Sunday, November 27, 2022


Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field: but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.”

Jesus said, “But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

Jesus said, “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”

Jesus died for our sins, and not for ours only, but the sins of the whole world: these are the words of the Apostle John. There is salvation freely given to all. And yet—well, Jesus, rather embarrassingly for some, spends a great deal of time on what John the Baptist called the winnowing of the people: the wheat to be gathered into God's granary, but the chaff to be burned. And Jesus likewise says that at the end of days, in the great harvest, the weeds will be taken and burned; when the flock is collected, the sheep will be separated from the goats. One will be taken, another left.

Preachers of a certain stripe spend a lot of time on the subject of this judgment. You may have heard of Jonathan Edwards' notorious sermon, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God”, in which he speaks at length (for that is how things were done in those days) of how it is only the merciful hand of God which keeps us from the fires of perdition, and yet, the time will come (Edwards says) when this forbearance will end, and only those whose trust is in the Lord will be kept safe from the flames. This is the classic language of revivalist Christianity, but the same focus on judgment is central to late medieval piety. Edwards' image of God dangling souls like spiders on threads, over the the fires of hell—well, I think it is inaccurate as an expression of Jesus' teachings. It implies that God's mercy is capricious, and that is not how Jesus depicts it, nor the prophets before him, nor John of the Revelation after him.

No, this judgment, this winnowing, this sorting out of humanity is ordained in the mind of the Father, inexorable, its time set, yet hidden until the day when Christ returns and all accounts are settled. Should we then fear it? Yes, we should, but no, we shouldn't. Jesus simply spends too much time on warning us about the sorting of the harvest that I should brush those warnings off. And it is striking that Jesus, John the Baptist, and the prophets all agree that this sorting is on the basis of works—but not in avoiding sins as most people think of them, for the sheep who are saved are those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned. It is the works of mercy that save, and as James teaches, these works show our faith. And if we are merciful out of fear of damnation, well, is that not faith?

And yet, we should not fear, for God is with us, and if any man sin, we have Jesus as our advocate. Focusing too much on the fear of judgment tempts us to the surpassing sin of setting ourselves up in judgment, and even though Jesus says “Judge not”, again it is quite popular for us preachers to rail against this or that sin, and then to slip over into condemning and persecuting those sinners. And this is so obviously merciless and so obviously an arrogation of God's authority that even had Jesus not explicitly condemned it, we should infer its sinfulness from the whole of the rest of his teaching. The urge to pray “Lord, we thank thee that we are not like other, sinful people” is so strong that it takes constant vigilance, which is to be found in humility, to avoid alienating ourselves from our fellows, and therefore from God. The new kingdom of God is not in self-purity (though we should know and resist our impurities), but in mutual love: not in separation, but in inclusion; not in division, but in unity. It is not a kingdom of judges, but servants.

And that kingdom is not far off. It is near, it is now, and yet it is also coming, for Christ shall return and being this old world to its end. But none may know when, as proven by all those who have falsely prophesied a date. Each such predicted day comes and goes, for he is coming at an unexpected time. And yet, he is always about to come, for to us it is not about dates and times, but about our expectation, that we should make ourselves ready, like the wise virgins. The years, the centuries, the millennia stretch on, and still we wait, but still, Christ's return is always tomorrow, and our work, Christ's work in the world cannot wait, and not because our work makes the kingdom, but because our work is of the kingdom. We do not build the kingdom of God on earth; we manifest it, when we love God and love our neighbor. And as we draw others to Christ, both in worship and in service to one another, we further the knowledge of salvation, that the harvest may be increased without end.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Wisdom! Let Us Attend!

“Wisdom! Let us attend!”

These words, or variations on them, are spoken four times in the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, the main Eucharistic rite of the eastern churches. They introduce each of the readings, and are repeated before the Creed is said. The great church of Constantinople was dedicated to Holy Wisdom—Hagia Sophia.

Well, let me tell you, I tried to attend to some wisdom in writing this, because the first reading is relatively new to the lectionary. And, well, one commentator on this passage began by saying, “On even the most 'ordinary' Sunday it can be difficult to preach and teach from the book of Proverbs. It may seem well nigh impossible to do so on Trinity Sunday.” I did not find this reassuring, though I have refrained from calling our priest and dumping the problem back on her. So let me see what wisdom can be found here.

The chapter from which our first reading is taken contrasts with that preceding, which describes an equally metaphorical, adulterous woman who leads the unwary astray. Our first verses today are part of that contrast: Wisdom speaks from the heights, from the gates, while her rival roams the streets, hidden. But the main contrast is between the two paths down which they lead their followers: one to sin, but the other, of Wisdom, to righteousness. The reading then skips over a passage on the virtues of wisdom, which on this day, perhaps do not need to be dwelt upon, for it resumes at the section most relevant to the day: the relationship of Wisdom to the Godhead.

Most of the commentators I came across equated Wisdom with the Son: Jesus, the Word of God. And there is something to be said for this reading. If nothing else, the parallel with the opening of John's gospel is strong:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.

Likewise, Paul refers to Jesus as the “wisdom of God” in his first letter to the Corinthians. But I do not think think it is quite so simple. For one thing, our reading today says that “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,” and we are instructed in the creed that the Son is “begotten, not made”. Furthermore, biblical figures of speech are not material for mechanical deduction. We name both the church and the bread of communion as the body of Christ, and therefore should it not be the case that, being members of this body, we are therefore also Wisdom?

No, I do not think that Wisdom is to be identified with the Word alone, and thus with Jesus. Wisdom is in Him, as she is in the Father and in the Spirit, but she comes forth from their action together, just as creation and redemption and holiness come from the Godhead as a whole, working as one. She speaks in scripture; she is revealed when the LORD God acts in history; she is heard in the tongues of the Spirit. But she herself is not one or even all of these things.

Wisdom calls us to seek God, but the finding is a strange thing. Surely it is wise to align oneself to whatever underlies existence, but how to do it: that is quite the problem. We who have found the LORD God, or have been found by him, are confronted with not just some philosophical under-girding of reality, but with a personality whose will confronts us in the history of salvation. And in this confrontation, it is Wisdom who stands at our side, not as advocate (for that is Jesus' care), but as guide. She shows us right pathways; she warns of danger; she counsels patience and forbearance. In this wise, are we not reminded of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, who will guide us into all the truth, and will declare to us the things that are to come? But I say, again, the Spirit and Wisdom are not one and the same; and yet when the Spirit leads us to understanding of the word of scripture: there, Wisdom is found. When the Spirit inspires our worship, that we perceive Jesus in the sacraments: there, Wisdom is found. When the Spirit moves us to acts of charity: there, Wisdom is found.

And the Father, of whom the Son, the Word is begotten, is He Wisdom? No, and yet Wisdom is his creation, as all else is. But that creation is through and with the Son and the Spirit, thus, so does Wisdom issue forth from the Three in One, so Wisdom is in the words of Jesus when he says, “whoever who has seen me has seen the Father”, as Wisdom is in the visions of the prophets and the writings of the evangelists and the letters of the apostles. But she speaks even before this, for it is she who points to scripture; it is she who points to the church; it is she who leads us to worship; and it is she also who shows to us our sin and corruption.

It is written that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of Wisdom,”—indeed, it is written in the very chapter following our reading. And here we take up our final thread of Wisdom, for in that chapter, she has set up a feast:

To those without sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.’

It is that last phrase that is the key: “walk in the way of insight.” Wisdom is more than knowledge of God, if indeed one may use that word about the LORD who is beyond knowledge. Wisdom teaches us how to live so that we look to God in every thought and act of our lives. In every act of love, of worship, of thanksgiving, of charity, of reproof, of self-discipline, of leadership, of submission: there we may find Wisdom as our guide. We hear Wisdom when we are taught that God sent his only Son, God from God, to live with us and die for us and break the bonds of death; we hear it in account of the first Pentecost, when the Spirit came upon the disciples. We hear it in the councils of the church, where the creed which we shall shortly say was formulated to express the mystery of our faith. But hearing is not enough. We must return Wisdom's invitation and dwell with here so that she dwells in us. Therefore attend to Wisdom, so that we may live as Isaiah calls us to do: “Let us walk in the light of the LORD.”

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Surrendering Unto Caesar

Over the summer, at McLean Bible Church, there was a crisis of leadership: the election of elders failed, and a second election had to be held. And the reason? Well, according to the chief pastor, David Pratt, as he related in a sermon on July fourth, a group was trying to take control of the church apparently to replace leadership with people who would espouse a more conservative line—that is, a more politically conservative line, for among other things, a rumor was passed that the three candidates were going to have church buildings sold to Muslims. And there certainly is a struggle going on: in researching this I found a Facebook page called “Save McLean Bible Church” which states the following:

MBC members have lost all confidence in the Elder Board and Pastoral Staff. The congregation is witnessing corruption, lack of transparency, deception, slandering, intimidation, and use of the pulpit to bully members of the church. The elder board and pastoral team continue to lie and peddle lies after lies. The vision and purpose of MBC is to make a gospel impact on Metro Washington with the message of Jesus Christ. This vision led to making disciples among all quarters of DC Metro area, including the influencers and policy makers in Washington, therefore, impacting the nations and even the world. We believed that this was a strategic mission because of the following reality: “Change Washington, change the world.” Join us in restoring McLean Bible Church to the purpose and vision for which it was founded upon!

In the end, the second election did seat the same candidates; even the first was quite close to the 75% margin needed to elect. The opposition was clearly a minority of the congregation. Nevertheless Pastor Pratt has been attacked in many places for his supposed leftist politics, as has Phil Vischer, whom you might recognize as one of the creators of the VeggieTales Christian videos. Another prominent evangelical pastor told Peter Wehner of The Atlantic that “Nearly everyone tells me there is at the very least a small group in nearly every evangelical church complaining and agitating against teaching or policies that aren’t sufficiently conservative or anti-woke.”

And then of course there are the preachers who have gone all in on politics. To take just one example, we have Franklin Graham, Billy's son, who posted on Facebook: “The House Democrats impeached Trump because they hate him and want to do as much damage as they can. And these 10, from his own party, joined in the feeding frenzy. It makes you wonder what the thirty pieces of silver were that Speaker Pelosi promised for this betrayal.” Thus he cast her as Caiaphas and the ten congressmen as Judas. I could go on for some time on this, for it is appallingly easy to find preachers claiming that the COVID vaccine is the Mark of the Beast, and not too difficult to find people making supposedly prophetic utterances that the previous president will be restored to office by this or that date.

My purpose, however, is not a enumeration of the sins of other churches, and I suspect that most of you already have some awareness of this, if not a grasp of its extent or depth. Given the day, though, I will spend a little time elaborating their vision of the Kingdom of God. First, I note the claim that “America is a Christian nation,” with the implication if not outright assertion that as a nation it is beset by satanic forces. The church, and thus the kingdom, is allegiance, and their purpose is first of all to defend it against outsiders. And thus, the second characteristic: the identification of church purpose with national purpose, which tends to reduce preaching to a reiteration of their social mores. Finally, their vision is apocalyptic: they look to the day when God's rule will be established again on earth, a rule gained by the crushing of God's enemies, which, of course, are also their enemies, and therefore their enemies are also God's enemies.

My description is, I will admit, something of a caricature, but the point in the end is that this vision is both militant and partisan. And here Pilate fits right in, for his question to Jesus reveals his concern: is Jesus a threat to the Roman state? Once he establishes that Jesus claims no civil authority, Pilate loses interest, and in the end only condemns Jesus to pacify the crowd and appease the Jewish authorities. Of course, we know better: we know that in the end Jesus' claim over all is God's claim, and earthly powers shall be swept away with the old earth itself. And yet, when we consider the many parables which describe the kingdom of God, they do not describe its establishment among humanity as a military campaign: it is growth, it is return on investment, it is the yield of the harvest, winnowed from among the weeds and barren places. The labor is that of the farmer, not of the soldier.

God's kingdom is not of this world, and yet, we are not apart from it—not yet. And as we act in the world, well, Jesus and the apostles teach us to minister to its citizens, not only by evangelizing and preaching, but in ordinary acts of love and mercy. This is the second great commandment, and we are taught that the neighbor whom we must love is the Samaritan, the Jew, the Muslim; those of other nations and races; those both above and below our social class; even the liar, the thief, and the murderer.

And, well, OK. We collect food for the poor, and we send them coats, and we make up gifts for the sailors, and no doubt we give to any number of other charitable works. Nothing wrong with that, though we are wrong if we think we work our salvation by those acts. But that is not all we must do, and we are confronted by the prospect of the ballot box and the judgment it asks of us. As to that, there are differing opinions. Anthony Bloom, the late Orthodox archbishop in Britain, once said in an interview:

The Church must never speak from a position of strength. It ought not to be one of the forces influencing this or that state. The Church ought to be, if you will, just as powerless as God himself, which does not coerce but which calls and unveils the beauty and the truth of things without imposing them. As soon as the Church begins to exercise power, it loses its most profound characteristic which is divine love [i.e.] the understanding of those it is called to save and not to smash.

And one could go on from this to assert that we as voters are not to consider ourselves agents of the church. I don't choose that for myself, and on the other side one may count Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an advocate for and embodiment of the need for the Christian to be involved in the world. Even among the Orthodox one may recall Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek church marching at Martin Luther King's side—literally so. But I think all of them would have agreed that our approach to the power that positions of authority provide must be reluctant, humble, other-serving, and ever-mindful of both the rebellion and the cruelty that lurk within our hearts. Bishop Bloom is surely correct in claiming that we are not ordained to rule the world for Christ.

Thus, when we look upon our political opponents, well, yes, obviously we must not demonize them. Easy to say, not so easy to do. One comes upon political candidates whose statements are cruel, contemptuous, full of lies and invective, and how hard it is to vote against them “in love”, and how hard not direct our own contempt against their supporters! And how easy it is to award those of our own affiliation with approval and congratulate ourselves simply for opposing the other side.

There is a further danger. Earlier I spoke of the confusion of the church's will with that of “conservative” culture. We here are not immune to that. “Culture catechizes,” says Alan Jacobs, professor of humanities at Baylor. We are taught by radio, the news, our Facebook feeds, our college professors, our friends and our parents—well, at least so the latter hope. And in this age it is so very easy to filter out those who do not reinforce our own urges and identity. We are taught by the voices of the world day in and day out, and then we come to church and spend maybe a few hours hearing, God willing, the voice of the Holy Spirit rather than that of the spirits of the age. And thus Jacobs asked, “So if people are getting one kind of catechesis for half an hour per week, and another for dozens of hours per week, which one do you think will win out?” And he continues, “This is true of both the Christian left and the Christian right. People come to believe what they are most thoroughly and intensively catechized to believe, and that catechesis comes not from the churches but from the media they consume, or rather the media that consume them. The churches have barely better than a snowball’s chance in hell of shaping most people’s lives.” Perhaps we want to believe otherwise, but it requires a constant effort to set aside the tenets, the prejudices, and, well, the communal sins of our own communities. It is terribly difficult to separate out what the world teaches about solving the problems of our lives and of those around us from the command that we love those around us; we are very much prone to confuse the need with the method. And we in this place are especially so tempted: well-educated, many of us set into positions within the government or its contractors, it is so very easy to know that we know what is best, without having to listen to others.

This world of constant chatter: it easily tempts us into unearned anger. Jacobs again: “What all those media want is engagement, and engagement is most reliably driven by anger and hatred. They make bank when we hate each other. And so that hatred migrates into the Church, which doesn’t have the resources to resist it. The real miracle here is that even so, in the mercy of God, many people do find their way to places of real love of God and neighbor.” Yes, perhaps there is much to be angry about, and yes, even Jesus showed anger. But anger is consuming, and anger against others eventually drives out love and embeds hatred within the heart.

So where does this leave us, aspiring to the kingdom of heaven?

Well, I have no simple answer. I mean, there is a simple answer, which is to love God with all our hearts and minds and souls, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to love one another as Christ loves us. Simple, and yet in our fallen lives, finding room to love can be hard, even impossible in our sinfulness. But we do have some things to plainly avoid, through Christ's teaching and example. We may not lord it over others; we may not seek to harm others; we may not put our own lusts above the needs of others, nor may we be indifferent to their suffering. And therefore, as much as we participate in politics, it must be to the service of others, not to do battle with them. For Jesus' kingdom is not of this world: his strength is in our weakness, his authority is in our submission, and his eternal reign is manifest in every passing act of love we carry out. But I cannot tell you exactly what those acts should be, and I would very much doubt another person who claimed otherwise. It is our own judgment, under the direction of love, which we must take to the ballot box, and may the Spirit ever guide us there. And there, we shall fail, over and over, in carrying out the work of the kingdom, but if anyone sins they have an advocate in Jesus Christ, who redeems not only our sins, but those of the whole world—even our enemies and persecutors. The kingdom of God is folly to the world, and we cannot defend its borders through force of might; but those borders are extended in every act of love and mercy, until the day when, as the Father ordains, the Son shall return in glory, and under the Spirit love shall hold sway everywhere, world without end. Amen.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

We might as well be Nazarenes

preached on July 4 for Proper 9, Year B

In today's gospel we have a pair of stories in which miracles of healing play a part, but in what seem at first in opposite ways. The first story has Jesus returning to his home town, in which he receives a decidedly cold welcome. To us, accustomed to the modern trappings of celebrity, it is a strange reaction, for what modern place would not lay claim to a miracle worker? Perhaps the strangest statement, though, is this: “he could do no deed of power there.” For those of us who have heard this, every third year, for some time, perhaps it does not jump out at us. And yet, consider the implication: that the second person of the Trinity, God incarnate, to whom we ascribe all power and omnipotence not only because it is so revealed, but because it seems obvious—he is in this place incapable of exercising it.


The sentence continues, “except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” One's first impulse is to read this as simply illustrating the diminishing of Jesus' power, but there is a message in this little coda. Recall in last week's story, Jesus spoke to the woman with the hemorrhage and said, “daughter, your faith has made you well.” Of course, we cannot be sure, because the gospel does not say so, but it is not unreasonable to suppose that those who came for healing were also made well through faith. But of the rest, “he was amazed at their unbelief.” For surely they had heard tell of the wonders he had done: their words testify to that. And yet the fact that this was the boy they had known, who had grown up on their town, the son of a carpenter, somehow this was enough to “offend” them. And yet, had they heeded scripture, they should not have been so surprised, for in the history of salvation it is recorded over and over that God chose not the high nor the mighty, but the childless to be the father of many, the second over the firstborn, the least over the most. Likewise, the disciples were ordinary men, seemingly picked by Jesus at random. Mary sang, “he hath put down the mighty from their thrones, and hath exalted the humble and meek,” and so then is Jesus himself: God made humble, so that man shall be exalted, indeed, raised to sit at the right hand of the Father. But his former neighbors did not, it seems, remember their scripture.

Instead, familiarity bred contempt, and they raised up for themselves a stumbling block, and out of these blocks, made their town a fortress against the power of the incarnate Word. And note further: from many other stories, we can see that doubt is not necessarily an impediment to the entrance of divine power into our lives; Jesus says that even the smallest seed of faith is enough to call it forth. But contempt is different, and, well, we live in a contemptuous age. You need only to listen how we practice politics to see that. And as many a parable relates, how we treat our fellow humans is how we treat our God.

Now, our second story sees no such impediment; indeed, it turns away from Nazareth and into the rest of Judaea. Here we have the first mission of the apostles, though they are not named as such, and as Jesus sends them out in pairs, we may recall his promise that “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I will be in the midst of them.” And in this first mission, we see the same division between faith and rejection: faith brings forth the power of God through the hands of the disciples, but where they are rejected, the implication is that this rejection is not innocent. The disciples are not to harm those who do not accept the gospel word, but they are to shake off the dust off their feet as a testimony against those who reject it. I am reminded of a story of related by Anthony Bloom, the great Orthodox writer and bishop in Britain. The story is of a very nasty, hateful woman, who unaccountably throws a turnip at a beggar to chase him away. After she dies, so the story goes, she is judged and sent to the flames of hell, but there, she sees the hand of Jesus holding out a turnip, and he says to her, “grab hold of this.” Even the smallest good, it seems, may give faith something to grasp, but conversely, both stories today teach that rejection of the divine touch is also within our grasp.

It is quite tempting to view ourselves in the position of the disciples, going out into the world to spread the word and power of Jesus, when we read the second story. And I would not discourage this reading, for, of course, we are also so commissioned. But here, today as on every Sunday, we are the hearers. And in our familiarity with its message, we might as well be Nazarenes ourselves. And thus the question is set before us, in every act we make: are we ourselves to be bearers of the word, or do we treat it with contempt? The first way is life; the second, to turn away from it. Therefore, choose life, that you may have it abundantly.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

In the Flesh

A piece of broiled fish, which he took and ate. An ordinary meal, an ordinary act, done every minute of every day all over the globe. And yet, it is a sign. The risen Jesus took food, and ate, ate like any man: put it to his lips, in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. And thus, the sign: Jesus is risen, truly, in reality, in the flesh. It is the fulfillment of the incarnation revealed: God has united to humanity in all its fullness, walking, breathing, eating, sleeping, in all ways human.

An artist friend of mine was once commissioned to paint Jesus “in the act of resurrecting.” We had a good chuckle over the image immediately brought to mind, of Jesus shoving aside the shroud and sitting up as if he were about to get out of bed and go to breakfast. I do not think one can so capture the miracle itself, and no gospel says a thing about it: the most we have is the story from Matthew of the earthquake and of the angel rolling away the stone. The miracle is and must remain a mystery, unseen in the tomb, unexplained in words, uncomprehended by the human mind. And yet, her patron was on the right track, in a way, for what he wanted to see, in the frame, was the resurrection not as a symbol or metaphor or myth; he wanted to see it in the flesh. And that is what today's reading provides: a Jesus who can be touched, whose flesh is still marked by the wounds he suffered, who breathes and eats and drinks and walks and speaks like any other human being. No ghost, no vision: he is still material, though transformed and raised, not just to life, but to a new life which transcends the old. His bodily being is what the old Adam was intended to be, but more, and when the first heaven and the first earth are passed away, and all things are made new in the new heaven and new earth, we too shall become what he already is: the new flesh of the new covenant, made suitable for the life everlasting to come. And not only our flesh, but our hearts, our souls, our minds, for as Jesus opened the disciples' minds, so ours too are taught, through them, through their writings and those of the church after them. We do not understand everything, but we know what is crucial:

Christ has died;

Christ is risen;

Christ will come again.

And thus we proclaim to all humanity repentance and forgiveness of sins, and we go out baptizing in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so that all may be joined into the resurrected flesh of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to who be power and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

In the Wreckage

This night, we look upon what, for all the world, looks to be the wreckage of the divine plan. The angel said to Mary, “the Lord God will give to him the the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And where is that throne this night? Where is that kingdom? Mary said to Elizabeth, “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts.” And where slept Pilate, and the priests, on that night, while the body of the incarnate God lay cold in the tomb? “He has put down the might from their thrones, and have exalted those of low degree.” Truly?

How did it come to this? Who was the guilty? Who was it despised him? Well, the authorities of course: the priests and the Pharisees, Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas—and their guards and soldiers. Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him directly, and the rest of the disciples, who fled into the night. The mob of Jerusalem, crying for his death. Here we have just heard the story of their collective treachery, as John tells it, though his version is not so very different from that of the other three evangelists.

And yet, does not the story range further? Who was the guilty? Who was it despised him? Was it their treachery alone, and not our own as well? No! Alas, my treason has also undone him—mine, and ours, and all of humanity. When he was hungry, and we did not feed him, or thirsty and did not give him drink, or naked and did not clothe him, or a stranger and did not welcome him, or a prisoner and did not visit him, we betrayed him; when we prayed, “we thank you, God, that we are not like those over there,” we betrayed him; when we made the dollar large and the measure small, we betrayed him. He carried all our sins, for in sinning against God, we sinned against his incarnation. We denied him; we crucified him, we and the whole fallen world.

And so, seemingly, the world got what it wanted: God made man, tortured to death. All was well with the world, again: the rich and powerful returned to their homes and slept the sleep of the self-righteous, Jesus' followers in disarray and the crowds turned away from him. The only thing left, seemingly, was for the women to return after the sabbath to finish the burial of God's revolt against his own people. But it is this seeming wreckage which is the point, for as is attested from the beginning of scripture, it is the willfulness of his creatures that made this wreckage. Our desires are warped, perverted, hateful; our hunger is greed, our will tyranny, our anger vicious. We have made a world built on exploitation, contempt, abuse, and war, and seemingly cannot stop it, except with more of the same.

And so, at the cross, the world got its way, and God did not resist, for it is this very lack of resistance through which the battle is won. Good did not triumph over evil through a show of divine force; it triumphed by making evil irrelevant. Even as sin got its way, it lost, because it could only “win” by bending creation, in all its goodness, against its creator; and Jesus did not bend, but instead laid his limbs upon the cross, transfixed in seeming helplessness against evil's force. And thus he lifted all with him, as he was lifted up to die. We too are are helpless in the face of evil, both its victims and its perpetrators, and we cannot combat it on its own terms; but in faith, now, that is a different story. But faith means trust in the weakness of Jesus on Calvary, in this world, and faith means directing our actions towards the care of our fellows, friends, family, and foes alike, but also trusting in God for our salvation. And it is that faith, made real through our works, that will bring us, on that last day, into the joy of the resurrection into which we are baptized, when all evil is wiped away for eternity, and when the new Jerusalem is founded forever on the wreckage of the old, dead world of sin.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Disobedient and Defiling

Preached on 16 August 2020

In today's gospel, we come into the middle of one story, and leave with another. We pick up the first after Jesus has contended with the Pharisees again, their bone to pick this time being that, against tradition, his disciples do not wash their hands before eating. And Jesus condemns them once again for their hypocrisy and for making up rules to escape from their holy obligations, but then he continues into the statements we hear today. “It is what comes out of the mouth that defiles;” that is plain enough, isn't it? The lies we speak, the slander we utter, the excuses we offer: these are the pollution we spread. Our acts of infidelity, of wrath, of treachery, of contempt, of theft: these are what alienate us from God, and thus from life.

I would think that, for us, this observation is so ingrained and so obvious as to be hardly worth making, especially for the overwhelming majority of Christians who were never subject to the laws of Moses and its rules of ritual purity. And yet, in this world of sin, the opposite is so often taught. We live in an angry, deceitful, contemptuous, greedy age, in which lying, cheating, violence, and just plain rudeness are exalted. We have created a new American religion of Politics, with its own rites of ritual purity, and in its name spew all manner of invective. And then there is the other great American God, Money, for nothing must interfere with Sacred Business and Commerce. Now, Jesus spends a great deal of time preaching about money, and many of the parables use investment as a metaphor for the work of the kingdom, and he even commends a dishonest servant for using his cheating of his master in order to win him friends. But we cannot serve God and Mammon; greed in our hearts issues forth and defiles us as certainly as any other disease of the heart.

We are so enmeshed in this world of sin, that without the Spirit upon us, it would seem hopeless to prevent our self-defilement. And here the words of Paul as we have just heard them make a strange claim: that it was meant this way. One hears, in the story of the Jewish kingdom, a depressing litany of kings who did not do as they were commanded, and before that, the story of the Israelites on the way through the desert is, if anything, worse. And in the end, the kingdom was split, and then each part destroyed in turn; but as we are told through the prophets, the Lord God did not abandon his people. In time, they were gathered back to Judea, and then, in the reign of Herod, God became, through the Son, incarnate in humanity, and brought salvation once and for all. Their disobedience was against God's will, but their disobedience came to serve God's plan of mercy. Therefore, when we sin—for who can fail to do so?—we are yet made clean through Jesus, even we who are not of Abraham's seed, and our sin provides the occasion for the glorification of God through this mercy.

Which brings us to the second story. The Canaanite woman has the rare distinction of arguing with Jesus and winning. And she bluntly acknowledges that she is outside God's people, and yet Jesus extends God's mercy to encompass her. Or is it a stretch? Her argument, after all, is that God's grace is great enough to extend beyond his own people the Jews, to which Jesus agrees. But what is it that leads him to agree? It is her faith. Faith is what extends the reach of salvation; faith is the vehicle of grace. And ultimately, faith is what has brought all of us, Jew or gentile, into the body of Christ.

And yet, faith without works, as James says, is dead. By this he does not mean that we earn salvation through our acts, but that in knowing that it is what comes from our mouth that defiles, we seek what purity we can, in acts of worship not only on our lips, but in how we live, in charity and harmony with each other and those around us. Our religion must not be empty observance and pious sayings, but needs be manifest in every word and deed by which we help—or harm—those about us. Therefore, brothers and sisters, we do the work of the kingdom of God, and look to its ultimate fulfillment on the last day, when every defiling word and deed will come to reckoning.