“Faith on the Other Side”

The following sermon was preached at the 10:00am Rite II and 6:00pm Rite I Eucharist services on July 1, 2018, being the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Collect: Almighty God, You have built Your Church upon the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their teaching, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to You; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: 2 Samuel 1.1, 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8.7-15; Mark 5.21-43

Christ Healing the Hemorrhaging Woman

“Christ Healing the Hemorrhaging Woman”–Ivan Rutkovych (c. 1650s-c. 1708)

“Your faith has made you well.”—Mark 5.34

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Last Sunday’s Gospel[1] recounted Christ and His disciples on a boat amid a violent storm, Christ asleep in the stern, the disciples hysterically panicked. “Teacher, do You not care if we perish?” they cried. Seeing the winds cease and sea become still at Christ’s command, the disciples then asked, “Who…is this, that even wind and sea obey Him?”

God is the King of all creation. He stills life’s storms and hushes its violent waves.[2] We have no reason to fear because Jesus, who is “the [visible] image of the invisible God…in [whom] all things were created, in Heaven and on Earth,” (Colossians 1.15-16) delivers all who believe in Him from fear.[3] Instead of rushing to communicate our panic to Jesus, we should allow Jesus to communicate His calm to us.[4]

Unlike the disciples’ lack of faith last Sunday, faith today drives Jairus, a leader of the local synagogue, and the Hemorrhaging Woman to seek Jesus’ help. They are the conduits through which is reinforced the facts regarding who Jesus is and that He cares. Having great faith, the only thing she had left, the Hemorrhaging Woman “came up behind [Jesus] in a crowd and touched His garment…and…felt in her body that she was healed…” (Mark 5.27, 29) Because of Jairus’s trust in Jesus, his daughter got up from her “sleep” and walked. For them then and all now who put their trust in God, Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5.34)

This Good News is constant for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13.8) And Jesus is God’s literal Body. Everything He does and speaks reveals who God is. In God “is the fountain of life; in [His] light…we see light.” (Psalm 36.9)

Though we did not read it, today’s First Lesson in Track Two from the Wisdom of Solomon (for us Anglicans, a book not part of the official Biblical Canon, but part of those we call the “Apocrypha,” which the Prayer Book teaches we “read for example of life and instruction of manners, but doth…not apply them to establish any doctrine”[5]) speaks of God’s intentions for us. It says that

“God did not make death and…does not delight in the death of the living. For He created all things that they might exist.

“God created man for incorruption and made him in the image of His own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it.” (Wisdom of Solomon 1.13-14, 2.23-24)

Sin is separation from God and “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6.23) One of the Collects in the Church’s Burial Office petitions God to “give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on Earth, until, by [His] call, we are reunited with those who have gone before.”[6] Nevertheless, death remains our mortal enemy. It will be for all of us the very last disease to overcome.

Hence, the healing of the Hemorrhaging Woman and the raising of Jairus’s daughter point to the eternal life that is for all who believe in Jesus that comes through His death and Resurrection. Had Jesus not come, keeping us separated from God, our lives would be a perpetual living Hell. But Jesus has come and twice in today’s Gospel puts Death on notice. Death will not have the final say. He delivered these two women from Death’s clutches and gave them new lives. In Jesus’ death and Resurrection is mercy and redemption from all iniquity[7] and Death’s defeat once and forever.

Though some of us may suffer from physical ailments, we are all broken people, carrying strains of “sin disease.” Sin distorts our relationship with God, other people, and our selves. But as the Hemorrhaging Woman and Jairus today show us, when we call and reach out to Christ in faith like we earlier heard the Psalmist shout, “Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” (Psalm 130.2) His redemptive call, “Little [one], I say to you, arise” (Mark 5.41) will bring us “to fulness of life in Him, who is the Head of all rule and authority.” (Colossians 2.10)

I’ve said many times before and will say again what a blessing it is to experience Christ’s healing and to touch Him through the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist. There is a line in the Prayer of Humble Access that was removed from our current Prayer Book that I wish had remained (some of you may remember it), wherein was prayed “that our sinful bodies may be made clean by His Body, and our souls washed through His most precious Blood.”[8] The Eucharist is the tangible sign that Jesus “is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2.2) In this blessed Sacrament is Jesus’ promise that all who believe in Him shall live forever.[9]

God is good and from His love comes all that is good for us. We have seen His goodness in His Son our Savior Jesus Christ, who came that we might “have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10.10) He showed God’s care on the wood of the cross, entering in, conquering, and defeating Death’s dominion. Jesus’ Resurrection from death forever ensures that nothing, not sickness, nor death, nor anything in all creation will ever separate us from God’s redemptive healing. For all who call and reach out to Christ in faith, His words are Good News for all time: “Your faith has made you well; go in peace.” “Arise.” (Mark 5.34, 41)

I would like to close with the refrain of an old-time hymn, one of the good ol’ good ones.

He touched me, oh, He touched me

And, oh, the joy that floods my soul

Something happened and now I know

He touched me and made me whole.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Mark 4.35-41

[2] Psalm 107.29

[3] Hebrews 2.14-15

[4] The Interpreter’s Bible (Volume VII: New Testament Articles, Matthew, Mark) (Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1951), p. 710.

[5] #VI of the Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 868.

[6] “Burial of the Dead—Rite II,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 493.

[7] Psalm 130.7-8

[8] “The Order for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion, The Book of Common Prayer (1928), p. 82.

[9] John 6.48-57

“The Blue Law”

The following sermon was preached at the 10:00am Rite II and 6:00pm Rite I Eucharist services on June 3, 2018, being the Second Sunday after Pentecost, at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana.

“The Son of Man is Lord even of the sabbath”—Mark 2.28[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Some of you may remember growing up in places that had “blue laws,” laws that once banned specific recreational and commercial activities on Sundays. Though they have now largely fallen away, the intent of these laws was to promote Sunday as a day of religious observance and rest. The United States Supreme Court declared in an 1896 decision upholding blue laws that

“[Their] requirement is a cessation from labor…which the entire civilized world recognizes as essential to the physical and moral well-being of society. Upon no subject is there such a concurrence of opinion, among philosophers, moralists, and statesmen of all nations, as on the necessity of periodical cessation from labor…The prohibition of secular business on Sunday is advocated on the ground that by it the general welfare is advanced…and the moral and physical well-being of society promoted.”[2]

Not only is the Sabbath for rest, but also for remembering…remembering God and the freedom we have because of Him. “Remember,” God says, “that…the LORD, your God, brought you out from [Egypt] with a strong hand and outstretched arm.” (Deuteronomy 5.15) We are to remember our deliverance from bondage, of God’s Son Jesus freeing us from the law of sin and death.[3] Remembering God’s merciful acts move us to express thanks and praise to Him with others in worship. And our worship of God convicts us to devote time to our families and “rouse one another to love and good works…[to] encourage one another.(Hebrews 10.25) In the Sabbath is God’s love calling us to rest from our work, remember His mercy, and show his love to and for others through service.

Today, the Pharisees charge Jesus with violating the Sabbath, citing His disciples plucking grain kernels and Him healing a man’s crippled hand. I truly believe the Pharisees had good intentions in their teachings about the Sabbath. Yet “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Their extreme legalism caused the Sabbath to be for God’s people an unbearable yoke. Jesus tells the Pharisees five chapters later in Mark that their teachings “nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition” (Mark 7.13) and in Luke’s Gospel they have “taken away the key of knowledge” and “stopped those trying to enter.” (Luke 11.52) Woe to them! As good as their intentions may have been, the Pharisees could not see their teachings causing more harm to God’s people than the good they thought they were providing them.

Hence, Jesus asks the Pharisees a pivotal question: “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” (Mark 3.4) If Israel’s great King David breached the Law by eating and sharing the Holy Bread reserved only for the priests with his companions, then what Jesus and His disciples were doing on the Sabbath was nothing. But did David really break the Law? Did Jesus and His disciples dishonor the Sabbath?  What does God say? “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19.18) If David, the “man after God’s own heart,” could do what he did to provide for his famished companions’ need, then Jesus was certainly entitled during the Sabbath to provide for His disciples’ and the handicapped man’s needs.[4] “The Lord is my shepherd,” proclaims the Psalmist, “I shall not want” (Psalm 23.1, NRSV) and “the Son of Man is Lord even of the sabbath.” (Mark 2.28)

Jesus’ words and actions in today’s Gospel compose the crucial counterpoint to religious rules and regulations. There is a worthiness to rules and regulations. We need them to be ourselves. For human flourishing, reasonable laws and authority are needed in the multiple dimensions of our lives.[5] And like a Rotarian (of which we have several here at Ascension), reasonable law asks the questions, “Will it build goodwill and better friendships” “Will it be beneficial to all concerned?”[6] There, my friends, is where we find the Sabbath’s meaning and purpose. That is what Jesus today challenges the Pharisees and all of us to think about. Whatever our thoughts about the Sabbath are, they all should point to one thing—Jesus.

Not only is Jesus Lord of the Sabbath, He is the Sabbath.

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Matthew 11.28-30)

It is Jesus Christ who is our Way, our Truth, and our Life. In Him we find peace and are empowered to withstand the troubles of this world. And not only do we receive peace and empowerment from Christ through the reading and hearing of Sacred Scripture, but also in partaking His blessed Body and Blood in the form of bread and wine in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is our celebration of “the memorial of our redemption…[the] sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”[7] To quote the Prayer of Humble Access, to “eat the flesh of [God’s] dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink His blood…we…evermore dwell in Him, and He in us.”[8] In our worship and Eucharistic receiving of Jesus, He, in turn, transforms us to be very members incorporate in His mystical Body and heirs of His eternal Kingdom. Jesus Christ “is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but for those of the whole world.” (1 John 2.2) Not only are we the Body of Christ amongst each other but are to be that same Body out in the world, to “proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord…For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine in the darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4.5-6, NRSV)

Friends, let us “observe the sabbath…keep it holy, as the LORD…God commanded.” (Deuteronomy 5.12) May we find our rest in Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath. May our worship of Christ equip us to go out into the world, doing the work He has given us to do, to love and serve Him as His faithful witnesses. Let us go forth loving and serving others in the Name of Jesus Christ.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Bible, Revised Edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, D.C.

[2] Hennington v. State of Georgia, 163 U.S. 299 (1896)

[3] Romans 8.2

[4] The Interpreter’s Bible (Volume VII: New Testament Articles, Matthew, Mark) (Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1951), p. 678.

[5] Victor Lee Austin. Up with Authority: Why We Need Authority to Flourish as Human Beings (T&T Clark International, 2010), p. 1.

[6] “The Four-Way Test of the Things We Think, Say, or Do.” Originally scripted by Herbert J. Taylor in the early 1930s as part of his efforts to save the Club Aluminum Products Distribution Company in Chicago, Illinois from bankruptcy. Taylor gave the rights to use in the 1940s and the copyright in 1954 to Rotary International, which now regards it as the standard by which all vocational and private behavior is measured.

[7] Holy Eucharist—Rite II, Eucharistic Prayer A, The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 363.

[8] Holy Eucharist—Rite I, Eucharistic Prayer I, The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 337.

 

“Transfigured by the Transfiguration”

The following sermon was preached at the 8:30am and 11:00am Rite II Eucharist Services at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana on February 11, 2018, being the Last Sunday after the Epiphany (Quinquagesima).

Collect: O God, who before the Passion of Your Only-Begotten Son revealed His glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of His countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into His likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: 2 Kings 2.1-12; Psalm 50.1-6; 2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9

“Elijah went up by a whirlwind into Heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried…And he saw him no more.”—2 Kings 2.11-12

“And [Jesus] was transfigured before them, and His garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on Earth could bleach them…And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is My beloved Son; listen to Him.”—Mark 9.3, 7[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Today’s lectionary texts, particularly the Old Testament and the Gospel, are fitting for these closing days of Epiphanytide. They are fitting in that on the cusp of Ash Wednesday and Lent, beginning our way to the cross, they point us to the future that is Easter. Because of Christ, we are transfigured, transported to a new state of being. This transformation changes our “hearts to [receive] the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4.6) The light that is Christ’s glory is encouragement for Christian living, for in times of adversity, because of the Resurrection that is to come, the love and presence of God are assured.

The Old Testament story of Elijah’s walk from Gilgal to the Jordan River with his successor Elisha takes me back seven years to my final year of seminary, walking in formation with my own mentor, the Reverend Andrew Mead, then Rector of New York’s Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue. Just as Elijah trained Elisha for the prophetic ministry, so did Father Mead train me “for the Office and Work of a Priest in the Church of God,” that I would be mindful, using words from the old Prayer Book, of

“How high a Dignity, and to how weighty an Office and Charge ye are called…to teach and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for His children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ forever.”[2]

Father Mead was a committed and faithful messenger, watchman, and steward of the Lord. His teaching and preaching, spiritual counsel, and pastoral care drew me closer in to God’s greater presence and glory. He always made clear that he was not the main thing, but that Jesus Christ was. The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Creeds were superior to any and everything else.[3]

Hence, when the time was coming for my graduation from General Seminary and return to the Diocese of Alabama for ordination, my heart was not yet ready. I loved New York City and worshipping God at Saint Thomas Church. I loved Father Mead as a son loves his father. In the Old Testament lesson, the company of prophets twice remind Elisha, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” “I know,” Elisha says. “You don’t have to keep reminding me about it.[4]

Though my heart’s desire was to stay in New York, Father Mead reminded me of my obligation to return to Alabama, be obedient to God’s call, and the commitment I made to my Bishop. “Brandt, the people of Alabama are going to need you to be for them a loving pastor. If you love them and respect their local liturgical tradition, all will be well.” So, with that, I left Fifth Avenue in New York City for Fifth Avenue in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.[5] “And [Elisha] saw [Elijah] no more.”

By returning to Alabama, I learned that being a Priest of the Church requires entering deeply into the realities and relationships of the people to whom God sends you. It also requires vulnerability, completely depending on God’s word and mercy.[6] Through these realizations, I saw that Father Mead was right. All was well. And because of you, the people of Ascension, all still is well.

There is a point to me telling this story, which I promise to get to momentarily.

+         +          +

The Transfiguration marks the midway point between Jesus’ baptism and His Resurrection. Up on a high mountain, Jesus’ garments become glistening white and Moses and Elijah appear, talking with Him. What Peter, James, and John see in the intense light is the divine nature of God’s Incarnate Word, Jesus as the “image of the invisible God.” (Colossians 1.15) As the Psalmist today declares, “Out of Sion hath God appeared in perfect beauty.”[7] (Psalm 50.2)

Here is the connecting point of my story and between the Old Testament and Gospel lessons. Much like Elisha wanted to stay with Elijah and myself at Saint Thomas Church and with Father Mead, Peter, James, and John wanted to stay on the mountain, alone with Jesus in their own little world in their own shelters.[8] But that is not how the Christian life works. To be Jesus’ disciple is to be willing to descend the mountain and carry on, changed and willing to bear witness for God any and everywhere.

This brings us to God’s voice from out of the cloud, “This is My beloved Son; listen to Him. OK, God, but to what? JESUS, to all that He says! What has He already said?

“If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it…For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed, when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8.34-35, 38)

Not only does the Transfiguration confirm Jesus as God’s Only-Begotten Son, but also invites us to a life of Christian discipleship. Through the Transfiguration, God affirms Christ’s way of the cross, it being in line with the Law and the Prophets, signified by Moses and Elijah’s presence. This Jesus descends the mountain to give “Himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” (Galatians 1.4) Through the cross, Christ will give the gift of redemption, we being forgiven of our sin by His most wonderful mercy. And for those that heed Christ’s call, His cross will become the power of God.[9] Therefore, to listen to Christ as God commands, we, along with Peter, James, and John, must descend with Jesus down the mountain.

Though Jesus was in one way transfigured, He remained what He has always been in another, for the author of Hebrews says that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.(Hebrews 13.8) Jesus was more so revealed for what He is, the Christ, the Son of the living God. Rather, it was Peter, James, and John who were changed. We are the ones who are transfigured by Jesus. Jesus transfiguring us makes us “a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5.17) This calls us to a new way of life, presenting our “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship.” (Romans 12.1) And if you are wondering if the Christian life is worth living, I offer these words from Saint Paul

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on Earth. When Christ who is our life appears, then you will also appear with Him in glory.” (Colossians 3.2, 4)

+         +         +

Living the Christian life is demanding yet transformational and worth it. We have no need to fear, for Jesus descends the mountain with us into life’s messy places and never rids Himself of us. This should give us confidence to walk the road of Christian discipleship, glorifying Christ in our own day. Jesus carries on to the mission that is His to accomplish. Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are going to be hard as all get out. But the most important thing is that Jesus will remain faithful and do what He has been sent to this earth to do. And because it will all work out for Jesus, it will all work out for us.

The Lord hath manifested forth His glory: O come, let us adore Him! Amen. Alleluia!

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Old Testament Section, Copyright 1952; New Testament Section, First Edition, Copyright 1946; Second Edition © 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] The Form and Manner of Ordering Priests, The Book of Common Prayer (1928), pp. 539-540, 546.

[3] Andrew C. Mead. Catechesis: A Collection of Sermons for the Christian Year (Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, 2004), pp. viii-x.

[4] New Revised Standard Version.

[5] Canterbury Episcopal Chapel and Student Center at the University of Alabama.

[6] David J. Lose. “Homiletical Perspective on 2 Kings 2:1-12,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Year B, Volume 1—Advent Through Transfiguration) (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 437.

[7] Miles Coverdale Psalter Translation.

[8] “The Glory and the Passion are One,” a sermon preached by the Reverend Canon Carl F. Turner, Rector of Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 15, 2015.

[9] 1 Corinthians 1.18

“The Wise Men and the Rolling Stones”

The following sermon was preached at the Mid-Week Community Eucharist at Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland on Wednesday, January 10, 2018, it being their transferred celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Collect: O God, by the leading of a star You manifested Your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know You now by faith, to Your presence, where we may see Your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12

“Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the Child who has been born King of the Jews?’”—Matthew 2.1-2a

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Introductory Remarks

Good morning! It is, indeed, an honor and privilege to be here with you. I would like to thank Father Keyes for his invitation to and Father Dunnan approving me to preach the Gospel on your transferred celebration of the Epiphany. As a Priest deeply influenced by the Oxford Movement fathers and the Anglo-Catholic tradition, I have always had great admiration for Saint James School, founded by American Oxford Movement leaders 175 years ago. So, for me, to visit Saint James, proclaim the Gospel in its chapel, and establish new bonds of affection with all of you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, who make up this community is a real joy.

Though this is my first time to visit Saint James, there are two connections that I have had here. The first is with Father Keyes, who I first met in 2013 when I was still a brand-new Priest in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and he the brand-new Priest-in-Charge of Saint Paul’s Church in Greensboro, 38 miles south in Hale County. The second is with one of your classmates in the Class of 2020, Mr. William Topham (known by all of you as “Weezy”), who I had the pleasure of teaching in my 8th Grade Christian Education class at Ascension Episcopal School in Lafayette, Louisiana and was one of my best students prior to his coming to Saint James. It has been a pleasure reconnecting with both Father Keyes and Mr. Topham during this visit and I am glad to have had the honor to meet all of you, their faculty colleagues and classmates. My visit has recalled the words of the Psalmist, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (Psalm 133.1)

So, with all sincerity of heart, thank you for your welcome of me to Saint James School. Now on to the task at hand.

The Sermon

All of you, I’m sure, have heard, at least once, the song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones. It has been rated #100 on the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list by Rolling Stone magazine. We hear these words in the refrain

You can’t always get what you want

But if you try sometimes

You find you get what you need[1]

As does various other things, song lyrics can have different meanings for different people. For me, “You can’t always get what you want” pinpoints an honest truth about us, the fact that we have a want for and/or a sense of entitlement to certain things. “I want this.” “I deserve that.” “You do this for me, then I’ll do that for you.” It is naturally human to want something in return for something we give or as a reward for doing what we are supposed to do.

For example, Jesus says, “If any want to become My followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16.24) and “I will do whatever you ask in My Name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in My Name you ask Me for anything, I will do it” (John 14.13-14). Many misinterpret the latter in condition of doing the former by bargaining with God, saying such things as “God, if you do… for me/allow…to happen, I promise to serve You for the rest of My life.” In these sorts of circumstances, God is nothing more than a Being of convenience, put away from one’s mind after the desired result is achieved until He is needed again.

But “if you try sometimes, you find you get what you need” reminds us quite matter-of-factly that not everything we want we will get. The good thing, though, about God is that when He doesn’t give us exactly what we want, what He does give is always better than what we originally wanted. To see and fully appreciate all that God gives, we must be willing to come to God without ultimatums. When we come to God with nothing else but open hearts, accepting all that He gives in return, it is in this we see that what God gives is exactly what we need and is much, much better.

Hence, we come to the Wise Men in today’s Gospel. Known also as “Magi,” by reputation as special astrologers, and as “Kings” by way of verses from Psalm 72[2], what comes across quite clearly is that they were not Jewish, nor from anywhere remotely close to Jerusalem. By following a star from the East, these Wise Men traveled no telling how many miles to see “the Child who has been born King of the Jews…and…to pay Him homage.” They willingly made the long, arduous trip and delivered their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn Jewish Messiah. This foreshadowed what Jesus Himself will say, “All who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23.12)

And that humbleness was displayed by these Gentile visitors offering our newborn King three costly gifts, then leaving with nothing tangible—only spiritual—in return and being completely fine with that. They did not offer their gifts seeking special favor, but as offerings of genuine praise and thanksgiving to God, worshipping Jesus, the true Light that shines in the darkness, who came to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.[3] They gave Jesus costly gifts, left with nothing tangible, but with something even more valuable, rather priceless, in return.

The priceless gift those Wise Men received was seeing in the face of the newborn Christ an assurance of what Saint Paul would later proclaim to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3.28) By God’s grace, the prophecies of the coming Messiah were made known to them and they believed them with all their heart. Now, by that same grace, having been led by a star from the East, seeing in the house Jesus the Messiah with Mary His Mother, all they had been told they now knew was all true and there was rejoicing in their hearts. And from Christ’s face, they were assured that what He came to do, “to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10.45), would include them and all Gentiles, in addition to the Jews. The Wise Men came in search of Jesus and got exactly what they needed.

Like the Wise Men, our focus should not be on what we could get out of God, but how we can love and serve Him who first loved and served us.[4] To do the opposite is to be selfish and close ourselves off from the real joys of everlasting life with Jesus right here and now. When we come to Jesus completely open and vulnerable, just as He did among us by emptying Himself, “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness…and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2.7-8), we are better able to see that what Jesus gives is “abundantly…more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3.20). That’s what the Wise Men did and everything worked out for them. The same can be true for all of us.

So, the Rolling Stones are right. “You can’t always get what you want.” With Jesus, that should not be our focus. All that Jesus wants from us is our hearts sincerely drawn to Him and our minds focused on Him. He says

“Father, I desire that those…whom You have given Me, may be with Me where I am, to see My glory, which You have given Me because You loved Me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17.24)

By doing that, from Jesus, we get exactly what we need.

Therefore, let us all be more like the Wise Men. Instead of worrying about what’s in it for us, let’s just give Jesus a chance, offering to Him ourselves, our souls, and bodies as reasonable, holy, and living offerings unto Him. In return, like with the Wise Men, God’s glory shall be revealed and all of us will see it together.[5] This is His promise to us and God’s promises never fail.

“You can’t always get what you want,” but with Jesus, “you find you get all you need.”

The Lord hath manifested forth His glory; O come, let us adore Him. Amen.

[1] “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” words and music by Sir Michael Jagger (b. 1943) and Keith Richards (b. 1943).

[2] “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render Him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. May all kings fall down before Him, all nations give Him service.” (Psalm 72.10-11)

[3] 2 Corinthians 4.6

[4] 1 John 4.19

[5] Isaiah 40.5

“Look, the Lamb of God!”

The following homily was preached at the Wednesday 6:00pm Rite II Healing Eucharist at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana on January 3, 2018, being the Wednesday after the First Sunday after Christmas.

Collect: Almighty God, You have poured upon us the new light of Your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. 

Readings: 1 John 3.1-6; John 1.29-34

“Look,’ [John] said, ‘there is the Lamb of God; it is He who takes away the sin of the world.’”—John 1.29

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

We are still celebrating Christmas, today being its 10th day. But three days from now, January 6, will be the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. This will begin the Epiphany season, throughout which we will see Jesus Christ manifested as the Word that dwelt with God from the very beginning and the Word Himself. And tonight’s Gospel lesson both reflects the message of the current season and foreshadows that of the next.

Seeing Jesus off in the distance, John the Baptist, Jesus’ forerunner, says to the crowd, “Look, there is the Lamb of God; it is He who takes away the sin of the world.” It is John calling Jesus the “Lamb of God” that is most significant, not just because it is a term found only in the fourth Gospel[1], but also for what it communicated to its first century hearers and, through time, to us.  

For many, hearing Jesus called the Lamb of God means that He is gentle and humble and good, like a lamb. There is truth to this, for Jesus Himself say

“Come to Me, all whose work is hard, whose load is heavy; and I will give you relief. Bend your necks to My yoke, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble-hearted; and your souls will find relief. For My yoke is good to bear, My load is light.” (Matthew 11.28-30)

But for first century Jews hearing John’s reference, it had little, if anything, to do with gentleness, humbleness, and goodness. What John was doing was referencing Jesus’ mission and destiny: to be the perfect sacrificial offering for sin, from which and in whom all of humanity will find its salvation.[2]

In these final days of Christmas, John referencing Jesus as the Lamb of God reinforces the purpose for which He came—Jesus was born specifically to die. As we earlier heard in tonight’s Epistle lesson, “Christ appeared…to do away with sins, and there is no sin in Him” (1 John 3.4). In the coming days of Epiphany, John’s reference will help reveal how Jesus is able to accomplish His appointed mission. Hear, again, John the Baptist’s testimony from tonight’s Gospel: “I saw the Spirit coming down from Heaven like a dove and resting upon Him…You will know that this is He who is to baptize in Holy Spirit…This is God’s Chosen One.”

In both Christmas and Epiphany, as well as throughout all the liturgical year, the message is the same.

“He entered His own realm…To all who did receive Him, to those who have yielded Him their allegiance, He gave the right to become children of God, not born of any human stock, or by the fleshly desire of a human father, but the offering of God Himself.” (John 1.11-13)

Let us, therefore, then be glad and give thanks unto the Lord, for, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who will take away the sin of the world, has come to us. We shall see Him for what He truly is, God’s Only-Begotten Son, His Chosen One, full of grace and truth. And as Christ will be raised from death in the splendor of His Father, we, through Him, will be able to set our feet upon a new path of life.[3]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Leon Morris. The Gospel According to John (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p. 143.

[2] Bishop Robert Barron. Commentary on the Gospel for the Wednesday after the First Sunday after Christmas, Facebook.com, January 3, 2018.

[3] Romans 6.4

 

“Ero Cras”

The following sermon was preached at the 8:30am Rite II and 11:00am and 6:00pm Rite I services at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana on December 17, 2017, being the Third Sunday of Advent.

Collect: Stir up Your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let Your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with You and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; Psalm  126; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28

“There is one…who is coming after me.”—John 1.26-27

In the Name of Almighty God, who is and who was and who is to come. Amen.

There are three other titles that today, the Third Sunday of Advent, has throughout the Christian West. One is “Gaudete Sunday,” from the day’s historic introit hymn: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, Gaudete (Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. —Philippians 4.4).[1] Another is “Stir Up Sunday,” from today’s Collect: “Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” And the last is “Rose Sunday,” from the rose-colored candle we see lit today on our Advent wreath.

One other tradition associated with this specific day, December 17, is the beginning of the recitation of the “O Antiphons” at services during the last seven days of Advent. And it was while preparing today’s sermon that I discovered something connected to this tradition that I never before noticed. With each antiphon naming a scriptural attribute of the coming Christ, the first letter from each attribute spelled backwards themselves spell out a special acrostic phrase:

O Emmanuel (“With Us Is God”—December 23)

O Rex Gentium (“King of the Nations”—December 22)

O Oriens (“Dayspring”—December 21

O Clavis David (“Key of David”—December 20)

O Radix Jesse (“Root of Jesse”—December 19)

O Adonai (“Lord”—December 18)

O Sapientia (“Wisdom”—December 17)

                           E….R….O      C….R….A….S—“TOMORROW, I WILL COME.”

What we see and hear this last week of Advent, through both the titles of this particular Sunday and the O Antiphons, is Christ Himself, whose coming we await, saying to us, “Tomorrow, I will come.” Yes, the Advent message is true: Christ is coming!

It is a message we find reconfirmed in the testimony of John the Baptist. In today’s Gospel, Christ’s forerunner says to some Pharisees questioning him, “I baptize with water; but there is one…who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” For us hearing John’s words in the here and now, there is a double-sided dimension to them. One side we are quite cognizant of; the other, perhaps, not realized as much as it should.

The cognizant side of John’s testimony in Advent is that we hear it as a prelude to Christmas, pointing to Jesus “who is coming.” And yes, in seven days, we will celebrate His first coming as a baby. We will celebrate the Baby who, as Saint Paul says, “emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness,” who was born to become “obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2.7-8). Our celebration will make this place glad with our carols of praise.[2]

Yet, John’s testimony extends beyond Christmas. Hear, again, what the Baptizer is saying: “There is one…who is coming after me.” John is reminding us that Jesus lives even now and is coming again. We “will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory, and then He will send out the angels and gather [His] elect from the four winds, from the end of Earth to the end of the sky” (Mark 13.26-27). John’s testimony focuses our minds on the new lives that await us all through Christ’s Second Coming. Therefore, we should heed the Baptizer’s call: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3.2).

So, on this Gaudete Sunday, John the Baptist performs an important role. Not only does his testimony call us to look back, preparing our celebration of Jesus’ First Coming as a baby at Christmas, but John is also pointing us forward, to watch for our King and Savior who is drawing nigh again. And that is what Advent’s full purpose is. It shows us Jesus as the God of the past, present, and future, the Word through whom all things came to be, the Light that shines in the darkness.[3]

This all helps put in perspective the reason for Advent being the first season of the Christian liturgical year. By focusing our minds on “the true Light, which enlightens everyone, [who is] coming into the world” (John 1.9), Advent prepares us to receive the message of Christ in heart and mind communicated through all the other seasons. Christmas—the First Coming of Christ to the world in human flesh, Emmanuel, “God with us.” Epiphany—Jesus’ identity as God’s Only-Begotten Son dramatically revealed to us. Lent and Holy Week—preparing ourselves, by self-examination and repentance, for Christ’s resurrection from death. Easter—celebrating our Lord’s true resurrection and victory over sin and death. And Pentecost and Ordinary Time—Jesus gifting us, His disciples, His Holy Spirit, learning from Him the ways of the Christian life, and Him equipping us to do the work of ministry in the world.

As the Rector pointed out to us a couple of Sundays ago, we are living in the meantime between Christ’s First and Second Coming. Jesus comes to us the first time “to deliver us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for Himself a people as His own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2.14), and “He shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.”[4] Jesus will see to it that justice is done speedily. But when He comes again, will He find faith on Earth?”[5]

Therefore, in the meantime, we should

“Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks…not quench the Spirit… not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5.16-22)

Borrowing from Godspell, our prayer this Advent season should be “to see [God] more clearly, love [Him] more dearly, follow [Him] more nearly, day by day.”[6] Through this prayer, we see that Jesus lives and still has work for us to do. As my dad always use to say, “God ain’t done with me, yet.” Neither is He yet done with you or me. There is still loving in and testifying to the Name of Jesus Christ to be done toward others. “Prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” (Isaiah 40.3)

“There is one…who is coming after me,” proclaims John the Baptist. “Tomorrow, I will come,” Christ assures us today. “Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice!” Jesus is coming! But until that Great Day of His Second Coming, let us do with joy the work Jesus has given us to do and live as Advent people.

Our King and Savior draweth nigh: O come, let us adore Him! Amen.

[1] The Anglican Missal in the American Edition: Containing the Liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer According to the Use of the Church in the United States of America Together with Other Devotions and With Ceremonial Directions Proper to the Same (Anglican Parishes Association, 1988), p. A6.

[2] Bidding Prayer, King’s College Chapel’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

[3] John 1.1-3, 5

[4] The Nicene Creed, The Book of Common Prayer (1928).

[5] Luke 18.8

[6] “Day by Day” by Stephen Schwartz (b. 1948), from the off-Broadway musical Godspell (1971). Based on a prayer ascribed to the 13th century English Bishop Saint Richard of Chichester: “May I know Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly.”

 

 

“Faith of My Father–Part II”

The following sermon was preached at the 8:30am and 11:00am Rite II and 6:00pm Rite I services at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana on November 12, 2017, being the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27A).

Collect: O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that He might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as He is pure; that, when He comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like Him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where He lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Joshua 24.1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18; Matthew 25.1-13

“Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”—Matthew 25.13

“As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”—Joshua 24.15b

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen

Like yours truly, my late father was a Christian minister, his ordained ministry spent in the Fellowship of International Churches. Before every sermon he preached, Dad always requested the New Horizon Church International Choir to sing his most favorite hymn, one of Fannie Crosby’s best known, “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior.”

Pass me not, O gentle Savior,

Hear my humble cry;

While on others Thou art calling,

Do not pass me by.[1]

It was for my Dad the representative hymn of his Christian life. The reason I think he identified with it so much was because of the regrets he carried deep within him. Despite also having had a successful 40+ year career in blind and higher education administration, for much of that time, by his own admission, Dad wasn’t the kind of man he could have and should have been. He was nearly 60 when he completely surrendered his life to Jesus and of all of Dad’s regrets from his life before Christ, his biggest one was not having surrendered to Jesus much earlier. He would always say

“I wonder how much better things would have been had I just accepted Jesus earlier. I knew that God was trying to give me His grace. Had I just not been so stubborn, how much better would my life have been? What if…? What if…?”[2]

I feel for Dad that he constantly regretted not giving in to Jesus much earlier in his life. Whenever he brought up his regrets and the remorse he felt because of them, I always did my best to encourage him, saying, “Yes, Dad, you may have found Jesus late. The most important thing, though, is that you found Him.” If there was any good that came from his regrets, it was that they kept Dad awake and on the watch for Jesus. And if there’s anything that today’s lessons tell us, it’s that Jesus does not intentionally pass anybody by. Rather, Jesus seeks all of us out!

In Joshua 24, Moses’s successor recounts to Israel “the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD and His strength, the wonders that He performed.” (Psalm 78.4) Joshua proclaims the glory of God who

Brought your father Abraham from the region beyond the River and led him through the entire land of Canaan…[Who] led your ancestors out of Egypt…put darkness between you and the Egyptians, upon whom He brought the sea so that it covered them…[Who] gave you a land you did not till and cities you did not build, to dwell in; you ate of vineyards and olive groves you did not plant. (Joshua 24.3, 6-7, 13)\

The God that Joshua proclaims is, in His very essence, love itself seeking love’s fulfillment in all His people.[3] This is the God who says to us, “Look for Me, you will find Me. Seek Me with all your heart and you will find Me and I will change your lot.”[4] This is the God who, in the Person of Jesus Christ, came among us “that [we] might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10.10) To find, follow, and obey this God “who is and who was and who is to come” (Revelation 1.8) is meet and right so to do, for doing so opens our eyes to the truth of God’s goodness and Him as the foundation of our true being.

The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids is Jesus’ story about The End, about those who love Him and others who do not. Jesus is the Bridegroom; we are to “come out to meet Him!” We are the bridesmaids, urged to “stay awake, for [we] know neither the day nor the hour” of His coming again. When The End does come, what like will we be? Will we be like the wise bridesmaids, bringing flasks of oil for our lamps, awake and prepared to meet the God of our joy and gladness?[5] Or will we be like the foolish ones, bringing no oil with us, to whom the banquet door will be locked?

That makes Joshua’s words to Israel from the Old Testament Jesus’ words to us today through the New Testament Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids: “Choose today whom you will serve.” As another well-known Fannie Crosby hymn (one that our own Dennis Morrison has sometimes offered as an organ postlude) exclaims

To God be the glory, great things He hath done;

So loved He the world that He gave us His Son,

Who yielded His life an atonement for sin,

And opened the life gate that all may go in.

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,

Let the earth hear His voice!

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,

Let the people rejoice!

O come to the Father, through Jesus the Son,

And give Him the glory, great things He hath done.[6]

Wisdom begins with the answer, “We will serve the LORD, our God, and will listen to His voice.” We become wise and keep awake through our persistent pursuit of Jesus, who is not far from any of us.[7] The love of God is a vast expanse that, once entered, keeps our desire for Him burning strong. To run with endurance the race with Christ to the end is to be saved, to “always be with the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4.17)

How do we keep awake? Saint Paul says, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Refrain from every kind of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5.16-17, 22) Next Sunday’s Collect tells of God causing all Holy Scripture “to be written for our learning” and asks God to

“Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy Holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which Thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”[8]

We also keep awake by doing justice and loving goodness, in accordance with God’s will.[9] And we do so by coming together in Christian fellowship, devoting ourselves fully to Christ and His teaching, “to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.” (Acts 2.42) All these things help keep our lamps, our very selves, full of oil, burning long and bright so that when Christ the Bridegroom comes we will be ready, going in with Him to the great wedding feast.

Jesus is the Word and Wisdom of God. He is resplendent and unfading, readily perceived and found by those who love Him. He hastens to make Himself known to those who desire Him. To set our hearts on Jesus is the perfection of prudence; to keep vigil for Him is to keep anxiousness from getting the best of us. Jesus seeks all, making His presence known to us throughout our pilgrimage and is coming again to meet us with full attention.[10] Jesus is not coming to pass us by. Rather, He is coming that all of us may meet Him, that by being “buried with Him through baptism into death [and] just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” (Romans 6.4)

Let us, then, “serve the LORD with gladness [and] come before Him with joyful song” (Psalm 100.2) and, together, “stay awake, for [we] know neither the day nor the hour.

Our King and Savior draweth nigh: O come, let us adore Him!

[1] “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” (1868), words by Frances J. Crosby (1820-1915), music by W. Howard Doane (1832-1915).

[2] From “Regret,” a sermon preached for the Celebration of Life of the Reverend Dr. John Leonard Parrish by the Right Reverend Ronnie C. Crudup, Sr., Bishop of the Mid-South of the Fellowship of International Churches, on Saturday, October 22, 2016 at New Horizon Church International in Jackson, Mississippi.

[3] “Such Love,” The Living Church (November 5, 2017), p. 27.

[4] Jeremiah 29.13-14

[5] Psalm 43.4

[6] “To God Be the Glory” (1872), words by Crosby, music by Doane.

[7] Acts 17.27

[8] Traditional Collect for Proper 28, The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 184.

[9] Micah 6.8

[10] Wisdom 6.12-16

“All Things Come From and Go to Thee, O Lord”

The following sermon was preached at the 8:30am and 11:00am Rite II and 6:00pm Rite I services at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana on October 22, 2017, being the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24A).

Readings: Exodus 33.12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ You have revealed Your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of Your mercy, that Your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of Your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”—Matthew 22.21b[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The best statement I ever heard spoken about stewardship was said five years ago at my very first clergy gathering in Alabama. The speaker started his address by pulling a $20 bill out of his wallet, held it high in the air, and said, “The money we have in our wallets and purses does not belong to us. It all belongs to God. Our call is to be stewards of the things of God of which He entrusts us.”

Until hearing this statement, I believed (as many others still do) that Jesus’ saying, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” implied God’s things and those of the state as being completely different and were better off separate. But the truth we are today being told is that God-things and state-things, instead of being separate, are very much connected. We are told that “God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1.1) and John says that through Jesus “all things were made…and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1.3) Therefore, every thing—our selves, our souls, and bodies, all that was, is, and shall be—belong to God.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is asked the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” It is an intentionally loaded question, devised to get Jesus in trouble no matter His answer. The Roman Empire’s levied taxes were extremely unpopular amongst the Jews and the Pharisees shared their resentment. If Jesus had answered “yes,” He risked alienating away the people who viewed Roman support as intolerable.[2] The Herodians, supporters of Judea’s Roman client king Herod the Great, supported the taxes. If Jesus had answered “no,” though the Pharisees would have been appeased, the Herodians could have accused Jesus of political insurrection.[3] Either way, if Jesus had answered either “yes” or “no,” His relationship with the people would have been severely hindered. And that was the Pharisees and Herodians’ precise goal. These two groups, ideologically divided on the issue of Roman Empire taxes, put aside those differences over their mutual disdain of Jesus, plotting together to “entangle Him in His words” and get Him out of the way.

What the Pharisees and Herodians display is the breadth, length, depth, and height of jealousy and wickedness. The Pharisees resent Jesus for His ability to connect with the people and preach the truth that they, because of their jealousy, are unable to understand. The Pharisees and Herodians are choosing to reject Jesus and His authority, their jealousy giving way to hatred and plots of destruction. “Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil on their beds,” warns Micah. “When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in the power of their hand.” (Micah 2.1)

But Jesus doesn’t fall for their flattery. He asks to be shown a denarius. “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Jesus asks. “They said, ‘Caesars.’” On the denarius was the likeness of Emperor Tiberius Caesar and the Latin inscription Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus Pontifex Maximus (“Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest”).[4] By admitting both the coin and its inscription to be Caesar’s, the interrogators admit their breaking of two commandments: 1) “I am the LORD your God…You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20.2-3; cf. Deuteronomy 5.6-7), and 2) “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in Heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20.4; cf. Deuteronomy 5.8) Thus, through His own question, Jesus proves that it is, in fact, the interrogators who are not teaching God’s will truly, the point they had hoped to expose about Jesus. “Hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7.5)

What exactly, though, did Jesus’ answer, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” mean? From Jesus’ question about the coin’s image, not only would those present knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures would have been aware of the two broken commandments, but also of Genesis 1.27: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.”  This means that Tiberius Caesar, the “son of the divine Augustus,” was not a divine being, but a human one in temporal authority subject to a higher divine authority, the one true God. As a mere human created by God out of His grace and in His image and mercy, what belonged to Tiberius belonged to God. Just as this was true for the first century Roman emperor, the same remains true for every one of us. “The earth is the LORD’S and the fullness thereof,” declares the Psalmist, “the world and those who dwell therein.” (Psalm 24.1)

That is what makes Jesus’ command, “Render…to God the things that are God’s,” ring with good news. By giving to God ourselves and the things that are His, we see in His authority our having “been baptized into Christ Jesus…into His death[.] We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6.3-4) To recognize God’s authority is to receive much more in return. “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have…been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God.” (Romans 5.8-9)

Here is where I go back to my earlier statement that God-things and state-things, instead of being separate, are very much connected. On our currency is printed the official motto of the United States, “In God We Trust.” Government is a grace of God given to us for our mutual flourishing, that all may be their best selves in the multiple dimensions within which we live.[5] But with God’s gift comes expectations. Government and those in authority are to reflect God’s loving purpose: “Plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29.11) As Christians, we live into God’s purpose by being, as we earlier heard Saint Paul say to the Thessalonians, “imitators…of the Lord…in spite of persecution.” As imitators of Jesus, “the word of the Lord [will sound] from you…in every place your faith in God has become known.” (1 Thessalonians 1.6, 8[6])

How do we do this? By loving others, not just in word and talk, but also by deed and truth (1 John 3.18). The Summary of the Law—“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind…And…thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”[7]—conveys the important role we all share in ensuring that government provides for the good of all people. Our time, respective talents, and treasure are all gifts to us from God. “But do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (Hebrews 13.15-16[8]) In this are Jesus’ words to us today, “Render…to God the things that are God’s.

The greatest news of all is that though all earthly governments will one day cease, the Government of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who alone teaches God’s way with true perfection, will remain. “The government shall be upon His shoulder, and His Name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and of peace there will be no end.” (Isaiah 9.6-7) In His Government Jesus wants us all. How do we get there? “Through love serve one another.” (Galatians 5.13b)

Let us all together, then, willingly give portions of our time, talents, and treasure back to God, from whom every good and perfect gift comes, in accordance to our ability. And, at our end, we will be repaid by Christ Himself at the resurrection of the just (Luke 14.14).

Ascribe to the LORD the glory due His Name; bring an offering, and come into His courts! (Psalm 96.8)

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

[2] Leon Morris. The Gospel According to Matthew (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 556.

[3] W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann. Matthew (Doubleday & Company, 1971), p. 272; Morris, p. 556.

[4] Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. The Gospel of Matthew (The Liturgical Press, 1991), p. 310.

[5] Victor Lee Austin. Up with Authority: Why We Need Authority to Flourish as Human Beings (T&T Clark, 2010), p. 1.

[6] New Revised Standard Version.

[7] The Book of Common Prayer (1928), p. 69.

[8] As translated in The Book of Common Prayer (1979).

“Samuel D. Ferguson, George F. Bragg, and W.E.B. DuBois” (August 2, 2017: Wednesday after Pentecost VIII–Proper 12A)

The following sermon was preached at the weekly Healing Eucharist of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana on Wednesday, August 2, 2017 at 6:00pm.

Gospel: Luke 18.1-8

“And will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off? I tell you, He will see that they get justice, and quickly.”—Luke 18.7-8[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

A Great Cloud of Witnesses[2] puts forth this week three significant figures, all racial minorities, from our Church’s past: Samuel David Ferguson, George Freeman Bragg, Jr., and William Edward Burghardt DuBois. Considering all three of these individuals’ importance in the history of both our Church and the world, I have elected to briefly highlight all of them in a combined commemoration. I am glad that we are tonight remembering these individuals, for their lives and work exemplify God’s command “to act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”[3]

Samuel David Ferguson, Missionary Bishop for West Africa (1842-1916)

Samuel David Ferguson was the Fourth Bishop of Cape Palmas (later the Missionary District of Liberia) from June 24, 1885 until his death on August 2, 1916. In addition to being Liberia’s first black bishop, Ferguson was The Episcopal Church’s first bishop of color to be afforded full seat and voice in the House of Bishops, a privilege that the Church’s very first (and, until Ferguson, only) black bishop, First Bishop of Haiti James Theodore Holly, had been denied.

In conjunction with his episcopal ministry, Ferguson’s primary emphasis was in education. He helped start several schools throughout Liberia, the most notable being Cuttington College (now University), which today continues as Liberia’s oldest private, coeducational four-year degree-granting institution.

In the face of much discrimination from the Church’s racial majority, Ferguson modeled dignity and tenacity as one of equal stature, advancing his goal of establishing a strong spiritual and educational foundation for the transformation of Liberia’s people.

George Freeman Bragg, Jr., Priest (1863-1940)

Born to slaves of a North Carolina Episcopal family in 1863, George Freeman Bragg, Jr. was The Episcopal Church’s first major black historian. His books A History of the Afro-American Group of The Episcopal Church and Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were seminal in the preservation of the early history of the black Episcopal presence.

In addition to serving for 35 years as secretary of the Conference of Church Workers Among the Colored People (now the Union of Black Episcopalians), from 1891 until his death in 1940 (a 49-year tenure that included the last year of the 1789, all those of the 1892, and the first 12 years of the 1928 Prayer Books), Bragg was the rector of Saint James Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland, The Episcopal Church’s oldest black Episcopal parish south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Throughout his 53 years of ordained ministry, Bragg “fathered” in the ministry over twenty priestly vocations.

Bragg is remembered as a tireless advocate for black Episcopalians’ inclusion in The Episcopal Church’s larger life, challenging their exclusion from its full mission and ministry.

William Edward Burghardt DuBois, Sociologist (1868-1963)

The most well-known of tonight’s commemorations, William Edward Burghardt DuBois was one of the most powerful advocates for black civil rights during the first half of the 20th century. Born into a Congregationalist family in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868, DuBois became an Episcopalian in his adult life, remembering fondly memories of attending the Episcopal Church with his grandparents as a young boy.

His seminal book The Souls of Black Folk (1903) was the first significant challenge to the long-held perception that blacks were spiritually and morally inferior beings and became an authoritative text on black American identity. DuBois was a founder of the “Niagara Movement,” a movement committed to civil justice and opposing discrimination, from which was established the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

DuBois was a Christian who believed in his faith being the vehicle through which justice and peace represented the highest ethical standards for humanity. He died on the eve of the March on Washington on August 27, 1963.

Three Saints and the Word

Earlier, we heard Jesus telling His disciples the Parable of the Persistent Widow. In this parable, a judge, “who neither feared God nor cared what people thought,” is being constantly hounded by a widow for “justice against my adversary” and refuses to relent until she is granted her request. Becoming increasingly irritated by the widow, the judge grants her justice just to shut her up, “that she won’t eventually come and attack me!” Jesus says

“Will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off? I tell you, He will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”

In their own times, Ferguson, Bragg, and DuBois all faced circumstances similar to that of the Persistent Widow. With their ministries altogether spanning from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, times of blatant racial oppression, Ferguson, Bragg, and DuBois’s struggle, reminiscent of Paul’s words from Ephesians, was “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world”[4] who deemed them and the people of their race undeserving of full and equal rights within both the Church and their local contexts.

But, like the Persistent Widow, they all stood their ground. They stood firm “with the belt of truth buckled around [their] waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with…feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the Gospel of peace.”[5] And because of their persistence and faith in a God in whose eyes they were always equal, the people of their race now experience the progressive fruits of their labors.

What Ferguson, Bragg, and DuBois remind all of us, people of all races, of in this current age is the reality that in God’s Kingdom, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[6] All of us are called to be like the Persistent Widow, demanding justice for all of God’s people against any adversary, not relenting until “justice roll[s] on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.”[7] We have come a long way, yet we still have a long way to go.

For us to get to that place to where we all should be, we should all actively live that which we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

The question Jesus asked the disciples, He also asks us: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” May the examples of Samuel David Ferguson, George Freeman Bragg, Jr., and W.E.B. DuBois inspire us to say, “Yes!”

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®, Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®

[2] An optional calendar of commemorations authorized by The Episcopal Church’s 2015 General Convention for devotional and/or catechetical use.

[3] Micah 6.8

[4] Ephesians 6.12

[5] Ephesians 6.14-15a

[6] Galatians 3.28

[7] Amos 5.24

“Jury Duty”–An Easter Message

The following letter was sent to the students, faculty, staff, and administration of Ascension Episcopal School in Lafayette, Louisiana on Friday, May 5, 2017 in my capacity as school chaplain. It focuses on my recent service as a juror for the 15th Judicial District Court of the State of Louisiana and how my civic obligation reminded me of the message of the cross and significance of Christ’s resurrection for all of humanity. 

Dear Ascension Family,

Some of you may have noticed that I was absent from the school throughout much of the last two weeks. As our students and my faculty and administrative colleagues were returning to school from the Easter Break on April 24, I, on the other hand, was at the Lafayette Parish Courthouse reporting for jury duty. For eight days, I was one of 12 jurors for a civil case in the 15th Judicial District Court of the State of Louisiana. Not only was I selected for the jury, but was selected by my fellow jurors to serve as the foreman.

The experience of jury duty was both good and frustrating. Good in that it gave me a renewed appreciation for the law as the system by which justice should be impartial and objective, regardless of any form of human differentiation. When exercised rightly, both law and authority reflect freedom and the fact that all of us are created equal one with another. To have been able to perform my civic duty in the American legal process was, in many ways, an honor to do.

Yet, the inconvenience this obligation caused, particularly in my ministry to you all, was the source of much frustration. Because of jury duty, I missed several important events—the first school Eucharist after Easter, as well as the Senior chapel service, both at the Downtown Campus; the River Ranch Campus’s last Wednesday morning chapel for this academic year; and the Junior Ring Ceremony out at the Sugar Mill Pond Campus yesterday morning. Having had to miss these events not only was frustrating, but also made me feel sad and, at times, angry.

All of these feelings, in some way, brought me back to Jesus and the purpose of the cross. It is said that “freedom is not free.” The author of Hebrews proclaims that Jesus took on our humanity so that by His death He could destroy death, whereby we have been freed from the bondage of sin and death (Hebrews 2.14-15). Jesus’ death on the cross was for all of us, done so that we who now live through Him would no longer live for ourselves, but for Him who died for us and rose again (2 Corinthians 5.15). The freedom we now have in Christ was not free; it came at a cost that we could not afford. From Christ’s death on the cross have we been declared ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, and free. And from Christ’s resurrection have we been given a new birth into a living hope, into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading (1 Peter 1.3-4).

My jury duty service helped remind me that Christ’s death on the cross showed just how unconditional God’s love is for all of us and how we are all now called to use our freedom to love and serve others in Christ’s Name. It has made the significance of Christ’s resurrection become meaningful to me in a whole new light. And now that I am back at my office, all of you, the Ascension family, have become even more special to me than you already were.

May Almighty God, who has redeemed us and made us His children through the resurrection of His Son our Lord, bestow upon you the riches of His blessing. Amen. Happy Easter!

Peace,

Father Montgomery+