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Sermon, November 28, 2021 – Advent 1

A Promise of Hope

Happy New Year! This morning marks the beginning of a new church calendar year. Once, again, we, as Christians, demonstrate that we are deliberately out of step with the rest of the world – especially the consumer world. Just look around, the stores have been decorated for Christmas since sometime in mid-October. Sadly, it will all be gone on the morning of December 26th – just as we are getting started celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Advent is intended to be a time of quiet reflection and contemplation, not just on the meaning of Christmas and the birth of our Lord. Rather this season is intended to give us an opportunity to give thanks for the year just past and prepare for the year ahead. Our Jewish brothers and sisters begin their celebration of Rosh Hashanah with the blessing, “May you be inscribed with a good and sweet new year.”  By the way, our Jewish brothers and sisters begin their observance of Hannukah tonight at sunset.

We begin this new year by looking at the last things. Jesus, in our Gospel reading from Luke, tells us to be on the lookout for the calamities that will strike the world before this generation passes away. Signs and portents that could cause fear and discomfort – the antithesis of how the world wishes this season to be about. Yet, Jesus invites us to live in hope for the promised redemption foretold by the prophets.

The prophet Jeremiah, in our first reading from the Hebrew scriptures, tells us emphatically that “the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to Israel and to the House of Judah.”  An assurance that God will keep the promises He has made. This is meant to give us a source of hope, even in the midst of desperate and fearful times.

God’s promises are all around us, reminding us that God’s faithfulness is something we can depend upon no matter what the circumstances. When I was at Nashotah House about this time of year, I became somewhat depressed because of the cold temperatures and gray skies. I called my Dad and told him what was going on. He told me to take a walk in the woods and take a close look at the branches of the maple trees (we had just finished raking up all the leaves earlier that week), and then call him back. I put on my parka and gloves and headed out. I didn’t have to walk far. I pulled down a branch and examined it closely. There on the branch was the bud that would grow into a new leaf once spring arrived. It began to dawn on me that here in the early winter with its cold temperatures, blistering wind, and dark gray skies was the promise of spring already present. When I called back, Dad explained that the emerging bud of the new leaf was one of the reasons the old leaves turned their glorious reds, and yellows before falling to the earth.

So it is for us on this First Sunday of Advent, we are called to live in hope, knowing that God’s promises are already in our midst; because “the days are coming says the Lord when I will fulfill the promise I made to Israel and to the House of Judah.”

Happy New Year! I wish you a joyful, and peaceful, Advent and a sweet and good new year.

Amen.

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Sermon November 21, 2021 – Feast of Christ the King

A King Like No Other

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. This festival marks the end of Ordinary Time and serves as a bridge into Advent. This is a fairly new commemoration – less than 100 years old.  It was instituted by Pope Pius XI in December of 1922 as a response to the growing secularism that emerged after World War I. This feast is somewhat difficult for Twenty-first century Americans, since we have no royalty; moreover, one of the central issues in the rebellion that won us our independence was to rid ourselves of the trappings of a royal court. Nevertheless, here we are acknowledging that God is restoring all things through his beloved Son the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Unlike other peoples in the ancient Near East, Israel’s institution of the monarchy came relatively late in their history. Other kings were often regarded as gods, but the Lord God was the only sovereign of Israel (Jer. 10:7-10), the “great King above all gods” (Ps. 95:3). Honoring the covenant between God and Israel also distinguished the monarchy of Israel from that of other nations. A king in Israel was often referred to as the “anointed one” (1 Sam. 2:35), from which the title “messiah” was derived.

David was revered as the greatest of all the kings of Israel, the one through whom the Messiah would come. In today’s Old Testament passage David’s last words contrast a just ruler and a wicked ruler. David himself is described as “anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel” (2 Sam. 23:1).

A just king who rules “in the fear of God” (v. 3) is like morning light and refreshing rain. David has ruled according to the everlasting covenant made with the Lord, from whom his power was derived as a gift. Therefore, his household has prospered, and God has promised an everlasting dynasty for David’s heirs. In contrast, godless rulers are like thorns to be thrown away and immediately consumed by fire.

The Gospels frequently applied royal imagery to Jesus, beginning with the arrival of the Magi, who ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (Mt. 2:2). Matthew’s genealogy established that Jesus was of the royal Davidic lineage (Mt. 1:1). Although Jesus was accused of royal pretensions (Lk. 23:2), he resisted all efforts to make him king (Jn. 6:15). Nonetheless, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the crowd proclaimed, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Lk. 19:38).

The Gospel reading for this Christ the King Sunday is from John’s account of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, with the royal status of Jesus as a major point of Pilate’s interrogation. However, a beaten and scorned Jesus hardly seems kingly. He had been flogged, dressed in a purple robe with a crown of thorns, and mocked by the soldiers: “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Jn. 19:3). Although he seems utterly powerless as he stands before Pilate, Jesus is the only one who knows where true power comes from and what it means.

As this dramatic confrontation begins, Pilate asks Jesus point-blank, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (18:33). Although this question is asked by Pilate in all of the Gospel accounts (Mt. 27:11; Mk. 15:2; Lk. 23:3), only John records a lengthy response by Jesus.

Roman law required a definite accusation, even for the punishment of noncitizens. Pilate had dealt with other nationalist rebels, and Jesus did not seem to be a violent terrorist. Jesus had already been found guilty by the Jewish authorities, and now Pilate sought to verify the vague charges against him.

Jesus, in his public ministry, had avoided the title of Messiah because it represented a distortion of his objectives; nevertheless, some of his actions had raised messianic hopes in the minds of the people. Thus, Pilate asks Jesus directly if he is the King of the Jews.

Instead of affirming or denying the accusation, Jesus simply inquires whether Pilate asks this question on his own, or whether he has heard others say this about him. Pilate contemptuously replies that since he (Pilate) is not a Jew, the issue is really between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities, and therefore has nothing to do with him.

In verse 36, Jesus defines the sense in which he is indeed a king: “My Kingdom is not from this world.” If the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed belonged in any sense to the temporal world, he would not have been handed over without a fight from his followers. The fact that there had been no conflict — nothing more than Peter’s impulsive attack on the High Priest’s slave — demonstrated the falsity of the charge brought against him. Jesus again reiterates this fact: “But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Pilate’s only context for the idea of kingship was political and not spiritual; thus he once again asks Jesus, “So are you a king?” (v. 37a). Jesus then replies that he has come into the world to bring a reign of truth, and those to whom truth is meaningful will give heed to his word. In him, the world can see the nature of God most fully (cf Jn. 14:6).

Jesus exemplifies the character of true kingship and redefines worldly assumptions about power and authority. Pilate, who thinks he has power, in fact has little; and the power that he does have to order Jesus put to death will be overcome.

In Jesus there is no personal vanity or desire for aggrandizement at the expense of others. He came to serve and not to be served. His Kingdom would create a new community of believers who would hear and obey his voice. Jesus rules through grace and love in a realm of spirit and life in which justice and peace shine out for all. This was the saving truth that was being offered to the whole world in our crucified Lord, and is the essential meaning of our proclaiming Christ as King.

In a final twist of irony, Pilate ordered the inscription over the cross of Jesus to read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” When the chief priest insisted that it be changed to read, “This man said, I am King of the Jews,” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written” (Jn. 19:19-22).

The description of the exalted Christ in the Book of Revelation provides a vision of the celestial Kingdom. Addressing the seven churches, the writer begins with blessings of peace in the style of Paul’s letters. The source of blessing is the Divine One “who is and who was and who is to come,” along with the “seven spirits” or seven archangels who serve God and Jesus himself (1:4).

The victorious and exalted Christ of the vision is described as the faithful witness; the first from among the dead in his victorious Resurrection; and “ruler of the kings of the earth” (v. 5). By his love for us we are freed from sin through his blood. As Christ’s redeemed, we are ourselves a kingdom and priests to God the Father. Verse 7 reflects the language of the vision of Daniel (Dan. 7:13), as Christ comes in the clouds where “every eye will see him.” Then all the tribes who rejected him will cry out in fear of the coming judgment.

The Lord God is Alpha, the beginning, through whom all things were made; and Omega, the ending to whom all must come. Here all the ends and purposes of life and history are brought together through the One “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (v. 8b)

As we sit on the cusp of a new Church year. Let us give thanks that we live in a kingdom that is not of this world but transcends it. A kingdom that calls us to new life in and through Jesus the Christ – the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

 Amen.

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Sermon, November 14, 2021 – Pentecost 25

Instilling Hope

We are approaching the conclusion of Ordinary Time, next Sunday we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King which will be the culmination of the journey we have traveled over the past twenty-five weeks.

The Gospel for this morning is often called “the little apocalypse” or “revelation” where Jesus tells the disciples what to expect as the Day pf the Lord draws closer. There are more than a few fundamentalist preachers who will take these verses literally, then attempt to correlate them with current events and jump to the conclusion that our Lord’s promised return is just around the corner. This misses the point Jesus is trying to make – that our faith will sustain us even in the worst of times, as well as the best.

The Epistle to the Hebrews I think gives us a way to respond to this morning’s Gospel that is both faithful to the text and makes clear what is expected of us as faithful Christians. In short, we are called to live a sanctified, or holy, life. The question for us is how do we do this – how do we live a sanctified, or holy, life?

First, a sanctified life is a life liven in a posture of confidence before God. Jesus’ offering of himself (“through his flesh”) has cleansed us “from an evil conscience” (vers 22). This is an allusion to our baptism, as well as to Jesus as the one who renews Israel (Ezekiel 36: 25), the author asserts that Jesus has “washed [our] bodies with pure water. In other words, as baptized and forgiven people, we need not be crippled by guilt and/or fear, but we can live with confidence before God.

Second, the sanctified life is one lived in hope. Verse 23 urges us to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.”  This is not a misguided or misaligned hope. Even though Christ has inaugurated a new age, the world is still “waiting” for the final defeat of all God’s enemies – including death. All believers, then and now, face the challenge of living faithfully during this “in between” time, perhaps even in the midst of “abuse and persecution.”  Christian hope is practiced against our outward circumstances; because our hope is rooted not in human effort, but solely in the faithfulness of God. We are able to “hold fast” to our hope because the one “who has promised is faithful”

Third, the sanctified life is lived in community. This flies in the face of our American tendency toward rugged individualism. The entire community is the target of the exhortation to persevere. In fact, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews scolds us for neglecting to meet together for worship and fellowship.

In urging us, and all, believers to gather, the author describes the “provocative” function of the Church. The Church gathers, in part, “for the purpose of incitement or provocation.”  This can carry a negative connotation of irritation or sharp disagreement, as well as the positive meaning of encouragement. Therefore, agitation is not simply a tool for community or union organizers, but one of the functions of members of Christ’s body. We are to stir up – if necessary, irritate – each other in to fulfilling, or living into, our Baptismal Covenant.

This model of the Church presents an image where the agitators are not “outsiders,” but “insiders.”  The Church is not a place where everyone “plays nice and gets along,” but a place where our duties to each other include difficult, perhaps contentious wrestling (but always wrestling together), with what love and good deeds available to us. This vision of the Church is the vision to which Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior called the clergy of Birmingham, Alabama in his famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (August 1963). For King, the “love and good deeds” to which Christians provoke each other include agitation against an unjust status quo.

The fourth mark of the sanctified life is related to the third:  as Christians we are called to live in solidarity with each other. Holy living means growing in acts of love and Christ-like service to all people. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews warns us against complacency, against allowing the gospel of reconciliation to become a matter of cheap grace. Sanctification, the process of growing toward becoming holy, is both a calling and a gift. We are called to respond to God’s gift by engaging in those practices that will shape us into mature disciples. These practices are best cultivated with in the life of the believing community, in other words, the Church, as we gather for worship, to enjoy fellowship with each other, and provoke each other to acts of Christ-like service.

Finally, the sanctified life is lived with a sense of urgency because “the Day [is] approaching” (verse 25). By invoking scriptural images of the coming Day of the Lord as one of both judgement and redemption, we are offered both warning and encouragement. Therefore, as believers we should support each other in “love and good deeds.” So, on this Sunday before the Feast of Christ the King how do we live with the disturbing images of today’s Gospel, especially in light of current events? I believe is this. Jesus told us there would be “troubles,” it’s no different now as it was then. Our task is to live faithfully in love with each other, doing the things our Lord told us to do – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the poor and advocating for those who have no voice in our society. Most of all we should lift our heads and rejoice because our redemption is drawing near.

Amen.

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Sermon, November 7, 2021 – Octave of All Hallows

The Saints at Rest

Today is the transferred commemoration of All Saints’, which is actually a merging of three holy days: All Hallows’ Eve on 31 October (which gives us the holiday of Halloween), All Saints’ Day on 1st November and All Souls’ or the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed on the 2nd.  These three days have a rich history in the Christian tradition. This is the only feast in our Kalendar that is allowed to be transferred to the Sunday following – Christmas doesn’t get this honor. The reason is that we need to remember that our faith and our religious practices do not occur in a vacuum, but rather is built on the shoulders of those faithful Christians who have gone before us.

The readings for today are also among those readings appointed for the Liturgy for the Burial of the Dead. It’s good that we hear these readings in a context other that a funeral.

The anonymous writer of the Wisdom of Solomon gives assurance that “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them” (3:1). Even though it would seem that they have suffered and died, they are now at peace where “their hope is full of immortality” (v. 4). Any suffering they have endured is like a refiner’s fire in which they have been purified. They will govern nations, and as God’s holy ones they will abide in the Lord’s truth, grace, and mercy.

The vision of the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1 — 22:5) in the Book of Revelation gives a description of life in the coming age when “death will be no more” (21:4). Originally written to bring hope to those who suffered in a time of persecution, these promises of God’s future continue to bring comfort and strength.

Here God’s work of reconciliation is reflected in the renewal of all creation (cf Is. 65:17; 66:22). In this vision, heaven and earth are completely transformed into “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1). The Holy City of Jerusalem has been restored and is like a bride adorned for her groom.

In this new age, God will dwell among mortals and will be their consolation, wiping every tear from their eyes (v. 4a). Suffering, evil, and death will be vanquished, causing God to declare, “See, I am making all things new” (v. 5). Furthermore, we can be assured that these words are a present as well as a future reality — true from the beginning to the end, for “It is done!” (v. 6).

The Gospel reading from John’s Gospel recounts Jesus’ encounter with Martha before he raises Lazarus from the dead. It gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ power in the face of the ultimate human existential crisis. Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise because he is the source of Resurrection and Life.

All three of the readings serve to remind us that death is never the final word – in fact death is fleeting in the face of God’s dominion. The Good News here is that because of Jesus’ resurrection we are able to stand beside the open grave of a loved one and NOT go stark raving mad.

As I write these words, I am aware that my father is in Hospice (I covet your prayers), preparing for his own death, just as he prepared many of his parishioners during his ministry as a pastor – death he cheated several times during his service as a Marine in the Pacific Theater during World War II.  He is a part of the “Greatest Generation,” yet he has lived as faithfully and humbly as possible.

Physical death is a part of the natural order – something not to be feared but embraced because our faith teaches us that God alone will have the final word, and we have heard that final word in our readings. “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God …;” “…death shall be no more…” and “… I am the Resurrection and the Life…”  This is the final word on the subject. Perhaps we should consider this verse from St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun.  A translation is in our Hymnal:

And even you most gentle death, waiting to hush our final breath. You lead home the child of God, for Christ our Lord that way has trod.

Hymn 400, Episcopal Hymnal, 1982

The Good News on this Sunday in All Saintstide is that the whole of our lives are caught up in God’s unchangeable, infinite, redeeming love. That love will ultimately have the final word for our souls; and at the last we hear “I am Resurrection and the Life.” “Death shall be no more.” And “the souls of the righteous are in in hands of God [and]… they, and we, will be at peace.”

So it is now and will be forever even unto the Ages of Ages.

Amen.