Eleventh Sunday After Trinity 2012 – Sermon

    In the Christian tradition, Pride is considered the most grievous of all sins. The prophet Isaiah tells us that Lucifer (also known as Satan) was a great and mighty angel, and in his desire to exalt himself above God, he was cast out of heaven. In comparing pride to other sins, CS Lewis says, “Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison”; “Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind” (Lewis, Mere Christianity). Pride usually does not come in bursts, like anger, but it is a slow accumulation of thoughts about how great we think we are. The Biblical antidote to this disease is humility. 

    This morning’s Gospel of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector could be called “A Tale of Two Worshippers.” It is a tale that involves two radically different people, attempting to do the same very same thing. In ancient Palestine, there were certain days and hours of prayer where the temple was open to the public; so actually getting there did require some effort and planning. In our modern society where church attendance is rather sparse, we believe the fact that we are even showing up is something to celebrate! While it is something to celebrate, the parable teaches us that even the best intentions can lead us astray.

    The Pharisee is the obviously holy man in Jesus’ first century audience.  He would be the person you were most comfortable with, the person you would trust with your deepest secrets, and he was the person whose advice would be the the most respected.

    The other man in in our tale is the Publican; a Roman Government official who was responsible to collect taxes. It is significant to remember he represented political Rome. It’s not simply the fact that he collected taxes, and since no one likes to pay taxes, he’s the “bad guy” in the parable. The publican in the mind of the ancient Jewish people was a co-conspirator with the occupying Roman forces who betrayed and cheated his own people.

    Fr. Scarlett often mentions that heresy, or false belief, happens when we abuse or overemphasize a a very good aspect of the faith, at the expense of the whole of the faith. In this regard, heresy is very subtle, and often goes unnoticed.

    The same is true of pride; it can be very subtle. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, and tithing can and should form us into mature Christians. They are routines we should be consciously praying for the power to do. But they could also be the very things that destroys us.  From all outward and objective criteria, the Pharisee was a holy man. Then why are we told that it was the Tax Collector, and not the pharisee, whom went home justified in the eyes of God?

    It is because the first step towards a right relationship with God is humility. The Tax Collector had enough self awareness to see himself in light of who God is. This takes us back to the two of the most basic theological doctrines – the knowledge of God – the creator and sustainer of the universe and the knowledge of ourself – created by God. The Pharisee’s pride made it seem as if he was doing God a favor by worshipping in him, and letting God know that there was someone doing it wrong behind him. The tax collector realized that he had nothing to bring to God except himself, and the acknowledgement that he was a sinner looking for mercy.

    In Orthodox iconography, the Pharisee is depicted as standing up close to the altar, raising his arms towards heaven, where he is thanking God he is not like all the other bad people out in the world – “the extortioners, the unjust, the adulterers, and even people like this publican.” The Icon shows the publican standing a few steps below, with arms slightly outstretched, as if he is unsure about the offering of praise he is about to make. He stands in the lower place, and has a sense of humility and openness towards God’s will for his life.

    When we approach God in worship, what is going through our minds?  Do we think that because we are not like all the other bad people out in the world, we have earned a special place in God’s house? Do we keep a better record of other people’s sins than our own?  Often, we walk around like the man who has a plank of wood in his own eye, working meticulously to get the splinters out of their neighbors eye.

    The liturgy works to form us against false hopes of self righteousness. Just before the reception of holy communion, we pray that we “would not presume to come to God’s table, trusting in our own righteousness, but trusting in God’s manifold and great mercies.” 

    Our culture has taught us to believe that we are extra special, that we are unique – not like the rest of humanity. This philosophy can be a road block to humility. At times, we may have subconsciously prayed the words of the Pharisee, thinking, “O God, I thank you I’m not like everybody else.” But to move towards Christlikeness, we must begin to adopt the prayer of the publican, who went home justified, saying “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

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The Eighth Sunday After Trinity 2012 – Sermon

“We have all read in scientific books and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is.”

 – G.K. Chesterton

 “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.”

– Romans 8:15

The Christian liturgy reminds us of two important realities: who God is, and who we are. Much anxiety in life comes from forgetting, or confusing these two truths. When asked, who are you? We typically respond with our names; because it is our names that tell others who we are. The meaning of a name is richer when there is a history and bond in a particular relationship. My wife and I have a 1-year-old son named Caleb. Before he was born, I primarily identified that name with the Biblical character in the book of Joshua. Now, when I hear the name Caleb, I think of my son. I think of his personality, his mannerisms and his behavior.

We also have other identities tied to our jobs, our ideologies and our passions. Some of us identify as single, a parent, an artist, or a student. These are all great things. But danger and disappointment come when these good identities supersede our ultimate identity as Christians, or as St. Paul likes to say, as those who are “in Christ.” Christian identity and behavior is for the benefit of the community. When our secondary identities, no matter how good and virtuous they are trump everything, our lives become a mess. This is an easy trap for those of us in the so-called “helping professions.” A doctor whose job it is to save lives has a great identity and vocation. But the vocation becomes an idol when it supersedes his or her identity in Christ. Or the minister who works 100 hours a week may have the perception he is serving God, but he is helping no one.

Christians are people whose status with God has changed, because through baptism and faith they have been adopted into God’s family, and are now heirs of all the blessings that belong to the family. We no longer only benefit from the general love that God has for the world, but we are now partakers of that special fatherly love, as his adopted children. By adoption, we now experience Sonship; by which both men and women become the heirs and Sons of God. As 1 Peter 2:10 says, “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

The call to Christian behavior is a call to embrace the reality of who we are, to embrace our new identity. St Paul likens it to a set of clothes. Through baptism, we take off the old man, that serves to represent our old identities, and we put on the new man. In that experience, we died and rose with Christ. Our past, present and future life is tied up with Christ’s life. This is the mystical reality of faith. But sometimes we really like our old clothes. We really like our old heritage and history.

This is where the struggle comes in. Like the man in Chesterton’s story, we are constantly forgetting that we are sons of God and heirs with Christ. Like the nation of Israel, we desire to go back into our own personal Egypt. The place of comfort, the place where we forget who we are and what we were made for. If you stay back in Egypt long enough, you may completely lose your identity and become someone else, someone you never thought you could be.

To be clear, Christianity is not a religion where moral behavior earns status or special relationship with God; all is grace. The call to Christian morality is to realize that you are “in Christ” and part of a royal priesthood and a holy nation. The eternal love that God pours out on his Son is now being poured out on you.

How do we live as adopted Children of God? How to we pursue holiness? St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians gives us an excellent commentary on what our Sonship means for Christian living. He argues, that since you died with Christ in baptism, you need to continually mortify, or, “put do death” your old desires. The life we are to pursue looks like this,

from Colossians 3:12 “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.14 But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.”

St. Paul sums up his ethical imperatives in the command to love. This is why each Sunday in the Liturgy, we are reminded to Love the Lord with all of our heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We hear these words anew each week, namely, because they personify our identity. When we stop to remember these words, we forget who we are.

“We have all read in scientific books and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is.”

 – G.K. Chesterton

“For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.”

– Romans 8:15

The Christian liturgy reminds us of two important realities: who God is, and who we are. Much anxiety in life comes from forgetting, or confusing these two truths. When asked, who are you? We typically respond with our names; because it is our names that tell others who we are. The meaning of a name is richer when there is a history and bond in a particular relationship. My wife and I have a 1-year-old son named Caleb. Before he was born, I primarily identified that name with the Biblical character in the book of Joshua. Now, when I hear the name Caleb, I think of my son. I think of his personality, his mannerisms and his behavior.

We also have other identities tied to our jobs, our ideologies and our passions. Some of us identify as single, a parent, an artist, or a student. These are all great things. But danger and disappointment come when these good identities supersede our ultimate identity as Christians, or as St. Paul likes to say, as those who are “in Christ.” Christian identity and behavior is for the benefit of the community. When our secondary identities, no matter how good and virtuous they are trump everything, our lives become a mess. This is an easy trap for those of us in the so-called “helping professions.” A doctor whose job it is to save lives has a great identity and vocation. But the vocation becomes an idol when it supersedes his or her identity in Christ. Or the minister who works 100 hours a week may have the perception he is serving God, but he is helping no one.

Christians are people whose status with God has changed, because through baptism and faith they have been adopted into God’s family, and are now heirs of all the blessings that belong to the family. We no longer only benefit from the general love that God has for the world, but we are now partakers of that special fatherly love, as his adopted children. By adoption, we now experience Sonship; by which both men and women become the heirs and Sons of God. As 1 Peter 2:10 says, “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

The call to Christian behavior is a call to embrace the reality of who we are, to embrace our new identity. St Paul likens it to a set of clothes. Through baptism, we take off the old man, that serves to represent our old identities, and we put on the new man. In that experience, we died and rose with Christ. Our past, present and future life is tied up with Christ’s life. This is the mystical reality of faith. But sometimes we really like our old clothes. We really like our old heritage and history.

This is where the struggle comes in. Like the man in Chesterton’s story, we are constantly forgetting that we are sons of God and heirs with Christ. Like the nation of Israel, we desire to go back into our own personal Egypt. The place of comfort, the place where we forget who we are and what we were made for. If you stay back in Egypt long enough, you may completely lose your identity and become someone else, someone you never thought you could be.

To be clear, Christianity is not a religion where moral behavior earns status or special relationship with God; all is grace. The call to Christian morality is to realize that you are “in Christ” and part of a royal priesthood and a holy nation. The eternal love that God pours out on his Son is now being poured out on you.

How do we live as adopted Children of God? How to we pursue holiness? St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians gives us an excellent commentary on what our Sonship means for Christian living. He argues, that since you died with Christ in baptism, you need to continually mortify, or, “put do death” your old desires. The life we are to pursue looks like this,

from Colossians 3:12 “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.14 But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.”

St. Paul sums up his ethical imperatives in the command to love. This is why each Sunday in the Liturgy, we are reminded to Love the Lord with all of our heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We hear these words anew each week, namely, because they personify our identity. When we stop to remember these words, we forget who we are.

 

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Second Sunday After Easter – Sermon

On Easter Christ conquered sin through his death and resurrection. Through baptism and faith we participate in this dying and rising with Christ. In the early church, catechumens preparing for Christian initiation were brought into the Church through Baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. It is at Easter that we remember the vows of our Baptisms; that we may put off malice and wickedness, and put on sincerity and truth.

The Sundays following Easter served as a time to teach new converts how to live in light of their baptisms; in other words, how to live as Christians. Today has become known as Good Shepherd Sunday, because the in this morning’s Gospel our Lord describes himself as The Good Shepherd.

One of the primary metaphors the Bible uses to describe God is that of a Shepherd. Perhaps the most famous passage in all of Scripture is the 23rd Psalm. Even those who have a passing knowledge of Judaism or Christianity most likely know the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”

When the Bible speaks of humanity, the image most used is sheep. Little sheep are sometimes synonymous with the idea of “being cute.” But the Bible doesn’t use the term to denote lovability; it uses it to represent stupidity. It is not a compliment; it is an insult. Isaiah tells us, “All we like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way.” Without a shepherd’s guidance, sheep will die.

When Jesus told the Pharisees in John 10 that he is The Good Shepherd, they knew exactly the claim he was making. His Jewish audience most likely knew the 23rd Psalm. They knew that God was the great shepherd of Israel who provided for all their needs. But the Pharisees also knew that the religious and civil authorities of Israel were referred to as Shepherds. By claiming to be The Good Shepherd Jesus is not only claiming to be God, but he is also giving an indictment to the failed leadership of Israel, past and present, including the Pharisees. Jesus had come to Israel be the True Shepherd of God’s flock. He is applying the messianic prophecy of Ezekiel 34 to himself,

Quote

“ For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered …I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel… I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD.”

”(Ez.34 NIV).

Learning to live as a Christian means learning to live under the leadership of The Shepherd. Today’s Gospel not only tells us something wonderful about the character of Jesus, it also tells us that we aren’t in a condition to fully care for ourselves. We are His sheep, which means we must live in utter dependence of Him. We must recognize our condition and his authority.

Even though we just celebrated the conquering of sin and death, we quickly fall back into patterns of foolish behavior. Did you know that sheep would walk off a cliff if there were no fence to keep them in? When sheep eat grass, they will continue to chew the dirt even after the grass is gone. They will actually starve to death if they are not led to greener pastures, even if those pastures are directly behind them. The disciplines we took up in Lent forced us to keep our eyes on Jesus, to see where he would he would lead us. In Lent, most of us spent more time in God’s word, more time in prayer, and more time in service to others. Now that we have entered back into our daily routine, we may be less conscious of the spiritual battle that surrounds us. It is easy to think that we can fight the world, the flesh and the devil in our own strength. But the reality is, we are sheep; we go astray, and we get off course. Though we like the idea of Jesus as our Good Shepherd, we treat him more as the good consultant. Sheep don’t consult with Shepherds to choose a course of action; they follow where they are led.

Jesus is The Good Shepherd because he gives his life for his sheep. His love for the sheep is so comprehensive, that he will die for them. This leadership is contrasted with the hireling, a shepherd who is just in it for the money. In John chapter 10, Jesus implicates the Pharisees as hirelings; they are Israel’s poor shepherds who wound their own people. The hireling flees when a lion, wolf, or other serious danger comes crouching at the door. The great danger in the Christian life is sin. In Genesis, just before Cain killed his brother Abel, the Lord warned him about his anger saying,

“Beware, sin is crouching at your door.” The Good Shepherd’s love for us is so boundless that when the threat is great, he lays down his life, and becomes a sheep. Jesus conquered death by becoming a Lamb.

In the 7th chapter of the book of Revelation, St. John catches a glimpse of heavenly worship, where he sees a Lamb sitting on a throne surrounded by worshippers. Revelation tells us that this Lamb will “shepherd” and lead us to fountains of living water (7:16-17).

During the week, we wonder into unknown pastures, but Jesus gathers us back each Sunday at the Eucharist. This is a future and present experience of the Good Shepherd gathering the lost sheep from all the nations around himself, where we feed upon rich pastures, and drink from the fountains of living water. Good Shepherd Sunday teaches us to place our hope in the only one who can satisfy all our needs, Jesus Christ, The Shepherd and Bishop of our souls.

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Palm Sunday – Sermon

Palm Sunday presents a number of contrasts. It is a day to celebrate Christ as King, and yet, his crown is one made of thorns. Today we sing hymns of praise, as well as hymns of lament. While we are joyously celebrating the majesty, power and rule of Christ, we are also experiencing betrayal, humiliation and death.

When we march into the church with Palm leaves, we are playing our part in the drama of the original Palm Sunday, where people from all over the Roman Empire marched into Jerusalem to Celebrate the Feast of the Passover; and this is where they welcomed the arrival of Jesus. But we are also taking our role as betrayers, whose joy turns into shouts of “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!”

In the Gospels, Palm Sunday is connected with cleansing of the Temple. Jerusalem was the center of the Passover because the Temple was in Jerusalem. The Temple was the place where the Presence of God was to be experienced.  It was central to the Jewish religious experience because it was the sole place to offer your sacrifices to God. For the Jewish people, the Temple was the place where heaven touched the earth.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem as King, he also came into the Temple as King. When he saw that the worship of God had turned into a bargaining flea market, he became furious. John’s Gospel records Jesus storming through the Temple with a whip of cords, turning over the tables of those who sold animals and exchanged the currency. Temple bureaucrats had destroyed His house; and He has come to rearrange the furniture. The problem was not the sale of animals for sacrifice; this was a good and necessary thing. But the sale of sacrificial animals overshadowed actual worship because it was taking place inside the Temple. The focus had gone from the life of prayer, to the business side of religion. Jesus came to Jerusalem to restore the Temple so it could be a “house of prayer for all people.” But Jesus didn’t just come into the Temple to purify its worship; He came to utterly renew it.

Throughout the Gospels Jesus referred to himself as the Temple, “Destroy this Temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19). The Apostle John tells us that when Jesus was speaking of the Temple, he was speaking of His body. Before the cross, Temple worship was limited to the center of Jerusalem. But after the cross, after Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice of Himself, Temple worship in the person of Jesus Christ is available to “all people.”

Jesus is to be at the center of our lives. Two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, Jesus was the place where heaven touched earth, and today we come to Jesus to offer our sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. By encountering Jesus in Prayer and Worship, we eat the Bread from heaven that came down to give life to the world. But before we approach Him, we must make sure our house is in order.

When Christ comes into our lives, is he going to need to rearrange the furniture, to restore the focus to Him? Have we set up false altars to ourselves, and our needs, so that the worship of Christ is not at the center?

Conversion of the heart requires both the proper placement of Christ as the center of our lives, but also, a changed will that fosters affection for the things of God. The Temple before Passover had become a place where duties were being processed and performed so efficiently, you that you could buy an animal right near the altar, sacrifice it to God, and be on your way. What kind of worship is this? Is this a house of prayer? No, it is a processing center.

Many of us have an eventful week ahead, preparing for family parties, business projects, class assignments or just the business of life. It could be all too easy to turn Holy Week into an efficient worship-processing center.

Palm Sunday reminds us that Christ is not only King of creation, but He is the king of our lives. We must always be ready for His arrival, as the faithful and wise Virgins who kept their lamps burning, so that when Jesus comes in glory we can boldly say “Blessed is he who cometh in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the Highest.”

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