13th Sunday in Trinity

Trinity XIII, 

The beginning of every service of Holy Communion is supposed to convince us that we are sinners — sinners who need God’s forgiveness, sinners who need God’s help. Some Sundays we hear the Ten Commandments, most Sundays we hear Jesus’ Summary of the Law. In either case the point is the same: “These are God’s moral standards. I have not lived up to them. I am in church to deal with those facts”

Today’s Gospel is the story of a man who hears the Summary of the Law and then looks to skirt the issues. Jesus tells him to love God and love his neighbor, so he tries to get Jesus to define “neighbor” as narrowly as possible. He wants to know the minimum standard to stay on God’s good side — he wants Jesus to define boundaries for loving your neighbor.

St. Luke says the man wanted “to justify himself” — he wanted Jesus to tell him that as an upstanding Jew, he was doing fine, and that he didn’t need to change his ways one bit. We may possibly have known people who look at things that way.

Jesus does not spare him at all. He tells him a story which indicates that anybody who needs you to help him is a person you should help. To love your neighbor is to help him–to do what is best for him. Jesus places no comforting limitations on the obligation to love — such as, “You only need to help people you approve of,” or “You only need to be good to people who are good to you.”

The hero of Jesus’ story is a Samaritan. The people who were listening to Jesus hated Samaritans. The negative examples in the story are a priest and a Levite. The people listening to Jesus would have thought a priest and a Levite were the most righteous and godly people of all. 

Further irony comes into play because Jesus’ listeners would most certainly have thought the mugging victim was a Jew himself, since we know he was traveling from Jerusalem. So the scene Jesus presents is that of a fellow Jew shunned by his own kind, and rescued by an avowed enemy. All of this goes to show that when it comes to Jesus, our normal preconceived notions aren’t often very helpful.

In any event, the parable of the Good Samaritan fleshes out what the Summary of the Law means. As far as my own situation is concerned, the parable only makes things worse. I might be able to convince myself in the abstract that I love my neighbor, but in the real world, I have to admit I often fall short of the kind of absolute and universal commitment the Samaritan displayed toward the mugging victim. So if that is what God demands, where does it leave me?

As is the case so often, St. Paul comes to the rescue. In today’s Epistle he tells us that God made promises to Abraham. Then God gave the Old Testament Law to Moses about 430 years after Abraham. “Love God and love your neighbor” is the summary of that Law.

People got the idea that the coming of the Law put conditions on God’s promises to Abraham. Now his people would receive the promises only if they kept the Law. St. Paul says that is not so–a promise with conditions is not a promise. A promise with conditions becomes a deal- a quid pro quo arrangement.

St. Paul says that when God makes a promise, he keeps the promise. The purpose of the Law is not to make God’s promise conditional. The purpose of the Law and the Summary of the Law is to put us exactly where we found ourselves after we examined the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The purpose of the Law is to show us that we cannot keep it, and that we need God’s forgiveness and his help. Listen to St. Paul’s last words to us today. First of all, “The scripture hath concluded all under sin.” That means that everybody is a sinner, nobody lives up to the example of the Good Samaritan all the time, and God knows all that perfectly well. So we can relax — we don’t need to waste a lot of energy pretending we are perfect.

Then he says that after you admit that you are a sinner, “the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.” That verse is full of good things. God’s specific promise to Abraham was that he would have land and descendants — a never-ending relationship to God in both space and time. Jesus is the seed of Abraham — his lineal, biological descendant. So we get in on the promises by being baptized into Jesus’ body. We receive God’s promise to be with us forever.

Faith in Jesus Christ means accepting the forgiveness he bought for us on the cross. His blood is what makes us right with God.

If we can accept what Jesus has done for us already, then we have a new and better motivation for trying to do what is best for other people. We can try to love out of gratitude to God, not out of fear.

Jesus told the man who wanted to justify himself to do what the Samaritan did. He tells us the same thing, with the guarantee that he will forgive us when we don’t do it. Or, put another way, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table, but thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”

 

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Second Sunday After Trinity – Sermon

The New Testament revolves around three primary characters-Jesus, St. Paul, and St. Peter, whose feast is today. Simon Peter appears in both of the major parts of the New Testament: first the Gospels, which are about the life and earthly ministry of Jesus; and then the Book of Acts and the epistles, which tell us what happened to the church after Jesus’ ascension. John the Baptist is the bridge character between the Old and the New Testaments, and St. Peter provides a bridge between the two sections of the New Testament itself.

Whenever Peter appears in a story in the Gospels, we should always first try to identify ourselves with him. He is so much like us — he wants to be loyal and good, but he doesn’t always understand too clearly what is really going on — and, also like us, Peter has some difficulty facing up to his shortcomings and his real motives.

After the Holy Ghost comes down upon the apostles at Pentecost, Peter is different. He understands the Scriptures more clearly; he has a more definite sense of what God is up to in his life and he shows new capacity for growth and change. The more we get to know Peter, the more he becomes the image of what the Holy Ghost can do in our own lives if we cooperate.

Today’s Gospel for St. Peter’s Day is brief, but full of enormously important teaching. Jesus asks the disciples what the people in the crowds he attracts are saying about him. Jesus is not running for office, but he nonetheless wants to keep his finger on the pulse of public opinion, and he is setting up the way to reveal something crucial.

The disciples report that some people say he is John the Baptist, some say he is Elijah; others say he is Jeremiah or one of the other Old Testament prophets. Jesus does not dwell on any of that. Instead, he turns the question around on the disciples and asks them, “But what do you think about me — whom say ye that I am?” And Peter blurts out, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

St. Peter’s reply to the question lays out the two main things we believe about Jesus: first, he is the Saviour God promised Israel in the Old Testament; the Messiah, the anointed one, the Christ — and, second, he is God, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity.

Jesus says, “You are a happy man, Simon, son of John, because you must have got that answer directly from God — no one else could have told you, and you could never have figured it out by yourself.”

Then Jesus gives Simon a nickname and proceeds to make a pun with it. The Greek word for “rock” is “petra.” So Jesus says, “You are Peter – Rocky — the Rock; and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”

People use this verse in debates about the pope. Tradition tells us that Peter was pope — the Bishop of Rome. The Roman Catholic Church makes claims about his successors in that office based in part on the fact that Jesus said he would build the church on Peter. Others argue that the rock was not Peter himself, but what Peter said about Jesus in this morning’s Gospel.

There isn’t any doubt, though, that Peter was the chief disciple, and there isn’t any doubt that Peter was in on the founding of many of the most important churches in the apostolic age — Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome being only the most obvious examples. We can acknowledge that Peter was, in that sense, the rock on which Jesus built the church.

But that does not mean we have to accept the more extreme claims about the pope. Nothing in the Bible or in the early traditions of the church suggests that any man who is a successor to St. Peter as pope is automatically the bishop of everybody everywhere or that he is incapable of being wrong when he speaks authoritatively.

At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. The key to heaven is forgiveness. Jesus gave Peter the authority to forgive sins, and he gave the same authority to the other apostles later on. In a few minutes Fr. [“name”] will exercise that authority for us, because the church passed it on to him though her bishops. He will make the sign of the cross to assure us that what Jesus did on the cross is forgive our sins.

The church is built upon both rocks — both Peter and what he said about who Jesus is. The Prayer Book says the church is apostolic, because we continue steadfastly in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship. The teaching of the Apostles is in the New Testament. The fellowship of the apostles is in the succession of believing bishops. Both the teaching and the fellowship trace back directly to the rock, who is Peter himself. The core of the teaching is that Jesus died to forgive us. The fellowship is the way that forgiveness gets to us.

As Jesus says in another place, “Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them, I will liken him unto a man, which built his house upon a rock: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not; for it was founded upon a rock.” And that is why — no matter how bad things might ever appear — the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. 

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Second Sunday After Trinity – Sermon

The New Testament revolves around three primary characters-Jesus, St. Paul, and St. Peter, whose feast is today. Simon Peter appears in both of the major parts of the New Testament: first the Gospels, which are about the life and earthly ministry of Jesus; and then the Book of Acts and the epistles, which tell us what happened to the church after Jesus’ ascension. John the Baptist is the bridge character between the Old and the New Testaments, and St. Peter provides a bridge between the two sections of the New Testament itself.

Whenever Peter appears in a story in the Gospels, we should always first try to identify ourselves with him. He is so much like us — he wants to be loyal and good, but he doesn’t always understand too clearly what is really going on — and, also like us, Peter has some difficulty facing up to his shortcomings and his real motives.

After the Holy Ghost comes down upon the apostles at Pentecost, Peter is different. He understands the Scriptures more clearly; he has a more definite sense of what God is up to in his life and he shows new capacity for growth and change. The more we get to know Peter, the more he becomes the image of what the Holy Ghost can do in our own lives if we cooperate.

Today’s Gospel for St. Peter’s Day is brief, but full of enormously important teaching. Jesus asks the disciples what the people in the crowds he attracts are saying about him. Jesus is not running for office, but he nonetheless wants to keep his finger on the pulse of public opinion, and he is setting up the way to reveal something crucial.

The disciples report that some people say he is John the Baptist, some say he is Elijah; others say he is Jeremiah or one of the other Old Testament prophets. Jesus does not dwell on any of that. Instead, he turns the question around on the disciples and asks them, “But what do you think about me — whom say ye that I am?” And Peter blurts out, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

St. Peter’s reply to the question lays out the two main things we believe about Jesus: first, he is the Saviour God promised Israel in the Old Testament; the Messiah, the anointed one, the Christ — and, second, he is God, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity.

Jesus says, “You are a happy man, Simon, son of John, because you must have got that answer directly from God — no one else could have told you, and you could never have figured it out by yourself.”

Then Jesus gives Simon a nickname and proceeds to make a pun with it. The Greek word for “rock” is “petra.” So Jesus says, “You are Peter – Rocky — the Rock; and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”

People use this verse in debates about the pope. Tradition tells us that Peter was pope — the Bishop of Rome. The Roman Catholic Church makes claims about his successors in that office based in part on the fact that Jesus said he would build the church on Peter. Others argue that the rock was not Peter himself, but what Peter said about Jesus in this morning’s Gospel.

There isn’t any doubt, though, that Peter was the chief disciple, and there isn’t any doubt that Peter was in on the founding of many of the most important churches in the apostolic age — Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome being only the most obvious examples. We can acknowledge that Peter was, in that sense, the rock on which Jesus built the church.

But that does not mean we have to accept the more extreme claims about the pope. Nothing in the Bible or in the early traditions of the church suggests that any man who is a successor to St. Peter as pope is automatically the bishop of everybody everywhere or that he is incapable of being wrong when he speaks authoritatively.

At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. The key to heaven is forgiveness. Jesus gave Peter the authority to forgive sins, and he gave the same authority to the other apostles later on. In a few minutes Fr. [“name”] will exercise that authority for us, because the church passed it on to him though her bishops. He will make the sign of the cross to assure us that what Jesus did on the cross is forgive our sins.

The church is built upon both rocks — both Peter and what he said about who Jesus is. The Prayer Book says the church is apostolic, because we continue steadfastly in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship. The teaching of the Apostles is in the New Testament. The fellowship of the apostles is in the succession of believing bishops. Both the teaching and the fellowship trace back directly to the rock, who is Peter himself. The core of the teaching is that Jesus died to forgive us. The fellowship is the way that forgiveness gets to us.

As Jesus says in another place, “Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them, I will liken him unto a man, which built his house upon a rock: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not; for it was founded upon a rock.” And that is why — no matter how bad things might ever appear — the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. 

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The Sixteenth Sunday After Trinity 2013 – Sermon

Is it possible to be a Christian and not believe in life after death? Can one be a Christian and not believe in an afterlife? The clear and simple answer to those questions is. “No.”

But it is possible now -as it was also possible at the time of Jesus- to be a Jew and not believe in an afterlife. A sect within Judaism called the Sadducees accepted the authority of only the first five books of the Old Testament. Those books did not seem to talk about an afterlife, so the Sadducees did not believe in it.

Other Jews pointed to various passages in the books of the prophets to indicate that there is life after death for the people of God. But even some of those passages seem to talk more about the survival of the whole nation of Israel after military defeat than about the survival of individual people after death. So the Jewish view on the subject in Jesus’ time was muddled.

For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus is the most convincing evidence about the afterlife. Jesus survived death in a body, and then he ascended to heaven to live forever with God. The promise we Christians have is that since we have been baptized into Jesus’ body, we too shall come back from the dead in bodies to live with God forever.

The question of the afterlife came up, of course, during the three years of Jesus’ earthly ministry that preceded his death and resurrection. Jesus made it clear that he not only believed in life after death, but that he was also the person to deliver it.

When the Sadducees ask him a trick question to try to get him to admit that believing in an afterlife is crazy (or so much “pie-in-the-sky” as Fr. Scarlett put it in his sermon last week), Jesus reminds them of what God said to Moses at the burning bush. When Moses lived, the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had been dead for hundreds of years. Yet God told Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” If Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not living on in some way, if their relationship to God was not continuing somehow, even though they were dead — God would have told Moses, “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

Jesus also performed three resurrections which the gospels describe for us. They are not exactly like the resurrection that he experienced, or the ones that we will experience. His resurrection was permanent, as ours will be. We will get new bodies like his — bodies which will never die.

Obviously, the people in the gospel miracles died again later on — or else they would still be here, writing memoirs and appearing on talk shows. But the same power that raised them is the power that will raise us.

There are several things about these miracles worth looking at — along with the obvious value they have as previews of the great resurrections to come. In today’s gospel Jesus is going into a city called Nain which was not far from where he had grown up. He and his entourage run into a funeral procession which is coming out of the city gate.

The dead man is the only child of a widow. It was sad enough that she lost her last close relative, but he was also her only source of financial support. Jesus feels sorry for her and tells her to stop weeping.

Then he goes over to the stretcher on which the dead man was being carried and he touches it. That was shocking, because touching a dead body or anything associated with a dead body made one unclean, and Jesus was known as a holy man.

Jesus then addresses the corpse, saying, “Young man, I say unto thee, ‘Arise.” At that point the man sits up and starts talking, though, regrettably enough, St. Luke doesn’t tell us what he said. Jesus hands the man over to his mother, the crowd praises God, and the news about what Jesus can do spreads through the whole country.

It seems clear to me that the person for whom Jesus performed the resurrection was the widow of Nain — not her dead son. There is no implication in anything Jesus teaches or in anything Jesus does, that being dead is in and of itself a particularly bad thing. In each resurrection miracle there is a family member who is in anguish: the mother here; the father of a dead little girl in a second story; and Mary and Martha, the sisters of the dead man Lazarus, in a third.

In each case, the resurrection is Jesus’ response to the grief of the family members. That suggests that grief is a sorrier state than death. It also reminds us that the resurrection at the last day promises not only individual survival, but also the reunion of families and the reconstitution of friendships.

And in case that casts a faint pall over an otherwise glorious future, remember this: the family members you dread inviting over for Thanksgiving and the ones you are mortified to run into at weddings will either be in hell where you won’t have to worry about them anymore or, just possibly, yours and their newly perfected natures will make you glad to see each other after all.

When it comes to the afterlife, Christianity does not teach that the soul lives on in some filmy way. The New Testament teaches that our bodies will be raised up. We shall survive death just as Jesus did — in bodies, ready for the life to come, where we shall enjoy God forever.

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The Ninth Sunday After Trinity 2013 – Sermon

In a sermon earlier this year Father Scarlett briefly cited an incident from the life of Spanish Renaissance mystic St. Teresa of Avila; about the time she was abruptly thrown off her donkey while crossing a stream. Soaking wet and beyond angry, she got up, shook her fist at the sky and screamed, “Lord, if this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder that you have so few of them.” If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them.

King David likes to use the Psalms to complain — especially when he thinks he is being punished even though he’s been good, while wicked people who could care less about God seem to get along just fine. In Psalm 73 David says, “I am grieved at the wicked: I do also see the ungodly in such great prosperity/While all the daylong have I been punished and chastened/I tried to understand this; but it was too hard for me.” Why do you allow bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people? If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder that you have so few of them.

Those are the issues that lie behind the mean-spirited behavior of the prodigal son’s older brother. Jesus uses the parable of the Prodigal Son to help us understand what our relationship with God is supposed to be. The younger brother says to his father, “Let’s pretend you’re dead, so you can give me my half the estate.” Then he goes away and squanders all the money. In a similar way, when times are good and daily prayer is absent, we forget God and act as if he doesn’t exist.

The younger brother finally wakes up after he’s been degraded, disgraced and is starving to death, and that he has no one to blame but himself. At that moment of awakening, he decides to go back– to his father — not even as a son but just as a hired hand. When our lives get derailed by our own bad decisions, when we’re backed into a corner, we try to go back too. I like the way the author Flannery O’Conner put it when she said “Most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow.”

The father meets his prodigal son with open arms, receives him as a son, and he lays on a great banquet to celebrate. God always takes us back when we turn to him. Turning back with sorrow for what we have done wrong is called repentance, and repentance is fundamental to the Christian life.

God always welcomes repentance. People say home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. So home is where God is — and he doesn’t just have to take you in, he wants to.

But the behavior of the older brother puts another spin on an otherwise simple tale of a wastrel’s penitence and a father’s forgiveness. In the story the older brother is mentioned in the first line of the story “a certain man had two sons,” but then disappears from the narrative until after the party has started. The older brother has been out in the fields working, when he comes back to the main house to hear the sounds of music and dancing. When he asks the servants what is going on, they tell him that his brother has returned and that his father has killed a fatted calf to celebrate.

The older brother is enraged. When his father comes out imploring him to join the party, he snarls back how he toiled away every day, all these years. “I did everything you told me to do, and you never let me have a party with my friends.” It is noteworthy how Jesus has the older brother express himself. He doesn’t refer to his sibling as “my brother” but “your son.” He threw away all of “your money,” not his “inheritance.”

The older brother is nasty and resentful, and in light of what he knows so far, maybe understandably so. He has been good, but he doesn’t think his virtue has been rewarded. His brother has been bad, and it appears that his bad behavior has been rewarded. Why do we see the heathen in such prosperity while the righteous are punished every day? If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them.

But the father is not rewarding bad behavior. He is responding to confession and repentance. Those are two very different things. God never rewards bad behavior — no matter what it may look like to us. God is just. God is righteous. God hates sin. But he deals with it his own way — often just by letting sinners go on sinning and then living with the consequences. And don’t forget, everyone is going to have to give a final accounting to God at the end.

The older brother thinks the prodigal has gone directly from the pig sty to the banquet hall because his inconsiderate and sentimental old fool of a father simply chose to overlook his rotten actions. But he is wrong. His younger brother said he was sorry, and he threw himself on his father’s mercy. And so his father sets his older son straight. “It is meet that we should make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”

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Maundy Thursday – Sermon

This is the night in which he was betrayed. Reading from Psalm 41, “Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me.” My own familiar trusted friend is the one who will betray me…

King David prophesied it, and Jesus echoed him all along, saying that it would be one of his friends who would betray him into the hands of the people who wanted him dead — one of his twelve followers who had heard all his sermons and had seen all his miracles — one of his disciples.

Judas received a payoff of thirty pieces of silver from the highest Jewish officials in exchange for a fairly simple and mundane piece of information. They were afraid they would bring on the wrath of the crowd if they moved against Jesus in public, so they needed to know where he was likely to go where they could arrest him away from the spotlight.

Judas knew that when he was in Jerusalem Jesus liked to pray in a garden on the Mount of Olives. On Thursday evening after the Passover supper, Jesus went, as predicted, to Gethsemane Garden — the garden with the olive press. Judas took the temple police there and identified Jesus by kissing him on the cheek… Mine own familiar friend in whom I trusted…

Maundy Thursday is a night of ironies and reversals. A friend betrays a friend. The one who is betrayed gives his betrayer a piece of bread dipped in gravy – a gesture which shows that the betrayer is the honored guest at supper. The betrayer identifies his friend to the police with the universal signal of affection — a kiss.

The Passover, normally a joyous celebration, descends into chaos as Jesus goes to jail and his friends run away. Obedient Jesus finally tells his father that he doesn’t want to suffer and die. The disciple who professed the most love and loyalty sells Jesus out without a second thought. The inner circle of three disciples fall asleep at the very moment Jesus needs their support most.

It is in the midst of this stew of treachery and weakness that Jesus gives us the most powerful and objective evidence of his continuing presence among us and his abiding love for us. He says, “This is my body. This is my blood … Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

Maundy Thursday confronts us with a final irony. We betray him and run away from him too- when we succumb to weakness and temptation, when we back away from Jesus and marginalize his presence in our lives. And he still loves us anyway… “He took the bread, on the night in which he was betrayed…”

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