty, a mission, a lifelong vocation, to share with everyone whom we encountered, the revelation of God in the very life of Jesus Christ.
Our reading today, about the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ – God’s revealing his presence, his power, his creation of us, his reconciliation of us, his love for us that reshapes how we even think of the good – this is fundamentally about the truth, not A TRUTH, but THE TRUTH, being unveiled. No longer can you and I live our lives as if the truth of God in Christ has been veiled to us. We have been baptized and adopted into God’s family. We are his children through Jesus Christ. In his Holy Spirit, the love he pours out that constitutes his very being, corrects, burns away, chastens, and reforms us into the image of his Son. This is why the disciples bow down if fear: they recognize the truth. God has come, born to us a babe in a manger, God of God, light of light, to show up all those shameful ways we live, the things we think we can hide, not so we can remain in our shame, but so that we can find joy in our being moved by the Spirit, into conformance with the Son, as we stand before God our Father. Paul puts it like this: And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory, the love, the power, the joy of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another … therefore since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry [of sharing the gospel, or proclaiming it in every word and deed that we undertake] we do not lose heart, most particularly when our shame is revealed.” Why? “For we have renounced,” in our baptisms, every time we say our common confession and then approach the alter to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ, “we have renounced the shameful things we hide. We renounce these things so that they can’t be hiding places, so that we can’t make them into idols that allow us to practice cunning, that allow us to evade or proclaim God’s word falsely. We have renounced these shameful things so that opened to the sometimes painful burning away of this chaff of our own lives, this falsity, this presumption, this fear and anguish and anger and bitterness in our own lives, we might be opened to God’s grace, transformed into the image of his Son, and given hope of life now and eternal, in order to sustain this ministry through our own particular tough times, here and now. AMEN.
I have been a Christian now for 13 years. As I’ve said to you before, I came into the Church after a series of pretty tough events: a friend’s suicide, the death of two other friends and a car accident, all within the space of 6 months. I was looking for meaning and purpose after this, because the meaning and purpose I saw around me – of long hours on a job to accumulate possessions, of mortgages, home ownership, marriage, children, old age and death, of repeating the same routine day after day, of constantly being in fear of being downsized or moved on if I didn’t have enough billable hours, of dealing with people who frankly, were jerks, of struggling with friendships that were transient and contingent on people’s jobs, not their relationships – all of these things simply made me feel crushed under the weight of a broken world’s expectations.
I came into the Church with tremendous expectation: the expectation that I would learn the meaning of life, its purpose, its reason, all so I could figure out how to live a meaningful life. I expected Christians to be filled with hope that was grounded in a transcended purpose; a purpose, a God, that would provide to me a reason for enduring life at all amidst all the crap I saw ahead of me. And as you know, I was really excited to go almost immediately into formal theological study. And my first year and a half was really brilliant. I felt like I was on a cloud, soaking heaven in, highly motivated, highly productive, given a specific purpose – to study theology and in particular – the polity or governance of the Church. I was all over message boards, all over theology, philosophy, and political science books, I was responding left, right and center to Anglicans and people of other denominations about issues of law, governance and morality in the Church.
Somewhere along the way, my transcendence bubble burst. And I was left with a really stark reality: Christians really don’t behave any differently from non-Christians. In fact, what I soon discovered is that Christians can often treat each other far worse than would ever be allowed in any secular organization without being disciplined, fired, or even sued.
This discovery didn’t just burst my bubble, it actually made me sink in figurative quicksand of faith and of hope. I actually entered into the desert of spiritual life, sinking into a sort of quicksand of anger, doubt, regret, and, yes, hatred. At first, the hatred flowed from seeing one group of Anglicans as enemies. Could they not see, I thought, that they were wrong, Scripturally, theologically, politically; could they not see that they were the ones tearing things apart. And while trying to engage with a modicum of charity, I really saw this group as ‘the other,’ ‘the enemy,’ ‘those to defeat.’ It was so easy to make them my enemy too because I’m really good at turning people into abstractions, generalities, ideologies. I’m not very good, however, at recognizing people as complex and multifaceted individuals. People who study human behavior would say this is actually a really common trait for everyone. Why? Because when we can group people and label them with traits or ways, we can much more easily dismiss them; we can much more easily retain our ‘in group status,’ and protect ourselves from being challenged, and the painful feelings, the anger, the loss of equilibrium, that can go along with having to potentially change.
So I continued seeing this group of Anglicans as outsiders and this gave me a purpose; it also gave me a ‘team’ of like minded people to work with and for, it made me feel like I belonged. And finally, and critically, it hid the root pain, anxiety, fear, and self hatred that had been at my core for most of my life. If I could have a place on this team, and if I had an enemy to fight, I would be secure; I would matter; I would be valuable. How, by taking apart my enemy; by turning my pain and anger on my enemy, by lashing out with all the bitterness and rage I housed inside, and using my knowledge of human behavior, and my intellect, to strip them down and take them apart.
This worked. Indeed, I felt fantastic, purposeful, strong, no longer wandering, no longer lost. Until I didn’t. I’d read this passage before, heard it read in Morning Prayer, but to me, the people I was fighting weren’t enemies, they were sinners; they were wrong; they deserved my judgment, my condemnation, my dismissal and my refusal to engage them, my writing them off or gossiping, my plotting against them. But one day in Morning Prayer I heard these words differently: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you … for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."
It finally clicked for me that I had actually made these people, these Anglicans, these children of God, my enemy. Why? Because I had presumed and pronounced judgment AS IF I WERE GOD; because I had condemned, as if it were my place to condemn, I had written them off not even as enemies, but basically as non-Christians, which removed them from the mercy God speaks of in this passage. There was nothing to forgive for they weren’t repentant, and I rigidly held that their obstinacy had already placed them outside of God’s mercy.
In that moment of hearing that verse read – for whatever reason – it suddenly struck me that Jesus was judging me. My own judgment and condemnation of others, Jesus was condemning. Why? Because in trying to draw me to himself, Jesus was forcing me to let go of what stood in the way of receiving his forgiveness and mercy. My condemnation was a shield to protect me from my own anguish, fear, frustration and pain. My making people into an abstract group with an ideology rather than people with complex hearts, minds and motivations, and my condemnation of that abstract group, was actually an unconscious response to my own fear of rejection of not being loved, of taking out those feelings by acting them out on others.
This was standing in the way of me letting go of my own ‘stuff’ and going up to God and saying, God, I am a broken sinner who lashes out because I am sad, I am scared, I am angry and lost, I am hurt, please help me. Instead, I built an idol out of my hatred and condemnation of my enemies: look, look at me, look at me climb my babel tower made up of intellectual thrashing of others, of gossiping about others, of speaking ill of others. I built an idol of false faith, an idol build on sand, the sand of my insecurity that was bound – if I was to remain following Jesus – to be blown away by grace.
This is when the cracks in my pseudo armor of faith began to appear. My faith was not based in love; for love doesn’t have to fear; my faith wasn’t based in love, because to truly trust that God was healing and would continue to heal me, I would not need to condemn, to lash out, to use vitriolic words, to gossip or hurt others, or to base my entire self worth on being accepted by a group who’s basic arguments I never even really examined or challenged. I was utterly blind in my devotion. This isn’t to say this group was necessarily wrong, but only that I would never have known that because they gave me a forum for my own personal idolatry. And every group, everywhere does this of course. And oh are we tempted to claim membership in those groups that grant us our own personal desires, as inhibiting of grace for us as those might be.
You see, loving your enemies, as Jesus calls us to here, isn’t about simply accepting the actions or words of those with whom you disagree. Rather, loving your enemies is about HOW you treat those with whom you vehemently disagree. Why? Because HOW you treat your enemies, as Jesus puts it, ‘the measure of what you give to others, will signify whether you truly have received the grace of God. If God says, “love your enemy,” and you condemn them instead, can you really say that you are motivated by grace; can you say you are truly following God in Jesus Christ? In a sense then, Jesus’s message is very simple: you can know yourself before God by your works, by how you treat those, by how you respond to those who you consider enemies. Your response to your enemy – whether long term enemy, or someone whom you are exasperated with in the moment – reflects where you believe yourself to stand with God. For perfect love that is God come to us in Christ casts out fear and allows us to live with other people, even when suffering, with hope that presses us to respond to them with humility, patience, kindness and charity. These are the fruits of the Spirit for a reason my friends, they indicate a life that is bound to and willing to carry one’s own cross while following in the pathway and life of Christ as he walks through this world of ours encountering friend and enemy alike. AMEN.
One of the things I like to spend time doing is talking to people – random people and often strangers – about their lives. It’s a bit weird I know, but I am simply fascinated by how distinct and diverse are people’s experiences and perceptions of the world. Sometimes they really freak me out, and sometimes I find people utterly fascinating. As a Christian, and as a type of critical evangelist (in other words I don’t stand on street corners shouting about the benefits of beliefs or that non-believers are going to hell), I have actually often found it quite difficult to admit that I’m a Christian, let alone speak publicly about my faith.
Why? Probably for the same reasons you find it difficult: if the foundation of our faith cannot be measured by science, and is therefore utterly out of the ordinary for anything we know, well, it can be awfully difficult to not sound potentially crazy, not very bright, easily snowed, or just looking for a crutch rather than constructing my own purpose and value.
But Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church this morning declares that it is precisely an ‘out of our ordinary experience event’ that grounds our hope. Listen to what he says, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”
Let’s look at Paul’s proclamation here first: last week we heard in Corinthians, what the Church has declared as a credal statement: that is, a summary of the main points of the faith. These points or this creed provides a declaration of who the Christian faith is about, and it also provides limits as to what we can and cannot say about this faith of ours (that’s what a Christian Creed provides). The foremost thing Paul tells us as having been passed on to him is this: Christ was raised from the dead. You see, just as in our times, apparently some in the Corinthian Church (and of course those outside the Church) were saying, ‘oh come on, no one is raised from the dead, this just doesn’t happen.’
Maybe, just as today, people then too thought it was a kind of metaphor; symbolic wording to represent a kind of figurative reality: Jesus did all these wonderful things to show us, by example, how we should really live. Jesus’s life was a nice moral lesson for us so that we could proclaim a kind of figurative being raised from the dead. Paul says to those who believe this, ‘my friends, if it’s really true that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was not raised from the dead, then we’re actually left in a really bad state. Why?
Because we’re going to be left in our sins. We’re going to be left in a world where those with power and wealth, those who have material goods and who get lucky and have plenty, are born into good families, don’t get sick, we’re left in a world where they matter and most of the rest of us are pretty irrelevant. Because that’s how a world that thrives in sin looks: the powerful – whether that power is gained honorably or through corruption, greed, using, building life on the backs of others, crushing or even killing others, so you can gain power – those powerful people are the true winners even if they step on others to win. That’s the ultimate end or telos of a sinful world: anything goes, the only purpose is given by those who have the power to make purpose.
So then if Christ has not been raised from the dead, Paul’s point is that the world will not have changed. We will be left to death where our lives have meaning solely in accordance with what we achieve and accomplish here on earth, the power and legacy we leave. And if this is so, then our hope is grounded on our capacity to gain power and control and to do so by any means and in any way we need. So if this is what we believe, we’re now setting our lives on things that Scripture tells us are going to perish and have no ultimate meaning, even if we think they do.
Next Paul says, folks, if Scripture is true – that God has come into our world for our sakes, that he has overcome our sinful choice to live without him by himself in Christ, choosing the Father – if Scripture is true that this willing obedience and faithfulness and love of Jesus for his Father has overcome death and achieved God’s command that we love him first, then if we say that the dead are not raised, then “we are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ--whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.”
And here’s the real clincher. Paul says, folks we have a real problem if we can’t affirm that Christ was raised from the dead: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Again, if Christ has not been raised, the gospel has no power. Why?
Because a mere example of how to live, well those are a dime a dozen. They may change a life here and there, maybe a few thousand lives, but they do not change the world. Paul’s claim here is bold: when God raised Jesus Christ, when Jesus Christ rose from the dead, from the Hell where all of us were headed, he didn’t provide a mere example, he fundamentally changed our final destination, he literally brought us from death, into life now and eternally. This is not something that someone who just provides an example of how to live can provide. Someone who just provides an example or a good way, will meet the same fate as all others: death. But God, as the Scriptures say, is not confined by what he created for he himself is not created; he is eternal, and therefore, he alone has the power to raise us from death into eternal life with him. This is the part that really matters for us.
Paul declares the central claim of the Gospel: But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. If Christ, fully God and fully human being has been raised as the ‘first fruits,’ than all other human beings, whether we are talking about Abraham and Sarah, or you and I, have not only our very existence, our being, in him, but we also then find out what our lives mean when we look at his own life and see where we are right now, 5 years ago, where we want to be, before him. The Scriptures proclaim to us that they are a mirror for us to hold up. The one who creates the reflection of us is Jesus Christ himself, we walk, run, live, work, sleep, do good, do evil, give birth, get sick, and die, in his reflection, in the shadow that his own body casts on our personal lives.
We hear in our Gospel lesson today, that those who struggle by our world’s measures and standards, will be blessed by God. It is not that those who struggles, or suffer are somehow doing so because this is a good thing; rather in a fallen world, for one reason or another, struggle and pain and anguish and loss of capacity, of another, of power and control, are simply inevitable. But this is not how we are judged or viewed by God. God sees those who struggle to sustain, to survive, to find the truth, and he says, I will have mercy on you and I will forgive you. I do this, God says to us through Paul here, not because any of you deserve forgiveness or life more than any other – you are all fallen and all are incapable of being faithful to me – no I do this because I have come for you in Jesus Christ my Son, just as I told you.
If we take hold of this promise God made to us, we can let go of the things that hold us back from seeking truth. We can let go of our need for power and control, for revenge, for certainty, for accomplishment, and we can live with others acting out of our faith with patience, kindness, perseverance, endurance and love. To recognize that Christ was raised from the dead is a gift. It is the gift of love itself, that poured out abundantly, enables us to live by faith rather than by sight. It allows us to live beyond the fears this world so often leaves us with. It allows us to step in – not to the mere example – but to the reality of life which is being conformed to God himself. AMEN.
So last week I talked about who this God of ours is. I said that God is The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In theology speak, we say that he is one substance, but three persons. So we have to say of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that in every single act we hear about in Scripture, The Father, the Son and the Spirit are acting together. The Spirit isn’t going to do something distinctly from Jesus, different than or ‘new’ that Jesus or that the Father has not done. It’s actually impossible for the three Persons of the one God to act distinctly since, they are the very same, one God.
Now the reason I went into this bit of challenging and confusing theology, is because I said I wanted to guard against one thing: presuming that that you or I, or even one church, or one part of a church, could claim that they had the leading of the Holy Spirit, for example, and that no other individuals or Churches did. Or alternatively, to guard against the idea that usually the Holy Spirit, or that Jesus, could overturn something in Scripture that the one God has revealed to us i.e. to go against his own revelation. Now let me state at the outset that when we hear about Jesus acting or the Holy Spirit acting or confirming or directing, in a way that might at first sound to us as if God is suddenly doing something different, that in fact, what is truly going on is a matter of God redirecting or refocusing us on himself and his revelation to us.
We might hear it in this sort of language: “you have heard it said that you should love your neighbor, but I say unto you, you must learn to love not just your neighbor, but your enemy.” Why does Jesus seem to ‘add something’ to his revelation here? Well Scripture itself gives us a pretty good clue. Foremost, think about the chaos that ensues – disruption to family life, safety, food, culture, and of course worship of God, when individuals or the whole nation of Israel gets involved in violent acts against their presumed enemies without God’s direction. But then think about the parable of the good Samaritan. An expert in religious law says to Jesus that he wants to know what to do to inherit eternal life, to be faithful. And he then summarizes the law he’s supposed to follow. And wanting to demonstrate how righteous he is and how much he is considering this he says to Jesus, “I know I am supposed to love my neighbor, but Lord who is my neighbor.”
Jesus tells this parable about these supposedly wonderful law followers, priests, and men with esteem and place in their culture, they all see this poor man who has been beaten by robbers and wanting to AVOID contamination or getting too close to someone not appearing holy, or good or worth saving, maybe even a social misfit, and they cross to the other side of the street to get away from him. A Samaritan, potentially someone who could have merely been indifferent, if not actual enemies, with nothing to gain at all from helping the beaten man, takes care of him. Actually makes a sacrifice of himself in order to take care of him. Jesus asks the law keeper: who do you think, of all the people who went by this beaten man, was a neighbor to him?”
The law keeper answers: the man who had mercy on him. Jesus says, yes, now go and do the same. Now notice something key here: the law keeper had asked, ‘who is my neighbor.’ Jesus ends up answering him: ‘the true question is not for you to determine who is your neighbor, rather it is for you to be a neighbor to all people: whatever their status, whatever their stance, their position, their actions.’ You are not their judge, you are a sinner as they are, therefore you are the neighbor of all and as the neighbor of all, including your enemies, how should you, how should we respond? What does Jesus say? To have mercy.
Now I want to tie this back to my statement about who God is. We have affirmed that the Father, Son and Spirit are the one God and so they’re not going to do something that thwarts the will of this one God. Here’s the catch that’s happened throughout our history. You see, too many folks have looked at the particular gifts they’ve been given whether as individuals or as a church, and they have treated these as if God has given them something special, or better than others (again as individuals or as churches), things that set them above other people, above other Christians.
So on the Church level, in the 17th century for example, and again today, some Churches have claimed that they have the Holy Spirit’s leading over and against the claims of other Christians or other people, and frankly, against the tradition of the Church that has gone before us. In a figurative sense, they have seen followers of Jesus through time and in very difficult circumstances and they have said, I’m going to cross to the other side of the street: uhg, you are wrong, you are weak, you are bad, you are unholy, you will contaminate me and I will not appear holy before God, so I’m going to leave this church, I’m going to make sure I don’t waste my gifts on you.
In our Epistle or Letter, Paul echoes this message of Jesus to the Corinthian Church: friends, you are commanded by God to love him and to love one another, friends and enemies alike; you have been given these commandments in order to show the world God’s mercy. So guess what then? Your life – the way that you use those gifts God gave to you sometimes even through really terrible circumstance, or even out of struggles – those you are to use to tend to your neighbor, to tend to your enemies, to tend to them, to be with them, to share them, in order to show them who God is: Father, Son and Holy Spirit: the one who, as we heard last week with Jesus’s baptism, came into the world and took on our human flesh and the sin that comes with it, this one who was sent by the Father, who willingly endured the confines and struggles of human life through to his death, who in turn was baptized with the Spirit so that when we’re baptized into Jesus we too might have his Spirit too, all of us.
But if you’re baptized into Jesus, you’ve got a responsibility to come to know how your gifts ought to be directed. Your gifts are a responsibility in that they are to be used for pointing others to the very life of God seen in Jesus Christ’s own life: so then you’re gifts need to be used in the way that Jesus would use them. That’s not necessarily going to be obvious, you’re going to have to discern what it will mean to apply mercy in a whole variety of circumstances, and you have to be humble enough to accept that sometimes you might be wrong, sometimes, despite your best effort, you might be rejected, but ought not to lose hope. Listen to how Paul himself puts this: Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed … I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says "Let Jesus be cursed!" and no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit. (As I said, this Spirit in whom we receive the gifts can only lead us to live out Jesus’s own life, for he is of the same substance, the one God, as Jesus). Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. (You see what I mean here: no one can claim to have a superior gift, or a gift only for herself, or that he or she has a gift by the Spirit but that another Christian does not).
(Now here’s the big key folks): To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
In this congregation my friends, we have many gifts. How those gifts are developed and shaped by God, and for what purposes, can change over the years as our circumstances change. But one thing is true: whomever we are, whatever our strengths and weaknesses, whatever conditions, whatever our frailties, whatever our expertise, everything that we are, every gift drawn out of them, is an opportunity for us to point others to the mercy of Jesus Christ. How shall we do that this year as individuals and as a parish? AMEN.
The Rev. Dr. LEigh Silcox
Born in Windsor, ON, Leigh moved around Northern and Southern Ontario during her childhood. She attended North Carolina State University to play soccer, but after repeated injuries, instead took up mountain biking, road cycling, bouldering, trail running and hiking, which she continues to do to this day.