Monday, July 24, 2017

Blessing Lammas


Pastor’s Epistle—August, A.D. 2017 A

For years, Lammastide has marked for me the spiritual beginning of autumn. No matter how the heat of August might rage, once we’ve celebrated Lammas, the first fruits of the harvest, we know that the curtain has well and truly begun to descend upon our summer. Daylight wanes, the nights wax long, and our hearts turn to thoughts of the fall.

Lammas, the “Loaf-Mass,” is a festival of first fruits at the beginning of August, meant to coincide with the wheat harvest. It is modeled upon both the Old Testament practice (Leviticus 23) and similar folk traditions from Scotland. We bake a loaf of bread from the first sheaves of wheat, then bring it to worship for a blessing. The bread, thus blessed, is not the Eucharist—not the Body and Blood of Christ—but bread intended for healthful and thankful eating at home.

One might naturally ask, then, what exactly constitutes a Christian blessing. What makes Lammas bread, or any blessed item, different from something which has not been blessed? The answer is at once both nothing and everything.

First and foremost, a Christian blessing reveals an item for what it truly is, reveals the purpose for which God has intended it. It’s like blowing the dust off some forgotten treasure. Blessing water does not change the water into something else, but rather reaffirms the purposes for which God has given to us His good gift of water: cleansing, refreshing, bringing life to the earth. On Palm Sunday we bless palms; at Rogation we bless seed and tools and good, rich earth; on St Francis Day we bless our animals. This is to remind us that these things have been entrusted to us for our good use, that we might use these gifts for neighbor and community, for the benefit of humanity and the greater glory of God. And of course we bless people, men and women and children, to reaffirm that each and every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, known and loved by Him, with an eternal destiny manifest in Jesus Christ.

A Christian blessing is also a prayer. It is a prayer of thanksgiving, intercession, and protection. If we bless a car, surely it is a prayer that God guide and keep and protect us in our travels, especially our children. We bless vestments and quilts and Bibles as a prayer that through these things we may draw closer to our God and God to us. We bless oil for healing as a tangible prayer, a prayer made solid, to restore our loved ones to wholeness and health. A blessing is a prayer we can touch.

Which brings us to our third and final point: a blessing is where faith intersects with life. It is the Church thrust out into the nitty-gritty, the daily grind. We bless people and places and things so that they might be hallowed, set apart, for the work of Christ’s Body in the world. Ours is a God made flesh in Jesus Christ, so that we can see and touch and taste Him in the Word and in the Sacraments. His promises likewise are made solid, made flesh, so that He may go out—in and with and through us!—into a world still very much in need of forgiveness and healing and new life. A blessing is a continuation, an extension, of the Incarnation by which the Creator and Creation are made one in Christ.

So that’s why we bless bread—normal, everyday, ground wheat bread—at Lammas. We bless it to reassert what a miracle bread truly is, given to us and to all of humankind daily for life and good nourishment. We bless it as a prayer of thanksgiving, and a petition that God bring us health and peace of body and soul. And we bless it to take God’s blessing out from the four walls of our sanctuary, out into every corner of Creation in space and in time, out to reach the least, the lost, and the lonely, out to manifest God’s Kingdom in the particular life that we are given, as we serve gladly and await patiently the harvest at the end of the age.

Happy Lammastide, my brothers and sisters. May it bring blessing to all of you and all of yours.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Credit to whom credit is due: the threefold reflection on blessing above is adapted from Fr Brian Andrew Jaye, OCA, who spoke on Christian blessing in the tradition of Fr Alexander Schmemann at a recent retreat of the Society of the Holy Trinity.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Artery of Darkness


Propers: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 16), A.D. 2017 A

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last week we heard Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, in which a sower sows seed upon both good soil and rocky ground. Today we have Jesus’ other Parable of the Sower, in which a sower sows good seed into his garden, only to have an enemy come by night and scatter weeds amongst the grain. When the seeds sprout, the servants find weeds amongst the crop, tares amongst the wheat. And the householder—the sower—sees what his enemy has done, yet instructs his servants not to separate the tares from the wheat until the harvest, lest violence be done to his intended crop.

And the explanation for this parable given in the text remains fairly straightforward, even if the implications for our lives do not. The one who sows the seed is Christ Himself, the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed represents the children of God’s Kingdom. The enemy is the devil, the weeds his children. And the harvest is the end of the age, when the angels shall reap the wheat and cast the tares into a furnace of fire.

This reveals to us something of the nature of evil. God does not sow both good seed and bad; evil is not a thing created by our Creator. Rather, evil is something introduced afterward, out of jealousy, spite, or sadism pure and simple. It is telling, I think, that wickedness is represented by weeds—weeds being, of course, not a specific genus or phylum of plant, but rather good plants that are simply out of place. What makes a weed a weed is that you don’t want it where it is. The devil cannot create something new; he does not have that power. He can only corrupt and disorder what was initially made good by God.

Now, there is a term one often hears in the news, “Manichaeism.” And Manichaeism is shorthand for a dualistic worldview that separates mankind, and indeed all of Creation, into two opposing camps. There are the children of light, and the children of darkness: the former all good and the latter all bad. You may be familiar with the phrase, “All things are pure for the pure.” It’s the same idea. The children of light can do no wrong, and are justified in using whatever methods necessary to defeat the children of darkness. The ends justify the means.

Whenever the world is split into two antagonistic and diametrically opposed camps; whenever opponents are demonized and allies whitewashed; whenever people commit horrors for the supposed sake of the greater good; there hell reigns. Manichaeism always carries within it the implicit justification for holy war—and not simply a just war, a defensive war, but a war of annihilation, of extermination, of genocide in the name of God or the proletariat or the master race or democracy or whatever you worship as the light amongst the dark.

We must not read Jesus’ parable in this way. We must not convince ourselves that there are two sorts of people, one all fruitful and all good, the other utterly unwanted and worthless, fit only to be burned. That is not the Gospel.

You know, it’s funny. Growing up as a child in the eighties, the great Big Bad, the villains of every book and film and television series, were always the Communists, always the Russians. I remember the Cold War very clearly, the superpower struggle, the atomic bomb drills. We knew as kids that someday soon the world would come to its fiery end, a secular apocalypse, and it would all be because of those godless Russians. We had to hit them hard before they could hit at us! It was us or them! Nuke ‘em!

Yet now, as a man, I cannot read the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares without hearing the voice of a Russian in my head: the great Christian author Solzhenitsyn, who knew that the true enemy was never without but within.

“If only it were all so simple!” he wrote. “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

The seeds sown in the God’s garden, the tares amongst the wheat, are not people but lies, wickedness, sin. Christ calls the devil the father of lies, and these seeds He calls his children. There are not two species of human being, one good and one evil, but wheat and tares are sown together in every human heart. And that, I think, is why God does not simply tear them out. We are not ready for such violent love. We would not experience it as liberation, as life, but as pain—as the death of who we think we are. For we love our lies, do we not? We love that artery of darkness that marbles through our heart.

Yet it is a great comfort to me that in the fullness of time Christ shall pull out of me all causes of sin and all evildoers. He will reach into the deepest part of who and what I am and He shall uproot the sickness, the darkness, the cancer of my soul. He will cast out of me all that I should not be and throw it into the furnace to weep and gnash its teeth. And the grain of me—the fruitful seed of who I shall become and was meant to be all along—that He will gather and glorify and grow.

I am a garden full of weeds, dear Christians. Yet Christ claims me for His own. He loves me, as He loves all His children, all His Creation. He tends and guards and waters me; He toils and sweats and bleeds for me. For He sees me not as I am—not as any of us are!—but as we shall become when the harvest comes in full. Then He shall send out His angels to gather us home, and the fires of His furnace shall burn up, in the intensity of His love, all the things within us we were never meant to be! And we shall shine like the sun in the Kingdom of our Father.

Let anyone with ears listen.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Abundance


Propers: The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 15), A.D. 2017 A

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

It astounds me how rapidly agricultural technology has advanced in just the last few decades. Granted, I’m no expert. My dad grew up on an Iowa farm but by the time I came along he wasn’t able to impart much lore of the land. No, my education came later, when we moved out to Minnesota and our son fell in love with John Deere tractors. Honestly, you’d be amazed how much a grown man can learn from John Deere board books intended for ages three to five.

I read about seed drills which use little puffs of air to insure the proper placement of every single planted seed. I learned of sensors placed in the soil to direct irrigation, and of miniature drones that fly amongst crops searching for damage. I saw the insides of combines with 48-row corn heads, so large that each individual tine had a laser sensor allowing it to undulate over the ground, flexing with the land so as not to get stuck in a hill. And everywhere I looked inside there were screens: screens displaying statistics and efficiency yields, painting the landscape in digital color to maximize the harvest and minimize fuel expenditure. It was a video game writ large.

And even this, I’m told, is out of date. A colleague of mine, a pastor from North Dakota who grew up on his father’s and grandfather’s farm, informs me that drones and sensors have been replaced by satellite imagery scanning every square inch of the field from space for the slightest aberration, dryness, or damage. The latest generation of tractors doesn’t even include cabs. Autonomous machines farm far more efficiently than human beings could ever hope to on our own. Why, there are even robots milking cows here in New York Mills, and they are a wonder to see. We’ve come a long way from the yoke of oxen and the moldboard plow.

Yet even so—the fundamentals are still the same as they’ve been for thousands of years, aren’t they? For all our technological wizardry, we remain dependent for our survival upon a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains. Not to mention the miracle that is a seed.

In our Gospel this morning we hear the Parable of the Sower, easily one of Jesus’ most famous teachings. A sower goes out to sow and scatters his seed all about—the path, the rocks, the thorns, and yes, even some on good and fertile soil. And not surprisingly, the seed on the path gets eaten by birds. The seeds in rocky soil wither before the sun. Those amongst the weeds are choked off by hardier competition. But the stuff that falls on good soil produces in ridiculous superabundance: thirty, sixty, a hundredfold.

And Jesus must explain to His befuddled disciples that the seed in the parable is the very Word of God showered forth upon the world. Sometimes the Word is stolen away by devils, He says, sometimes choked off by the cares of this world, and sometimes the Word indeed takes hold upon rocky soil, those who hear the Word and immediately receive it with joy. But sure enough, as soon as hardship or persecution arises, these rocky souls fall away. They’re all shoot and no root. Yet where God’s Word finds good soil, it flourishes, yielding a vast and glorious harvest, greater than any would have dared to imagine.

One of the beautiful things about Jesus’ parables is that they flummox us. He speaks of characters and behaviors that seem ridiculous to the cultured and the sensible. Seed is a valuable commodity, is it not? Think of all the pains we take in order to insure that every single seed has opportunity to sprout—all the machines and sensors and algorithms and data. Yet here this Sower casts it about willy-nilly! Upon the path, upon the thorns. Who sows seeds upon a road or a rock? Honestly.

Yet God’s ways are not our ways, His thoughts not our thoughts. We live in a mindset of scarcity—and to a certain extent rightly so. We must maximize every harvest, the yield of each individual seed, in order to feed the hungry mouths of this world. At the same time, however, numbers are only a problem for finite creatures with finite minds: creatures who confuse size with importance and rarity with value. But God is not like us. His Word is superabundant, His mercy infinite.

He scatters the seed of His Word upon the whole world, refusing the hold back, refusing to be sensible, confident in the sure knowledge that His Word will not return empty but shall accomplish all that for which He has purposed. Our God is a consuming fire, and fire indeed is the appropriate understanding of what is sown here upon the earth. For like fire, the Word of God only grows in intensity as it is given away, spread and shared. And like fire, it takes only a spark—a single fertile seed—to set all the world ablaze with light and life.

Superabundance is the name of the game: a Kingdom of God that spreads like a virus, like mustard through a garden, like yeast through the whole batch of dough. The life of a single, perfect, sinless Man can turn the whole world upside-down, emptying Hades of its dead and pulling all of mankind back to Eden, back to God. Christ, my friends, is both Sower and Seed, both God and Word, both Man and divine. And He pours out Himself upon all of humanity, all of the world. And the Word works! Regardless of our violence, our infamy, our sins, regardless of the wicked states of our hearts and our souls, He accomplishes His Father’s purpose, without doubt and without fail.

The seed is sown, the spark is lit, and the Kingdom comes at last!

Which brings me to one final point about this most infamous of parables. And that is how we so readily misread it. We take the Parable of the Sower, and we make it into the Parable of the Soil. What I mean by this is that we hear Jesus speak of God’s Word seeded amongst the path, amongst the thorns, amongst the rocks, and we think, “Uh-oh. He’s talking about us, isn’t He? Am I rocky soil? Am—am I choked by thorns? How, oh how, can I make my heart into good soil, so that Jesus will love me?” Right?

We take a parable of superabundance, of grace overflowing, and we turn it into a parable of judgment, of fear. We cease to make it about Jesus and turn it around to make it about us. But to do so is to miss the punchline. To read the Parable of the Sower as the Parable of the Soil is to overlook the joke that is hidden in plain sight. And this is what I mean.

Jesus describes seed falling on rocky soil, that takes root and sprouts up quickly but has no depth. And so the seed withers in the heat of the day. This, He says, represents those who hear the Word and immediately receive it with joy, but when trouble or persecution arises on account of God’s Word they immediately fall away. A pretty damning indictment, I must say. Yet there is a person in the Gospels who fits this description to a T.

Simon, the brother of Andrew, is Jesus’ most enthusiastic disciple. He is impetuous and reckless, diving out his boat on multiple occasions so as to reach Jesus the faster. And Jesus says to Simon that from now on, “You shall be called Peter”—which means Rock—“and upon this Rock I shall build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Peter is the Rock, and in more ways than one. Prince of the Apostles, he immediately receives the Word with joy. Yet when trouble and persecution arise, he immediately falls away. He explicitly and publicly denies Jesus, during His Passion, not once but three times, all before the cock crows. Peter, dear Christians—the same Peter for whom this congregation is named—is the rocky soil of whom Jesus speaks in the Parable of the Sower. And look what Christ has accomplished through him!

See how the Word has produced in superabundance, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold, in spite of the devils, in spite of the cares of this world, in spite of the fallibility and weakness and outright wickedness of Christians ourselves! Rocks, thorns, birds, it doesn’t matter. The seed takes root. The Word works His will. And despite all of our brokenness, brothers and sisters—the harvest comes in full.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

All


Propers: The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 14), A.D. 2017 A

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Is God for us? That’s what we really want to know, right?

We grapple daily with loss and disease, with stresses and exhaustion. It is no picnic growing up and growing old. We hear of wars and rumors of wars: of extremists and terrorists, of a rising China and revanchist Russia. And then there’s this crazy little man on an Asian peninsula who claims he can now nuke Alaska. All the while we grapple with a crumbling infrastructure, student debt crisis, partisan gridlock, and our healthcare fiasco. And this is life in the wealthiest country in the world! O from where is our hope to come?

Amidst all of life’s anxieties, all we really want to know is whether God is for us—for if God is for us, everything else can be handled. Everything else will pass away. But if God is not for us, then regardless of how heroic our struggle, we will be subsumed by the burdens of this life and collapse along with the rest of this fallen world.

Hear then, my brothers and sisters, the Word of the Lord set before us today.

“The Lord is gracious and merciful,” sings the Psalmist, “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and His compassion is over all that He has made. All Your works shall give thanks to You, O Lord, and all Your faithful shall bless You … The Lord is faithful in all His words, and gracious in all His deeds. The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.” Amen.

Good Lord. Did you hear all that? Gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love. His compassion is over all that He has made. All Your works shall give thanks to You, O Lord. The Lord upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down. There’s no equivocation here, no reservation, no qualifiers. All who are falling, God raises up! All His works shall give thanks to the Lord! These are blanket promises, grace overflowing, a superabundance of mercy drowning our every misgiving and fear! All shall be raised! All shall praise God!

And it’s not just the Psalmist. Hear the words of the prophet Zechariah: “Rejoice! Shout aloud! Your King comes to you, triumphant and victorious, riding the foal of a donkey! He will cut off the chariot and the warhorse and the battle-bow; He shall command peace to the nations from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth. And as for you also, because of the Blood of My Covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.”

Behold, then, the Messiah, the Christ, the King of Kings! See how unexpectedly He comes, riding upon the foal of a donkey, the ancient sign that He comes in peace. And He does not make war upon us or our enemies—rather, He makes war upon war. He breaks the bow and shatters the chariot and sets the warhorse free. And He proclaims peace, peace upon the nations, peace upon His people and upon all peoples, peace from the river to the sea and unto the very ends of the earth. Triumphant and victorious is He, so powerful, so good and true and beautiful, that all of Creation is reconciled at last in Him.

And this is a prophecy, mind you, from a warrior people, a people who have known conflict and subjugation and exile and defeat, who have seen their Temple burned and their cities laid waste and their tribes scattered to the winds. Zechariah is not naïve, promising pie in the sky by and by. He knows the worst mankind has to offer, fire and steel and blood. Yet this is the vision given unto him to proclaim to us and to all peoples for the last 2500 years and more. This is the vision of Christ Victorious, bringing peace at last to the shattered human race.

And now we come to the words of the Gospel, of God Himself in the flesh: “Come to Me,” He proclaims—and He proclaims this, mind you, to the very people who have just denounced Him as a drunkard and His herald as a demoniac. “Come to Me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

That’s a promise, you understand. All who are weary, all who are burdened—and who upon this turning earth is not?—come to Me, and I will give you rest. Period. I will teach you, I will guide you, I will claim you as My own. Thus is fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah: “As for you also, because of the Blood of My Covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the pit,” that is, from the dead. My Blood, My Life, proclaims the Christ, will save you from death, for not even the grave can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!

Brothers and sisters: all of us struggle in this life. All of us suffer to one degree or another. Sometimes we suffer justly as the result of our own poor choices. Often we suffer unjustly for reasons we can neither fathom nor explain. And in the midst of our suffering, our losses, our sins, all we want to know is whether God is for us—whether He knows, He sees, He suffers alongside us. Does He still love us, fallen as we are?

And the unanimous witness of Scripture for three and a half millennia is an unequivocal “yes!” Yes, God is for us. Yes, God is with us. Yes, God stands by us in all of our troubles, even unto death and the grave, and He will faithfully see us through to light and life and joy the likes of which we cannot possibly imagine now.

And so we are freed—freed from sin and pain and fate and time and age and disease and all the things that threaten to devour us body and soul! Freed because Christ is for us, Christ is with us, and Christ has claimed us as His own! And yes, we will struggle. And yes, we will suffer. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in Christ Jesus, that our sufferings will not have the final say. They shall pass away with all the other brokenness of this world, while we shall rise and rise and ever rise unto that day when Christ’s victory is complete and God at last will be all in all!

Death cannot claim you; disease cannot claim you; cancer cannot claim you! For the Lord is faithful in all His words. He upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down. Triumphant and victorious is He, who by the Blood of His Covenant frees us from the waterless pit. For the Lord is gentle and humble in heart, and in Him we find rest for our souls.

Yes, my dear children, God is for us, for all of us. And nothing in heaven or hell or all of Creation can stop Him from fulfilling the promise He’s given to you.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Thursday, June 29, 2017

Sin


Propers: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 13), A.D. 2017 A

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sin.

For St Paul, sin is more than a matter of poor choice. Sin is a power in the universe, an enslaving power, that exists somehow beyond himself and yet within himself. Paul is at war with sin and therefore at war with some twisted part of who he is. “The good that I would do, I do not do,” he writes to the Romans. “And the evil I would not do is exactly what I end up doing. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Sin is our word for all of those powers within us, around us, and beyond us that separate us from the Goodness, Truth, and Beauty of God; powers that pull us away, that divide us, from the harmony intended by God for the flourishing of all Creation. But appearances to the contrary, sin has no substance in and of itself. It is not the yin to God’s yang, a Dark Side at war with the Light. Sin is simply brokenness, incompleteness, a note of discord within the divinely ordained symphony of the cosmos. It is a gash, a wound, gaping hole; it is not really there.

The sinner, then, is no heroic rebel, no protagonist of his own Paradise Lost. Rather, the sinner is sick, twisted, curved in on himself, a cave creature gone blind trying to hide himself from the sun. In a purely rational world, we would not sin. We would look to the Good and the True and the Beautiful, and we would do whatever proves necessary to live in accordance with them, that we might be good and true and beautiful ourselves.

Yet this is not our experience, is it? So often we know what is right, we know what is good and healthy and life-giving, and we choose—don’t we?—we choose to do just the opposite; because the sin is easier, or more pleasurable, or just because we want to watch the world burn. And it’s almost as though it’s not even us doing it, we aren’t ourselves, we aren’t living up to the person we know we’re supposed to be. And yet! And yet: “The good that I would do, I do not do. And the evil I would not do is exactly what I end up doing. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

C.S. Lewis wrote that we don’t know how bad we are until we try very hard to be good. And that, my friends, is why we have the Law. Now, the Law, with a capital L, is a revelation of truth. It reveals to us what is good and right and reasonable. In the Old Testament we have the Mosaic Law, the Law of God’s people Israel, but our notion of Law goes beyond this. There are natural laws written into the very fabric of Creation. And there are moral laws inscribed upon every human heart.

This doesn’t mean that the Law is self-evident, like two plus two. We often have to dig deep in order to find it, both as individuals and as communities. And the Law does not manifest itself in precisely the same way across various human societies. But the basic moral truths of right and wrong—do not murder, no not steal, do not lie; respect your elders, honor your dead; live kindly, live piously—these are universal precepts, Law in the deepest and truest sense of the word. Society would be literally impossible without them: try to imagine, for instance, a civilization holding up lying and murder as its highest virtues. They wouldn’t last a day, let alone a generation.

This Law, Paul says, is our pedagogue. That is, the Law acts as our schoolmaster, our childhood tutor. It teaches us right from wrong. And whenever we encounter the Law clearly laid out, whether that be in the Bible or some other great work of religion or philosophy, our first instinct is to compare ourselves to that standard. It is then that we begin to realize just how short we fall. The self pits itself against the Law and inevitably finds itself wanting: “I fought the Law and the Law won.”

Sin is always there, you see. But we don’t realize how deep into sin we are mired until we measure our lives against the rule of Law. We forget how dark it is until someone turns on the light. And then we wish they’d kept it off.

So what next? Having seen how far we’ve fallen from grace, what is our next move? Well, having measured ourselves against the Law and not enjoyed the results, we then measure our neighbors against the Law. And we feel a little better, don’t we? We may be bad, sure, but at least we’re not as bad as all these other poor slobs. Ride that bell curve for all it’s worth. Surf to self-justification upon the great surge of the unwashed masses. We’ve moved now from denial straight to bargaining.

But this justifies nothing. On the contrary, wielding the Law as a weapon against our neighbor only drives us more deeply into sin. We simply cannot escape from the harsh light of truth. We couldn’t even if we wanted to, and half the time we don’t even want that. The Law is Good and True and Beautiful and we are not. From where is our help to come?

Paul’s answer is that we have to get out from inside of ourselves. We have to stop curving inward, and escape to find new footing upon solid ground—a promise that is stronger than our weakness. And this, of course, is Jesus Christ. Yes, the Law is our pedagogue, but children outgrow their tutors. We as the people of God must now come of age and move on to spiritual adulthood. Having recognized the depth of our sin, and our own inability to fulfill the righteousness demanded by the Law, we must turn now toward the Light, toward our only hope: the promise of grace in our Lord Jesus Christ. The Law’s last lesson for us is that the Law drives us to the Gospel.

When we cannot fulfill the Law, Christ fulfills it for us. The Goodness and Truth and Beauty that we cannot achieve on our own is poured out upon us as free gift, purely out of grace, purely out of love. It is the promise of peace and joy and life everlasting—a heaven we could never hope to earn, yet neither can we lose!—for the New Covenant of salvation rests not on our own promises, so readily broken, but on the unbreakable promise of Jesus Christ, our God made flesh. And God does not break promises.

And so we are free, cries Paul! Free from the cycle of sin and reproach; free from all the powers within and without—the devil, the world, and the flesh—that would separate us from the love of God; free from our ignorance apart from the Law and from our despair when we are placed naked and trembling before it! In Jesus Christ, the gulf between God and Man, the chasm torn by our sin, has been healed, has been sealed up, for God is in Christ and Christ is in us, in Word and in Spirit, in Body and in Blood, now and forevermore! And St Paul rejoices:

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law, but thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

And it is precisely because we are freed from the power of sin that we must shun it all the more. We must strive for the Good and True and Beautiful in every aspect of our lives—not because God’s love must be earned; not to judge our neighbor or feel better about ourselves. Rather, we strive for what is Good and True and Beautiful so that grace may abound all the more, as it flows freely from sinner to sinner, absolving us in the ocean of God’s mercy, so that we participate in the salvation of God’s world, drawing humanity and all of Creation into the perfection of Christ at the end of the age!

It’s not about keeping score. We are freed from our sins so that we can free our neighbor.

“For now that you have been freed from sin and bound to God, the advantage you gain is sanctification; the end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Monday, June 26, 2017

O Canada!


Pastor’s Epistle—July, A.D. 2017 A

I hail from patriotic stock. My childhood involved regular gatherings of the extended family around every conceivable national holiday, from Memorial Day through Flag Day to Independence Day. Come summer my Mother would deck the halls with the star-spangled banner, and we even had a wet bar in the basement done up in the style of a Colonial tavern of the sort the Sons of Liberty would doubtless recognize. My high school friends and I would spend the Fourth of July weekend watching films like Gettysburg (1993) or The Patriot (2000) before setting out on our annual tour of the actual Gettysburg battlefield, which we could narrate together by heart as well as any guide.

My Mother can trace her ancestry through multiple Patriots (and a few Hessians) in the American Revolution, and one branch of my Father’s family came over on the Mayflower. So, yes, we’re proud Americans from way back. Moreover, as Christians, and particularly Lutheran Christians, we’ve long believed that patriotism is a good and healthy and godly thing, much like love of family and of hometown. But there’s a difference between celebrating one nation under God (patriotism) and worshipping one’s nation as a god (nationalism). A Christian is obligated to the former and forbidden the latter.

This Christian love of country, combined with the simultaneous refusal to worship one’s country as an idol, is what so baffled and aggravated ancient Rome with regards to the early Church. The pagans thought that they were perfectly sensible in their demand that all citizens offer a pinch of incense to the state gods of Rome, the imperial cult, and the Roman Legions. The state simply could not trust these Christians, who would pray for the government but not to the government. How could their fellow citizens count on their loyalty to Rome if they affixed a higher loyalty to God?

St Paul’s answer, of course, was that Christians made even better citizens than other Romans, because our ultimate loyalties lay with the Goodness, Truth, and Beauty of God. The state could trust Christians, he argued, because they would lie neither for nor against the state. A Christian would pay her taxes, he insisted, not out of fear of the tax collector but for love of good order. In short, loving God more than country would strengthen rather than weaken a Christian’s love of country. Eventually experience proved St Paul right, and in time even the Roman Emperor himself would put aside all claims to personal divinity and be Baptized in Jesus’ Name.

A man who worships his country über alles will eventually embrace tyranny and even barbarism in his country’s name. But a Christian will stand up for, and even die for, the God-given ideals of order, liberty, and human dignity that make good government possible for the citizens of all nations. This was true in St Paul’s day, and ought to be true in our own. And so it is with this in mind that I turn now to Canada—yes, Canada—our benevolent neighbor to the north.

This July 1st is the sesquicentennial of the Canadian Federation, Canada’s 150th birthday. And I for one feel that the United States should just go nuts on Canada Day. Everybody be Canadian for 24 hours. Be impeccably polite, drink good beer, and eat poutine. Read a history of Canada. Try some phrases in French. Enjoy some maple syrup. Don't make fun of people saying “eh.” Watch some hockey. Just be awesome to our neighbors because they really are the best. The longest international border on earth is also the friendliest, and that’s worth celebrating.

Christians are called to love our neighbors, and that goes for the national as well as the local level. Celebrating other countries, especially our closest neighbors, can only enhance our love for our own country. That’s what patriotism is all about, and what nationalism cannot stand. So I’m wishing everyone in our congregation and community a very happy Canada Day this weekend—and a very happy Independence Day 72 hours later. Here’s to God’s true blessings of good government, peaceful borders, and a prosperous North American continent. May God bless Canada, the United States, and all the nations of this earth.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Tribe


Propers: The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 12), A.D. 2017 A

Homily:

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Now obviously Jesus is not promoting violence. Rather He speaks here of the sword as an instrument of division: the severance of connections, the breaking of old relationships. The sword cuts away; it divides.

At first blush, this next bit may sound all too familiar. “I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” And really, how hard is that? I don’t mean to be glib, but families these days tend to be brittle things, fragile, ephemeral. Yet 2,000 years ago, family was everything.

Throughout the ancient world, and through much of the globe today, family remains unquestioned. It is a human being’s source of highest loyalty and deepest identity. Related families make up a clan; related clans make up a tribe; and related tribes make up a nation, most of which claim descent from a common ancestor. The Greeks, the Jews, the Norse, all point to a progenitor, a patriarch. They’re all one big family.

Most of humanity throughout most of history have experienced transcendence primarily through the family. The family is the part of you that reaches back into the mists of prehistory and forward over the future’s horizon. Getting married, having a child, is the Copernican revolution of the soul. Our world stops revolving around ourselves and turns now upon the greater universe of those whose lives mean more to us than our own. There is not a true parent on this earth who would not gladly die to save and protect the life of his child.

Family comes first, before country, before creed. We inherit from the generations before us—their wealth, their wisdom, often their shame—and we pass on our own legacy to those who come after. Within a family, we are one, yet we are many, with shared faces and phrases and talents blurring the line between who I am and who we are. There’s a reason that ancient laws often punished the family for the trespass of the one. After all, you are your father’s son; you are your mother’s daughter. It was revolutionary when Ezekiel prophesied that guilt would no longer be generational.

Even in the modern Western world, where we emphasize the freedoms and choices and rights of the individual over the collective—the individual above all else, including biology—even here we inherit our names, our legacies, our traditions and fortunes and debts and dirty little secrets. That’s both the wonder and the horror of family: they know who we are; they make us who we are. And sometimes we wish we could escape that communal identity. And sometimes it’s the only bastion we have left amidst a fallen, broken world.

Our readings this morning cover a span of some thousand years, from the Psalmist and Jeremiah in the Old Testament to Paul and Matthew in the New. Yet they’re all telling the same story. They’re all talking about the same thing. In all of our readings this morning, people are in agony because God is tearing their families apart. He’s breaking up the ties of kinship, pulling down the loyalty of tribes, in order to call His people—to call all people—to a higher loyalty, a higher tribe, the Tribe of Christ.

In writing to the Romans, Paul is asking the question: What if all the things that define us, all the things we think make us who we are—my father and my father’s father and his father before him, my language and gender and culture and race, my report cards and police records and Google searches and bank accounts—what if all that were expunged, wiped away? And in place of all of that mess was written the single word, “Christ.”

What if our value were determined not by our height and weight and carbon footprint, by our IQ and by GQ, by our political affiliation and our hashtag activism, by our hairlines and our sex lives, but only by the God who loves us? By the God who loves us so much that He puts our lives before His own? By the God who lays down His life—nay, the life of His only Son!—in order to rebuild us, resurrect us, into His own flesh and blood, His own Body and Spirit? So that the only family who has any claim on us is the family of Almighty God, the Father, the +Son, and the Holy Spirit!

That’s who you really are! Not a Smith or a Stout or a Jones but sons and daughters of the Living God, children of the Most High, kings and queens of all Creation, co-heirs with Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven, in saecula saeculorum, world without end! And all the rat race, all the accounting, all the little judgments and comparisons and whispered accusations with which satanic intelligences afflict the backs of our minds day and night, they all go up like fatwood in the fire. A puff of smoke, a flash of flame, and we are free!

This is what both horrified and fascinated pagan Rome as regards the early Church: the fact that Christians treated everyone like family. They found this love at once beautiful and perverse. That is why they murdered us. And that is why we won.

When Jesus lays ahold of you—He who claims you as His own, who has bought you with a price—what that means is that nothing and no one else ever can. To be ruled by Christ is to never be ruled by anything ever again, save for Goodness and Beauty and Truth inexhaustible. And that scares people. It scares them because a man so bought by Christ cannot be bought again. A single man without fear, without price, without illusion can bring the entire house of cards tumbling down! And that’s what Jesus is making you into. He’s making you into Him—which is to say, you perfected.

Christ is making you free and strong and alive, even if it doesn’t seem that way at the time. It is a process, this smelting and casting, hammering and quenching. It is death and rebirth, ecstasy and pain. But it is agony with a purpose. In Jesus Christ, you are becoming what you were always meant to be: truly human.

And here’s the funny thing. Here’s the clever twist at the end of it all. When you love God more than your mother and your father—when you love God more than your son or your daughter or your country or your tribe—you will be opened up to love those people more than you did before, more than you ever could have before. A man who loves God more than his wife is able to love his wife far more deeply and beautifully than a man who thinks his wife is god. A father who loves God more than his children is able to love his children far more truly than he could without his eyes fixed firmly above. And a man who loves God above his country proves a far more powerful patriot than he who worships his country über alles.

God does not break down our families in order to destroy them. He breaks them down so that they can be re-rooted within their proper context, the greater family of God. And unlike the old tribal rivalries with their blood feuds and their battle fronts, this new Tribe of Christians has no borders, no limits, no zero-sum territories to defend at the expense of others. There is no “us vs them” in Christ. We used to be them. And someday, God willing, they will be us.

The family of God is open to all. And if the Scriptures are to be believed—which of course they are—then one day all of humanity, all of Creation, shall be gathered into one with Jesus our head and the Spirit our soul. Then shall Christ’s victory be complete, and God at last be all in all.

This is what we mean when we say that we believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; one Body of the Risen Christ; one Holy Spirit pouring out His varied gifts upon East and West, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, the many made one—yet each unique as never before. This was the plan all along. This is the endgame of God.

“Indeed, the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow.” But this sword, brothers and sisters, does not come to murder or maim. No. For this sword is none other than the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. And the sword of Jesus Christ is bared only to sever our chains.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.